I love all the media attention these past few weeks on postpartum depression. It’s so important for us to keep these conversations going so that more women and families understand that they are not alone and that it’s okay to reach out for help because treatment works. It’s wonderful to see celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, Drew Barrymore, and Alanis Morissette opening up about their stories because when people we admire, women we assume have it all together, open up and show us their struggles, we pay attention.
I’m just a mom, with a 5-year old little man, who wants to prove to the world that our struggles don’t define us. They only provide us with opportunities to make a difference in the world. I’m beginning to work on explaining this to him every chance I get.
– from a post I wrote dated Sept 19, 2013
We also need to be talking about postpartum psychosis. I was diagnosed with PPP a month after my first child was born, and suffered from antenatal psychosis (psychosis during pregnancy) during my second pregnancy. Both times I had been avoiding my medication for bipolar disorder because I didn’t want to expose the baby to the risks.
I want to share what I’ve learned. Maybe then, more people will understand postpartum psychosis the way they’re beginning to understand PPD, and the women and families who experience it will feel as supported as those who go through postpartum depression.
- Women who experience PPP are NOT monsters. Yes, it’s true that untreated PPP can lead to infanticide, but that doesn’t mean it’s the mother’s fault. She was sick and needed treatment, and the more we’re able to identify the symptoms and the sooner she’s able to get treatment, the chances of her actually harming her baby can be avoided all together.
- We can be good at hiding the onset of PPP. Having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years before I had my first child, I knew what the beginning of a manic episode felt like. I was euphoric, energized despite the severe lack of sleep, and highly social, planning playdates when obviously I should have instead been resting. I hid my initial symptoms for fear of having my son taken from me. I was terrified of failing as a mom.
- Family and spouses/partners are usually the first to know something is wrong. If it weren’t for my husband, who knows what could have happened. The morning my husband called 911 to have me hospitalized, I woke at 5am after having barely slept the night before due to the baby’s feeding schedule and my extreme mania. I was in the kitchen rearranging the items in our cabinets. My speech was pressured (had so many things to tell my husband but the words wouldn’t come out fast enough), and what I was able to verbalize wasn’t making any sense. He recognized these symptoms from my two previous manic episodes years before, combined with how little sleep I was getting, and immediately called 911.
- Sometimes the woman can’t even see how badly she needs help. Seeking help for psychosis symptoms is very different than seeking help for postpartum depression. Usually it is not the woman herself who seeks treatment, but the spouse/partner or family member who initiates treatment through hospitalization. After the birth of my first and during my second pregnancy, I became so ill that I couldn’t realize exactly how far gone I was. It was a gradual process, but once I reached a certain level of mania, the chaos in my brain took over and catapulted me into psychosis and it was up to those around me to find a way to bring me back. Involuntary commitment was what I needed both times.
- It can be difficult to admit symptoms. Some women have thoughts of harming their children, and some of them act on those violent thoughts. Stories like the one of Andrea Yates might make women afraid of reaching out for help for fear of being looked down upon by friends or family members. I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have those intrusive thoughts, but it was still incredibly difficult for me to admit that I needed help.
- Although rare, there are predicting factors, and PPP can be prevented. Postpartum psychosis is much less common than postpartum depression. Although there are underlying conditions which can predispose a woman to developing postpartum psychosis, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder being the main factor, any pregnant woman is potentially at risk. Which is why we need to raise awareness around PPP the same way we are raising awareness around PPD.
- Breastfeeding isn’t the only way to feed a newborn. I put tremendous pressure on myself to breastfeed my first child. “Breast is best” was everywhere I turned during my pregnancy and I correlated my ability to feed my child from my body with how successful I was as a new mom. Not only was this wrong, it was incredibly unhealthy. With my second child, we had a plan to bottle-fed with formula from the start, which led to a much more enjoyable postpartum period as compared to my first month of new motherhood breastfeeding my son.
- Moms who experience PPP are good moms, too. If I would have known that experiencing this illness was not my fault, and that there were other moms out there who also had to be hospitalized following the births of their babies, it would have been a little easier. Which is why I share my story. If even just one person finds my story and she’s able to get help sooner rather than later, it’s all worth it.