Running, Mental Health & Me: Alice’s Story

As part of our series on Maternal Mental Health Awareness, we’re sharing five incredible stories from Mums in our community, who have battled with perinatal mental health issues. Each of these amazing ladies has bravely agreed to make their story known, in the hope that it might encourage someone suffering the same symptoms to speak up, seek help, or even just get the headspace that they need to process how they feel and what’s going on.

Alice Tanaka runs with our Wandsworth mums.  When her son was born at 28 weeks, Alice’s world was turned upside down and she was faced with an entirely different experience of becoming a mum from the one she had imagined. She shares her story, and explains that it’s never too late to seek professional help.

My first (and only) son was was suddenly born 28 weeks and 4 days into my pregnancy, with only stomach cramps as a warning sign. He weighed under 3 lbs. As there had been no complications for me during the birth, I was discharged from the hospital after 3 days.

Leaving the hospital, no longer pregnant, without a baby, on the day my milk came in, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My son had all the usual issues for a premature baby born at his gestation, chronic lung damage, jaundice, brain bleeds, a PDA (hole in the heart that usually closes soon after birth – his didn’t) and obviously, he was just so small.

He also had other complications: a chemical burn from a procedure that went wrong and he got sepsis. The scariest part was when our son frequently forgot to breathe and his heart rate would drop to dangerously low levels (again, a common issue for premature babies). This set off all the alarms on his incubator with nurses and doctors rushing over to wake him up. Luckily, my son grew well and with that he grew out of many of his issues from being premature. He came home, on oxygen, just before his due date.

I hadn’t realised at that time, the emotional strain of visiting him everyday for 12 weeks, most times wondering if he was still breathing.

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During the time my son was in hospital, I was incredibly anxious and stressed all the time. I also thought I was to blame; I mean, it was my body that had pushed my son out too early. I felt guilty that I’d ruined my husband’s first experience of becoming a dad, that he had to get used to his new role under the watchful eyes of nurses and doctors. So I stopped talking to my husband about how I really felt.

I also just felt so angry. Angry that we weren’t able to have the “normal” first time experience most parents do. I didn’t feel able to connect with other mums. We had missed meeting new parents at NCT class as my son came before our classes started. Once my son was home, we couldn’t go to playgroups as he was at a high risk of infection and then when that passed, I found it hard to pick up where we should have been.

After my son’s first birthday, I couldn’t understand why I still didn’t feel better. My son had grown to a normal size for his age, was hitting regular milestones and didn’t seem to have any lasting damage from being premature. But, I was still so anxious all the time and I couldn’t relax. For a long time, I thought maybe this was how I was a mother, that all mums get anxious about their children.

When I went back to work, the additional stress of a project I was working on just pushed me too far. I cried everyday in the toilets at work, I was drinking every night at home, I wasn’t running.

I tried to hide this all under a smile that I was doing fine and loving being a mum! But, the thing that made me get help was my anger. I had never felt so much rage before. I finally called an anonymous advice line at work and then went to my GP. I felt a massive relief just to admit how I was feeling, as I was exhausted from trying to hide it from everyone.

The GP diagnosed PTSD, anxiety and depression and I received 12 weeks of CBT therapy. The therapy was amazing. Talking to a stranger allowed me to be completely honest about how I felt as I didn’t need to be concerned with their feelings. I finally voiced some of my darker memories from my son being in NICU. I realised that although the trauma was over, I will still living in that state. The therapist also helped me identify a negative pattern of behaviour I often get stuck in and we worked on things I could do to break the cycle.

Around the time I was getting therapy, TMR started in Wandsworth. I had run a lot before I got pregnant and knew running made me happy, but it was so hard to start again. However, I found TMR so inclusive. I am a slow runner and I think back then, as I was still building up my fitness, I was even slower.

At TMR someone would usually hang back and run with me and the loops meant I never felt like I was too far behind the speedy runners. The Sunday runs and wanting to meet up with everyone motivated me to go for a few runs in the week. I loved finally being part of a “mum” group too. As the mums all had children of very different ages, I didn’t feel the same pressure as other mum groups where it can descend into a competition about what your child can/can’t do.

Before I got pregnant I ran to lose weight, now I realise, I run for my mental health. Running with a lovely bunch of people on a Sunday is even better for my mental health! I now notice such a difference to my mood, my outlook and my energy when I’ve been for run outside.

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