On November 8, 2020, just shy of a month after my daughter was born, I lost my mind.
Truth be told, my grip on reality had been slipping in the days before, but that day—a Sunday—was when my brain truly broke. I believed that my childhood best friend was a figment of my imagination, that the artwork on my walls was filled with secret messages, and that I could communicate with strangers telepathically. I heard voices, invented memories, and thought I was trapped in my home.
That evening, after consulting with my obstetrician and therapist, my partner drove me to the hospital, where I spent the next three days in the psychiatric ward.
I care deeply about mental health. Up until now, that’s meant writing about my experiences with grief, depression, and anxiety—reassuring people that they’re not alone in their struggles. In retrospect, those are relatively easy things to talk about. This time, what I went through was a lot scarier and more misunderstood. It’s taken me time and courage to write about it.
Postpartum psychosis is a little known mental disorder. It’s rare—affecting one or two out of every 1,000 new mothers—and seldom discussed. If left untreated, it can have fatal consequences.
Throughout my pregnancy, I’d braced myself for the possibility of experiencing postpartum depression. I knew that my past experience with depression and anxiety made me more susceptible to PPD. I knew that one in seven women experienced depression after giving birth—and that those rates were even higher in the pandemic.
I hadn’t prepared myself, however, for postpartum psychosis. If postpartum depression is a condition that’s only spoken about in hushed tones, then postpartum psychosis is never discussed. It’s met with silence.
Some women who experience postpartum psychosis have previously been diagnosed with conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia; many others have no known psychiatric history. While the exact causes are unknown, it is clear that the mix of sleep deprivation and elevated hormones from childbirth can result in confusion, paranoia, and delusions.
That was the case for me. In the week after my daughter was born, I was increasingly anxious about her weight and well-being—standard new-parent stuff, I thought. The following week, I shifted from feeling hopelessly sluggish to wildly energized. By the third week, I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t our baby that was keeping me up, it was me. I’d lie wide awake in the middle of the night, mind racing, making all sorts of bizarre connections and realizations.
All of this happened the same week of the 2020 presidential election, a time when tensions and anxiety were already high. I tried to protect my frazzled brain by ignoring the news and logging off of social media, but my connection to reality was already slipping.
By that fateful Sunday, I hadn’t slept for two days. I heard voices in the baby’s white noise machine and believed that people were watching us through the baby monitor. My mother, who was in town to meet her first grandchild, patiently answered my endless nonsensical questions, while my partner, Billy, bore the brunt of my fear and anger. When I looked at my sleeping daughter, I saw a blurred image instead of her sweet face.
Through all of this—the delusions and paranoia, exhaustion and exhilaration—I knew I needed help. That Sunday, I texted my therapist to book a session the following day. We called friends to offer backup support. As the hours wore on, Billy and I agreed that I needed more immediate medical care. I haphazardly packed a bag for the hospital; got into the car—with Billy in the driver’s seat and our baby in the back; and tried to stay calm.
By the time we arrived at the emergency room, though, I was terrified. I couldn’t understand why everyone was wearing masks. I didn’t want to leave my daughter. I was upset by the fluorescent lights, uncomfortable waiting room chairs, and impersonal intake form that made no sense. As triage nurses asked me questions and took my vitals, I became increasingly agitated and fearful. At one point, I started to yell. The nurses strapped me to the bed, stripped off my clothes and put me into a hospital gown, and stuck me with a tranquilizer. When I woke up, I was in a wheelchair, being escorted to a solitary, windowless cell.
Spending time in the mental hospital was humbling and eye-opening. My room, which I was admitted to after a few hours in that pitch-black space, was bare, except for a hard plastic chair, a bed that was bolted to the floor, and—blessedly—a window. I had access to a toilet and sink, but had to ask permission to use the communal shower. Because of the pandemic, visitors weren’t allowed. Every 15 minutes, day and night, an orderly holding a clipboard would peek into patients’ rooms, making sure we hadn’t escaped.
