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Belfast mum Michelle Bradley on motherhood and mental illness

Belfast mum Michelle Bradley experienced serious mental health struggles throughout her three pregnancies and is now helping others with her new book. She speaks to Claire Williamson

Stronger together: Michelle Bradley with husband Eoin and children Alexis, Cooper and Luna
Stronger together: Michelle Bradley with husband Eoin and children Alexis, Cooper and Luna

It's expected to be the happiest time for new mums. But for many women across the world, they instead find themselves plunged into the darkest time. Thousands of women every year in Northern Ireland are impacted by mental health issues in the period before and after birth.

Perinatal mental illness is the umbrella term for a number of psychological disorders that affect women and their partners either in pregnancy or in the postnatal period.

Their feelings are compounded by the picture-perfect ideal of what motherhood should look like and that in turn creates a stigma which prevents mums from speaking out.

Brave north Belfast mum Michelle Bradley is sharing her experience of mental health struggles throughout her three pregnancies to spread a message of hope, that with the right help and support you will make it through the other side.

Michelle (34) and her husband Eoin (34) are proud parents to Alexis (6), Cooper (3) and Luna (1) - but it wasn't an easy journey.

Michelle experienced the most "horrendous anxiety, depression and shame" throughout the past six years and pays tribute to the "vital" support of her husband.

A self-confessed bookworm, Michelle turned to books to help her find a way out - but she wanted to hear someone's story of recovery, from the darkest time right through to the brightest, with techniques they had tried and tested.

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This inspired her to write her own - and put her face to it so people could see a real story.

Her book Pangs: Surviving Motherhood and Mental Illness begins with a raw account of Michelle's own experiences, detailing her downward spiral and her turning point to recovery.

The book also features a self-help and resources section for parents who are looking some further support.

Michelle also runs PANGS NI, an online peer support group for women with perinatal mental illness.

She is also the founder of ALC Events, which focuses on "events that matter" and has been instrumental in bringing the first Maternal Mental Health Conference, and Positive Birth Conference to Northern Ireland.

She told the Belfast Telegraph her harrowing experience throughout the past six years.

Michelle with her kids
Michelle with her kids

"When I was pregnant with Alexis, I was quite aware of postnatal depression and anxiety because I had anxiety in the past.

"So I went into the pregnancy hoping for the best and trying not to think about it," she says.

"I had quite a difficult birth with her and a few days after she was born I started having horrendous panic attacks which lasted for hours at a time.

"At one point I thought I was going to die. It was absolutely horrendous and that went on for about two years.

"About four months after that incident happened, the amount of panic attacks had led me to a really depressed frame of mind, and I got to the point where I had my husband and baby in the pram walking about Glengormley in the middle of the night in the snow because I couldn't bear to be indoors.

"I told my husband at that point if I can't get better I don't think I can live anymore."

It was this moment that kick-started her journey to find help. One of the first things she did was set up a peer support group for other women going through similar issues.

However, Michelle said she couldn't find any support groups in Northern Ireland that offered face-to-face contact.

She says: "I set up PANGS, which is a postnatal peer support group.

"Within three days we had about 44 members and now there's 500, it's a real safe space that people come on and share each other's stories and help boost each other up."

When Michelle was pregnant with her second child, Cooper, because of her previous experience with Alexis, the entire pregnancy was "fraught with anxiety" from day one.

She says: "I was having panic attacks, I couldn't leave the house, I didn't want to drive the car. But after he was born, I seemed to be okay. For some reason his birth triggered it all to settle down. And I thought, 'okay this is what it's like to have a baby and not have mental illness'."

Michelle with Luna
Michelle with Luna

Then when her third child, Luna, came along, the anxiety returned during the pregnancy but after she was born Michelle thought she was coping well.

She said: "I didn't realise I was on that slippery slope and I'd been so conscious with my mental health up until that point that I thought I would recognise it, but I didn't.

"So again, I ended up not wanting to leave the house, drive the car, I was afraid to be alone with the kids in case something really awful happened."

Michelle said she had to fight through the health system to get appointments for her mental health.

"I fought and fought to get CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and psychology appointments for that," she says. "And luckily enough, because I knew the right people I was able to push my way in."

Now that she's come out the other end, Michelle wants to share her story as a sign of hope.

"When I started the peer support group, I really wanted someone to come on to it who was mostly recovered, who was able to say, 'here is what I did to help me out' and 'you can find a way out of this because here I am having a great life'. And when I came out the other end of it myself, I thought, 'why can't I be that person to give that hope'."

When she was creating the book, she didn't want it to be just about her own story but to have tools, tips and techniques that she had tried and tested.

Michelle says she owes her recovery to being able to speak without judgement.

She adds: "I think the most important thing was a connection to other people. Having that support group, having my family around, someone who could even just stand behind me when I was trying to find help for myself. The health system is horrendous to try and navigate.

"So mostly it was having people around and to be able to speak about it without judgement. Mental illness in itself is hard enough, but when you are trying to talk about mental illness when you've just had a baby, you're supposed to be in this wonderful bubble, and then trying to talk about that with other people saying, 'I'm not enjoying this'.

"It's really horrendous words to say out loud, so having someone to say that to really helps."

Michelle hails her husband as a "life saver" throughout her darkest times.

"I felt really bad for him at times because he was coming home to a completely different person. But just having him there, he didn't have to do anything but just to be there and listen and give that little boost."

She continues: "He was also the one who started to notice after my third baby when I thought I was totally fine, he said, 'You don't like taking the kids to the park', all the little things and he was able to push me in the right direction.

"So his support was absolutely vital."

Michelle says that women need more support and stressed the importance of being receptive to how they feel.

"When it comes to motherhood we are tasked with the biggest job in the world, raising the next generation.

"The whole ideal behind it is you should be enjoying this, you should be loving it, it's a really wonderful experience and if you don't fit that ideal, then there is something wrong with you."

And to any mothers out there who feel like they are struggling - Michelle says don't be afraid to speak out.

"If you are having any feelings that are unpleasant or unwanted and are affecting your daily life that you didn't have before you had a baby or were pregnant, if they are lasting more than two weeks that's a sign you need to speak to somebody."

She adds: "Speak and speak early and keep talking until somebody listens."

Michelle's peer support website can be found at www.wearepangs.com and her book will be available from Amazon on March 30

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