Laura Dockrill told herself she was the worst case the psychiatric hospital had ever seen, and was untreatable. 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.
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 a thousand 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.”
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). “I do feel like there is silence,” says Dockrill. “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 my baby was born, I put a picture up of myself holding a glass of champagne with my makeup on, like: ‘Hey world, I’m a mum!’ And it was a complete lie – I was ill.” Six days later, she was admitted to a psychiatric unit. Then there is the shame and the “dark fear that you’re going to have your baby taken away from you” if you admit to not coping. “It’s a lot of catastrophising, which doesn’t help.”
Dockrill had never experienced mental illness before (the causes of postpartum psychosis are unknown, and may be related to changes to hormones and sleep patterns after birth, although women who have bipolar disorder or schizoaffective disorder are at higher risk). For Dockrill, 34, who would be the first to admit to a charmed and privileged life – a busy, bohemian and largely happy childhood in south London, close family, career success, strong relationship – it came out of the blue, like being struck by lightning. “It just wasn’t your day,” a psychiatrist later told her, which she found comforting. By the time Dockrill was hospitalised, she was suicidal and delusional. She had given birth barely a month earlier – a traumatic experience that ended in an emergency caesarean, with an underweight baby – and although she was becoming more and more ill, postpartum psychosis was not picked up by any of the health professionals who saw her. One GP said it was postnatal depression, which is more common, and prescribed antidepressants.
It was her friend, the singer Adele (they have been friends since they were at the Brit school together), who had Googled the condition and suggested it to Dockrill’s partner, Hugo White, a musician. “This has been one of the hardest bits of the book, especially now, because of the pandemic and how incredible the NHS have been,” says Dockrill of her struggle to get a diagnosis. “You don’t want to be that one person being like …” She pauses. “I feel like I was doing a pretty OK job of explaining that I didn’t feel normal. I requested my medical notes and you can see that I’m saying I’ve got severe insomnia, I believe every ambulance is coming for me, something bad is going to happen, that I’m incapable, I feel like a failure.”
It was, she says, an “enormous relief” when she was admitted to a psychiatric unit, which is where she spent her first Mother’s Day, four weeks after giving birth, scared, confused and still recovering from major surgery. She was paranoid and didn’t trust anyone, but part of her also understood she was ill. In hospital, she says: “I didn’t have to pretend that I was OK any more. I had permission to be ill. I just remember the first thing I thought was: ‘Thank God somebody is listening to me.’ Because this is the thing with mental illness: although it can, in many cases, get too big to hide, often it’s invisible. And that’s why if you see these symptoms, treat it like suspicious luggage at a train station; it could be nothing but it’s better to get it checked out.”
Dockrill spent two weeks in hospital, where she was put on suicide watch and anti-psychotic medication, went to group therapy and coped with the guilt and heartache of not being with her newborn son. White brought him to visit Dockrill often, even though she had become sure White was about to launch a custody battle and was conspiring with the nurses to keep her medicated and locked in the unit. At one point, Dockrill became convinced she was pregnant again. When she was discharged, it wasn’t because she was miraculously cured. A deep, debilitating depression followed. “I did not prepare for that,” she says. “That overwhelming heaviness feeling, just like there’s no future, there’s no point in doing anything. That was terrifying.”
She stayed on medication for a while, and was active in her recovery: she had regular therapy, read every book she could about depression, anxiety and other people’s experience of psychosis, and taught herself cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). “Finding CBT just coloured in the last piece for me. I saw it like learning a new language,” she says. “At first I was like, ‘I’m never going to get this in my brain’, and now I apply it to everything. Having these tools has made me a better mum, and it’s been amazing for this pandemic stuff. Probably it would have freaked me out before, and I can deal with it because being locked in your house is nothing compared with being locked in your mind.”
There is joy in her son. “Watching Jet get older, more responsive, loving me unconditionally, not blaming me. I would say to Hugo in the middle of the night: ‘He’s angry at me.’ And now I’m like ‘no’. I don’t feel like I’m in debt any more. That’s the ugly thing about it: you feel like you’re in debt to everybody for taking time out. You know, I didn’t go to the Maldives, snorkelling, I went to a psychiatric ward.” She laughs. She thought her relationship with White would be damaged for ever (he also sought help to cope with the trauma), but it seems unbreakable; they got married last year, a month before the first lockdown. “We had the biggest blowout party because it really marked something extra for us as well,” she says of getting through that period. “So everything felt special and celebratory, and then we were plunged into the pandemic.”
But this pandemic year has had its positive aspects. She had only been off antidepressants for a month, and the wedding “was probably a little bit too much”. Her book was out in May, and, instead of the big tour and Q&A with Adele at the London Palladium that had been planned to mark its launch, “where I needed to be was with Jet and Hugo at home doing nothing, and so it made me feel really safe and bolstered”.
Parenting in a pandemic has been full of ups and downs, in a flat without a garden. “You think, if I was just with Hugo, I’d be rolling around naked and watching Netflix all day, but I’m sure that must get boring. Mustn’t it?” She laughs, wide-eyed at the idea of such luxury and little responsibility. Having a small child (Jet recently turned three) has “given me routine and purpose, so that’s been great. They remind you to be in love with the little things in life. We had a day where we would get an empty jar and just fill it with things we’d find and he loved that so much. He really helped me see the beauty of that.” She has worried on his behalf about not socialising with other children, but she has not missed the performative side of parenting that goes along with that. “To know how to deal with your child when they fall over in front of other people, how to discipline them if they snatch something from others.” Most parents experience it, but when you’ve been ill, she says, “I think you feel extra-watched, like ‘How is she with the child?’ And all of that’s gone.”
She and White share the childcare, splitting the day, and Dockrill has been impressively productive, despite the small matter of recovery from a severe mental illness, parenting a toddler and the global pandemic. It has been a creative period: as well as the memoir, the past year has seen her working on a TV adaptation of the book, the release of a children’s book, with another on the way, and the podcast. Working has helped her recovery: not just the writing of the memoir, and the way she wrangled a chaotic and frightening time into some form of order, but her work in general. It helped her rediscover “who I actually was, because I lost all of that and more after I had a baby; not just because of the illness, I don’t think, but in general.”
For a while, Dockrill did not want her illness to be part of her life story but now she feels “protective of it. I’m proud of what I’ve done with it. I’m so proud that I asked for help, that I said I was struggling, even though I was embarrassed and ashamed. There is an element of saving your own life with that stuff.” She is an ambassador for the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis, and the book, podcast and (hopefully) TV drama will bring it to more people. “I promised myself that, if I did make it through, I wouldn’t stop talking about it. The amount of women who write to me who say: ‘I had this 30 years ago, nobody believed me, it wasn’t taken seriously, it wasn’t diagnosed.’ There will always be somebody who goes: ‘I haven’t heard of it’, or ‘I think my grandma had that.’ Knowledge is power and had I had those conversations, I might have understood a little bit more, not thought that I’d been hijacked by a devil.” She smiles, bewildered at the absurdity and terror of it: “Which would have been helpful.”