When I first told my mother about my unplanned pregnancy, her spontaneous reaction was "Oh, how wonderful!"
Is it? I thought, sourly.
I'm homeless and broke and living in a tent in Portugal with a man I've known just over a year. I can barely make toast let alone give birth. I'm due to start a job soon in Italy which I'm now rendered unsuitable for. I'm vain, self destructive and shallow. I don't want to do this.
I booked flights home and cried all the way. I spoke to the few friends I knew who had become parents and they all told me the same thing. "It's life changing. It's the best thing I ever did."
Some of it must have got through because on the day of the termination I cancelled my appointment and sat in a café sobbing instead. My tits hurt, and felt like hot rocks of magma on my chest.
The need to urinate was constant. I had evening sickness, which reduced me to a bloated, nauseous wreck at seven every evening.
Oh, how wonderful, I thought bitterly, as I developed iron deficiency and piles.
My midwife was worried about me, and tentatively diagnosed Ante-Natel Depression, but I'd dismissed her fears. It was just the shock and the fear. Once I've had the baby, I'd reassured myself, I will feel differently.
Seven months later, on a bright spring morning in mid-April, a little before seven o'clock I gave birth to my daughter into a pool of warm water, with a view over the rooftops and glittering sea of Brighton.
As I held her, a warm and fidgety weight with her deep blue eyes widening in shock, I felt nothing but relief that it was over. Things could get back to normal now.
Here is the biggest lie you will ever tell yourself; if you ignore it, it will go away.
Years before my pregnancy I began to experience isolated panic attacks, often when I was out in public. Sometimes I could blame hangovers, sometimes coffee, sometimes it was just ‘one of those things’. But if I ignore it, it will go away, right?
I self medicated with alcohol because after three or four pints that lingering feeling of anxious despair lifted and I felt like myself again. Good old booze. I was never short of drinking buddies and when it got too much for some I always had someone else to fall back on.
In the unlikely event that there was no-one else around I happily drank alone. Why the fuck not? I was an adult in charge of things, after all.
I thought I was getting by until the day I woke up in the back of an ambulance. “You’ve had a grand mal seizure” the paramedic told me, “I’m quite pleased you came to because I thought I was going to have to give you an adrenalin shot.”
I carried on drinking, confident that the seizure was a ‘one-off’ caused by low blood sugar due to skipping meals. The panic attacks increased, but if there was a connection to the drinking I didn't want to see it.
The second seizure was two years later, almost to the day. I came to in hospital, hooked up to a drip and shaking all over. Three weeks later I was due to leave the country with my boyfriend to move to Portugal. I’d sold all my furniture, left my flat and was staying with friends. We’d bought our tickets, and I’d quit my job. I couldn’t not go.
And still I carried on drinking. The day in Portugal when I discovered I was pregnant I got mortally drunk because the alcohol was my buffer against the outside world. It was my wonderful social lubricate, soldering broken hearts and lifting black moods. I bloody LOVED the stuff.
I refused to acknowledge a drinking problem and instead tried to find other ways to cope with my anxiety – CBT, Exposure Therapy, Aversion Therapy, St Johns Wort, Hypnotherapy, and tests, tests, tests. Test for Hormonal Imbalance, tests for Epilepsy, Thyroid and CAT scans.
When the results came back, all within the range of normal then I was able to shrug and say, “well, I tried.”
This is a photo of me which was taken three days after Frankie was born. I am barely recognisable as the woman holding the baby. I look doped up and abstract, as though someone has drawn a picture of me from a vague description.
I don't know how I got through those early days, shell shocked and stupid, staring at my new baby with a growing sense of distance and fear.
The weight of responsibility leant heavily on me like a formless black colossus, which fed the anxiety about getting things right. I became nervous about taking her out in public in case she started crying and I would be expected to stop her.
