Manic Mummy – my descent into postpartum psychosis

So, why am I here writing my first ever blog post? The crux of it is that 10 years ago I suffered from postpartum psychosis, then 6 years ago I suffered from postnatal depression, and until recently I haven’t shared my experiences as widely and honestly as I could have done. Sure, I’ve sometimes spoken about it to certain friends and family who have a good understanding of such things, but I’ve totally avoided the topic with many others. I occasionally tell my story at training days for professionals, but mostly in my day-to-day home and work life I’ve buried that part of my history, and tried to move on in a kind of semi-denial that it really happened to me. It’s mainly been a self stigmatization thing. The article here explains that phenomenon in a better way than I can: http://goo.gl/TWREyQ It’s also decidedly painful, and sometimes embarassing, to relive some parts of my experience, and I haven’t always felt strong enough to face it. But a few months ago, due to some reactions I got when I told my story, I felt compelled to do it more. I hope that by being open and honest I can contribute to tackling stigma, improving understanding, and offering hope to others. More selfishly I’ve also finally realised that facing the memories and truths that I’ve avoided hold the key to me regaining a fully intact self esteem, and saying a final goodbye to the guilt, shame and self blame that still impact on me. In early 2004 I was a happy expectant mother, looking forward to having a paid 6 months off my career to look after my first baby. Oh how naive I was, as I joyfully engaged in baby showers, and read all the books and magazines about how wonderful new motherhood would be for me! I’d followed all the guidance on how to prepare, and through my rose tinted spectacles I imagined I’d cope just fine because I’d planned for baby’s arrival with great precision – an approach that had pulled me pretty successfully through most of life’s challenges up until then. But the moment my baby boy was born my dreams of how it would be came crashing down. In fact, it started during the birth itself. Whilst I didn’t suffer what would be called a traumatic or medically risky labour I felt totally horrified and overwhelmed by the pain, the indignity and the lack of control I felt over my body. When the worst of that was over and my baby was handed to me I didn’t experience the rush of love I was expecting, I just felt panic that despite my tiredness, my pain and the gorey mess all around me I still had to take responsibility for this tiny pink creature. At that moment I just wanted him taken away for a while, so I could rest until I felt more ready to cope. But I knew that wasn’t what I ought to say, I knew that skin to skin contact and early breastfeeding were really important, and I wanted to get my dream back on track, so I held him and tried to do what the books had recommended. That was huge disappointment number two – he couldn’t feed and I really resented myself for that perceived failure to get him off to the best start. Thus followed an exhausting 3 days and nights in a maternity ward, trying repeatedly to get him to breastfeed with very little support from the staff. As for sleep, it totally eluded me that first night after I’d arrived on the ward at 2am, and with the hustle of the daily ward routines and trying to feed during the night there was little opportunity to properly rest as the days went on. I’d never been so exhausted in my life, I was feeling increasingly emotional and desperately craved sleep. I desperately wanted to get home to my own bed, but they wouldn’t let me go until feeding was established. Ultimately I got myself discharged by saying I’d bottle feed instead, but I was secretly determined to carry on trying to breastfeed as soon as I got home, because I was not prepared to accept failing at that, and because despite not having an intense emotional bond I still felt protective towards my son, and responsible for his future health. I don’t know at which point I started to go mad. Maybe it was in the hospital when I had a shower and I was so convinced I heard my baby crying that I opened the door and checked 3 times, only to find him lying fast asleep? Was that an auditory hallucination or just tiredness combined with parental protectiveness? Was my inability to sleep in the hospital a cause or a symptom of the upcoming mania which I would experience? And when we welcomed far too may visitors into our home in the early days did the continuing lack of rest send me manic, or was I inviting them all because I was already losing a grip on what my priorities should have been? What I do know is that during the first 2 or 3 weeks of my son’s life my emotions and behavior became increasingly unlike my usual self, and my family and friends got more and more worried about me. At first I was concerned myself, mainly about tiredness. I desperately craved sleep, and I was tearful and panicky every time sleep eluded me, due to either my increasingly active mind, or to feeding issues (I was still trying to breastfeed, with very little improvement and a very hungry baby.) Then came the hallucinations where I would see my baby’s head on my husband and on passers by, in place of their own faces. These bizarre experiences distressed and confused me but I assumed them to be products of sleep deprivation combined with normal motherly obsessions with her own baby, so I didn’t  mention them to anybody. At some point I stopped being worried about lack of sleep, I was in such a manic state that all I experienced was unadulterated happiness. I believed that people who were concerned about me just couldn’t recognise that becoming a mother had changed me for the better into a totally positive and carefree person. As my grip on reality loosened I developed false beliefs that we were financially very well off, and I started spending money that we didn’t have. As I was totally unable to sleep by then I’d wait until my husband slept and then sit up all night on the internet, ordering things and booking holidays we could never have taken with a tiny baby. I was very argumentative with friends or family who questioned my beliefs, I felt hugely frustrated that they couldn’t see things the way I could and couldn’t understand why they wanted to cause me distress by questioning things I said. I’ve since been told that as I’m fairly financially savvy in “real life” my arguments sometimes made a lot of sense. Some friends even began to wonder if perhaps I was actually still sane and had just done some very clever sums about our finances! Of course I’d actually done some very wrong sums, which would ultimately leave us with about three thousand pounds of debts to repay. So, what was happening to my baby boy at this time? Well, I was looking after his daily physical needs – nappy changes, baths, feeds, breastfeeding even slightly improved and I introduced some bottles too. But I wasn’t “with him” emotionally, and much of the breastfeeding was done with him perched on my lap whilst I made lists or surfed the web for things to buy. Instead of being focused on getting to know him and spending quality time to bond I was treating him as a set of chores that needed doing, that were interrupting all the other irrelevant planning and spending activities that were occupying my mind. All that manic-ness came to an end the day that a team of professionals knocked on my front door to assess me for sectioning under the mental health act. In the background, largely un-noticed by me, my husband and family had been trying to get help. What I haven’t mentioned until now is that I’m a mental health professional myself. So when that team knocked on the door I recognised some of them and for one mad moment I thought they’d just called socially to visit me and my new baby! But as the assessment commenced I gained a panicked insight into the situation I was finding myself in. Frankly I was terrified, and I gave serious consideration to trying to leg it over our garden fence. Instead I managed to resurrect from my addled brain enough professional knowledge of the mental health act to say the right things to stop them sectioning me, and they agreed to me receiving treatment and support in my own home. So on that day I got heavily sedated by medication, and my recovery, of sorts, began. What I didn’t understand then, but know now, is that I was suffering with postpartum psychosis, a rare mental illness that only affects approx 1 in 500 new mums. You can find out more about the condition here: http://www.app-network.org/ In my next blog I’ll talk about how stigma affected my engagement with the ongoing treatment that I needed, how I relapsed into depression, and the difference it made when I finally got access to a specialist perinatal mental health team.

