A mum has revealed she became so desperate during her battle with postnatal depression that she 'begged' nurses to let her die.
Amy Steele, 31, gave birth to her daughter Maddie at Southmead Hospital in Bristol 18 months ago - an experience which left her frightened, desperate and alone.
Putting down her coffee, Amy takes out a file and opens it on the table.
It is filled with colourful designs that she has created for WHSmith-owned card company Funky Pigeon to raise awareness of mental health.
One reads, ‘I might not always understand but I’m here for you anyway’.
“That sums up a lot of people’s reaction when I told them I was depressed,” she says with a soft sigh.
The 31-year-old Bristolian, who works as a graphic designer for Funky Pigeon, has suffered with depression and anxiety on and off for years.
But giving birth to her daughter in February 2017 was a trigger for what was to become one of the most horrific periods of her life.
'I felt an impending sense of doom when I got pregnant'
With World Mental Health Day taking place on October 10, Amy now wants to break down the stigma of mental health by sharing her story.
“When I got pregnant, instead of feeling really happy, like I thought I was supposed to, I felt an impending sense of doom,” she recalls.
Amy tried to push the thoughts towards the back of her mind, hoping that when her daughter was born her feelings would change.
But after the birth Amy only felt numb.
She had lost nearly two litres of blood after an episiotomy, but the physical pain, she says, was completely overshadowed by the state of her mental health.
“I didn’t understand why anyone would have a baby if it made them feel that bad.
“I really didn’t want to go home, but my husband Sean did so I went to please him and it was awful.
“That first night I told Sean I wanted to die. He just called me silly and told me to go to bed.
“I hadn’t ever expressed my full feelings to anyone because I was fearful of that reaction and it made everything far worse.”
Amy had been told by the doctors and her mum that she was just suffering from “baby blues” while her milk started to come in.
But she was unable to breastfeed and was wracked with guilt.
“I felt like a bad wife and a bad mother.”
'I was in a constant state of fear that I would accidentally kill Maddie'
When a midwife came to check on her and Maddie, Amy admitted she didn’t want to be a mother any more.
“I was in a constant state of fear that I would accidentally kill Maddie by doing something wrong. And I couldn’t cope with that guilt.”
The midwife decided it was best for them to return to hospital, which Amy’s husband wasn’t happy about.
“He just felt it was two steps back. But I felt like everyone else could be a mum and I just couldn’t do it.”
Amy’s parents came to visit her in Southmead, worried the episiotomy had caused more physical problems, not realising it was their daughter’s mental health at risk.
“When I told my mum I was fine physically she replied, ‘Oh, it’s all in your head then, that’s ok’.
“I love my mum to bits but at the time it was really damaging - and it pushed me over the edge.”
After being assessed by doctors and psychiatrists, Amy was referred for help.
But with no mental health professionals available at the weekend, Amy was forced to stay in hospital for two days with the midwives looking after her.
“I owe my life to them. They are not mental health specialists, they are midwives, but out of everybody they helped me the most.
“They were unbelievably kind to me, but I was progressively getting worse. I felt like I was on a constant spin cycle and I couldn’t sleep.
“I was worried about the baby and worried about my husband. I didn’t care about myself at all at this point.”
That was when Amy decided to take her life.
With her husband in the toilet and her daughter asleep, she made a run for it.
“All of a sudden I felt really calm and comforted because I knew I was going to end all the pain.
“But I was caught by a midwife who rugby tackled me and took me into another room, where I broke down and begged her to let me die.
“I couldn’t stop sobbing. She set the room up next to Sean and Maddie as I just didn’t want to be near them. I felt like I was bringing them down and they were better off without me.
“She stayed in that room with me all night, stroking my hair. I don’t think the midwives realise that if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be here. They went beyond the care of duty.”
A mental health bed 140 miles away
The next day Amy was sectioned under the mental health act - and was told she was being sent to a mother and baby unit for women with postnatal depression.
Assuming she would remain in Bristol, Amy felt a glimmer of hope.
But the only available bed in England was in Nottingham - and Amy was told she was being sent away.
“I was completely distraught and I resisted going so they were forced to sedate me,” she recalls.
“When I arrived in Nottingham nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. It was like a prison.
“The unit was inside a hospital, separated by locked doors. Although they had tried to make it look homely, it was bleak.”
There were six private rooms on the ward, a lounge area with toys for the babies, a kitchen and a bathroom.
Amy felt like her every movement was being watched.
“The bathroom didn’t have a chain on the plug in case you tried to kill yourself. The temperature of the water was tepid so you didn’t burn yourself.
“I was put in a stifling little room that was like a cell, with plastic sheets, which stuck to my thighs every time I rolled over.
“They took my baby away so I could sleep but every time I was about to drift off they shone a torch through a window to check I hadn’t killed myself.”
Then, at 1am, Amy was pulled out of her bed to undergo a psychiatric assessment.
“I honestly don’t know why they chose to do it then. And I could not tell you what I said as I have no memory of it but I somehow ended getting sectioned for a month.”
Amy was not allowed to leave the unit in Nottingham unless she was discharged by a psychiatrist.
