You wait and wait for an authentic, affecting account of postpartum psychosis, and not one, but two books arrive in quick succession. Earlier this year, Catherine Cho's elegiac and atmospheric memoir, Inferno, became a raw account of the new mother's two weeks on a psychiatric ward in the US following a psychotic breakdown.
Laura Dockrill’s book, What Have I Done? (Penguin Books) is a chattier, darkly humorous and more companionable read, although hers is no less shocking or compelling an account of the illness.
Dockrill wrote much of the book on her phone, during snatches of private time, and without really looking back.
She is receiving hundreds of messages from women who have undergone a similar experience. “I’d not really heard [postpartum psychosis] explained,” Dockrill reflects. “When I first got ill, my brain started telling me I was a certain person, so when I meet people who are like-minded, you just realise, ‘oh god, no one is really immune. It doesn’t discriminate”.
“I’d spoken to an amazing doctor, and I kept asking myself, ‘why me? Why me?’” she adds. “He had the best answer: ‘It just wasn’t your day’. I can live with that.”
Dockrill, who counts the singer Adele as a best friend and the godmother to her son Jet (now two), is hugely effervescent and eloquent. With nary a lick of self-pity, she recounts not just her harrowing experience of postpartum psychosis down the phone from her South London home. She also reveals that she has had a harder pandemic lockdown than most. She, her son and husband Hugo White, (guitarist in the indie band the Maccabees) were all struck down with Covid-19.
“You know, I haven’t felt this bad about the world in a while,” Dockrill admits with admirable candour. “That quality of depression and anxiety started to creep back in, but I did lay those traps down early on.”
Dockrill has every right to be apprehensive about potential mental health challenges. Back in 2018, and thriving in a career as a young adult book writer, Dockrill was “extremely loved-up” and looking forward to becoming a first-time mum. Her relationship with White, her best friend since the age of 14, was like “walking in shoes that finally fit”.
"Everything felt really right," Dockrill says. "Some people think, 'ooh, maybe you had this Walt Disney version [of motherhood]. I didn't think it was going to be a doddle, I know it was hard work. But I'm the sort of person who gets on with it. When I broke my wrist, I didn't even know I had for a week."
A traumatic labour, covered in unnervingly raw detail in the book, was followed by a few uncertain days on an antenatal ward in London. She was in love with Jet, of that she was sure but the whole experience left a psychological mark. The first few days of motherhood were a blur of anxiety.
“Jet was poorly and underweight – I don’t know what gave me the illusion that I’d be able to rest for even a minute,” Dockrill says.
“In my labour I was a passenger, and I didn’t want to cause trouble. My birth experience was so out of control, so chaotic. And then you feel you’ve gotten off to the wrong start. You feel like you’re a ‘bronze’, and you’ve fallen flat on your face.”
Sleeplessness and anxiety soon gave way to intrusive thoughts; for a girl that had slept standing in a field at Glastonbury and had never experienced insomnia in her life, this was new and terrifying terrain. Dockrill struggled to meet what she felt were "normal" expectations.
“There was also an unravelling of this character assassination,” Dockrill recalls, “I told myself, ‘you know what you’ve done, you’ve done this. This is your fault. You’ve asked for this.’”
Things took a much darker and confusing turn before Jet had turned a month old. Laura calmly told Hugo that they should both die, and that her family could take care of Jet. She was convinced that Hugo and the maternity nurse the couple had hired were conspiring against her. She felt that her father-in-law was trying to hypnotise her. Dockrill believed that she was the only person thinking clearly.
All the talk about people with mental health issues being weak? At that time, I was steering the Titanic away from the iceberg
She likens psychosis to a moment where a person drinks so much alcohol that they almost reach a point of “sober clarity”.
“You have to follow the thoughts through the really rational part of the brain, in a really scary way,” she explains. “You are scared that you might do something more dangerous but it’s really rational in the moment. I have friends who smoke weed, and they’re ‘pranging’ out, they don’t trust anyone. You can see in their eyes they’re panicking, and it’s mixed with this deep paranoia, and not knowing who to trust. It’s almost like there’s that sinking feeling, like when you’ve been caught out by your teachers and they’re gonna tell you off, but then it ramps up again and you have these moments of intense clarity, which are a pure terror. Everything was too close up and loud, and you feel like you have this God-like complex, where you think you’re seeing everything really refined.
