Home > Health > Mind > Real Life: Postpartum Psychosis

Postpartum psychosis is an illness I’d never heard of until just over a year ago. Now, I’m writing this to share my experience of that illness with other women, in the hope they won’t feel as lost as I did should those two words come crashing into their lives.

I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis after the arrival of our beautiful daughter Arietta. I’d felt fine throughout pregnancy – as fine as anyone does when they’re dealing with huge changes to their body and in their life – and was excited about the coming arrival of our baby girl.

The birth, though not easy, was a wonderful experience, but by then I was desperate to escape the hospital environment and get some rest. The sleepless nights I’d struggled with towards the end of my pregnancy got worse in the days leading to her arrival. In the end I must have managed about 10 hours in the final three days.

From the start, life as a mother wasn’t as I expected it to be. I’d heard so much about SIDS while I was pregnant that I would lie in bed wide awake, watching her breath and repeatedly touching her to make sure she was alive. I would look at my husband lying beside me, wondering how he could sleep so peacefully while I was worrying about Arietta. It got worse. I panicked about little things, which felt huge at the time. I didn’t want my husband to go back to work and leave me alone with my daughter, feeling I wasn’t responsible enough to take care of her. I told myself the feelings would soon go but they only got worse. I would lie there thinking that if I died, all of this would be over. But how could I leave my husband, daughter and dog behind? Perhaps I should kill all of us, I panicked. I wanted us to be together but not in this life, not with this mind.

My manic thoughts could take me from cloud nine to a place that was so dark and lonely I would stare at the wall in a haze. I went to the doctor to talk about my concerns and was told it could be the ‘baby blues’ or postnatal depression. Then one night during the first week of Arietta’s life I had a panic attack that was so terrifying I thought I was dying and begged my husband to call an ambulance. The endless nights of staying awake to watch my baby breathe had taken their toll. It was just too much.

Soon after that, a midwife brought me the results from a urine test I’d had while I was in hospital. I was told I was a carrier of Group B Strep. It’s a normal bacterium carried by up to a third of adults, most commonly in the gut and (for up to 25% of women) in the vagina, usually with no symptoms or side-effects. It’s not sexually transmitted but in rare cases it can be passed on to your child, causing serious complications.

Learning this did not help my state of mind. That night I carried out my usual routine of watching Arietta sleep in her Moses basket for hours. When she didn’t stir for her bottle I woke her myself. She seemed hot and floppy, so in a state of panic I woke my husband too and told him that she must have an infection. We rushed to A&E where we waited for hours before being sent to the children’s ward for tests. By that point I was convinced that ‘someone’ had been watching us via secret cameras in our home. It was a test and this was a conspiracy, I thought, starting with the midwife telling me about the Group B strep to see if I’d submit my daughter to these unnecessary tests, having needles in her spine and bloods taken left right and centre, wasting important NHS time.

Only one parent could stay with the child at night so my husband left us in hospital. I began feeling lonely and confused, and as I lay there watching Arietta in the middle of the night I felt an urge to press the red emergency button on the wall. ‘She’s dead,’ I screamed as the nurses ran in. My cubicle was crowded with people; I told them they had killed her, they had done this to her, they got what they wanted. Of course, she was peacefully sleeping. She was fine; I wasn’t.  

The next day I was moved back to the postnatal ward while Arietta remained in the children’s ward, waiting for her tests to come back. Walking back through those same corridors but this time with my mum holding my hand instead of my husband, I felt like a child all over again. It was scary, really scary, and I feared what might happen next. Later that day, two psychiatrists, a nurse and a social worker came to see me. As I sat there with my husband, my mum and dad, and Arietta in a cot beside me, I believed we were all there to confirm the details of my funeral before I would be sedated then reincarnated as a better person.

It was then I learned I had postpartum psychosis, a rare chemical imbalance of the brain that can affect one in 1000 women. On a voluntary basis I would be taken to the closest mother and baby unit, 33 miles away in Stafford. My husband, who had been holding it together until now, looked terrified. I couldn’t believe this had happened to us – and in just one week. I wanted my baby to be safe, but I didn’t think she was safe with me. I hadn’t eaten, my lips were dry, my hair hadn’t been washed or brushed and I couldn’t remember when I’d last brushed my teeth. I just wanted to die and thought about the ways in which I could make it happen. I didn’t even recognise my own reflection in the mirror.

Arriving at the mother and baby unit I felt frightened and alone. I would go from thinking the world of my baby to resenting the fact she was there. I said horrible things, things I wouldn’t have dreamt of thinking had I been in my right mind. My medication (mood stabilisers, anti-psychotics and anti-depressants) took a few weeks to kick in and during that time I was convinced everyone on the ward was lying to me: actors and actresses undercover for the police. I sat on my bed wrapped in a ball, refusing to talk about anything other than the ‘set up’.  I would demand to see the nurse’s name badges, believing they wore head pieces which fed them information about me and questions to ask. I was watched around the clock during the first week, my door open day and night with a member of staff staring at me, telling me when to eat, sleep, drink, and open or close the curtains. By now I just wanted my body to shut down, thinking that the longer I didn’t eat or drink the sooner I’d die. I wasn’t allowed to close the door of the loo or shower in case I tried to hurt myself. My husband was the only person I wanted with me; I didn’t even want to hold my own baby.

When the medication eventually kicked in I got my appetite back, gained weight, and things slowly improved. I had on-and-off home leave, where we could see how I coped with my daughter. The paranoid thoughts had gone and I was finally discharged, but I was left with a lack of confidence, not wanting to leave the house or converse with anyone. I was very low and felt sure that everyone who looked at me thought I was a bad mother. It took six months until I felt completely back to normal, and could come off the anti-psychotic medication sooner than expected.

I wanted to share my story, as even with a huge support network it was a dark and lonely time. My husband stood by my side through the whole thing, visiting me for hours every day. My family visited me regularly and the staff at the unit were outstanding, promising me again and again I’d get better, even though I didn’t believe them. I’ve been given phenomenal support since then, too. My psychiatric nurse is from a local team which supports people with early intervention in psychosis. I honestly can’t thank people enough for the care and support.

Don’t ever suffer in silence, and don’t be afraid of the stigma of mental illness. I was told so many times that there’s nothing to be ashamed off; it’s no different to any other illness or disease. Speak up and be honest. It takes time and patience but there is so much help out there for you.

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