Sitting in the pyjamas she had been wearing in Southmead, hair in disarray, with none of her belongings, Amy felt helpless.
Her husband had requested time off work to visit but it was a day and a half before he arrived.
“It felt like I had been there for years,” she recalls. “Everything I did was such an effort, I was exhausted.
“They tried to force me into contact with the other mums but I didn’t want to talk to anyone so I hid in that boiling hot room for hours on end.
“I rang my dad in tears and he promised to get me out. He’s very good at giving me hope and he told me I just needed to pull myself together one last time and then I could get out and he would look after me.
“It’s what got me through. So I did everything I was supposed to do whether I liked it or not.”
After nearly a week, Amy had had enough and was ready to go home. But she was told not to get her hopes up.
“They were horrible to me, saying I was sectioned and couldn’t do anything about it. But when I had my next assessment I was adamant I would leave.
“I remember shaking violently but I was holding Maddie and my jaw was aching because I was so tense.
“I can’t remember what I said but it worked and the psychiatrist let me go home on the condition that I had support at home, and that the South Gloucestershire crisis team visited every day.”
Climbing into the car to drive back to Bristol, however, the feelings of desperation came flooding back.
“Maddie was screaming and my anxiety levels were through the roof. On the way home I was just thinking of every single way I could die.”
When Amy returned to Bristol she moved back to her parents’ house in Pucklechurch with Maddie, finding her own home was a trigger for her anxiety.
“It actually made me feel physically sick being in my own house so I went to live with my mum and dad.”
Amy’s mum did night feeds with Maddie so she could get her sleep back on track, while her dad and sister talked through everything with her for hours on end.
“They were absolutely fantastic. I felt better being in my childhood home surrounded by my family.”
The South Gloucestershire crisis team visited Amy every day for two months, giving her therapy and medication, and teaching her breathing techniques to keep her calm.
Very slowly, Amy began to heal.
Triggered by work
However, with her maternity leave coming to an end, Amy began developing anxiety about going back to work.
Sadly, it led to a relapse.
“I didn’t want to go back. I was stockpiling paracetamol, I made a plan and had written notes saying goodbye.”
Sean recognised the signs of her illness and persuaded Amy to go to the doctor, who referred her back to the crisis team.
With the help of her doctor and recovery worker, Amy formed a plan and eventually agreed to go back to work three days a week.
She returned to Funky Pigeon in October 2017.
“I was determined to go back and not use my illness as an excuse, and it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
“My manager knew everything that was going on and they didn’t put too much pressure on me. And after a while I realised I was beginning to enjoy it.”
Not long after returning to work, Amy was struck with an idea.
“I went into the main boss’s office and told him I was suffering from postnatal depression.
“He was a bit taken aback but he did know. I said I really wanted to create a range of cards dedicated to mental illness, with a helpline on the back.
“You have get-well cards for physical health but not for mental health. My grandma had sent me a card when I was poorly and it meant the world knowing she was thinking of me.
“My boss thought it was a fabulous idea - and in that moment my passion for life was sparked again.”
Amy got in touch with mental health charity Mind and drew up a plan, which would mean 30 per cent of all profits from the sales of her cards would be donated to the charity.
“I did a presentation to the office on the work I was doing and single-handedly changed my boss’s mind on mental health. I reduced him to tears.
“Everyone was amazing and got on board with the idea. I created a range of cards and it turned into a huge company campaign called Believe in Happy.
“My whole aim was to break the stigma around mental health and give people the opportunity to send someone a message to let them know they are thinking of them.”
Bristol-based Pukka Tea and Frome-based chocolate company Choc on Choc got involved in the campaign, creating specially designed products to go in a ‘Happy Bag’ that Funky Pigeon then sold online.
Amy is planning to release another series of cards next year, focusing on postnatal depression.
She explains: “My new range is called Warrior. It’s for new mums but the sentiment behind it is for postnatal depression.
“I know how hard it is to speak out but it was the best thing I ever did. My illness got worse before it got better but if I hadn’t told someone who knows where I would be now.”
She has also worked hard to change attitudes to mental health in her workplace.
“I have organised loads of fundraisers - from a breakfast of champions to a curry night.
“We have done massage workshops, we go for walks and for coffee, or do colouring and journal writing, and it has brought us closer together.”
Amy also encouraged everyone in the office to write something nice about one colleague, which she then had printed on to coasters.
“We each have one on our desk and it means that when you are having a bad day you can look down and see how much someone in that room cares about you.
“It doesn’t take much to make someone happier at work. I feel everyone in the office works harder now because we have a happier environment.
“I could go to my boss and tell them if I am feeling anxious. And a couple of years ago I would not have dreamt of saying that.
“You wouldn’t feel ashamed if you broke your leg - and it’s the same with mental health. You are ill.
“The more companies that are open about it and put in place procedures to talk to someone the more it will help.”
Looking to the future, Amy says she now wants to raise awareness of depression and help other people who are suffering.
“I don’t want anybody in the world to feel how I was feeling - to feel so desperate and low that you don’t want to be here anymore.
“If I just help one person to say it’s ok to talk about it, then my mission is accomplished.”