The ambulance sirens reverberate in my ear, long after the ambulance has dropped me off at the hospital. With my husband next to me, I was physically at the hospital, but my mind—and my consciousness— had taken the backseat. I was trapped in a maelstrom of confusion, unable to help myself, unable to be with my child who was just 6 weeks old. My mind whirred in tandem with my imagination, creating fictional narratives that I believed to be true — my baby had been kidnapped and taken to a daycare in Texas, and my husband was having an affair. None of this was true. But, no matter how much the doctors and the people who loved me tried to tell me this, nothing could bring my consciousness back from the postpartum psychosis that had descended upon me. There was no battle to be fought because the psychosis had already won. The rapid onset was rapid indeed, and I descended into a darkness to which I knew no depth. My paranoia at the hospital was exacerbated by my unwillingness to take medication.
It was not until 6 days after my initial intake at the hospital, did I begin to feel, and think, better. My thought began to realign itself with my lived reality and was made possible by a shift, subtle but still psychotic, that I could escape if I took my medication. My consciousness, trapped behind my stream of consciousness, did escape once I willed myself to take medicine. The effect of my mind regaining agency helped me reunite with my family and leave the hospital. It still took weeks of therapy and medicine to help me feel back to myself, but I had done it — I had survived postpartum psychosis.
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My hospitalization after the birth of my daughter was nearly 4 years ago. My husband, who was with me on the day of the hospitalization, is still with me to this day. Our marriage has never been stronger. We also now have another silly, adorable, clever, and utterly beautiful daughter.
Since I was diagnosed at 19 years old with bipolar disorder, I never thought I would be able to start my own family. My desires to be with someone who respected, cherished, and loved me as I am and to start a family with such a person was ridiculed by a past psychiatrist and by some family members. “All good things don’t come easily,” said my future husband after I told him that I had bipolar disorder three months after we started dating. We were, and still are nine years later, individuals who have professional careers that face the normal ups and downs of relationship woes. Over the years, I have worked hard to maintain my health, including diligently taking my medication each day and seeing my therapist weekly for the past 8 years. I don’t drink, smoke, or do drugs - absences made possible by a loving yet strict upbringing. I have worked hard to graduate from a prestigious small liberal arts college, an Ivy League graduate school, and gotten a Fulbright Fellowship along the way. My most prized experiences, however, have been the birth of my daughters.
My marriage and pregnancies came to fruition because of hard work and a belief that I could have a good life. It was a belief that led me to rehearse to myself, “Why not me?” It was a belief that I, too, will not be drowned out by the stigma of having a mental illness. Mental illness often does not garner the same support as physical illness. Throughout my life, I have kept silent about living with bipolar because my family was afraid of the misguided judgment by others who would limit my opportunities in life if they knew about what I had. While I recognized their caution and concerns, I yearned to share the stories that existed within me about living with bipolar.
The tipping point came when I struggled to talk about my newfound motherhood. I found myself always stopping short of what happened in my postpartum psychotic episode because I was unsure of how it would be received by the recipient. Having always been righteously outspoken, I decided to take the plunge and risk being judged in my most vulnerable state to my closest friends. Most friends listened and offered a supportive hand, but some slowly transitioned out of my life. To my relief, many of them expressed their own struggles with family members who had mental illness, or they had their own struggles with mental illness and motherhood. In sharing our stories, we breathed a collective sigh of relief that, yes, we are not alone and that we are here to support each other.
The friends I cherish the most are the friends who accept, love, and seek to understand that which they do not. If they had never had any interaction with mental illness, I wanted them to be aware of my lived experience so they could be assured that a full, rich, and beautiful life can be had with bipolar. I realized that while society may be far from accepting that people with mental illness may live full, functioning lives, the people I live with do not have to be unaware. I began to take risks and invited more and more friends into my circle of trust and shared my experiences of bipolar and postpartum psychosis with them. It was liberating because sharing something so deep and intimate not only brought my friendships to a newer, deeper level, but I didn’t feel a need to hide this part of my identity anymore. While I’ve chosen not to share my stories beyond my friendships for fear of misguided reprisal, I have decided to pen this anonymously because it is too risky in my work relationships. One day, I hope that will cease to be the case.
A key component to my mental health success is that I was committed to myself first and foremost. I wanted to get well, and that meant being fastidious about taking my medicine and valuing the space that therapy gave me, a time to myself, a time to sort through the disorder and chaos that wreaked havoc on my mind from psychosis. Valuing myself meant meditating when I could and bringing to attention those thoughts that I was ashamed of that sprung from delusions in my psychosis. I listened to a podcast on the “Secret History of Thoughts,” by Invisibilia and learned that a thought was just a thought and nothing more. There were many trying moments where I was unsure of myself or was reminded of my psychotic episode because I lived, at the time, only a few blocks from the hospital. I would bump into the physicians who treated me and a well of shame would build up in my throat because I remembered that when I was unwell, I spat in their faces. The level of shame was deep and made walking outside unbearable at times because I was afraid I would bump into them. These were the moments when I had to learn to forgive myself because I was unwell and not myself. I had to learn to let them go and realize that it was part of a very difficult time in my life. Upon learning to forgive myself when I was unwell, I then moved on to do something about it. I turned my emotional energy into something useful, practical, and scientific.
When I found the studies being done by researchers who wanted to help women who take antipsychotics, I couldn’t have felt more pride and eagerness to participate. I wish these studies had been made available sooner. The two studies I participated in, to see if antipsychotics are safe during pregnancy and to determine genetic markers for postpartum psychosis, gives me comfort that my actions are helping subsequent women after me. I wish more stories could be shared from women who live with bipolar or went through postpartum psychosis. I will never forget the feeling of mutual understanding and sisterhood I felt among my friends after I shared such intimate details of a tough period in my life. The bonds we shared grew stronger and the facades of perfection melted away to give way to a more beautiful, raw, real life -a life that I continue to live.