My Struggle with Postpartum Psychosis
This story is real. It is raw and it is my truth. I hope that by telling my story and ‘putting it out there’ I can maybe help people by giving strength and hope to those currently in the middle of a mental illness or in recovery. My story has a happy ending.
I also wrote this story for all parents, regardless, as I know every single one of us deals with everyday struggles and that’s okay. It’s okay not to be okay and it’s okay to ask for help as that is something I never used to be able to do. And, if you are okay, think of those mums who might be screaming inside. My story begins with my introduction to motherhood which was a dream come true: my then partner Carl and I were very lucky to have fallen pregnant almost straight away which led to an amazing pregnancy: I loved every bit of the 9 months. The birth was straightforward, at the end of which I fell in love with my beautiful healthy baby boy Jax. My time in Busselton Hospital had been amazing, everything was going so smoothly, and I was totally in love with my new life.
On day 2, just before dinner, I felt what it must be like have a mini-stroke: my vision went blurry and for a few seconds I couldn’t speak. The doctors took all the right precautions and rushed me off for brain scans, but everything was normal. Looking back at that event the doctors now think that maybe it was the trigger for my then-undiagnosed mental illness — postpartum psychosis (PPS).
In most cases, PPS occurs within the first 48 hours of childbirth. On Day 3 my milk came in and Jax was feeding and sleeping like a dream so with the doctors’ approval we decided to head home with our new bundle of joy. Everything was going so amazingly at home with my newborn and I was enjoying time as a family and time with my mum who had flown in from the UK in time to witness the birth. Time was flying by and it was soon time for mum to return to the UK and for Carl to fly back to work. Everyone including myself were totally confident that I had it all under control and could handle my new life as a FiFO wife and mum. True, I was a bit manic, but little did we know that this was masking the classic signs of a mum with PPS.
I thought I was feeling great although looking back I did get very stressed over little things: one night I couldn’t remember how to defrost a piece of fish which sent me into a panic. One of the first outward signs that things were not that great was when a girlfriend came over for dinner and I made a comment about how I couldn’t understand why I could see my reflection in the window although it was dark and the lights were on. I laughed it off and joked about how I needed to go to bed. At 7 weeks old Jax had some minor surgery booked and my Australian ‘mum’, Tracy, came with me to Perth for the night. We checked into a hotel and I had a total meltdown having found a hair on the floor. I was yelling at the staff which was so unlike me and Tracy, at the time, couldn’t understand why I had overreacted. We had to check into another hotel and we both just blamed it all on me being tired. The next day I remember saying to Tracy that I felt weird and a bit weak. She dropped me home and in the following days I became an emotional wreck. Tracy then went away for a few days and thankfully my best friend kept checking in with me. Every time she came round I felt okay but when she left I just couldn’t stop crying. She took me to the supermarket and I felt so wired. I just couldn’t understand why I was feeling like that and so we went to the chemist. They gave me some sugar lollies in case it was low blood sugar. I also had a funny metallic taste in my mouth which no one could explain. From that day onwards, things went downhill: I started hearing voices at night and seeing things. My room had dark grey carpets and a black wall so one day whilst Jax slept I taped a white sheet to the wall because I thought the devil was next to me when I slept. Thankfully, Tracy had returned, and I was saying such crazy things that she phoned Carl and told him to come home.
When he arrived I pretended everything was okay and I remember us getting into an argument as he was missing out on a weekend with his mates. He didn’t know that I was severely unwell until one night I was up and using my phone. Carl asked why I was awake, and I told him I was feeding Jax when in reality Jax was asleep in his cot. I also used to use the torch on my phone to watch Jax when he was asleep because by now I thought he was a robot and would run out of battery. Carl then had to call the paramedics after I lost consciousness. They were puzzled as all my vital signs were normal and it took a great deal of persuasion to get me into the ambulance: I really didn’t want to go as I thought they were taking me to hospital to get rid of me, my mind was going crazy.
We arrived at the hospital and after several chats to doctors and me still putting on an act, we left after being told I that I was just sleep deprived and needed some rest. Carl yet again was understandably confused and angry about why I was lying about how I was feeling. By then we were driving home and I turned to him and said “it’s okay babe I know I am dead, I can’t feel my pulse and I have a funeral playlist already organised and it’s okay you will be fine raising our son”. At that very profound moment Carl realised that something was seriously wrong and did a U- turn back to the hospital. Once there, I can remember staring into the mirror at a dead person. I knew I was dead and kept saying to the nurses ‘please feel my pulse, I am dead’. That was the moment that the staff at Busselton hospital knew I couldn’t leave.
