Postpartum psychosis can happen to anyone. I was a professional woman juggling a career and caring for my three-year-old son. Despite having a c-section and the challenges of moving into a new home and community, there were no mental health problems in my first pregnancy. My husband, an Air Force pilot, was overseas serving our country during the third trimester of my pregnancy with my second son.
I was admitted to the hospital for toxemia six weeks before my due date. I started having contractions regularly and informed the nursing staff. A nurse literally told me to, “Go to sleep and quit bothering us.” A few minutes later, my son was born on the ward, weighing just 3 ½ pounds. I had never known anyone who had a baby that tiny, and I didn’t know if he would live or die.
Over the next eleven days, I virtually never slept. Every three hours, I pumped my breasts to provide fresh breast milk. This was 1979, and military hospitals hadn’t yet gotten the word that you could freeze breast milk. I was on a three-hour feeding schedule, and all my roommates were on a four-hour schedule. In between feedings, I was frequently awakened so the staff could take vital signs. There was NO uninterrupted sleep. At the time I’d never heard of Postpartum PTSD, but I’m sure that the trauma of the birth experience and mistrust of my medical staff were factors in my psychosis.
Fortunately my husband came home early from his overseas assignment, but at that point I was already losing touch with reality. I demanded that my son and I be transferred to another hospital closer to my home so that I could sleep. When they refused, I slapped a nurse and was taken away in a straightjacket.
When I was admitted to the psych ward, the nurse handed me some pills and a glass of water. I refused the pills and threw the glass of water in her face. (Sorry about that.) I stood on the bed and started praying loudly. The staff grabbed my arms and legs. It took four people to hold me down while the doctor gave me an injection of medicine.
I spent two weeks on the mental ward, was on very strong meds, and could barely walk, talk, or control my bladder when I was released from the hospital. I was a shadow of my former healthy self, but was gradually tapered off meds at about three months.
I had a relapse sometime in the four to six month period and started having issues with sleep and losing touch with reality. My psychiatrist suggested that I was bipolar and should go on lithium for the rest of my life. I chose to go off medication, and fortunately made a good recovery within nine months. We know a lot more about postpartum psychosis now. Although many women who experience it do have an underlying bipolar disorder, others like me may experience what some experts call a “situation-induced psychosis.”
I would encourage women who want to have another baby after a psychosis to carefully evaluate their mental health status, and not be in a rush to get pregnant again too soon. It took me about three years to totally recover after my psychosis.
Six years after my psychosis, I had a third son. He was born with a rare congenital heart
defect. Although this was an incredibly stressful time, I had no mental health problems. My husband and mother, knowing my previous experience, were extremely supportive. I was able to sleep at home and visit my son in the NICU every day. He died in my arms at one week of age.
I have had no mental health problems in the past forty years, although I did have some sleep issues when I started perimenopause. They were resolved by taking flaxseed, a source of phytoestrogens, and using a ceiling fan to cool my bedroom and provide white noise.
For over twenty-five years, I was too ashamed to ever speak about my psychosis. In 2001, after the news broke about Andrea Yates, I started thinking again about my psychosis. In 2005, I started writing a novel about my experience. Initially I planned to publish under a pen (false) name. I did publish “Back in Six Weeks” in 2014, and decided at the last minute to use my real name. If I had it to do over, I would have written a memoir instead of a novel.
In 2012, I attended my first conference of Postpartum Support International (PSI) in Las Vegas. There Jane Honikman suggested that I purchased Teresa Twomey’s book “Understanding Postpartum Psychosis.” The book was a great source of information.
In 2013, I heard Michele Davidson and Jennifer Moyer speak about their postpartum psychosis experiences. Michele has been my hero ever since, and serves as a Postpartum Psychosis Coordinator for PSI. I served on the PSI board for almost three years, and helped plan the first World Maternal Mental Health Day.
In 2015, we had the first in-person support group for PPP survivors at the PSI conference in Plymouth, Michigan. There I met Angela Burling and Naomi Knowles Gerdes. Both women had tragically experienced infanticide. Naomi had recently been released after serving ten years in prison. I went from thinking that I had the worst possible experience, to realizing how lucky I was to have made a complete recovery.
I have had a successful career and marriage, and enjoy a wide range of friends and hobbies. My current mental health is “excellent.” I feel that it’s important to share my story so that other women who experience postpartum psychosis can have hope for a complete recovery. You can read my “Food and Mood Blog” at www.sharongerdes.com