• Jessica Purchall suffered from severe body image issues during pregnancy and PTSD after the birth of her first child

  • Here she shares how EMDR therapy helped her recover

  • We have therapists and counsellors who specialise in working with pre- and post-natal mental health – find yours here

In 2018 I found out I was pregnant with my first child. It felt like as soon I saw those two lines on the stick, a wave of anxiety flooded me. I had lived with mental health issues my entire life, but what I experienced in pregnancy and as a new mother floored me.

Perinatal mental health

As my body changed and expanded, body dysmorphia began to creep in. I would look in the mirror and see a stranger looking back at me.

I felt ashamed of my changing body. I didn’t feel glowing. I wore clothes that were comfortable but didn’t express my style. I just wanted to hide my bump and hibernate until my daughter arrived.

I couldn’t find joy in looking in the mirror at all. I didn’t take many photos with my bump, and I regret this so much now. I so desperately wish I had taken bump progress photos. I think I have four photos of my bump. I only managed those four photos in nine months because of the deep shame I held for my growing body.

I also lived in constant fear that something was going to happen to her. Every day of the later part of my pregnancy I studied her movements all day to watch out for her not moving enough. There were certain points of my pregnancy that I was actively preparing myself for her to die so that I wasn’t surprised if it happened. I’d reach the end of the day and I’d feel so exhausted from the continual stress and anxiety all day long.

I was the first person in my friendship group to have a baby too, so I felt incredibly lonely at times. The closest friendship I had broke down when I announced my pregnancy. An important person in my support group turned her back on me, due to how she felt about the tiny human growing inside of me. I so desperately wanted her to be excited to become an “auntie” but was met with the opposite. It completely devastated me.

My postnatal experience

Venturing into new motherhood is completely overwhelming. The sleepless nights and hormonal changes are a cocktail for lots of tears and sadness. Having a two hour stretch of sleep and a shower became luxuries.

Where my skin had stretched and expanded it left behind a soft marked belly. The shame I felt in pregnancy unfortunately didn’t disappear with my bump. I was so adamant I wanted to wear my pre-baby clothes I wore jeans three days after birth. Jeans! I was so sore afterwards and could not face wearing jeans for a long time after.

My daughter’s birth was also traumatic for me. I lost a lot of blood and suffered a second degree tear. I was in a lot of pain for weeks which was something I was not prepared for.

I am not a squeamish person, but I struggled with watching any sort of medical programmes on TV afterwards. I would experience flashbacks to the sight of blood all over the room I gave birth in. That’s when I caught on that the issues I was facing ran deeper than just “baby blues”.

When you’re pregnant or a new parent, having a strong support network is so important. They say that “it takes a village to raise a child”. Well, the village I needed for support shrunk once my daughter had arrived. Friends visited when she was a newborn then disappeared for months. It felt like the excitement of a friend having a baby was short-lived.

I would watch other new mums on social media show off meals their friends had dropped round for them or friends coming round to help with baby whilst mum napped. It really made me reflect on myself and wonder what is so wrong with me that I didn’t receive this help. My self-worth reached rock bottom at this point.

I’ve always experienced some degree of social anxiety, but it really impacted me as a new mother. I couldn’t face going to baby groups out of fear of no one speaking to me. When my daughter was five months old I plucked up the courage to go to a breastfeeding group. I felt this was a safe space to try to join, and thankfully was welcomed with open arms.

My recovery journey

I reached out to my local mental health team when my daughter was about four months old. I was assigned a therapist quickly (because I had a child under one) and began sessions focusing on body dysmorphia.

After a few sessions, my therapist got the feeling the current therapy wasn’t hitting the right notes. She ran through some standard questions with me which screened for post traumatic stress disorder. I scored high on this questionnaire, suggesting I was experiencing PTSD.

To treat this she suggested EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) therapy. In these therapy sessions a pole with a moving light on is used. As the light moves from left to right, your eyes follow it. The eye movements are designed to mimic rapid eye movement sleep, helping your brain to process and heal from the traumatic memories.

Although this form of therapy felt strange, I left sessions feeling empowered. Painful memories and thoughts began to feel lighter. It was like I began to find peace again.

After 12 sessions I was discharged from my therapist. I cried in my last session with her because I just felt so grateful for her help to lift the huge weight I was carrying off of my shoulders.

I am not immune to bad mental health days. But I am powered with the knowledge that it is normal and that it is temporary. Brighter days will always come.

My daughter is now two and a half years old. I am able to look at myself and feel proud of the stripes across my stomach. I find beauty in my body which grew and nourished my daughter. I can cope with my day-to-day life without feeling overwhelmed and panicky. And most importantly I can watch Grey’s Anatomy again!

Jessica Purchall lives in a seaside town in Devon with her husband, daughter and dog, and running her business 

Further reading

Birth trauma: new mothers with PTSD

7 self-care tips to manage the intensity of being a new mother

Maternal isolation: it takes a village to support a mother

EMDR therapy transformed my life

One sessions of EMDR helped me overcome trauma and flashbacks