Things deteriorated very quickly to the point I thought my mum (who had flown back in) was a doctor, my brother in law was the father of my child and people were also trying to connect wires to my baby. I even accused one of the male nurses of raping me which sounds crazy but that was what my psychotic mind was doing to me and my thoughts. I stayed in the hospital for around 10 days, waiting for a bed in a Mother & Baby Unit (MBU). I couldn’t be admitted to a psychiatric facility as I couldn’t have taken Jax with me and the psychiatrists knew that this would tip me over the edge. Mothers with PPS are overly protectively attached to their babies. As it was my family and friends were on a ‘suicide watch’ roster as I couldn’t ever be left alone. I had to be sedated from time to time because I wouldn’t let anyone touch Jax as I thought they were all trying to steal him. Friends came to visit but I thought they were all conspiring against me to take Jax away. I also thought that one of the nurses was Jax’s real mum and that I was in prison because I had stolen her and Carl’s baby. The thoughts were crazy but so real at the time and are still emotionally difficult to recall.
To this day I hate the smell of the hospital antiseptic soap because I thought the nurses were told to wash their hands as I had a disease and was dying. Carl himself was very scared and has been my rock through all this. I didn’t know who he was and with the aid of family photos, including the dog, he had to try to trigger my memory when I didn’t recognise him. Then the planned escape happened when I actually tried to break out from the hospital. Thank goodness I didn’t manage it: the nurses took me back to my room and I remember yelling at them as I thought they had stolen my legs!
Thankfully, soon after, I was transferred to the mother and baby unit (MBU) in Subiaco (a suburb of Perth). Heavily sedated, I travelled there by ambulance, with Carl, Mum and Jax following behind in a car. Usually a mum with PPS shouldn’t be separated from their baby but the ambulance crew were not allowed to carry a baby so as long as I could see the car I knew Jax wasn’t far away. I recall seeing a sign for Hollywood Hospital and I started yelling, thinking I was being sold as a sex slave. I mean, what was I thinking with my supportive partner there? This is what the psychosis was doing to me.
We arrived at the MBU and I tried delaying tactics to stay outside. I just didn’t understand why I was there. Meanwhile, crazy thoughts were still running through my head. Some motorbikes drove past the MBU and I immediately thought that the bikers were coming to take me. Thankfully, for all concerned, I ran into the unit. The unit was amazing and to this day I thank my lucky stars that I got a bed as at that time there were only 8 available in WA. The meetings with the doctors and nurses started straight away and I was immediately put onto a very high dose of antipsychotic and anti-anxiety tablets. My PPS was very severe, and my family were warned that I might never come out of this and could end up in Graylands Hospital (a mental health inpatient facility in Perth), forever. Whilst I was dealing with a very scary time of my life, I can’t now even begin to understand how my partner, family and close friends coped. I slowly came out of my psychosis and luckily the medication worked. However, I was still very unstable and still having unusual thoughts: the television was definitely talking to me. After a few weeks it was suggested I take leave and try to go home for the weekend. Carl and my mum didn’t think this was a good idea and neither did I for that matter, but again I put on an act and my doctor signed me out.
A few hours in and we were all at home chilling. My dad had also flown in for a few days and I remember Carl and my brother in law watching a movie with scenes involving abduction. I immediately panicked and without telling anyone ran down the road. My psychotic thoughts were coming back, and I thought I was going to be kidnapped. Luckily, my dad realised that I was missing, and they found me 2 streets away with total panic on my face and that ‘lost look’ was back. A look that Carl and mum still talk about. Carl contacted the unit and although I knew deep down that there wasn’t a choice, I was refusing to go back. I knew that I would have to be sectioned again which Carl said he couldn’t do a second time. He was distraught. After a few hours of denial and telling everyone how much I hated them I packed my suitcase entirely with black clothes to look how I felt, DARK! Mum sectioned me.
Back in the MBU I was improving day by day. My mind was becoming clearer and luckily for me and my family I now fully recognised who everyone was. I was also accepting the fact that I was sick and needed help. It was suggested that my mum and I rented a place in Subiaco for a week and if all went well, we could return back to Dunsborough. Carl was now working away, he obviously had to support his family, I mean how else were we going to pay the mortgage? Subiaco went well and the psychosis was now clear from my mind but it had been replaced by anxiety and depression: as if I hadn’t been through enough, I just needed more thrown at me!
