Loony Bins And Fear: One Woman's Struggle With Postpartum Psychosis

Friday, November 14, 2014 by Meg   •   Filed under Mom Stories/Opinion

Postpartum depression is a common occurrence, estimated to occur in around 15% of women. Many of them have symptoms including anxiety, hopelessness and trouble sleeping. But it is the thoughts of infant harm that scare these women most, often because they are led to believe that those with PPD harm their children due to a very biased—and very misinformed—media. 

But most mothers who engage in infant harm are not suffering from PPD at all. Most of these mothers are suffering from another disorder entirely, known as postpartum psychosis (Read more here in PPD is NOT Postpartum Psychosis: What Women Need to Understand About Infant Harm). However, even mothers with postpartum psychosis are not usually dangerous. Less than 1% of women ever develop postpartum psychosis, and of that 1%, less than 4% harm their children.

Postpartum psychosis is not an all-or-nothing thing (explained further in Understanding Postpartum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness.) Women may have symptoms and be able to get help even when in the throes of hallucinations or delusions. Most women are able to see past the thoughts and get assistance before they do something they will regret. Most can be pulled back from the brink. 

But it is usually the getting help that makes a difference for these women. Today, I invited a dear friend to discuss her experience with postpartum psychosis. And while she wishes to remain anonymous, it is her sincere hope that her story might help someone else out there to identify what is happening to them and get the assistance they need.  

By: Anonymous

Plenty of moms crack jokes about their kids sending them to the loony bin but few have actually had it happen. 

I have. 

After the birth of my child, the state decided I was no longer in control of my mental state. I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis and legally confined to a psychiatric ward for forty-eight hours. It was one of the scariest things that I’ve ever experienced but it was also the absolute best thing that could have happened to me. And I need you to know why I hope this happens for other women as well.

But let’s start at the beginning. 

Something Isn't Right

I always knew I was "off" but I didn’t know in exactly what way. For the longest time I was convinced I had Aspergers, because of my drive to isolate from others. In high school I had long episodes where I didn't want to leave the house and wished I could disappear.

But obviously you can’t do that as a teen, at least not if you have parents to drag you out of bed and drive you to school like responsible citizens. So, while I forced myself to join every group on earth, my mom would convince me to go into stores by myself and make phone calls. Those things were painful but kept me in practice dealing with people.

But it was the parts I hid that I never got help with. Sometimes I felt anxious and depressed. It was like being on a roller coaster and I didn’t know what I was going to wake up to. Would I feel despair? Ecstatic? Enraged? Sometimes I would walk into school and feel like I just wanted to have sex with EVERYONE, the boys and the girls. What kept me from doing it I am not certain, but I assume it was the depression and the thought that they would only disappoint me. Plus, people hater. So that.  

Instead of trying to look at these things, I self medicated with drugs and alcohol as I got older. However, because those things are fairly within the realm of normal for teens and college students it was overlooked by those around me. I managed to get into computer programming, and created a work-at-home career for myself where I could medicate and work all at once. It became my “normal”.

Until it wasn’t. 

Starting a Family 

Somewhere along the line I managed to land a cool guy, a work-from-home entrepreneur who meshed with my particular version of awesome. And when I decided to become a mommy, I didn’t really think about my history, which up until that point had not been addressed by anyone (though years after my psychotic break I would be told that I had bipolar disorder that began around my sixteenth birthday).  At the time I figured, “rebellious young adult.” It made sense. Now I was moving on to better things. A husband. A family. A baby.  

I had some mild suicidal thoughts while pregnant but I was able to ignore them.

I thought they might have been related to my pregnancy and months of painful preterm labor and being confined to a hospital bed with my legs elevated so the baby didn’t fall out of my non-existent and unruly cervix. 

And once the baby came, I started hearing things like:

“But your baby is so cute! That makes it all worth it!”

“It’s just the baby blues. Everyone gets that. It will go away.”

“You just need to get some sunshine and drink more water. Maybe vitamins.”

