Yes, I gave birth then my brain broke, catastrophically so. But the amazing thing about the human body is that it tries to repair itself the best it can, including the brain.
“Breaking News!* Very proud & thrilled to announce……we’re going to have a baby!!!”
“Congratulations! Best thing ever!”
“Wow, exciting times ahead for you all. x x”
“Wonderful news, the best thing that will ever happen in your life!”
Wrong. Not for me for the first few years anyway, Postpartum Psychosis shattered my mind and temporarily shattered our dreams.
I wouldn’t say I enjoyed pregnancy but I sailed through it with few worries apart from long months of morning sickness and indigestion. I kept fit, ate healthily and read books about baby’s development, childbirth and parenting….but none about postnatal mental health and it was barely mentioned in my antenatal classes either. I skimmed a short paragraph about postnatal depression but mental illness was alien to me, something I’d never experienced so it was far from my radar.
Unknown to me my Grandmother had had Bipolar Disorder so my “Bipolar type” brain was genetic. Postpartum Psychosis is an illness triggered by childbirth and possibly (no one knows for sure) the massive changes in hormones, sleep deprivation, stresses that childbirth and a new baby brings, or a combination of all – to someone with an existing genetic vulnerability, a perfect storm perhaps?
It happened on the fourth day after I gave birth to my first baby, my beautiful 8 llb, 11 ounce baby boy. The birth had gone well although I couldn’t have the pain relief I’d planned and I found it traumatic. I was exhausted, out of sorts and overwhelmed but I’d established breast-feeding and everything seemed OK. “Mother and baby are both doing fine.” At home I was busy with normal childcare and chores and felt very anxious and strangely fearful. A midwife I’d not met before visited a few days later, she didn’t ask me how I was feeling or if I was sleeping – I wasn’t at all, I just couldn’t switch off. My mind was racing with a burning urgency, growing faster and more panicked by the hour. Confusion, extreme anxiousness and terror mounted and the dark shadow of fear in the corner of every room was growing and creeping towards me, reaching out it’s clawed arms ready to smother me.
My brain let me down in a cataclysmic way, suddenly and severely, within hours. I wasn’t making sense, couldn’t think straight and couldn’t string a sentence together. I had moments where I felt totally euphoric, gloriously higher than I’d ever felt before, a higher high than I could ever imagine possible from any drugs. I lay back on the bed and melted right through it. I heard songs on the radio that I knew were sung just for me and had special meaning sent by something watching over and protecting me. I repeated random words over and over that only made sense to me. I held my mobile phone but just couldn’t work out how to call for help. I was frantic, manic and couldn’t walk, talk and was barely functioning.
I was rushed with my baby to A&E and taken to a single room in the maternity ward I’d left a few days before. My brain believed I was in labour again; the contractions were frightening and very real – but of course there was no second baby. I didn’t know what was happening but I knew something was very, very wrong indeed, I felt my life was in grave danger and I was hanging on by a thread. Bizarrely, I believed I could talk through my eyes, and as I was struggling to make myself understood it was the only way I could communicate. I glared with urgency into my mother’s eyes to tell her what I HAD to say to survive, to protect my tiny, new baby.
I was treated with anti-psychotic medication to stabilise my brain and was heavily sedated, with a Crisis Team member outside my door to watch me 24/7, I finally slept. Whatever the biological activity and abnormal degree of electro-chemical energy happening in my brain, it was finally on the way to being controlled.
I was told by a midwife I had Postnatal Depression but I knew I wasn’t depressed, the opposite in fact, so my paranoia and mistrust grew. I felt an urgency to protect my son and I was terrified they’d take him away or I’d be locked away. A Consultant Psychiatrist came to see me, (a Psychiatrist? For me??) who told me I was suffering with something I’d never heard of, Postpartum Psychosis….postpartum what?!!
I had strange thoughts and behavior for weeks, scribbled notes frantically and had delusions that I had a super intelligence like none ever known before, so I started writing a book – two books in fact, at the same time, one at the front of the notebook and one at the back constantly flitting between the two. My thoughts raced so fast I developed a stutter. I couldn’t read or watch TV as I couldn’t follow any plot, and I was terrified by people moving or speaking too fast. I couldn’t seem to process thoughts quickly enough to understand and the default emotion was fear. I felt anger at times when it felt like I was treated as if I was crazy or simpleminded, and frustration in trying to prove that I wasn’t. I was learning how to care for my new baby boy at the same time as trying to survive myself. This was supposed to be the happiest time of our lives but this state of consciousness was an exceptional experience and my mind was in a place where thankfully, not many people go.
Severe depression developed a few weeks later at home, which I now know happens often after the ‘high’ of the psychosis. I was reluctant to take more medication, I’d never taken any regularly before but I was given antidepressants in addition to the anti-psychotic medication. I was lower than low. Numb. I rarely left the house and lost touch with my friends. I cared for my baby, saw to his needs but struggled to bond with him…that would take a further heart-breaking, guilty year to happen. There was no end in sight and I didn’t have the strength to carry on, so after months of thinking and planning I attempted suicide. Thankfully, there was a spark of hope somewhere deep inside and with the help of my strong, resilient husband, family and a Crisis Team, I got through.
It was two years before I felt ‘recovered’ enough to stop taking the medication – it was a big turning point. It took another fragile yet happy year to fully rebuild myself, accept what had happened and to feel like ‘me’ again. My son is my whole world – he’s a gorgeous, happy, well balanced, loving boy and the bond we have now is wonderful – all the stronger I think because of the incredibly tough start we had.
So to summarise my story, my brain broke, I went to hospital, took my medicine, waited for time to heal and then I got better. My brain mended, back to what it was before I had a baby and I was me again. If I’d broken my arm I’d expect slight changes, perhaps a little nobble here or there or a small scar somewhere, but once it had healed it’d be fully functional & normal like before.
My brain’s just the same now, I’m the same person with the same personality but changed slightly due to the memories I carry, a certain feeling of fragility coming from knowing that your brain can let you down temporarily at any time, the strength that comes from surviving a traumatic ordeal, a greater awareness into how my brain works, a new perspective on what’s important in life, and a new found joy for those special, little things in life.
My broken brain also gave me a greater all round understanding and empathy towards others with mental illness and the things they can experience. On my road to Postpartum Psychosis recovery I suffered intrusive thoughts, deep depression, anxiety, panic attacks and had personal insight into other devastating, debilitating illnesses and issues such as OCD and PTSD.
I’m lucky, with good mental health care in my area, Warwickshire, and I’m extremely thankful to a great NHS which provided me with a multi-disciplinary team for all stages of my illness. The professionals missing from my care were a Specialist Perinatal Psychiatrist and a Specialist Perinatal Mental Health Midwife, having them would have made a massive difference. I did have a great Crisis Team, Early Intervention Team though and a large and necessary amount of caring professionals including a Consultant Psychiatrist, Community Psychiatric Nurse, CBT Therapist, my GP, Midwives, a Health Visitor, a Nursery Nurse and probably some others I’ve missed, to help me through the three long years and to ultimately save my life.
So, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men really did put me back together again. With extra self-monitoring and self-care, I’ve stayed well for seven years now and I’m content, thankful and treasure every day spent with my lovely family of three.