Nicola Knight, Head of Communications and Campaigns at Redwings Horse Sanctuary, has shared her experience of Postpartum Psychosis in a new book, Will You Read This, Please?, edited by Dr Joanna Cannon. Here, Nicola explains how telling her story to author Jenn Ashworth was a profoundly healing experience
I live in Harleston, South Norfolk with my husband and young daughter and I am Head of Communications and Campaigns for Redwings, the UK’s largest horse charity. In my spare time I serve on the Trustee board for Hope Church in Diss and I’m a Chartered PR Practitioner and just started serving on the CIPR East Anglia Regional Committee. When I’m not working or volunteering or being a mummy, of course, I love walking, eating out, listening to music and watching movies or sport but my dearest love has always been creative writing and all things book related.
My career has been varied, but I’ve been very fortunate to always be able to do something that makes my heart sing! Usually involving writing in some form or another… After completing a degree at Nottingham University, I did an MA in Journalism at Nottingham Trent and my first role was as Editorial Assistant at Eastern Counties Newspapers in Ipswich (now Archant),working on football paper the Green ‘Un. It was a dream time to be part of it all, being just around the time that Ipswich Town got promotion to the Premiership in 2000, so I had the opportunity to interview a number of pretty high-profile players. I worked my way up to a role as Deputy Editor of the Green ‘Un and was one of the first women to work on the Evening Star sports desk. After a couple of years there, I took a role as an Area Sales Manager for Lion Publishing (now Lion Hudson)where I was responsible for sales and marketing for their books across the East and South East of England from Peterborough down through London and to the South Coast, a job I really enjoyed, although I must admit I don’t know if working in sales was ever really my forte!
After a while I began to look for something a bit closer to home. I love horses and have been riding since I was five years old, so when Redwings Horse Sanctuary opened a centre in Suffolk, I knew that’s where I wanted to be.
I worked for a while caring for the horses before moving into their Head Office in Norfolk as an information officer, then press officer, and now heading up their communications and campaigns team. It’s a wonderful place to work and so mindful of employee health and wellbeing.
I’ve never had any history of mental health issues and, when I fell pregnant six years ago, I was so fortunate that it all went incredibly smoothly. There were no issues really at all until I went past my due date. At first that wasn’t really a concern either but a couple of weeks later when baby still hadn’t shown any signs of making an appearance, I was taken into hospital and had several treatments over the course of a few days to try and bring on labour. Nothing worked, and eventually the doctors made the decision to give me a C Section. By then I’d gone a good few days without getting much sleep on the ward, and had had a cocktail of hormones pumped into my body and although my daughter was born happy and healthy, it very quickly became clear that I was not. I was, by turns, very tearful, then frantic, then confused, and after a couple of days I think it’s fair to say I wasn’t myself at all.
I was becoming ill with a condition called Postpartum Psychosis, a rare mental illness that can affect around 1 in 1000 women after childbirth. It’s not the same as postnatal depression and has very severe symptoms that can include hallucinations, delusions, racing thoughts, extreme anxiety and being completely unable to sleep. It is a medical emergency and can be very frightening not just for those going through it but also for their family and friends. Thankfully, as in my case, you can make a full recovery although most women need medical and psychiatric support to do so.
Dr Joanna Cannon is an amazing fiction writer but she’s also a trained psychiatrist and she famously wrote her first novel ‘The Trouble with Goats and Sheep’ while she was still working as a junior doctor, sitting in her car during her lunch breaks. I’ve always been a fan of her work but towards the end of 2021 saw on Twitter that she was doing a call out for individuals who had lived experience of mental illness. Her idea was to produce a book where real, ordinary people like me could have their stories told by a professional author – the idea being to find those untold stories and bring them into the light, hopefully to help others who might be going through the same thing.