First of all, anytime you try to express empathy by using a phrase that starts with, “Well at least,” please just punch yourself in the face. Hard. No one wants to hear that. Minimizing someone’s pain or struggle is offensive and extremely dangerous. If someone trusts you enough to admit that they are struggling, your job is to take them seriously. But unless you are a medical professional, it is very unlikely that you are equipped to offer solutions to fix the problem. If a mom is at her mental breaking point, things like sunshine, vitamins, and diet changes won’t be enough to bring her back to normalcy. 

But all of that is easy to say in hindsight. At the time, I was trying to stay tough. Which is probably why it all snuck up on me. 

It started with the depression. And for the first time, while recovering from a C-section and taking care of a newborn, I could not use substances to numb it. And when I felt jumpy (or manic as I now know it’s called) I couldn’t go having wild sex to deal with it. For the first time in my life I was forced to sit in one place and fully face my symptoms which at that point were Postpartum Depression and undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder. Epic fail.

But it wasn’t long before I had new symptoms. These were way scarier. And again, they snuck up on me somehow, an extra intrusive thought here, whispers from people who didn’t exist there. 

What Does Postpartum Psychosis Feel Like? 

Postpartum Psychosis takes multiple forms and you don’t need to have all of the symptoms to be diagnosed. My diagnosis was based  on the following:

  • Suicidal thoughts: The thoughts that, “it would be easier if I was just dead,” and, “I’m never going to get better so I might as well just end it now,” were constantly in my mind. Dying didn’t scare me anymore. I welcomed it and wished something would happen to kill me. I spent a lot of time thinking positively about my funeral and how everyone would get on much better without me. It was oddly comforting. 
  • Suicidal plans: I started to fantasize about very specific plans to end my life. I won’t share my specific plans because I don’t want to trigger anyone, but my plans were detailed and realistic enough that they could have actually been carried out. 
  • Intrusive thoughts about hurting my child/delusional thinking: Some of my suicidal fantasies included taking my child with me, largely because I didn’t want him to grow up feeling guilty about my death. It would be the best thing for him. Sometimes I was certain of this. But mostly I was sickened and terrified that I was having these thoughts to begin with. 
  • Severe depression and feelings of worthlessness: I genuinely felt that I wasn’t needed anymore and that I wasn’t helping anyone by still being here. When I wasn’t fantasizing about suicide, I was fantasizing about leaving my family and joining a convent or just becoming a waitress in some tiny far away town. I just didn’t want to be a wife, mother, daughter, or anything anymore. I didn’t feel like I deserved the titles.
  • Hearing voices/hallucinations: I would hear voices when I was completely alone. Sometimes they seemed to be coming from inside my head but often they seemed to be coming from the other room or just around the corner. Sometimes they babbled, sometimes they told me to do things. Regardless, I knew they weren’t real and that terrified me. My psychiatrist specified to me later that what the voices say or where they seem to be coming from doesn’t matter for the diagnosis. The fact that I was hearing things that weren’t there was all that mattered. 

The news often highlights stories about women going into hormonal murderous rages and wiping out all of their children. Admitting to anyone that you have thoughts of harming your kids is the ultimate taboo. Those thoughts horrify most women because they are afraid they will act on those thoughts. 

But what most moms need to understand is that having intrusive thoughts isn’t the same as acting on them. The mere fact that your intrusive thoughts terrify you is very important. It means that on some level you are still in control of your actions and that you have a deep-down desire to continue to be a good mother and a good person. 

But remaining in control will probably take intervention. 

Some women might get away with scheduling an emergency session with a psychiatrist, preferably one who specializes in postpartum depression or postpartum psychosis. But sometimes you need someone to take you directly to the nearest hospital emergency room where the on-call psychiatrist can evaluate you. 

The latter is what happened to me.

When I walked into that ER with my husband, I had no clue what was going to happen. I had a feeling that once I told the doctors the truth about the severity of my intrusive thoughts, that they would lock me up (and my husband clearly knew this also as he had secretly tucked a toothbrush and stick of deodorant into my purse). I was admitted that night. 

