I look at this photo, taken nearly two years after my experience with postpartum psychosis, and think “Wow, I never thought I’d get here. To this point of happiness and love and self-acceptance and hope.”
The first year and a half of my son’s life was not as picture perfect.
Here’s my story. My husband and I are high school sweethearts. We were together 10 years before we married in 2013. We wanted kids, sure. But I was focused on my career and wanted to be financially secure before starting a family. So, we decided to wait until 2017 to try to conceive. It definitely didn’t come easy for us. It took about a year before we finally got pregnant. But weeks later our world stopped. I had a miscarriage at 5 weeks pregnant. This happened while we were both also dealing with the loss of our fur baby, Otis (a cat we had since we began dating 15 years earlier). That, coupled with a lot of other personal stuff going on in our lives, broke me. I tried to remain strong, and opted to look to the future instead of dealing with my pain.
Once it was safe to do so, we continued to try for a baby. Four months later, we found out we were pregnant. We. Were. Elated. Our rainbow baby.
My pregnancy was a smooth one. But, I am a little anxious by nature and that became more obvious throughout the pregnancy, especially with the constant fear that I may miscarry again, or something else terrible might happen to me or the baby.
As an expecting mom, or parent, you often spend so much time eagerly preparing for your baby’s arrival. Learning all about baby’s development, getting the nursery set-up, making sure you’re registered for all the latest and greatest baby gadgets, the list goes on. Not once during my pregnancy did I consider the effect having a baby would have on my mental health. After all, women have had babies for centuries, no big deal, right?
Boy, how naive. Looking back, preparing for a baby should have included preparing myself for the potential of what I was about to experience postpartum. Instead, my husband and I were left unprepared to navigate the tragic mental health system while in such a dire condition.
Right after Henry was born, my stress levels were at an all time high. I won’t go into all the details, but basically my perfectionism and my need to feel like I could handle it all — the late night feedings, the laundry, the other house work, the same busy social calendar — took its toll. I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wasn’t eating or sleeping. I was constantly “revved up” is the best way to explain it. Looking back, I now see how all of this led up to the ultimate breaking point.
About 6 weeks into my postpartum journey, while my husband was behind the scenes frantically Googling “when will my wife’s hormone levels even out after baby?” I lost grip with reality. Literally. I didn’t believe it was me in all the photos hanging throughout our house, as if this was someone else’s life I was living in. I became paranoid. I thought someone was trying to steal my son. I thought my family was plotting against me. I would go from crying to laughing hysterically within the same breath. I was not myself and was behaving erratically.
It was then that my husband realized that something was not right. He took me to the ER. Sadly, due to how our mental health system is run, I wasn’t able to get the care I needed unless I volunteered to be admitted into a psychiatric hospital. They ER doctors advised us to go home and get some sleep, and we could reevaluate in the morning. There was no change. I didn’t sleep and it was the same paranoid, anxious, erratic cycle the next day. We went back to the ER and ultimately decided it would be best to be admitted into the psychiatric hospital.
I didn’t realize what was going on or how long I’d be there. All I knew was something was not right and I wanted to get better. I had to take an ambulance to the psychiatric hospital, even though it was voluntary. Once there, my husband wasn’t able to stay with me. I had to give up all the belongings I had on me (which wasn’t much because I didn’t bring anything to the ER but the clothes on my back, chapstick and my cell phone).
After I was settled in at the psychiatric hospital, I was delusional. Memories of my life, childhood, and other experiences all rushed to me — the good, the bad, the ugly all constantly running through my mind. I felt like I was constantly trying to uncover something, find meaning, connect the dots. I experienced all of this alone, in a tiny, white room with a thin mattress. Seriously, it would make a sane person crazy.
While it was bleak and uncomfortable, the psychiatric hospital gave me direct access to the right mental health professionals (psychiatrist, therapist, etc). During my evaluation, I was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. I had never heard of this postpartum mood disorder (PPMD) before, but the words psychosis and psychotic do not really have the most favorable reputation. I was a crazy person — that’s all I heard.
