My thanks to Kate Neilan of Vintage (Penguin RandomHouse) for sending me a copy of What Have I Done. The decision to read was my own and this review forms my honest opinion.
This is a raw, courageous and honest recovery story that breaks the silence on one of life’s best-kept secrets. Written from the front-line of mental illness, this heartbreaking and uplifting memoir is about resilience, love and finding your way to the other side.
Laura couldn’t wait to meet her new baby. But as she went into labour things began to go wrong and Laura started to struggle. A traumatic birth, anxiety about the baby, sleep deprivation, a slow recovery – all these things piled up until Laura (like any new mum) felt overwhelmed.
As many as 8 out of 10 new mums struggle in the weeks after birth. Laura had never experienced mental illness before and was reassured by family, friends and professionals that what she was feeling was ‘normal.’ But in Laura’s case these feelings escalated scarily quickly into post-partum psychosis; a rare and debilitating illness. Within a matter of days Laura became paranoid, delusional and suicidal. And when her baby was just three weeks old, on Mother’s Day, Laura was institutionalised without her baby. Throughout this time she was haunted by a sense of: ‘What have I done?’
It wasn’t until Laura began to put her story into words (on her phone whilst her son slept) that she began to find herself again and recovery seemed within reach; these are those words.
Despite this gruelling experience, Laura’s story is a hopeful one. Not only has she got better, she has come out the other side stronger and more assured. Now she is determined to break the stigma around post-natal mental health, shatter the romanticised expectations of perfect motherhood, and to empower parents: you are not alone.
I usually try and write a review about a book as soon as I can after finishing, so that my thoughts are fresh. I couldn’t do that with What Have I Done. It was a really tough read for me and one which has led me to spend the last week reflecting on my own experience with postnatal depression.
It’s no secret that I suffered with PND after the birth of my son in 2013. I’ve tried to talk about it openly, and I’ve found comfort in reading novels which focus on PND. However, I’ve discovered that there is a marked difference between reading a novel, in which a fictionalised character suffers, to reading a memoir. I hadn’t appreciated that there would be a difference. I know that those authors have either suffered themselves, or have ensured that they’ve done intensive research before writing their novels. But fictionalisation provides some distance and this was bone achingly raw. I felt every word.
It’s without doubt the book I wished I had back then as a first time Mum. Living in Essex at the time, with my husband working demanding London hours, and my family and friends a three hour car journey away, I was so alone. The only people I knew were the other NCT Mums, all of whom seemed to adapt easily (I later discovered that this wasn’t the case) and were living the new baby dream after their picture perfect births. I, on the other hand had suffered a pretty traumatic premature birth which had resulted in my son suffering an injury to the head as they wrestled him out of me in an emergency situation, and requiring a week in an incubator in the NICU. I couldn’t bond with him and although I said the right things and cared for him as I was expected to, I didn’t feel anything for him and I despised myself so intensely, that I think, even to this day, I’ve never really gotten over that feeling of self loathing.
It took the most incredible of Health Visitors to encourage me to seek help. But even then I didn’t help myself. I always picture the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in my memories when I think of the male counselor I was assigned to. I used to leave his sessions feeling elated that I’d outsmarted him. That I’d led him to believe I was doing ok. I wasn’t. I refused medication and I lied in every session about how I felt. Playing a role. Why – because I was so ashamed. My life was a constant role-play back then. I didn’t tell my family until months later, my friends until, in some cases years later. I had friends who were desperately trying for a baby, and I beat myself up for being so selfish. I had friends who were incredible parents and so I beat myself up for not being more like them. Hating myself became as normal as breathing.
Even now, there’s a residual guilt that nags at me. As I said, I try and be open now and I’m a huge advocate of normalising the realities of motherhood, in fact, it was my experience that first propelled me to go back to university and get my MA. I wanted to write about something that mattered to me. I wanted to help other women, other mothers. This is the book I wish I had written, but to be perfectly honest, I don’t think I could have written it, just because it has made me realise how, over time, I’ve made my experience fit into a narrative that suits. When I find myself talking about it, I always say that I had PND ‘mildly’. It’s a lie that I almost believed until I read this. How many of Laura’s experiences brought back memories that I had tucked away? How many times did I read and gasp, because I had cut away how I felt at a certain time. I’ve made my experience more palatable for human consumption and it’s only now that I realise how in trying to talk about it in this way, I’m actually part of the problem. I’ve reduced what I lived through in order to make others, and myself feel more comfortable.
And so, I applaud, cheer and throw every virtual hug and kiss I can towards Laura Dockrill, because I can appreciate just how hard this must have been to write. And yet, throughout it’s hypnotic to read. She’s warm, witty and just exactly the kind of woman you wished was your friend. She never feels sorry for herself, she owns what happened to her and is so courageous in speaking out about it.
Although a tough read emotionally, it’s been an incredibly cathartic read – more so than I think any other book I’ve ever read. It’s helped me realise that I still have so many unresolved emotions and I could benefit from speaking to someone. Most importantly, it’s provided me with a feeling of solidarity and unity. I’ve felt so long feeling alone, that to put a face, a name and an entire memoir to another mother who went through something so terrible at a time which is sold to us as being ‘joyous’, is weirdly comforting.
And of course, the author suffered with Post-Partum Psychosis, an illness so severe that it is classed as a medical emergency. The clarity with which she describes her emotions at the height of this illness astounded me. Her recovery process was particularly interesting and I really took heart from it.
I bought a ton of books when I was pregnant which preached at me how to be a good mother. They instructed on breastfeeding, bottle feeding, naps, sleep routines, swaddling (or not to swaddle), bathing, massaging. I’ve learned that not one of these books was in any way, shape or form any use to me as a new parent. They made me anxious (even more so), they made me feel inadequate and they made me feel as if I was getting motherhood so screamingly wrong that my son was bound to grow up to be the twenty first century’s answer to Jack the Ripper. If I could go back in time, I’d burn every single one of those books, and replace them with this one. This is the single most important book about being a mother I’ve ever read. Non-judgmental and most importantly, not in the slightest annoying. It’s just one mother talking to countless others and saying that it’s ok not to be ok, and that in fact, the bloom of new motherhood is actually, in most cases, a stinking lie.
A book I recommend to all women (and their partners) and one that I will be buying a ‘proper’ copy of for my forever shelf. I loved this book harder than I could ever convey with mere words. Thank you Laura for sharing your story.