My journey into postpartum psychosis
My journey in to postpartum psychosis was as rapid as it was terrifying.
I was so excited when I found out that I was pregnant. My partner and I had fertility issues so getting pregnant seemed like a bit of a miracle. I felt stable during my pregnancy, mental health wise, and so I was full of optimism about the whole thing. However, I knew the statistics. Any woman having a baby can develop postpartum psychosis, but I had a particularly strong chance. I have a diagnosis of bipolar disorder so I had about a 1 in 4 chance of developing postpartum psychosis. It was a worrying statistic but I tried to forget about it.
When I gave birth by cesarean section, I was filled with excitement. I had been stressed for weeks about having surgery so I just felt elated that it had all gone to plan. I had a healthy baby boy and it felt like I was the luckiest person alive. I invited all the grandparents round to visit hours after I had given birth. I had done my hair and make-up and was trying to get out of bed as soon as the epidural wore off. I was so happy and chatty. It was just hours after I had given birth and my manic symptoms were already beginning to develop.
It starts innocently enough. You are happy you have just had the baby you always wanted. You feel ready to conquer the world. You wake up when the baby cries and can’t get back to sleep. After feeding the baby and putting him back to bed, you might end up watching the news over and over again on a cycle in the middle of the night. You believe that you should do something useful. Perhaps you could clean the bottles for tomorrow. Maybe you could clean the kitchen whilst you are at it. Maybe organise the fridge and clean it thoroughly like you meant to do months ago. Suddenly jobs that aren’t pressing seem like they are of the upmost importance. Only, you start one job and your brain skips to another task, so you abandon the first job half way through. And so it goes on.
The first few weeks after birth are all blurry in my memory. All I know is the it felt like I was on top of everything and I convinced everyone around me, families and professionals alike, that I was fine. I was just coping really well looking after a baby and multitasking at the same time. They weren’t to blame for not realising something was wrong. I was kidding myself and persuaded everyone else that I was ok. For once, I was just coping with something most people have to deal with at some point. That was my logic anyway.
Fairly soon after my hypomanic feelings began, they started to get a bit more manic. I would laugh wildly at inappropriate times. I would sit on the floor singing away, rolling around and making up little songs. My eyes apparently became very wild and I would stare at people in my family and get in to their personal space, poking them and pulling their legs and screaming things out loud. It became very clear to my family that something was wrong. However, I hid all of these manic behaviours in public and with friends. I was terrified for anyone to see that I was acting strangely. I still had insight in to my difficulties and knew that I could hide them well. I have always hidden my mental illness from everyone outside of my intimate circle. And I am very good at it.
Things escalated, and I started feeling very scared. I was walking around and glaring at people. I felt that I was being looked at. For some reason this overwhelming feeling of not being safe hit me. In public places, I felt like people were watching me and were acting suspiciously somehow. I became suspicious of buildings, trees and other objects too. For some reason there was a malintent there which I couldn’t explain. This strong sense of mistrust was running contrary to other thoughts in my brain, which told me not to be so ridiculous. But it didn’t matter. However much I tried to rationalise myself out of the paranoid delusions I was having, the delusions still felt as strong as ever. I knew it wasn’t true in my head, but my gut feelings were somehow more powerful.
My paranoid delusions took hold of me one evening when I couldn’t get through on the phone to my mum. I walked over to her house and was convinced that something terrible had happened. When I couldn’t find her, I forced my husband to phone the police. I saw a man walking in the dark outside her house and immediately assumed he was my mum’s rapist and murderer. I was terrified. In the end my mum had just gone to the cinema and was fine. I realised I had overreacted but I was still scared of the man I had encountered and felt like he had probably attacked someone. I still held on to some of the delusion.
Aside from the paranoid delusions, my sense perceptions all went a bit haywire. When I was walking my dog in the woods surrounded by the suspicious trees, the colours in the wood would transform in to something amazing. It was like a multicolored filter that you can put over a photo. The colours were bold and striking and I felt overwhelmed by the joy of nature. Things were moving, lines were no longer straight and everything had an over-worldly feeling about it. Sometimes these hallucinations and derealising experiences made me feel deliriously happy and, at other times, terrified of my own mind.
I was manic and I was depressed, all at the same time, which is hard for people to understand. The amazing ways of life would hit me with a feeling of euphoria, and then the distress of the complexity and sinister ways of it all left me feeling terrified and low. Although I was euphoric at times, I was also very distressed by the way the world seemed and I just wanted it all to stop. I was very jumpy and wired so I was feeling manic but in a very dysphoric way.
I saw my psychiatrist and some other mental health professionals, with my husband, and explained what had been happening. I couldn’t hide it anymore and I had come to realise that things weren’t right and that I needed help. My psychiatrist acted immediately and admitted me and my baby to a mother and baby psychiatric hospital. I was terrified of going but I was resigned to it. Something had to be done and I just couldn’t cope anymore.
I spent a month in the unit with my baby. A lot of it is a blur because I was heavily medicated. However, I started feeling more like myself and all the feelings of suspiciousness and strange perceptions had gone. It took me a while to recover but I was discharged and sent back home. I recovered amazingly quickly, thanks to the swift intervention of my doctors and the appropriate medication and support from the team.
How do I feel about the whole thing now? It’s been a year and I still think about it every day. I think about how distressing being in hospital was and how scary it is to lose your mind like that. But the trauma is fading, and I’m gradually getting some confidence back. I know that my bipolar symptoms will flare up again; they always do. But the mind has an amazing ability to forget the worst and to, rightly or wrongly, be positive about the future. For now, I am just praying that something like this never happens again. But if it does, I’m more ready for it this time.