I hated the idea that other people were as resentful of the change in me as I was, so I stopped going out and seeing friends. Frankie was colicky, fussy and barely slept, and after the first year I began to hallucinate from lack of sleep.
We'd moved into a small flat just out of town and I became convinced it was haunted by the ghost of a lipless old man who resented our presence there. I would see things moving on my peripheral vision – mice scuttling across the floor, spiders in the corners of the rooms, curtains fluttering in an unfelt breeze – and it felt hostile and unwelcoming.
At it's worst, when I was laid low and feverish with an infection, I became convinced I was part of an elaborate plot to keep me subdued and turn my daughter against me. I genuinely wondered if drugs were being injected into my food.
My panic attacks increased in severity until it became easier not to leave the house to avoid having one. But of course all that did was perpetuate the fear and before I knew it I was short of breath just going to the corner shop. The idea of going into town left me shaken and timid. My fight or flight response was on a hair trigger, rendering me useless if I even had to answer the door.
Oh, how wonderful, right?
The day that it all caved in is still as raw and visceral as the day I went into labour. I woke up on that Saturday morning, bristling with anxiety, feeling the day stretch out before me in a long, silent scream.
As I showered the anxiety increased, blooming in my chest like a mushroom cloud. When I emerged I wiped the steam from the mirror and did not know who I was looking at.
I knew I had a history and a family, and I could remember these things, but I could not bring them together to form a coherent past. I was a ghost girl, here but not there, with eyes like blank and dusty marbles. I no longer knew who I was.
Naked and dripping wet I walked down the hallway and said to my boyfriend; “I am having a Nervous Breakdown” Then I sat on the bed feeling distant and weightless, only tethered to the earth by my lumpen body.
I knew I should call someone, but who? Isn't there a number for this situation? Aren't there people to deal with this kind of thing? In the end I called the Emergency GP who prescribed me some Valium and some Anti-Depressants. He said: “What took you so long?”
I was so against taking the drugs that I sat and looked at them for a few days, feeling hollow and wired. Eventually though, the thought of never getting better or enjoying my daughter seemed to spur me on, and I managed to take a pill. Then another. Then another.
There followed six or seven weeks of absolute bristling horror as the pills kicked in, exaggerating all my panic and fear into amplified, cartoonish terror. My boyfriend had to take two months unpaid leave in order to look after myself and my daughter, so great was my fear of losing control and hurting her.
He struggled to understand my preoccupation with the notion that I was capable of inflicting great pain, and I could see that he was worn out with the slow speed of my recovery. I lent heavily on him, unable to leave the house unaccompanied for months, without the solidity of his presence.
In the evenings I watched film after film, happy to just let my mind drift into someone else's world, where my problems didn't exist.
On good days I began to see my friends again, branching out slowly to the local café and the park, and trying to force myself to walk a little further out of my comfort zone everyday. One day I found myself laughing while playing hide and seek with Clint and Frankie and could recognise that slowly, slowly the tightness was unwinding.
Now, ten months later, I am finally ready to shed my skin.
I haven’t had a drink or a smoke since New Years Eve and have cut my caffeine levels right back. With all this sober time on my hands I've become productive, actively wanting to do things and go to places, and enjoying it when I got there. I’ve considered how I can make myself as well as I’m able to be, mentally and physically.
I feel a connection to my daughter that I can’t believe I am capable of. My thoughts feel anchored and harboured, not as though they are going to fly out of control and do me damage.
The medication gave me the impetus to start doing things again, and what a pleasant surprise it was to have an interest in things for the first time in over a decade. I tried Yoga and loved it, loved the feeling of untying my mental knots and stretching my poor, over stressed muscles.
I still find it hard to attend boozy parties or social occasions in pubs. I get twitchy with frustration at my inability to drink and I envy friends who can. But as time goes on that will change, as will I.
And often, when I look at Frankie, roaring about in the nude or shouting 'POO!' in a busy café I catch myself thinking; Oh, how wonderful you are.