Knowing is half the battle. I found this to ring true in my experience with managing my mental illness during my pregnancies and postpartum.
I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 in 2006. It took over a year for me to find the right psychiatrist, the right combination of medications, and the right techniques through therapy to allow me to begin to manage an illness which had taken me and my family completely by surprise. After months of anguish over what was working and what wasn’t, we finally found a medication that stabilized me and I started to feel pieces of my old self emerging from the darkness.
Once I had been stable for about a year, my husband and I decided we were ready to start a family. I was scared of a recurrence of my illness, but wanted to be a mom more than anything, so we started trying and I was able to get pregnant rather quickly. Unfortunately, our joy was fleeting as I experienced an early miscarriage and had to have a D&C. I was afraid that the medication I had been taking for my bipolar disorder caused the miscarriage, so I convinced my psychiatrist to allow me to taper off the med so that we could try again after I healed from the surgery.
We became pregnant again fairly soon after, and since I was doing so well off the medication and had no recurrance of symptoms, my doctor continued to see me as a patient but allowed me to stay off my medication for the duration of the pregnancy.
This was a terrible decision on both our parts, but I didn’t realize this at the time. Four weeks after delivering my son I experienced a severe episode of postpartum psychosis and had to be hospitalized for a week. It was arguably the worst week of my life, having been ripped from my child, having to abruptly stop nursing, and it took an incredible toll on me both physically and emotionally.
I was stabilized quickly by the team of doctors at the hospital by resuming my course of medication I had been on before my pregnancy. The recovery from the trauma of being taken away from my newborn for a week would take much longer.
I learned through my postpartum psychosis episode that my triggers are: lack of sleep and lack of medication in my bloodstream. These two facts would prove essential to me creating a much more positive postpartum experience with my second child. But not without another lesson first.
Once stable again after my PPP hospitalization, my husband and I began to talk about completing our family with one more baby. Even with my three hospitalizations (two before our first child and the PPP episode), I still didn’t know enough about my illness to know that the benefits of me staying on my medication during the pregnancy and exposing the fetus to the medication, although not the most ideal situation, far outweighed the risks of not being on medication at all given this was one of my top two triggers.
Doctors can advise patients, but it’s up to the patient to follow through with the prescribed recommendations. My doctor had agreed to let me stay off medication during the first trimester due to a heart defect risk, but after week 12 we decided I would go back on my medication for the duration of the pregnancy.
Tapering off my medication in just week 5 of the pregnancy, combined with my excitement and mounting loss of sleep over how excited I was to see those two pink lines on the pregnancy test, landed me in the psych ward again. My baby was barely the size of an orange seed and I had to be hospitalized for almost a week and put on antipsychotic medication to bring me down from the mania I had been struck with.
Because of lack of sleep and lack of medication. Two things I learned I could control.
Recovery from that episode took months; experts say that each subsequent episode is more difficult and takes longer to recover from, and I’ve found this to be true. But I emerged from that setback a much more informed and capable mother, ready to truly manage my illness so that it did not cause me and my family any further pain.
My husband and I talked about how we could handle my postpartum period differently with our second child, and we made plans to take charge over my triggers so that I could stay in recovery long-term. I stayed on my medication for the entire rest of the pregnancy and beyond because my medication kept me stable. We made plans that I would bottle-feed and my husband would take over the middle-of-the-night feedings between 2am – 5am so that I could get a long stretch of sleep at night, keeping my nocturnal clock in check.
I’m not saying it was easy. But my postpartum period with my second child was so much more enjoyable and relaxed compared to my first because I took the upper hand over my triggers. With my family’s support, I made it through. And I continue to keep a firm grip on my dedication to the medication that keeps me stable and getting the appropriate amount of quality sleep each night so that I can stay steady on my recovery path.
Bipolar disorder is a condition I’ll live with for the rest of my life. Learning my triggers and techniques which allow me to stay on top of them so they don’t throw me into a manic episode has been a learning process, but it is one which has empowered me to live well even with a mental health disorder.