Coping with mental illness in pregnancy.
It started with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD as itï¿½s commonly known. Those three little letters, having made a permanent imprint pop culture, are eagerly used to explain a host of issues ï¿½ from a preference for neatness to a fondness for collecting things. And when Nicole Rutherford started noticing her collection of catalogues rapidly expanding and her need to check and recheck locks forcing her to return home five or six times a day, her OCD diagnosis wasnï¿½t a huge shock. But it was the symptoms that followed that signalled something more worrying, something not joked about in movies or used as social media fodder. The unwelcome intrusive thoughts in which Nicole saw herself jumping off ledges or burning the house down or accidentally harming her unborn childï¿½these were the things that kept Nicole awake at night and forced her to seek specialist support.
Nicole had come off her OCD medication when she and husband Craig decided to try for a baby ï¿½ no tests had been done on the effects OCD medications would have on a foetus so it was decided to ï¿½play it safeï¿½ for the twinkle in Craigï¿½s eye. A positive test result and a whirlwind of excitement later, Nicole and Craig began planning for the baby that would make them a family. But somewhere among the lists of names, paint colour swatches for the nursery and the pre-season doting of grandparents to be, Nicole started to change. Concerned for the safety of both mother and baby Nicoleï¿½s doctor advised she go back on her medication at a higher dose.
At 30 weeks pregnant, the intrusive thoughts became so dark and insistent and the worry for her baby so strong, that Nicole presented to the Emergency Department at Werribee Mercy Hospital.
As her world unravelled Nicole was admitted to the Mother Baby Unit within Mercy Mental Health. Spiralling into psychosis, Nicole believed she was being tormented by the devil, that any appearance of the number six or utterance of the word ï¿½soulï¿½ was the devil communicating with her directly. Mother and baby were in danger.
ï¿½The terror and isolation I felt was almost unbearable,ï¿½ says Nicole. ï¿½I felt like I was looking in on someone elseï¿½s life. It didnï¿½t seem possible that I could be going through something like this. I had never heard of this happening to anyone and I just didnï¿½t know that maternal mental health was even an issue. Despite the enduring support from my husband and the expert care I was getting in the unit, I felt completely alone. Women need to know that this exists, that theyï¿½re not alone and there is help available.ï¿½
Nicole stayed in the Mother Baby Unit for a month, leaving the unit only to give birth to baby Scarlett. Scarlett returned to the unit with Nicole, under the care and guidance of a skilled mental health team. Throughout her stay, the team worked with Nicole to foster nurturing instincts and encourage bonding as well as addressing her mental illness.
Nicole Rutherford was supported by Mercy Mental Health during her first pregnancy.
ï¿½They worked to build me back up,ï¿½ remembers Nicole, ï¿½to make me see that I could be a mother, that I hadnï¿½t failed my baby, that we could be a family. My husband was able to stay with me which helped prepare me for going home. But even so, going home was scary.
ï¿½Iï¿½ve had a few relapses ï¿½ in the beginning I felt unsafe, as though I couldnï¿½t manage on my own and needed to be back in the unit in the care of my doctors. But what I needed (and what I received) was some tough love, both from my husband and from my care team. I had to stand on my own two feet, but I know that if I stumble, I have that support network in place.ï¿½
Nicoleï¿½s husband Craig was Scarlettï¿½s primary carer for the first year of her life as Nicole focused on getting well. ï¿½It was hard, having Nicole out of action and having to do all the feeding, the changing, the holding and the caring by myself,ï¿½ says Craig. ï¿½But Nicole has worked extremely hard to get back on track. Sheï¿½s done the hard yards and Iï¿½m so proud of her.ï¿½
Advised to wait at least four years before having another baby, Nicole and Craig recently became parents for the second time. Baby Lachlan, four weeks old (at time of print), is the object of constant affection for six-year-old Scarlett. ï¿½It was a big decision to have another baby,ï¿½ says Nicole. ï¿½Obviously we were scared I would become unwell again, but it has been wonderful. Itï¿½s like having my first baby all over again. Iï¿½ve been able get excited and do all the things that new mums do the first time around.ï¿½
In sharing her story, Nicole hopes to raise awareness about perinatal mental health, both for those suffering with mental illness and the families and communities around them. ï¿½While it doesnï¿½t happen to everyone, mental illness can happen to anyone,ï¿½ says Nicole. ï¿½We need to encourage people to talk about it, to remove the stigma that surrounds it so when it happens, people donï¿½t feel so alone. You can come through it with the right help. The bond I have with Scarlett now, despite our rocky start, is amazing. Iï¿½m so thankful for that.ï¿½
Published in Our Voice, Spring 2013