I had postpartum psychosis, and we need to talk more about this rarely-discussed mental health issue
My husband and I had been trying to have a baby for quite some time before we found out we were finally pregnant. Needless to say, we were both over the moon and started quickly preparing for the new arrival. We found out that we were having a little girl and decided to name her Emilene. I had a great pregnancy with no real issues except morning sickness that eventually went away.
When my daughter decided to make her appearance at 38 weeks, the labor was mostly normal. But when she was born at the hospital, she wasn’t breathing properly. Doctors took her to the Special Care baby unit and put her on oxygen. After a chest x-ray, they found that she had an enlarged heart, and transferred her to a Neonatal Care Unit at another hospital where she would undergo further testing. My husband and I rushed over to the new hospital to be with Emilene.
It was so hard to see Emilene in an incubator. After lots of tests, doctors thankfully found nothing wrong with her heart. She remained in the hospital for five more weeks before she could finally go home.
All of this stress meant that I wasn’t sleeping very much at all. I kept being woken up to pump breastmilk for Emilene so that nurses could feed her, and I was experiencing a lot of anxiety due to the environment that we were in.
Then came the first sign that something was happening to me.
I became convinced that I was psychic, connecting to the spirit world and passing messages onto people. I also experienced racing thoughts and mania, along with extreme changes in mood, moving from mania to despair very rapidly.
My mental health continued to decline quite quickly, and I suddenly realized that I hadn’t slept in about three days.
Still in the hospital, I began hallucinating. My first hallucinations were that my daughter and I had a special psychic connection, and I could read her thoughts. I told my wonderful midwife, and she became concerned. But at that point, I was only being treated for exhaustion. I couldn’t sleep because of my racing thoughts.
My condition continued to deteriorate, though. I thought I could tell people their “futures.” I became very bossy, insisting that my doctors assemble a special team of people to treat me, as I was so amazing and beautiful and strong. The turning point came when a midwife observed me, and after waking up from what I thought was sleep, I told her that my family had arranged for me to be in a special prenatal class so that I could make amends with a childhood enemy. The midwife told me it was a hallucination, and that I needed treatment that this ward wasn’t able to provide.
I was sent over to the psychiatric unit for more help.
I finally had a diagnosis: postpartum psychosis.
It is a mental health condition resulting in delusions and hallucinations. Approximately one out of every 1,000 women who has given birth experiences it. Thankfully, I was at the best place to get treatment for it.
At first, it didn’t seem so terrible — I was still manic, running around the ward attempting to befriend everyone. I still thought I was psychic, so I kept telling everyone their “futures,” passing on what I truly thought were messages from another world. Then, I started to believe that the television was sending me subliminal messages. I started believing I was related to everyone around me — for example, I thought a random contestant on X Factor was part of my family.
Things got worse from there: I started to believe that other patients were dangerous.
I began to think that I was responsible for all of the unhappiness in the hospital ward. I began to believe that I was a terrible person, and that the world would be better off if I was dead.
I had my worst hallucination after reading an article in a local newspaper:
A car accident had claimed the life of an elderly woman. I genuinely believed that I had met this woman in the hospital, and that she had asked me to drive her to visit her grandchildren. On the way, I had accidentally driven into a power pole and killed her. I was so convinced that this had happened; I frantically quizzed all of my visitors and the other patients about it. Even when they all explained to me that I had never left the hospital, I continued to believe the hallucination was my reality. I was convinced that people were hiding things from me to protect me, and I was going to wake up in a courtroom getting sentenced for manslaughter. I was terrified.
Next, I hallucinated that my mother didn’t love me anymore. Then, that my husband didn’t love me anymore and had already started divorce proceedings.
It was really hard for a long time. I didn’t seem to be getting any better, but eventually I started sleeping again. The more I slept, the better I got and the clearer my thoughts were. Doctors eventually found the right combination of drugs for my condition, and things got a lot easier. I started to trust the world and the people around me again. I no longer thought that I had killed anybody, or that I was responsible for the misery of anyone else.
I did miss out on a lot of my daughter’s firsts, though, like her first trip home from the hospital. But I am not upset.
After struggling with something so frightening, I am better able to understand what other people with mental illness go through.
I’m so grateful to the staff at Hutt and Wellington hospitals, where I was treated, for how they took care of me when I was unable to take care of myself. I no longer experience psychosis, and I am even back at work part time, enjoying my life with my beautiful daughter and my husband. Everyone needs access to good mental health treatment, and you should never feel ashamed about struggling with mental health — it could happen to anyone.
Petra Weston lives in Lower Hutt, New Zealand with her husband and 9-month-old daughter. She loves reading, writing, baking, and food in general. She is a proud feminist and advocate for mental health, after battling her own mental health demons. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and read her baking blog.