“I do remember my brain thinking, ‘think of something to do to Jet’. I was holding onto the bed like I was about to fall out of an aeroplane. For the first time, it was me versus my brain. ‘Don’t do it.’ All the talk about people with mental health issues being weak? At that time, I was steering the Titanic away from the iceberg.”
Soon, suicidal thoughts were overpowering her. Dockrill likens these moments to “heart attacks within the brain”. Hugo, and her friends and family were at a loss on how to help.
“God bless him, [Hugo] is this poor skinny little indie boy who gets his [then] girlfriend pregnant and thinks it’s LOLs, then is driving across London in the snow to bring me to hospital,” says Dockrill.
The day before she was hospitalised, Dockrill recalls having a vivid jumble of feelings: “I felt I hadn’t got much gas left in the tank and that I needed to build my life back together, but that lasted about half an hour, then it’s back to the suspicion and paranoia and racing thoughts.”
In the end, it was a conversation with Adele that set her on the path to recovery.
One evening, Dockrill called her friend in Los Angeles, and casually mentioned some of the "conspiracies" she held.
“She was listening away to me, being very calm,” Dockrill recalls. “She was someone I felt I could say things to. She was very, ‘oh, okay, cool’. I know from the time she’d had her baby [Angelo, now seven] that she’d experienced post-natal depression.
“When I got off the phone, she rang Hugo and said, ‘now, I know this sounds mad and tell me to f**k off, but I’ve just Googled psychosis after childbirth and this information came up. You need to go to A&E immediately.”
A psychiatrist, working next door to Angelo’s paediatrician in LA, rang Hugo at 1am on a Saturday night. “He told Hugo that I needed to go to a psych ward immediately,” says Dockrill, “Hugo asked him, ‘could I take her in the morning?’ He said, ‘put it this way, if it was my daughter or wife I wouldn’t wait’.
Dockrill spent her first Mother’s Day in a bed that wasn’t hers, feeling as though she had returned to the world from a blackout. Two weeks on a psychiatric ward, a course of medication and plenty of cognitive behavioural therapy later, and Dockrill began the arduous journey back to herself.
The condition, which affects between 1 and 2 in every 1,000 mothers, remains a mystery, not just to her but also to the wider medical community.
“There’s so little known about postpartum disorder that some still call it bipolar disorder or even postnatal depression,” she says. “What I do know is that the illness comes on very quickly.”
She credits her family and friends with much of her recovery.
“[Adele] and I have been through so much together, with my parents splitting up and her mum finding a partner, and her moving to LA, her success – the whole thing bound us. Every time we have a bottle of wine, we have a little laugh about it. Humour is the best medicine and it has helped us to recover. It was traumatic for her as well – she was trying to do a balancing act between being supportive and staying loyal to me.
“This was the biggest thing my own family had ever gone through, and I’m so grateful that my parents didn’t freak out and tried to understand more about it,” Dockrill adds. “I’ve heard families who won’t accept or understand the condition at all. We’re not perfect, but we’re learning all the time.”
It would be nice to have another child but I just don't want to go through it ever again
Nowadays, Dockrill, White and Jet are a true team of three. White experienced PTSD several months after Laura’s recovery, but recovered with the help of medication and therapy. She married White earlier this year, on Jet’s second birthday.
“He’s so in charge now,” she says affectionately of her son. “Not that he would feel any other way, but he has truly forgiven me. Mama comes first – when he bangs his head, it’s me he comes to. Initially, I was just happy to accept a base level of love, like just being there and showing up. But life’s just pouring back more and more love.
Doctors have told Dockrill that were she to have another child, there’s a 50 per cent chance that the condition might resurface.
“It would be nice to have another child but I just don’t want to go through it ever again,” she says.
“Of course, there would be a plan, and I would have consultants to look out for me, but I feel like I just about got out by the skin of my teeth the first time around.”