Reflections on postpartum psychosis
I want to start with a definition of postpartum psychosis as it is still a little known condition. (With thanks to Action on Postpartum Psychosis, a very good charity with whom I have been involved over a number of years.) It is a severe mental illness which begins suddenly after childbirth. Symptoms include: hallucinations and delusions, often with mania, depression or confusion.
Over 1,400 women experience postpartum psychosis in the UK. (That’s between 1 & 2 in every 1000 mothers.) I decided to write about my own experience of this frightening illness to help raise awareness.
I experienced this after the birth of my first born, Jamie, who has just celebrated his 27th birthday. I know that awareness and treatment of this illness has improved since he was born, but crucially there are still many parts of the UK that do not have Mother and Baby Units. This has a huge negative impact on the recovery of mothers suffering from postpartum psychosis or other forms of post-natal depression.
My son was born after quite a tricky labour as he was in a difficult (back to back) position. He was in distress and was born with breathing difficulties, a little grey, silent bundle. He was immediately rushed off to the Special Care Baby Unit and the stress of this triggered psychosis in me as I was convinced that he was going to die.
My baby was born in a large hospital in Hertfordshire and I was transferred to the psychiatric ward for nearly 2 weeks while I was treated with various drugs but nothing seemed to work for me. Jamie came out of special care after 3 days. I absolutely adored him from the start but I was still severely depressed and disturbed. I was experiencing hallucinations and delusions. I became convinced that my husband was trying to murder me.
Eventually I started a course of ECT (electric shock therapy) which I know is very controversial but it worked very well for me, at least initially. It literally felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders and my mind appeared crystal clear.
Our lives were further complicated when our delayed house move from Hertfordshire to Oswestry took place when Jamie was about two weeks old! I appeared a lot better but the stress of the move triggered another psychotic episode and I was sectioned in to what was then Shelton Hospital for a month.
I have mixed memories of that time. Rory (my husband) visited with Jamie as much as he possibly could but because the Mother and Baby Unit was closed at that time I could not have Jamie with me overnight so I missed him desperately. I remember at night I used to pace the ward saying his name over and over.
I was put on Lithium during this time which was a turning point for me. My mood started slowly to lift and I enjoyed talking to some very compassionate staff there.
After some weeks I was transferred to a hospital in the Wolverhampton area where I could stay in a unit and have Jamie with me all the time which was fantastic. A highlight for me was a nurse who used to call Jamie ,”the baby with the Paul Newman eyes” which always made me smile!
I finally came home full time in May after 4 months of hospital treatment. Lithium was the key for me to a more balanced mind and mood despite its side effects. I have now been on it for the past 10 years.
Reflections on living with bipolar
When I became pregnant with Jamie I had no idea that I was suffering from bipolar which was probably an advantage for me. Episodes of postpartum psychosis occur after approximately 25% of births to women with bipolar disorder. (Information from Bipolar UK)
There are pros and cons to a late diagnosis of bipolar. People are much more commonly diagnosed in their teens or twenties but it is often difficult to diagnose.
What is bipolar disorder? It is a mental health problem that mainly affects your mood. If you have it you are likely to have times when you experience manic or hypo-manic episodes (feeling high), depressive episodes (feeling low), potentially some psychotic symptoms during manic or depressed episodes.
We went on to have another baby despite being told of the high risk of another episode of postpartum psychosis. Our beautiful Poppy was born about 2 and a half years after Jamie. This time I sailed through the birth and even through breastfeeding. No problems at all! She was born at the wonderful Oswestry Maternity Unit and I cannot speak highly enough of the superb care and sensitivity we received.
Memories of living with bipolar
I remember feeling in my early teens that I was “different”. I seemed to feel emotions much more deeply than other people and used to escape constantly into books. I was a very academic girl but I had very bad panic attacks during all of my A level exams which I think was an indication of bipolar instability. Luckily I still got a place at my first choice university and went on to be more happy and more myself than I had ever been before.
In my second year I was diagnosed with clinical depression and spent a little while in a psychiatric clinic. I had to leave uni for a year and I worked in London as a nanny which I loved. I then studied in Paris for a year which was incredible and I got my degree the following year.
Today I feel much more accepting about having bipolar.
I left my long standing job as a Teaching Assistant about 2 years ago after experiencing another bipolar episode. I went through another psychotic episode about 10 years ago and other times when I have felt suicidal but I feel stronger now and more optimistic about the future.
I am lucky enough to have been a member of the brilliant Designs in Mind for about the past 2 years, enjoying the people, the challenges and yes the creativity! It’s so uplifting to be with like-minded people who have been through the same type of experiences. In the same vein I jointly run a small bipolar group which meets twice a month to chat, give support and advice to each other. I have met some fab people in both groups.
I also volunteer at Shropshire Mind talking to people who have mental health problems which I really enjoy. I have learnt such a lot and met some interesting people who are trying to make the most of life.
I realise that I am so fortunate to have such a lovely husband, family and fantastic friends including my new friends at Designs in Mind. Together they have kept me going through the dark, despondent periods and bleak grey times. They keep me laughing through the sunny yellow times.
I think we all need to show compassion, sensitivity and empathy towards people struggling with mental health issues even if it is just having a chat over a cup of coffee. Mental illness is very common. Those people could potentially be our friend, our mum, our colleague, our child even. How can we walk away?
On February the 11th 2018 we launched a crowd funding campaign. We want to start a conversation about mental health that is powerful. No more treading on eggshells. We are not invisible, We do not want to be hidden away. Our work in the studio and shop is #SmashingStigma every day, and now we are going to be a little noisier.
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