The care team recommended that I go on medication. I knew it was necessary but I wasn’t in the frame of mind to make decisions. I questioned everything, but was unable to sort through all the noise in my head. Ultimately they put me on an antipsychotic drug to help “unscatter” my brain. They also gave me melatonin to help me sleep – after I refused other sleep aids because I was overly concerned about becoming addicted.
It all felt surreal. It was dreamlike. I kept thinking I’ve got to be sleeping and this is all a dream. When will I wake up?
I finally was able to get some sleep. My husband knows this part better than me, but I believe he said I slept something like 18 hours straight. After two days there, I was evaluated and deemed fit to return home to recover. It was truly a short period of time, considering the severity of my diagnosis.
Once home, I chose to stop breastfeeding so I could get help with feedings from my husband and other family members. I began therapy, opting for an intensive outpatient program. I was a bit resistant with the therapy as I didn’t feel like it was specific to my situation — as a new mom with a newly diagnosed mood disorder, I didn’t feel like I fit in. Because of this, and because I had started to feel better with the medication, I made the decision to end the program early.
Then, my maternity leave ended and I had to go back to work. The antipsychotic medication affected my concentration and ability to function to my fullest potential. I started having panic attacks. I was overly anxious that I would lose my job and we’d lose my income. I spiraled. I became deeply depressed, felt hopeless and my self confidence plummeted.
In my lowest moment, I had to shop for a new therapist and a psychiatrist. That was the last thing I wanted to do, but knew I needed the help.
Once I found the right fit, it took months of therapy to realize that I needed to make some tough decisions. I decided to take a step back in my career and found a new job closer to home. The job change, all the work I was doing through therapy, and the support of my family and friends helped me slowly find my way back to me (or atleast the new me).
Today, I look at my beautiful family and am so thankful for how we have been able to overcome the darkest of days. Yet, I also reflect back on my experience and am saddened. I’m saddened that I wasn’t more prepared for the potential after effects of having a baby. I’m saddened that our healthcare system isn’t set up to help moms — only screening for depression at a 6 week check-up when there are so many other ways moms struggle postpartum. I’m saddened that not everyone is as fortunate as I was to have a support system to lift me up and help me recover.
While my story has a happy ending, I understand that many others aren’t as fortunate and may still be fighting to survive their darkest of days. Or, may not be prepared for the potential of what could happen postpartum.
If you’re reading my story, my ask is to please be proactive with your mental health, and advocate for it during and after pregnancy. Here are some tips to get prepared and form a plan of action, in the event it’s ever needed, or you are unsure where to start:
- Educate yourself on PPMDs. There are a lot of great resources out there, like Moms Mental Health Initiative, Hopeful Mamma, Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, Postpartum Support International, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and more.
- Research mental healthcare providers in your area, talk to your primary care doctor or OB/GYN (and if you don’t have one, get one!). If you’re insured, gather a list of what providers are in your network, for both therapists and psychiatrists, so you know what’s covered and to avoid any financial barriers.
- Loop in your support person(s) and let them know that if anything seems out of the ordinary with you once your baby arrives, to contact your doctor right away. Create a list of three people who you trust to share your experience and information with. Include their contact information so it’s handy if needed during a crisis.
- Make a list of positive coping skills that help put you at ease. This might be different for everyone, but art, music, calling a friend, watching a movie, or mediatiting are all good options.
- Before the baby comes, determine a schedule of how to fit in time for self care. Carve out time for a nap, reading, exercise, cooking a healthy meal, or enjoying a hobby you love. Even if it is only an hour a week.
- Write a letter to yourself before the baby comes with some encouraging thoughts to read when times get tough.
- Know there is help out there, especially if you need it urgently. Make a list of hotlines and phone numbers to call should things get bad. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is free and confidential.
And above all else, know that you’re not alone. <3
-Written by Jessica Akright