Most of my belongings were kept away from me, supposedly for my own safety. The hardcover book I packed, which was about how to care for yourself after giving birth, was deemed something I could hit myself with. The baby blanket, which I grabbed because it smelled like my daughter, could be used to choke myself. One of the few personal items I was granted access to was a journal. The orderlies, however, wouldn’t allow me the pen I brought, so the notebook sat in my room, empty and useless.
Postpartum psychosis is the type of disorder that writer s.e. smith would call a “Big Scary.” Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and borderline personality disorder all qualify as Big Scaries. “It is the kind of diagnosis that makes people edge away when they hear it, that makes even mental health professionals sit up and take notice,” smith wrote. “These diagnoses are big and scary because society has told people they are—has told people we need to be well-managed, compliant patients in order to be seen as ‘healthy’ and not terrifying.”
I’ve spent years doing what I can to reduce the stigma around anxiety and depression, and to make it easier to talk about things like grief. I write a freaking newsletter called My Sweet Dumb Brain! But it was when my poor, sweet brain was truly dumb, when I was experiencing something that is terribly stigmatized, that I faltered. After I returned home from the hospital, I felt immense shame. I worried that people would brand me as being an unfit mother or an unreliable employee. I was scared to speak out.
All of this is hard to write. It’s hard to admit. It’s been near-impossible to talk about. The easy option would be to bury it; to quietly process the experience on my own and publicly share how hard motherhood has been in a way that’s deemed acceptable. I could let people assume that I experienced postpartum depression as I vaguely alluded to “hard times.”
But I don’t want to do that.
It’s been four months since I was in the hospital, and the fact that I’m writing about the experience now is a testament to how much of a better spot I’m in. I’m getting consistent sleep and taking an antidepressant. I’m hopelessly in love with our baby girl, who is healthy, happy, and thriving. I have started talking to friends about what I experienced, and have been floored at how many of the mothers I’ve spoken to have similar stories to share.
As far as postpartum psychosis goes, I was one of the lucky ones. My delusions were relatively short-lived and went away with much-needed sleep and medication. My therapist and psychiatrist have reassured me that I’m “not crazy,” and not at risk of falling into another psychotic state. I love being a mom and have adjusted remarkably well to all of the changes that it brings. I feel incredibly fortunate.
There are so many hard things in life—big, scary things—that we are ashamed to talk about. And that’s not our fault. Society tells us that we should feel shame, that we should keep quiet about these struggles. But that doesn’t help anyone.
If you’re holding onto shame, I see you. I’m so sorry. You don’t have to write a giant newsletter about your experience, but you might want to try telling one trusted friend or person in your life. You just might feel a little bit lighter.
If you, or someone you know, are postpartum and need mental health support, please reach out to Postpartum Support International.
A few things
I wrote an article for CNN about how my experience with grief has informed how I’ve approached the COVID anniversary.
As we begin packing and preparing to move from Florida to Georgia, I’m going to send out these newsletters every other week. That means you won’t get another Tuesday newsletter from me until March 30. Paying subscribers will continue to receive regular Friday newsletters, though they might be a bit shorter in the interim!
I originally planned to write about my experience with postpartum psychosis for a national outlet, but ultimately decided to share it here. You all have been with me through all my ups and downs, and it feels right to open up to the My Sweet Dumb Brain community.
I wouldn’t be able to share this story or keep this newsletter going without the support of paying subscribers. Thank you for making it possible! If you have experienced postpartum psychosis or something similar and want to talk about it, you can always email me. It might take me a while to respond, but I promise I’m listening.
Sharing is caring
Thank you, Alissa! “Deeply relatable” is the best compliment.
And thanks also to Rachel Miller for the shoutout in Just Good Shit. If you’re a new reader from Rachel’s newsletter or elsewhere, hello! It’s lovely to have you here.
I’m on a quest to reach 5,000 readers and 500 paying subscribers in 2021—and there’s been a big jump lately! 🎉 As of this week, I’m at 4,555 readers and 380 subscribers. Will you help me reach my 2021 goal? You can become a paying subscriber, forward this issue to a friend, or spread the word on social media. It all helps!
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is incredibly proud of her friend for sharing this painful and scary experience. Keep being brave. Keep breaking stigmas! Photo by Hans Eiskonen on Unsplash.