Mum and I returned to Dunsborough and it felt good. I was as ‘happy’ as I probably could be to be home but my safety bubble of the MBU was no longer there and I had the realisation that my mum couldn’t stay forever either. The first supermarket trip was hard. The first time I saw any of my friends was overwhelming and being back in Dunsborough scared me because when I was psychotic I thought the whole town hated me and were protesting for me not to return! Mum had to leave when Jax was around 5 months old. Before she left she moved in with a friend of mine to help me get used to being on my own at night and to break the dependence I had on her. I was so lucky that she could stay as long as she did, but I also knew I couldn’t hold onto her forever as my safety blanket. Anyway, I was still so good at masking how I was actually really feeling and everyone thought the worst was over. People used to ask how I was, and I would say ‘yeah, great thanks’ but I wanted to say, ‘I am really shit and totally pretending!’.
To be honest my journey was nowhere near over and I slowly sank deeper into a world of depression. I had the hardest year ahead of me trying to get back in control of my life. Trying to find the fun bubbly person that I had lost within myself. Trying to rebuild my love for Carl. Trying to let my friends back in and trying to be a good mum to a boy who I went from loving so much to resenting and to be honest hating him. Wow, sounds horrible but it was my truth at the time. It is still so hard to explain how I felt every day, but every day was a struggle. When Jax slept, I slept. If I wasn’t tired I would lay down. I would wake up in the morning counting down the minutes until I could go to bed. I would go to bed at 7pm when Jax went to bed because I didn’t want to face the day anymore but then I dreaded waking up and facing a new day when I couldn’t relax and was worrying about everything. Once up I would put Jax in his playpen and go back to bed. I just wanted to go back to my old life with no baby. My mother-in-law would come and stay and when I heard her moving about in the morning I would race back into the lounge and pretend I had been lying on the sofa instead of being in bed, ignoring my son, knowing I should have been with him. The guilt still haunts me today. One day I took a heap of sleeping tablets and drove to Yallingup to jump off the hill and to hopefully end the pain for myself and my son. I could relate to people who take their own lives and was going to do it myself and I didn’t care at the time who was affected by it.
Fortunately, I made a phone call to my mum to say goodbye. She contacted Carl who found me and that attempt at suicide was thwarted. You might ask why nobody had noticed that I was so low but to the outside world I was still pretending that everything was ok! Carl was so cross that I was going to take my own life, but at the same time understood and supported me. He decided that I needed more time to recover and so my dad kindly paid for me to go to Perth Clinic. During those 2 weeks I totally worked on myself and my medication was increased, and I felt good. However, after 1 week at home I had a massive seizure which was so scary for both Carl and myself. When the ambulance arrived, I was fitting on the floor. The subsequent brain scan revealed nothing, but epilepsy was suspected. Now I was even more anxious as I wondered when the next blow would happen!
I had joined a mothers’ group which helped me to bond with new mothers. Even then I had to phone Carl in a state of anxiety but he, as always, reassured me that it was the right thing to do because I needed to start building more friendships with other local mums. The problem with socialising was the fact that people didn’t really know or understand what l was going through. I needed anti-anxiety pills to get me through any social occasion and when alcohol was offered I wouldn’t refuse as that made me feel even more relaxed. I know people were worried about my drinking, but it was the only way I could cope. Looking back this must have slowed my recovery as alcohol and antidepressants don’t mix and my mood was altered again!
Very slowly with the help of amazing new friends, neighbours and ‘honest’ mums I started rebuilding my life. I knew I was addicted to the anti-anxiety pills and it was so hard to come off them even though deep down I knew I didn’t really need them anymore. I had also started hairdressing part time again. I think I kind of snapped out of things when Jax was 18 months old. It was like a trigger had been activated. I think I was back! In celebration, my beautiful partner proposed. I was finally happy, and we ended that year on a high. A good 6 months later (after saying I would never have another child) I turned to Carl and said I would like another baby. He looked at me as if I had gone mad again and said, ‘let’s just concentrate on the wedding first and discuss this later’. We instantly started planning the wedding and in February 2016 when Jax was 4 months off being three we had the happiest day or our lives, throwing a huge party to not only commit to each other but to also say a huge thanks to all of our family and friends for all their support on my long road to recovery. After the wedding it became clear that the baby feelings were not going away, so we decided that before conception it would be sensible to visit the psychiatric team in Perth who work closely with the MBU.
