Think ‘rehab’ and you might think white padded rooms, social services and the type of people who shouldn’t be raising kids. The Priory is an addiction rehab clinic and mental health hospital, reportedly for stars like Kate Moss. It’s a place for burned-out party animals, isn’t it? My experience, walking through those infamous doors at six months pregnant, couldn’t have been more different.
I have suffered with anxiety since I was a little girl – diagnosed at 18 after my first foray into therapy. Anxiety is that annoying ex who keeps hanging around when you want to move on. It emphasises every negative thing you’ve ever done and turns positives against you. Eleven years passed and, even with a loving husband, I was convinced he was going to leave or cheat on me.
Pregnancy added fuel to my already blazing fire. As a perfectionist, I wanted to get motherhood exactly right. Everything from the parenting industry to Instagram is a magnet for someone with anxiety; the pictures of mothers gazing adoringly into their babies’ eyes, breastfeeding looking so easy and natural, the dads beside looking so happy. I believe the incredible pressure on parents to do things a certain way – fed into us by our parents and in-laws, biased imagery in society and some antenatal classes – is damaging mental health.
The more pregnant I became, the more the anxiety started playing tricks on me. I had 15 scans in secret as I was convinced that my unborn son was dead. I also had an overwhelming worry that I would pass my issues on to him when he was born, like my anxiety was some kind of disease he would contract. I had no choice but to get help.
Fortunately, I had private health insurance, so I contacted the Priory in desperation to get help, fast. The next day, I met a psychiatrist. I felt ashamed, and worried my son would be taken away, but they convinced me I was doing the best thing for him. I was signed up to group therapy, alongside people with eating disorders, drug and alcohol issues and other anxiety sufferers. It was 12 weeks of group therapy and, thereafter, one-to-ones with a therapist until I was due to give birth. Sitting in a room with 10 people for a full day and telling them more than your parents know about you is strange, but liberating. There’s a no-BS policy and the therapists are like tough-talking, wise older relatives, and not at all fluffy.
As my bump grew, my mind expanded. I became able to see events, people and myself differently.
Fast-forward to three days post the birth, and the reality of parenting hit me and my husband, who himself was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety. Although I had acquired the skills from my time at the Priory, the pressure to meet the unrealistic standard of what good parenting looks like bowled me over and old habits crept in. I argued a lot with my husband, and lied about how much I loved playing with my son, Flynn, when I was actually finding every reason to get someone else to look after him. I even went back to my job as a marketing consultant after five weeks, as a way to find my identity again. I didn’t bond with my son and it’s only now that I can admit that.
Google became my friend and enemy, and it fed my bubbling anxiety. Parents are saturated antenatally with information but, postnatally, when reassurance is most needed, it’s lacking. During the weeks I struggled, I sought help at the local NHS children’s centre and paid for private experts. But, even then, I felt like there was an agenda with things, such as how I fed my baby and, if I couldn’t make their Plan A work, I felt nobody was willing to consider or help me with a Plan B, leading to behaviour such as me refusing to give my dehydrated son formula milk.
I eventually came out of the fog around six months post-birth and was really angry. Angry at the fact that I and many of my friends had been so badly misled by antenatal classes, which didn’t talk in detail about the pleasant and not-so-pleasant aspects of parenting. How unprepared my partner and I were for parenthood and, as a result, how damaged we both were.
I then came up with the idea of the Parenting Chapter – a series of online and face-to-face courses that parents-to-be can take to prepare themselves for the good and distressing experiences you might encounter.
Sadly, as my son reached the age of two, the anxiety monster returned. Fuelled by issues faced by many parents – financial, work, relationship and mental health –I chose to go back to the Priory and still do every week as an outpatient.
I chose to fight back and question why my and many other parents’ experiences are so warped. My mission is to lead a parent revolution that will make the reality the norm. I want to make it OK for men and women to say that parenting isn’t what they thought it would be or wanted it to be. I want them to come to us and feel like they’re not being judged, and to empower other parents with their knowledge.
I will always struggle on and off, but I’ve surrounded myself with people who feel and speak the same language – my husband, parent friends, supportive online mum-networks and my team of parenting professionals who helped, and still help me, with the physical and emotional aspects of parenting. I’ve accepted that parenting will never be easy, but if you’ve got someone in your mum tribe to smile, moan and cry with – someone to say,‘I know’ – then you’re in good hands.
For details of courses, visit Lauren’s company at theparentingchapter.com
Sign up to Grazia’s mental health campaign to make mental health first aiders compulsory in all workplaces
This week, we went to Downing Street to deliver our petition to Theresa May, calling for mental health first aiders to be made compulsory in the workplace. Joining us were supporters of our Where’s Your Head At? campaign, including writer Bryony Gordon, Labour MP Luciana Berger and Countdown presenter Rachel Riley. The petition has more than 200,000 signatures and support from celebrities and big businesses. We know how important talking about mental health at work is, but we need your help to get the law changed. If you haven’t signed the petition yet, you can still do it online. And don’t forget to email or tweet your local MP and tell them why this law change is so important to you.
For details, visit wheresyourheadat.org
World Mental Health Day is on 10 October. Visit mind.org.uk for information