I found out a few things in the hospital. One is that chocolate pudding is a rare and exceptionally exciting commodity. Two is that when you are committed to a psychiatric ward, it is likely that you will be the sanest person in the room which will make you feel both better and worse at the same time. I also discovered that when you actually come prepared with deodorant, your roommate might put it on her stinky pits without showering which you may or may not find out about until you get a whiff of the stick. That’s a story for another time though, and this is getting more like Orange is the New Black and less like postpartum treatment, so I apologize for the digression. Because the most important thing I found out was what wrong with me and what I needed to do to treat it. 

I needed to be there. And I am glad every day that I was. 

Healing From Postpartum Psychosis 

Once I was released from the psychiatric hospital, I still felt terrible, but I was in control. I wasn’t a tormented mom on the verge of a breakdown. I was just the emotionally exhausted mother of a newborn baby. For the first time in weeks I actually wanted to hug my child and share a bed with my husband. I actually cared about wiping up a random spill on the counter. I opened the curtains in the morning and snuggled with my husband on the couch at night. I was alive and actually wanted to be alive. 

I started outpatient therapy with a psychiatrist as soon as I was released. I went once a week to talk and to work on medications (it can take a few tries to find the right medication and the right dosage). I didn’t magically become some happy person, but I slowly began to have a better grip on my life, my feelings, and my stress levels. I became a functioning woman who wasn’t randomly bursting into tears or fighting with her husband for no reason other than because he had the audacity to breathe. 

It has to be horrific to watch your partner lose their grip on reality. A good person will stay there to help you through it, but I appreciated how much emotional strain it took for my husband to support me (especially when he was caring for our child while I was away at treatment). I didn’t want to take him for granted, so I worked my ass off every day so I could be there for us, for our family. 

But I didn’t do it alone. I needed help. 

Get Help for Postpartum Psychosis. Now. 

I understand that seeking out help is not as easy as it sounds, and for me, there were three big reasons:

  1. The Stigma: Moms are often afraid to seek out help because doing so might alert others that they are mentally unwell. But the longer you take to seek help, the worse your symptoms will be. And even when you are bubbling over into a psychotic state, you have to know that there is worse stigma for actually hurting your kids or yourself.
  2. The Denial: When you are losing your mind, you will do anything and everything to try to convince yourself that you are not losing your shit. But sane people don’t sit around talking to themselves about how sane they are. And even the ones who do can usually use some assistance. The worst that can happen is they will tell you you have standard depression, anxiety or postpartum depression. The worst case is that they will give you the help you need to make it through it. Being momentary vulnerable is not the worst thing that can happen to you. 
  3. The Fear of “Being Locked Up”: The thought of losing my freedom and entering the unknown world of the psychiatric ward terrified me, but the reality of actually killing myself or my child was far more terrifying than any psych ward could ever be. Preventative psychiatric confinement is temporary. Suicide and child abuse (or child murder) are forever.

Today I shudder to think about what would have happened if I had not been able to get treatment, if I had kept it all inside until I finally destroyed everything I loved. If you’re suffering, someone close to you needs to know. If you are too ashamed to call your doctor, ask someone else to do it for you. Have someone take you to the ER and let them state your symptoms to the intake nurse. Pick a mom from an online parenting group whom you trust (even if she lives a million miles away) and ask her to make the phone call. I’ve done it for other moms many times. If things are too bad and you feel like you’re losing control, call 9-1-1. It doesn’t matter how you do it. Just figure out a way to get that ball rolling so you can get help.

Postpartum Psychosis isn’t the result of having a weak mind. It is the result of a regular mind that has been forced to be strong for far too long and a multitude of other factors and predisposing characteristics (in my case undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder). Everyone has their limits, and pushing yourself can have disastrous results. If you feel you are no longer in control of your thoughts and fear that you may lose control of your actions, seek help like I did. Don’t wait. Because while today might be horrible, tomorrow doesn’t have to be.

I’m living proof. 

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Topic-Relevant Resources

Understanding Postpartum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness
Great resource for understanding postpartum psychosis.