This blog continues to evolve. When I started this blog, I did not plan to share my journey through postpartum psychosis. Keeping my love of children’s literature and my advocacy about postpartum mood disorders separated.
However, circumstances changed these past few weeks. I feel compelled to share my experience. First, we received a book titled, Sure Signs of Crazy by Karen Harrington. I’ve only read a few chapters; but it didn’t take me long to realize the main character’s mother suffered postpartum psychosis. As soon as it was revealed Sarah was a twin, her brother died as an infant and her mother was a patient at a mental hospital, I knew. Next, at least two women lost their lives to postpartum psychosis since I’ve started reading this book. One took her life. The other was shot. While I am not a doctor, I know this disease takes over your life, your thoughts. It leaves you scared, paranoid and often convinces you the only way to keep your child safe is to die.
A little over a year ago I was interviewed by Liisa Ogburn for her project, “How Motherhood Changes Us.” As her bio states, she is “a mother, daughter, wife, neighbor, community member, friend and adjunct professor at Duke University.” She’s also a survivor of postpartum psychosis. Liisa took my words and created a masterpiece describing my dark journey.
“I’m almost 40 years old. My daughter just turned six.
My daughter was very planned. We’d been married for a year. I got pregnant pretty quickly and we were very excited.
Her birth was an 8-5 job. When I woke up around 6:30 am, my water broke. We got to the hospital at 8 am. It was a pretty easy birth. I don’t remember a whole lot of it.
Before she was born, I fully anticipated a middle class life of staying at home while she was young, maybe teaching preschool half a day and being involved in my children’s school. We were going to have two kids, though not the dog and cat since I was allergic, but my life has taken a different course. I’m a single mom now working full time and doing the best I can.
In the hospital, not long after I had my daughter, I passed out. I woke up a different person. I woke up very anxious. I didn’t know where I was… for a second, I thought I had died. As I was being discharged, I started having an anxiety attack while my husband was getting the car. The nurse told me I needed to get over it because I had a baby to take care of.
I had intended to be the breastfeeding, cloth-diapering mom. To make my own baby food. But I wasn’t producing enough milk. I became more and more anxious. I was not sleeping well so my anxiety started fueling scary thoughts. At first I was scared I was going to drop my baby. Then I would see a target bag and I became afraid I might put her in there. I found a support group for moms who were experiencing postpartum depression (PPD).
I asked my OB for help about two weeks after delivering. She sent me to a retired psychiatrist who had experience with postpartum depression, but he was an hour away and didn’t take insurance.
About six weeks after I delivered, I became desperate. My mother had passed away eleven years earlier. I called my brother. His wife was completing her medical training. They immediately came over and wanted to take me to Holly Hill, a private psychiatric facility, but I had had some physical issues…so I was taken to UNC, where they put me on the eating disorders unit.
Postpartum depression… it seems the wrong term. So many women have anxiety that just builds and prevents them from sleeping. When people are not sleeping, they can become psychotic. People think psychotic is, you know, criminal. It’s actually seeing or hearing things that are not there, which is pretty common when you’re really sleep deprived. I was hearing things like my baby’s cry. I was put on Ambien to help me sleep, but it made me want to kill myself.
I was hospitalized five times. Before I was discharged the first time, I was told I needed to find a therapist, so I searched for one online who was close to home and took my insurance. The one I found…She didn’t know much about PPD at all. I met with her, but I was still not doing well. I was scared.
On the morning I was supposed to see my General Practitioner for follow-up on an infection, I woke up and couldn’t drive. My neighbor brought me to the appointment and by the time the doctor came in, I was on the floor crying uncontrollably. The doctor asked my friend to take me to Holly Hill, which is a private hospital in Raleigh and she did. She called my husband and he said “OK. I’ll pick her up from there.” My neighbor said, “I don’t think she’s coming home today.”
I was there several weeks, all the way through Christmas. They merged the substance abuse and crisis wards over the holidays, so I spent Christmas Eve in an AA meeting. On Christmas morning, my daughter was able to visit for ten minutes.
After I was discharged a second time, I continued to get worse and worse. A couple of weeks later, I tried to kill myself. I was found in the hotel room. Luckily I didn’t know that if you take tons of pills, you would throw them up. All I knew was that it was the first time I’d slept in months. I remember hearing banging on the hotel door. The police and EMT workers came in. As they were putting me in the ambulance, I remember seeing snow on the ground and that’s the last thing I can remember for a long time.
At the hospital, one of the psychiatrists felt like I would benefit from Electro Convulsive Therapy (ECT). My friends and family said they came to visit me and I would just lay there catatonic, not talking. That it was just not me. They do various placements of the electrodes during ECT. They’re always trying to get the right placement. After awhile, they sent me home and my husband took me back to the hospital within 24 hours. They decided to do a different placement called modified bilateral and it worked wonders.
I finally started to feel better. I got connected with an expert on PPD. We changed my medication and continued the ECT. There was just a feeling of enormous relief. It was spring. It had been almost six months since I gave birth.
What have I learned about myself through all of this? I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I ever thought I was [laughing]. I’ve learned what I value. I’ve learned that I’m a very good mother. My daughter has no memory of me not being there when she was very young. I made sure there were people there who loved her and took care of her. Being a mother and these experiences have made me a deeply compassionate person. You meet a variety of people when working in a library, some who struggle with mental illness. I feel comfortable being with them and answering their questions in a way others don’t.
When I was in the hospital, I received a letter from a woman in Seattle who I’d known years ago and she shared her story of PPD… of how she would just hide in her closet and cry. I received a letter from a girl I knew growing up. The effect of their sharing their stories made me realize that I needed to share my own.
Initially, when I started feeling more like my old self, I was angry that I didn’t get the right help in the beginning, but I’ve chosen to use that anger to work towards change for others. I’m proud to say that the hospital I first went to now has an in-patient unit specifically for mothers and it’s beautiful. I would have recovered much more quickly had I been treated there. I might even still be married.
How am I different now? I’m a lot calmer. I worry less. I try to focus on where we are now and not worry about what’s going to happen in middle school or how we are going to pay for college. My daughter spends half her time with her dad and half her time with me. I try to make sure that it’s quality time, that we’re not on the go all the time.
I never thought I would be a working mom, much less a single mom. I lived a pretty charmed life. But now I am working and single. Maybe I’m a better mom? My daughter is very proud of me and my job. But at the same time, work is not my top priority.
Advice for first time mothers? Reach out for help. Put into place a support system for the first couple of months because it’s very difficult. If you do not have a mother… my mother passed away 11 years ago today, it will be an even harder experience.
Anything else? I’m just thankful to be alive and to get to enjoy my daughter.”
Sorry for the emotionally wrenching tone of the past two posts. Tomorrow, I promise a lighter tone.
As for Sure Signs of Crazy, I can’t give you my opinion on it yet. I fully intend to finish it, but it will probably take me awhile. It’s hard to read about an adolescent girl who essentially lost her mother to postpartum psychosis. That was almost ML.
If you know a mom who is just not the same after the birth of her child, whether it be depression, anxiety, or inability to sleep; HELP HER GET HELP. Postpartum Support International’s website, http://www.postpartum.net/ provides straight, honest information and links to places sufferers can receive care throughout the world.
It took me four years to admit I suffered Postpartum Psychosis. I told people I suffered Postpartum Depression. People are more knowledgeable about depression and it’s not as scary of a word.
IF YOU ARE SCARED SOMEONE YOU KNOW IS SUFFERING POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS GET THEM MEDICAL HELP IMMEDIATELY!