To be selected you had to write a short submission for the publishers – The Borough Press, an imprint of HarperCollins – so I wrote a few paragraphs, sent it off, and didn’t think much more about it. I didn’t really dare hope I might be chosen, but a couple of months later I had a message from an editor there to say that they wanted to have a chat with me on the phone – little did I know it would be Joanna in person! She rang and asked me a few questions, and then she told me that the editorial panel had loved my submission, and that she had an author in mind who had been through a similar postnatal experience. That author was an incredible writer called Jenn Ashworth, and over the next year or so we worked together over a number of video calls (Jenn lives and works in the Northwest of England) to work out the best way to tell the story of what had happened to me.
As well as being an extraordinary writer, Jenn is one of the most generous, kind people I’ve ever met. This was the first time I’d even attempted to explore the timeline of what happened to me in any kind of a coherent way, and she was incredibly patient with me, helping me tease out many of the details I’d forgotten or that might be uncomfortable to think about – which much of it was, to be honest – in a gentle way. I can’t express how profoundly healing it has been to go through this process, and to discuss it with a person who really understood.
I think she’s done an incredible job with the material, and I can’t wait to see the book in print! I honestly feel so honoured and thankful to have had such an amazing opportunity and even more so that I got to work with Jenn and the brilliant team at HarperCollins who have been so supportive throughout.
I never even knew this terrifying condition existed and the more I researched it and read about it during my recovery, the more I knew I wanted to share my story to help other mums and their partners, not only those who have already been through a similar experience, although that’s so important of course, but also to try and raise awareness for anyone who might start experiencing these symptoms after they’ve had a baby and find themselves wondering what the hell is wrong with them or whether they’ll ever recover.
Action for Postpartum Psychosis is an amazing charity which works tirelessly to raise awareness of the illness – they campaign for more perinatal mental health support such as vital mother and baby unit provision across the UK, and they run peer support networks online and in-person to offer support for those going through it or in recovery. I am sure they could have helped me so much in the early days, but I only came across them once I was on the way to recovery. However, one of their ambassadors is children’s author Laura Dockrill, who wrote the memoir ‘What Have I Done?’ about her own experience of PPP. I devoured this book when it came out a couple of years ago and although it’s a difficult read in places, it gave me an extraordinary sense of relief – if that doesn’t sound strange – to find that someone else had felt like I did. After I read that book, I went straight to the APP social channels and their expertise and kindness over the last 18 months have been incredibly helpful to me.
PPP is not something you get over quickly and although I’m no longer under NHS treatment I’ve been having private therapy over the last couple of years to try and process what happened now I have some distance on it. One of the things we identified was that after my illness I had very little left in my life that was just for myself or that gave my joy – apart from my husband and daughter that is!
My dream has always been to be a novelist – ever since I was tiny really – but this has been on hold for such a long time. So, in the spirit of doing something ‘for me’ I decided to go back to the writing –just for fun – and in the spring of 2021 on a complete whim I entered a competition with Penguin Michael Joseph where you had to write a pitch and the first 1,000 words of a ‘Christmas Love Story’.
I wrote something overnight and sent it off, and somehow made it through to the next round! That reignited a tiny spark in me, just that little vote of confidence that someone out there might like my writing, and from there I resolved that whatever happened, I was going to finish that book. It became a personal challenge and two years later my romantic comedy ‘The Ballad of Felicity Brooks’ is finished and may even make it into print one of these days – watch this space!
Published or no, it’s been the process of writing that has been so much fun – I’ve loved losing myself in the characters – and I swear it’s helped me get some joy back into my life.
At the same time, inspired by some of the incredible memoirs I’ve read during my recovery, I started a work of fiction based on my own experiences. Somehow, I wanted to find a way to bring this dark experience into the light and break down some of those lingering taboos about mental health. The book that has emerged is called ‘No Psychosis Please, We’re British’ and an early draft was longlisted in the prestigious Mslexia Novel Prize last year. Whether that one ever gets published remains to be seen, it’s still a work in progress, but again just the process of writing it has been so precious.
Featured images supplied by Nicola Knight