I Had Postpartum Psychosis

Photographed by Julia Robbs.
As told to Laura Barcella. My husband, James, and I had been married for exactly a year when I got pregnant at 33. I was beyond thrilled. I’m a teacher, and I’ve always been obsessed with kids. Growing up, I assumed I’d be a natural supermom. Of course I knew pregnancy carries risks, and doctors had warned me about the baby blues. But I had no history of mental illness, so I was thrown completely off guard when, the day after I brought our son Isaac home from the hospital, I started noticing that things weren’t…right. Like I said, I’d heard plenty about postpartum depression — “If you cry a lot at first, that's normal,” my doctors said. And it makes sense: New moms are going through a huge host of physical, emotional, and physiological changes; within minutes, your entire identity is upended. Suddenly, there’s this tiny creature who's wholly dependent on you for its survival. All the parenting books and organic diapers in the world can't help you process the magnitude of that. I didn’t have a problem bonding with Isaac — I was in love with him from the start. But as a type-A person fixated on organization and control, I was overwhelmed by the boundless responsibilities of new motherhood. And I wasn't just “crying a lot.” I couldn't sleep or eat; I was nauseous and dehydrated. I had this intense, manic energy, and I was nearly paralyzed with worry about Isaac’s safety. I’d be up in the middle of the night preparing for natural disasters. I had family and friends helping out (and, of course, my similarly sleep-deprived husband), but I felt isolated. My mom had five kids and never experienced any unusual postpartum symptoms. She noticed something was off with me, but I didn’t know what to tell her. James was super-supportive, but he didn’t realize how bad it was getting. I had my first panic attack a few weeks into motherhood, at a work event James had asked me to attend with him. Out of nowhere, my heart began racing. I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to die. I told James I needed to go to the hospital, and when we arrived, they gave me an IV with some fluids and sent us home. A week later I had another panic attack and ended up in the E.R. overnight. By that point, I was so sleep-deprived that I was feeling out of touch with reality. It was hard to know whether I was awake or asleep; I’d actually ask people, “Am I awake right now?”

It felt like I was on a really bad extended acid trip.

The psychiatrist at the hospital told me I was experiencing severe postpartum anxiety, and said I needed to go on medication. He wanted to put me on Zoloft, which is supposed to be safe for breastfeeding moms, but I refused. I was concerned about passing the drug on to my son, and my parents were discouraging me from taking it, too. After about six weeks, James had to go away on a business trip for the weekend. In retrospect, it’s clear that I shouldn’t have stayed home with Isaac on my own, but I insisted I’d be fine. Sure enough, while James was out of town, I started experiencing full-on postpartum psychosis. For one thing, I’d convinced myself that my son was the Messiah, the second coming of Christ. I was also intensely paranoid about the threat of catastrophes — namely earthquakes, possibly because I’d felt like the ground was shaking during one panic attack. I started making sure everyone around me knew how to take care of Isaac in case I suddenly died in an earthquake. I’d also started thinking I could see and talk to spirits; I firmly believed my dead grandmother was in the house with Isaac and me. At one point that weekend, I actually removed my contact lenses and threw them out the window while I was driving with six-week old Isaac in the back. I thought I was in a dream and wanted to prove that to myself. I figured I’d still be able to see, so I’d confirm that I was, in fact, asleep. It felt like I was on a really bad extended acid trip.
That night, I met up with my friend Anna at a restaurant. She just sat there looking at me with an expression of profound concern. I was really out of it, and I wasn’t responding to anything she said. I hadn't slept in more than 24 hours, and I believed everyone could hear my thoughts.
Photographed by Gunnar Larson.
When I got home, I watched Magic Mike and thought the characters’ eyes were glowing like the devil’s. The scariest part of that whole weekend, though, is the fact that I have zero memory of what Isaac was doing that whole time — I was so in my own head that I wasn't even paying attention. Thank god he turned out okay. Anna must have told our friends how worried she was about me, because the next day, people started coming over, bringing food, and helping with the baby. A friend stayed with me the next night until James came home.
I thought I’d feel better when my husband returned, but things only worsened. I started thinking I could control time. James was terrified and sent me back to the doctor, who prescribed Zoloft and an anti-psychotic called Zyprexa. This time, I agreed to try the meds because nothing else was working; I’d had one too many crises. Plus, I desperately needed to sleep and eat, and the drugs were supposed to help with that. Finally, my symptoms began to subside. Things stabilized after that, though I experienced one more psychotic breakdown a few months later when I flew to the East Coast with Isaac to visit family. I had yet another panic attack during the five-hour flight, and when I got to my parents’ place in New Jersey, I told them that the plane had crashed and that I thought I’d died. They made me to go a psychiatrist there every day for a week. We upped the meds, and fortunately it passed. I weaned off the Zyprexa after three months, but continued taking Zoloft until Isaac was nine months old. But while I felt better, fear nagged at me. I’d always known I wanted more than one child, but I was so scared of going through all that awfulness again. James and my doctor were hesitant, too. Thankfully, I experienced zero psychological symptoms during my second pregnancy or after the birth of my daughter, Natalie — aside from overwhelming love and relief. I’m not sure what to attribute the difference to, although we did prepare better that time: I had a strong support team in place, and my parents stayed with us for five weeks after Natalie was born. I feel exceptionally lucky that, all in all, my scary postpartum symptoms only lasted three months, and my family and I emerged unscathed. But I wish more women felt comfortable coming forward with their experiences. Postpartum depression and anxiety are alarmingly common. Postpartum psychosis is more rare (affecting approximately 0.1% of women), but from talking to other moms, I think it happens more often than you’d suspect. The bottom line is that becoming a mother can be really, really hard — and the very real psychological issues that can crop up after you give birth make it even harder. Let’s not add to the burden by forcing ourselves to stay silent.

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