On the Other Side of Postpartum Psychosis

A little over a month ago, I was admitted to the hospital.

While it would be more socially acceptable to say it was for “postpartum blues”, I would be only telling a half-truth. Yes, my admission was based on postpartum hormonal changes — but the experience in my brain was far beyond “depression”.

Angry voices swirled around my head. Telling me that I was evil. Telling me that I was going to ruin my son. Telling me that I had to kill myself. Telling me that killing myself was the only way to save him.

For eight days, I rode a roller coaster between catatonic episodes and hyperventilating terror. On the eighth day, I finally begged my husband to take me to the doctor, deeply ashamed that I couldn’t fend off the voices anymore.

My OB told me to go to the emergency room. When I arrived at the hospital, I was ripped, without warning, from my baby — my baby who refuses a bottle and who had never been apart from me for more than a few hours.

No one told me that if I asked my doctor for help that my worst fear would happen — that I would be forcibly taken from my child.

As I sobbed and changed into a gown, my breasts leaked everywhere. My baby was crying somewhere without me able to comfort him.

I sat through group sessions in the psych unit with drug addicts while the staff tried to “tough love” us into fixing our “lack of coping skills”. They told me that if I would just cope better then none of this would be happening. That then they wouldn’t have to take away my baby. That I just needed to “surrender”. That I was being overly dramatic for thinking the baby needed me so badly.

Here’s a pro tip: the last thing a mother trying to claw out of postpartum psychosis needs is for you to tell her that this is her fault.

True to form, my son refused a bottle, no matter how long I was gone. I begged for him to be brought to me so he could eat. Every 12 hours, I was escorted off the unit to a conference room and monitored every second that I held him.

After each nursing session, my mother and husband — both visibly exhausted — would pack the baby up again, give me a hug, and weakly try to convince me this was a good thing.

The sole thought I clung to was, “Tell everyone whatever they want to hear. Just get out of here.”

I wish I could say that the horrifying 48 hours of separation from my child were helpful. That the psychiatrist and nurses helped me to find my way out of the darkness. That I learned “new skills”. That all I needed was a “break”. That “surrendering” was the cure. That I was placed on medication that would help me “cope”.

Nope. None of that. I left more battered and traumatized than I was when I went in.

And still, we all survived.

My baby, my husband, my mother, and I — we all survived. In these subsequent weeks, I am attempting to, you know…

“Make lemons out of lemonade.”

“Find the purpose.”

“Remember, everything makes you stronger.”

That sort of thing. This perspective may be a leaky, mangled umbrella, but it’s still something to hold onto in the storm. Honestly, I don’t know how I would get out of bed and take care of my son without holding onto the hope that this all happened for a reason.

And truly, postpartum psychosis has made me stronger, less afraid.

By facing down my biggest fears — being taken from my son and being told I was crazy — the other monsters in the night don’t have the same bite. The threat of rejection or other people’s disappointment just doesn’t hold as much sway.

In retrospect, while I may be genetically disposed to postpartum psychosis, my actions are what sent me over the edge. I was terrified of failing as a mother, so I tried to hold onto everything else in my life — my friendships, my career, my creativity, my body — to hopefully lessen the blow of my inevitable failure.

By trying to be SuperWoman & WonderMama, I invited in all the competing priorities, all the conflicting models for success, all the judgmental parenting perspectives. I invited in all the voices that would torment me. I was not “good enough” in every way — and ultimately, my brain decided to shut it all down, once and for all.

After the acute postpartum psychosis episode that put me in the hospital, I’ve begun to protect and nourish my mental health by developing an energetic forcefield around myself and my son. My only concerns are his wellbeing and mine. No one else’s needs, opinions, or judgments enter our world — for now, at least.

We wake up. I work a little while he tries to figure out how to crawl. We play outside. We eat. We sleep. And we start the cycle over again.

I have stopped trying to be great — or even good — at anything. Including being a mother.

Now, I no longer hear voices. Now, I smile regularly. Now, I do not live in fear of my own brain.

I’m just here. There is just today. There is just this moment. My son is sleeping. I am awake writing. That is enough.

If you are feeling anxious, depressed, or lost within two years of having your baby, please reach out to a postpartum doula or mental health professional who specializes in the postpartum experience for support. You deserve to be seen and supported. You can do this. You can make it to the other side.

healingCJ Howard