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16 Responses to Manic Mummy – my descent into postpartum psychosis

  1. evecanavan says:

    I love it.you describe your experience so well.more please X

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very well written and describes the spiralling down brilliantly!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. DrAndyMayers says:

    This is so powerful. Thank you for sharing this very personal story. Please write more. It will be so helpful for other women experiencing similar problems

    Like

  4. Helen says:

    Incredibly well written and full of resonance.

    Like

  5. CardTherapy says:

    I feel you, I hear you! Good for you for recognising the next stage for you is to forgive yourself and let go of your shame. It will help you immensely and at the same time help reduce the stigma and sense of shame for others too. Looking forward to reading more of your insights xxx

    Like

  6. Alyson says:

    Thank you for writing this. As a health visitor in a previous part of my career ( I work in patient experience now) I cared for two mothers who developed psychosis. I think the saddest thing for me was the long term impact once the acute stage had passed as the women felt as if they had let their baby and family down and were also very fearful of having a relapse. It really needs to be talked about more and researched .Take care and keep on writing.

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    • Thanks for your comments Alyson. Yes, recovery from that guilt has been a long process. Biggest fear of relapse came with having another baby as its 50% risk of repeat. I’ll blog about that soon.

      Like

  7. Alison P says:

    Thank you for sharing your story Tracey, you describe your experience so vividly . You are a great inspiration and offer hope to many women.

    Like

  8. Kate says:

    Thank you for sharing your story – it is so important to speak up about this issue. We lost a very dear friend to this illness earlier this year and it is very important that we speak up about it so women may feel less isolated and ashamed. This illness can be deadly and no-one is immune. You are very brave for sharing your story. Thank you.

    Like

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