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Compared to postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis is rare — impacting about one to two out of every 1,000 women who give birth. This serious condition, which is temporary and treatable, comes with a number of symptoms, including hallucinations, delusional thoughts, severe mood swings, paranoia, and insomnia. While it can impact anyone, it’s mostly likely to occur in women who have previously had a psychotic episode, or women with a family history of bipolar disorder. The Cut spoke to a first-time mom about her experience of postpartum psychosis.
I had four miscarriages by the time I got pregnant with my daughter. I spent the first three months of my pregnancy just waiting to lose the baby. It was a difficult time: My husband was finishing his degree and working full-time, my dad had just passed away, my elderly mother was relying on me. My social circle was mostly men, and the few female friends I had didn’t talk about their problems.
I was open minded about how I delivered, but I ended up having a C-section and I don’t think I was mentally prepared. I found it traumatic, being awake when they cut me open. It happened at the same hospital I had gone when I miscarried, which didn’t help.
For the first few days after my daughter was born I felt great, it was pure excitement. But when that adrenaline faded, I started to dwell on the fact that now that she was here I didn’t have any control. I could look after her when I had her in my body, but once she became a tiny human alive in the world, how could I possibly protect her?
I was feeling paranoid. I started reading about mildew and pathogens in water droplets. The news was full of reports about a deadly flu epidemic. She’d cough and I’d think: I didn’t dry the bottles properly and a disease got into her lungs and now she’s dying and it’s all my fault. I’d sterilize her bottles over and over and over again.
When people came to visit my brain was jumping — like an angry cat. I slapped on a smile, but I was watching their every move. I didn’t want anyone to touch her.
Any dream I remember during that time was a nightmare. I had dreams that my baby was in danger from fire, suffocation, gas leaks. Think of any horror movie you have ever seen about nannies, I had dreams like those.
One night, I had a lucid nightmare that our fireplace exploded. In the dream, I grabbed my baby and ran outside with her. As we stood on the street, the house burned down, flames were shooting out. The dream was in bright colors, in Spanish, like I had the mind of a muppet baby. When I woke up, I had this strong feeling: Something bad is going to happen to my daughter and it will involve fire. It was the middle of winter, but I wouldn’t let my husband turn on the heat — he even went and had it professionally checked. I still begged for him not to, screaming that it would kill us all. I kept on having these terrible nightmares, and I started to worry that I would grab my baby in my sleep and do something to put her in danger.
Then, new gas lines were being installed in our neighborhood and I became fixated on them. I’d call 911, convinced there were a gas leaks. One day my husband and I were stuck in traffic and I could smell what were probably normal exhaust fumes. I was beside myself clawing at the door yelling, “I can’t let my baby get gas in her face, we need to get out of the car, now, now!” When the traffic finally cleared, I made my husband pull over and threw myself on the ground trying to breathe.
Nobody really understood the extent of what I was going, through. Not only did I have deep shame about admitting I wasn’t coping, but I was plagued by an obsessive thought that if I said whatever I was scared of out loud, it would happen. One of my biggest fears was that I’d pass out while I was holding my baby and fall on top of her and kill her.
I wasn’t sleeping or eating; I lost 40 pounds in two months. My senses were shot, natural light was too bright, and I was bombarded by everyday sounds — a creak in the house would send me into a full-blown panic. What if we have to get the roof replaced? How can we pay for it? My beloved dog was dying and every single breath was deafening. All I could think was shut the hell up.
One day my husband found me passed out, so he took me to the ER. They gave me a CAT scan to make sure I didn’t have a head injury. They said it was probably a panic attack.
Then, when my daughter was about 3 months old, I had a full-blown hallucination. I’d woken from a nap and was outside getting some air with my dog when his face started melting. It was like someone slipped me acid. Later that night I woke up in the backyard crying, and I didn’t know how I got there. My husband wanted me to go to hospital again, but I was convinced they’d put me in a psych ward so I shut myself in the closet, wailing. I didn’t want my baby in there with me in case I passed out on her. The door wasn’t locked — my husband could have dragged me out, but he just wanted me to calm down so he could take me to the hospital. He got my therapist on the phone and I guess they they talked me down enough to go to the ER, I can’t remember the details. I was dipping in and out of consciousness.
I stayed at hospital for three days. I was manic and paranoid. The intake nurses were asking if I had weapons at home. When the doctor came to assess me I talked over him, yelling that I was fine. At one point I got out of bed and made a run for it down the hallway, thinking I was going to hitchhike to Arizona. They sedated me and discussed my condition with my husband. If they did tell me what was wrong, I can’t remember. I wasn’t really comprehending anything.
When I was discharged I was so resentful, like I’d totally lost control. I’d scream at my husband: What did they tell you? What do they know? I was sleeping on the floor in our home office. Then I started reading about women whose marriages ended because of postpartum issues so I became fixated on divorce. I was convinced my therapist had it out for me, that she didn’t visit me in hospital. And even though I knew it was because she didn’t have privileges, I fired her.
They’d prescribed me an antipsychotic called Geodon, but I didn’t really take it. I googled the meds and saw that it was for psychosis, which was the first time I had heard that word. I started obsessing about the side effects, like shortness of breath. Remember, my biggest fear was that I would pass out on my baby. They also gave me Xanax for major anxiety attacks, and Lunesta to sleep.
After hospital I had so much guilt about having been away from her. I remember being fixated on a fear that she would be traumatized by my behavior so I tried not to audibly cry around her, which was hard because I was crying constantly. My husband got a night nurse, but I had problems trusting her. Apparently I threw her out of the house.
The ER doctors were the ones who diagnosed me, not that I knew it at the time. A year later I asked to see my medical records and read that I’d had a psychotic episode brought on by postpartum depression. It was hard to see the words “psychotic episode” next to your name.
My husband knew the diagnosis, and he wanted to fix it, so he found group therapy for me but when I (reluctantly) went they put me in a room with people who had a whole range of issues. Many had tried to kill themselves — one man had gashes all over his arm. I was thinking: What did your parents do to you that screwed you up so bad? My daughter is going to go crazy just like you because her mother is insane. I didn’t open up, I figured these people who had real problems would think I was spoiled and weak.
Looking back I can see so clearly that the real problem was anxiety about being a mother. The sleeping pills started working and I went on a strict regimen of protein shakes. Once I was eating and sleeping the hallucinations stopped. I’d made some plans for childcare back when I was pregnant, and I trusted those decisions so when I started getting some help I felt balanced enough to take on some freelance work, which was good because I started getting out of the house and had adult company. I became more rational about the anger I felt toward my husband.
I should have focused on finding a support network while I was pregnant. It’s hard to make close female friends when you are having a mental break. I didn’t have anyone to go to to ask for the help I needed which was take charge, cook for me, and watch the baby while I take a nap. Later, I was told that if I didn’t have PTSD from losing my dad and all those miscarriages the C-section probably capped it off.
In many ways what I needed was quite simple: To talk openly with another person who had felt the same way I did and could tell me, this will pass. When I did find a supportive group of moms, I was having a meltdown and one woman said: Is your baby wearing clothes right now? Is she clean? Does she have a roof over her head? Do you love her? Yes. And, are you drunk or doing drugs? No? Okay, well then you are being a good mom. When she said that, I realized that was the first time I’d ever heard those words.