‘I put up a photo of my new baby and myself with champagne. It was a lie – I was ill’ | #parenting

Laura Dockrill told herself she was the worst case the psychiatric hospital had ever seen, and wuntreatable. But that was only one of her delusions. Dockrill thought her father-in-law had hypnotised her. She would stalk the hospital corridors, feeling “like this badass”, as if she were a trained assassin. The reality was painfully different, but in Dockrill’s words it comes coloured with a comic touch.

“I was frumpy, quiet, wore my sister’s cupcake socks and a pink T-shirt with breast milk blooming over my boobs,” she says, smiling, her neon-pink lipstick beaming through my laptop screen.

There were times when she was on to her partner’s devious “plan” to take their newborn baby away from her, but would act like some kind of femme fatale, convinced he couldn’t resist her dangerous sexiness. He would play along – Dockrill’s psychiatrist had advised him not to try to reason with her – while gently reminding her that she would get better.

The pandemic makes for an even lonelier environment to raise a baby, which is a culture mental illnesses can thrive in. New parents need reassurance and comfort

Dockrill did, and last year she published her memoir, What Have I Done?, about her experience of postpartum psychosis, which she developed after the birth of her son, Jet, in 2018. It is a mental illness that affects around one in 1,000 new mothers, with sufferers experiencing symptoms including delusions, hallucinations, paranoia and manic moods, but is still little talked about.

Dockrill, a writer, poet and illustrator, is determined to change that, and has just launched a podcast, Zombiemum, to talk about the aspects of new parenthood that feel shadowy and shameful, and challenge the idea that anything that falls short of bliss and serenity is a failure.

After a year in which many of us have experienced stress and isolation, it seemed like the right time, Dockrill says. “The pandemic makes for an even lonelier environment to raise a baby, which is a culture mental illnesses can thrive in,” she says. “New parents more than ever need reassurance and comfort.” People may be reluctant to seek help, or to “waste” healthcare professionals’ time during this period, “when that is absolutely not true. A&E is open, mother-and-baby units are open; the podcast is to validate and encourage people to ask for help should they need it.”

She wants people to hear about others who “have gone through this and made it to the other side and say it is treatable”. Dockrill’s world is bright and colourful – she is sitting in her office, painted pink; a room that was carved from the living room of her London flat for her to work in – and even at a distance, over Zoom, she radiates cheerfulness and charisma.

Her first guest, the singer Paloma Faith, talked about the pressures she put herself under after the birth of her first child; her second is Catherine Cho, who wrote a book, Inferno, about her own experience of postpartum psychosis. Few of the experiences will be as extreme as Cho’s and Dockrill’s, but she wants to open up the conversation around parenthood and mental health more broadly.

“I’m grateful now, looking back, that my illness was as bombastic and as huge as it was, because everybody couldn’t help but stop and pay attention,” she says. “I had to get hospitalised; my illness was an emergency.” But she sees (probably undiagnosed) mental struggles in new mothers all the time. She will go to the park and see “this kind of glazed-over look, grieving who you were, grieving the position you’ve got yourself into and thinking, ‘What have I done?’ This is not ‘baby blues’ if you’re not feeling like yourself for months on end.”

There’s an expectation you should be the perfect mother, and now the pressure’s extra to also work, get your body back, be good on social media and look great all the time

When Dockrill wrote a blog post six months after she started to get better (which preceded her book), it went viral. “Even if people haven’t had the illness that I had, it was quite shocking to see how many people could relate. I was, like, why is nobody speaking about the psychological side effects of this?”

Her book is darkly funny in places but mostly unflinching about the animal meatiness of new motherhood, and spares its author no corner to cower in. “I felt this urge to kind of rip the mask off the killer, and as soon as you do that it loses its power,” she says. “I guess I wanted to make the podcast that I wished existed when I was recovering. You can’t read a book when you’ve got a newborn.”

In recent years, what we think about mental health has been transformed, although there remains a stubborn stigma around postnatal mental health (and especially around illnesses that can be frightening, involving hallucinations and psychotic episodes).

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