A man who lost his mother when he was three spent almost 40 years having no idea how she died – until he placed an advert in his local newspaper.
Iain Cunningham, 44, of Nuneaton, only saw photographs of his late mum Irene for the first time when he was 18, but his father Don found it too painful to talk about her.
It was only when Iain became a father himself in his thirties that he decided to piece together the circumstances of his mother’s death and the person she was.
Through his advert and posters he pinned up in the local area, he connected with some of Irene’s closest friends, school classmates and ex-colleagues, relatives and former neighbours who helped him build a picture of the parent he lost when he was a toddler.
Iain Cunningham, 44, of Nuneaton, spent almost 40 years having no idea of how his mother died – until he placed an advert in his local newspaper. Pictured with his wife
He also gained access to her medical records, which showed she suffered from postpartum psychosis and bipolar disorder, and very possibly died of heart failure as a result of ‘toxic’ antipsychotic drugs.
Iain has since made a documentary about his journey entitled Irene’s Ghost, developed and produced with the support of the British Film Institute, which aired on Sky Documentaries earlier this week.
Don met Irene aged 18 at a dance at Coventry’s Locarno ballroom. The couple married in November 1973 and fell pregnant with Iain two years later.
‘Irene was very happy when she was pregnant,’ Don told the BBC. ‘We were both very happy.’
It was only when Iain became a father himself in his thirties that he decided to piece together the circumstances of his mother’s death when he was three, and the person she was. Pictured with Irene as a child
Don met Irene aged 18 at a dance at Coventry’s Locarno ballroom. The couple married in November 1973 and fell pregnant with Iain two years later
But soon after Iain was born in January 1976, Irene told her best friend she suffered from hallucinations while recovering in hospital after giving birth and struggled to sleep once she got home.
She also began writing odd notes and once told her mother: ‘I’m not Irene, you know, I’m Irene’s ghost.’
Her doctor diagnosed her with postnatal depression and Irene was sectioned and admitted to the psychiatric unit at the local hospital.
There she was sedated and underwent electroconvulsive therapy (ECT); shortly afterwards she went into a ‘catatonic stupor’.
Soon after Iain was born in January 1976, Irene told her best friend she suffered from hallucinations while recovering in hospital after giving birth and struggled to sleep once she got home. Pictured: Don with Iain as a child
When Irene came around, ‘devastated’ Don told how her personality had changed and she’d become paranoid and withdrawn.
‘It was a different world – doctors didn’t give you any information and you weren’t told what medication they were on or for what,’ Don told the BBC, adding that no one ever explained to him what a catatonic stupor was.
‘My life consisted of going to the hospital every night and just sitting next to someone who was completely uncommunicative.’
After nine months in hospital Irene was discharged and spent 18 months living back at home, during which Don said she was happy and took Iain on walks in the park and to meet friends.
But when Iain was a toddler she became manic, her insomnia returned and she was readmitted to hospital. Around three months later Don’s brother Tom called him at work to tell him Irene had died.
Iain connected with some of Irene’s closest friends (pictured left with Irene when she was alive and right now), school classmates and ex-colleagues, relatives and former neighbours who helped him build a picture of the parent he lost when he was a toddler
After identifying her body, Don, then 28, was told she’d died of heart failure but was never given a thorough explanation.
With his father’s life having ‘fallen apart’, Iain told how he battled nightmares about his mother dying throughout his childhood and was plagued by the feeling that he’d had something to do with her death.
Around a year after Irene died, Don met and later married Judith, who became like a mother to Iain, and over the years he lost touch with Irene’s family and friends.
When Iain turned 18, Don produced a box containing Irene’s belongings from the attic, which Iain described looking through as ‘like a religious experience’.
When Iain turned 18, Don produced a box containing Irene’s belongings (pictured), which Iain described looking through as ‘like a religious experience’
‘It was very powerful – it was the first time I’d seen photographs of her, the first time I’d seen anything,’ he told the BBC.
He came across his baby book, filled with little other than his date of birth and the colour of his eye, and told how it felt like the pages of an ‘untold story’.
When his daughter turned three – the age he was when Irene died – Iain found himself wondering more and more about what had happened to her, and the impact it had on him.
‘I wanted to amplify her a bit and celebrate her as a person – but first I needed to find out who she was, I really didn’t know anything about her,’ he explained.
When Iain’s daughter turned three – the age he was when Irene died – he found himself wondering more and more about what had happened to her, and the impact it had on him. Pictured with his wife and children now
Having avoided talking about Irene for nearly four decades, Iain and Don (pictured together) are now more open and have a greater understanding of each other
After connecting with Irene’s nearest and dearest through his advert, Iain told how their photographs and memories of his mother helped him realise the ‘young, vibrant, colourful and fun person’ she really was – and how much he’d meant to her.
Having avoided talking about Irene for nearly four decades, Iain and Don are now more open and have a greater understanding of each other.
Don added that he too is relieved to have a better understanding of why he lost his wife.
What is postpartum psychosis?
Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental health illness that can cause new mothers to experience hallucinations and delusions.
It affects around one-to-two in every 1,000 births, according to Postpartum Support International.
PP is different from the ‘baby blues’, which many mothers experience while they struggle to cope with the stress and hormonal changes that come with having children.
It is also different from postnatal depression, which affects one in 10 women to some extent. This can cause feelings of helplessness, as well as a loss of interest in the baby and crying frequently.
PP’s symptoms usually start within the first two weeks. Some include:
- Manic mood
- Loss of inhibitions
- Feeling paranoid or afraid
- Acting out of character
Its cause is unclear. Women are thought to be more at risk if they have:
- A family history of mental illness, particularly PP
- Bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
- A traumatic birth or pregnancy
- Suffered from PP in the past
Ideally, patients should be put on a specialist psychiatric unit, called a mother and baby unit (MBU), where they can still be with their child. They may be admitted to a general psychiatric ward until a MBU becomes available.
Antidepressants may be prescribed to ease symptoms, as well as anti-psychotics and mood stabilisers, like lithium.
Psychological therapy, like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), may help patients manage how they think and act.
In rare cases, electroconvulsive therapy can help with severe depression or mania.
Most women with PP make a full recovery if treated correctly.
Severe symptoms tend to last between two and 12 weeks. However, it can take a year or more for women to recover.
A PP episode can be followed by a period of depression, anxiety and low confidence. Some women then struggle to bond with their baby or feel like they missed out.
These feelings can usually be overcome with the help of a mental health support team.
Around half of women who have PP suffer again in future pregnancies. Those who are at high risk should receive specialist care from a psychiatrist while they are expecting.