My experience with postpartum depression and psychosis lasted for the first 17 months of my daughter’s life. It was awful — even though I reached out for professional help right away, it look that long to find the right treatment. I was hospitalized a total of 4 times, twice involuntarily, over a 6-7 month period, totaling about 2 months of inpatient time. I saw several therapists and psychiatrists and was prescribed so many different medications, but they all failed, and I just kept getting worse.
When my daughter was first born, I was in love and felt attached to her right away. She was our IVF miracle, and we had waited for her for so long. But, I felt a growing sense of anxiety and sadness over the first few weeks. I couldn’t sleep, even when the baby was sleeping. I missed my relationship with my husband. I lost my appetite, and rapidly dropped below my pre-pregnancy weight. I was constantly reaching out to loved ones for support. I went to therapy, took medication, and made sure to get out of the house every day. I did all the “right things.” At first, I improved a bit, and was able to go back to work after maternity leave ended. But then, for reasons I don’t understand, things got worse.
My sleep and appetite continued to deteriorate. I was unhealthily thin. I began to have strange delusions. I thought that my daughter was starving to death (not true!). I became afraid of people, including my own husband, even though he was nothing but supportive. I could not concentrate, couldn’t sleep, and began to believe strange things about “the universe.” I eventually had to resign my job as a psychologist, because I could not care for my patients. I could not even take care of myself.
My first hospitalization occurred when my daughter was about 11 months old. I had been getting steadily worse. After a few days I was discharged, only to be readmitted a few hours later after threatening suicide and calling 911 in a psychotic state. I spent my daughter’s first Christmas in the hospital. A month or so later, I was again hospitalized involuntarily, after calling a crisis hotline and making concerning statements about my daughter. We were both taken to the hospital, my husband was called and had to leave work, and someone at the hospital called child protective services and opened an investigation against me. No findings were made, but it was a terrifying experience that lasted several weeks. That hospitalization lasted over a month — I was involuntarily committed because, due to my delusions, I could not understand or cooperate with treatment, and I kept arguing with the doctors about my care.
I knew that I could not care for my daughter by myself. She continued to go to daycare even though I wasn’t working. I spent my days pacing the house, wandering the streets, or having my dad take me to the store because I was too confused to figure out how to do simple things like buying groceries. When my husband had to work, I took the baby to my parents’ house so that they could help me care for her. I got a part-time job at a retail store, even though I have a Ph.D., because that was all I could handle. Then, I couldn’t even handle that, and stopped showing up.
I was hospitalized a fourth and final time when my daughter was about 16 months old — my husband was at work and very concerned about me because I was home alone, pacing the house and refusing to go to any more mental health appointments. I was done. I had completely lost hope. I wanted to die, but in my delusional state I believed that my suffering would continue beyond death into eternity. I no longer even recognized that I was ill — I believed that the universe was a place of suffering and that everyone was in pain the way I was. My husband called the police and my father, who met me at my house and transported me to the hospital. I spoke to my husband and told him I did not want to see the baby — she was just a reminder of my failure as a mother.
Still, as with my previous hospitalizations, either my husband or another family member brought my daughter to see me almost every day. It was hard to see her there. I was afraid of her and for her. I was afraid of everyone and everything.
After another 11 or so days there, I was discharged, and referred to a new mental health team for intensive outpatient care. This new team finally recognized what I needed — electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Apparently, ECT is the standard of care for severe postpartum illness in some other countries, such as the UK, but unfortunately the U.S. is very behind on this research, and none of my previous treatment providers realized what I needed.
I received 8 sessions of ECT over a 4-week period. And, miraculously, I made a full recovery. I was able to go back to work as a psychologist. My appetite returned, and I was able to sleep. I was able to enjoy being a mom, for the first time in 18 months. I felt happy again. The delusions went away. I stopped feeling anxious and depressed. I was able to take care of myself and my daughter. My relationship with my husband began to improve. I was able to concentrate and complete normal, everyday tasks again.
Now, my daughter is 2 years old, and life just keeps on getting better. My relationship with my daughter is wonderful, and I feel competent to care for her now. My husband struggled for quite a while with the fear that I could relapse, but as time goes by and my health remains stable, he is gaining more confidence that things will be alright. We have decided not to have any more children, and I have been assured by my treatment providers that the illness is completely behind me. We are selling our house, because there are so many sad and scary memories attached to this one, and we are looking forward to a new chapter in our lives.
I wish that someone had referred me for ECT earlier. I wish that the mental health profession knew more about treating postpartum illness. I want to do anything I can to help others and to further the research in this area. People need to know that ECT can be an effective treatment option for postpartum depression and psychosis.
My story could have turned out very differently. I was very fortunate to have a supportive spouse, a wonderful family, and access to treatment. I was already educated in the mental health field and knew how to reach out for help. My husband’s income was enough to support us and to continue paying for daycare, when I lost my job. If any of these were not true, I might never have found the right help, and might have taken my own life. I am keenly aware that many people in this situation do not have the support network and resources that I have. Even with the advantages I’ve had, there are still scars. Financially, we not only lost my income, but had to pay huge medical bills for all of my hospitalizations and treatments. Even though I’m working again, my current job does not have the pay and benefits of my previous job, which I could not get back. My career trajectory has changed. Although things have improved and continue to do so, my husband and I are still navigating the emotional effects of my illness on our relationship, while also being parents of a toddler. Still, we are strong. I am strong. I know that the future is bright. Without my family, without ECT, without research into this devastating illness, that future would be much darker. People need to know that they are not alone. There is help, and hope.