They laughed when I asked if I could have another baby as for me, luckily, conceiving and giving birth was the easy part. We were told that it wouldn’t be an easy road because my PPS had been so severe that there an 80% chance of it reoccurring, even with medication. It was a tough decision to make, but the team felt more comfortable when we agreed to move to Perth for 10 weeks so they could monitor me closely. When I was pregnant, I started visiting King Edward hospital (in Perth) on a regular basis. I also had a great doctor in Dunsborough who knew my history and also did check-ups. I really felt like I was in good hands and was positive that this time my story would be different. When I was 38 weeks we moved to Perth and I started taking a very low dose of antipsychotic drugs. I gave birth to another beautiful baby boy, who we named Coen. I stayed in the King Edward and was then moved to the MBU for monitoring but the psychosis didn’t show its ugly face. After 10 weeks we returned to Dunsborough and I just had to deal with the normal anxious moments that all mums get and I was feeling confident all would be fine.
Mum came to Australia for a short visit when Coen was 8 weeks old and that’s when I had to go back to the doctors as I was feeling a little depressed. I masked that fact that I had stopped eating properly and was drinking every day. I was put back on anti-depressants but with the effect of the alcohol, they had little or no effect. I just wished the depression would pass and I would be happy again like on my wedding day. The booze masked the pain and I used to post ‘fun party’ photographs trying to prove I was okay. It was a very frustrating time for Carl who had nowhere to turn and no idea what to do. More troubling was when Jax said to me ‘mum when in the morning will you start getting up with me and Coen instead of staying in bed’ … I used to get up when Coen cried and then go back to bed and pull the blanket over my head until Jax or Coen would yell out again.
I suppose I somehow muddled through that year. I just knew that something wasn’t right. Again, I kept all my feelings to myself. By now Coen was 13 months and Mum came for another visit. I was just so tired and emotionally flat. Mum knew I wasn’t depressed but after deep, searching, honest discussions I had a complete meltdown and I even admitted that I was terrified that maybe the psychosis was returning. She made an appointment with the local psych team and they too agreed that I wasn’t psychotic or depressed but just anxious. I was prescribed anti-anxiety medication but it just made me feel and act way too chilled. Mum suggested that I see the naturopath who had helped me during pregnancy and after I had finished all my meds with Jax. After a blood test he was staggered by my iron levels which were dangerously low explaining why I was so tired and flat. Once I started taking the prescribed dosage of iron my mood rocketed. My youngest is now 21 months old.
I’m finally back to my old self and feel great I definitely have my moments when I feel guilty about how my mental illness affected my feelings for Jax. Every time I am happy with Coen reaching a milestone I remember how uninterested I was with Jax. I see mums and newborns so happy and it reminds me of my unhappy time. Sometimes I wonder why I drew that card and how unfair life can be. But I am in awe of my boys and find myself staring at them with my heart bursting with love. I feel shame that I haven’t always felt that way and felt so disconnected from both of them but more so from Jax. I cry a lot, but I also laugh a lot and I also hug my boys extra tight every day. I’m so grateful for my health and my recovery and look forward to an awesome future as their mumma. It was worth it and the bond we have as a family is so special and I will never take that for granted. In 2016, before Coen was born I raised 15,000 dollars from a fun clothes swapping event which I donated to the mental health organisation LAMP. This donation together with funds from other sponsors established a local charity called RADIANCE. This is currently web based and is a community network which connects parents to local services for support and emotional well being during early parenthood.
This year, on Sunday 11 November (2018) the Big Pram Walk took place in Busselton and I was asked to give a talk about my experience to raise the awareness of Radiance. I was thrilled that the donation had been put to such good use and I’m so happy to be connected with the team there and to keep raising more awareness about mental health and help to cut the stigma attached to it and the stigma regarding the use of antidepressants. If you have a plaster on your arm that’s okay. What about the plaster for your mental health? Radiance would like to be able to provide some kind of shelter so that there is somewhere for a struggling mum to access much-needed help. Please do visit the website in case there is anything you can do to help.
Finally, I have my close family to thank for being with me whenever they could, and I’d also like to thank both my old and new friends for their support. And yes, I still have my moments when I could lock myself away in the toilet but hey, I think all of us have those moments!