Educating mamas-to-be one story at a time

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I think of mental illness the same way I view cancer. It can strike anyone at anytime. For me, the time came at the age of twenty-six. I was blindsided. Two manic episodes two weeks apart; two stays in two different psych wards at the end of 2005.

If the first time was a complete and utter shock, the second reinforced what I guessed was happening to me. My family and I were in denial after the first incident, totally unprepared for the road ahead. The second bout of mania solidified the fact that this was real.

Even after living with bipolar illness for two years, I had yet to fully understand the disease. When my husband and I reached a point where we agreed I was stable enough to try for a baby at the end of 2007, I read everything I could get my hands on about postpartum depression, the only postpartum mood disorder I knew about. I had lived through a year of debilitating depression following my diagnosis of bipolar type one, and was terrified of falling into the darkness again. Especially with a new baby who would be depending on me for survival.

Impressed with what I thought was a great job preparing for my postpartum experience,  you can imagine my confusion when instead of the intense case of the baby blues I had expected, mania began taking over my mind in the weeks following my son’s birth.

The pressure I had placed on myself to succeed at breastfeeding made everything worse. Instead of turning over my sweet, swaddled little boy to my husband so he could give a bottle of formula and I could get some decent rest, I pushed my body further than I ever have, on top of having just given birth via emergency C-section after a sixteen-hour labor. I was not allowing others to help me care for my baby, which in turn contributed to the swift deterioration of my mental health.

It was only the third time in my life that I had felt full-blown mania, and now having been there four times I can easily say that it’s like an out-of-body experience. You have the strangest thoughts, such as the time I believed every song that came on the radio was a sign specifically meant for me and my life. Sleep and food became things I needed very little of to function, my energy level soaring through the roof. I felt invincible.

Until everything fell apart and I spent the fourth week of my son’s life in a psychiatric ward of our local hospital suffering from postpartum psychosis.

I’m very lucky in that I respond well (and fast) to medication, and so I was back at home before I knew it, returned to my precious baby who had no idea I had gone away. My recovery was slow and steady, and within a few months I felt like myself again, and was settling into my new role as a first-time mom.

These days I am so glad that Postpartum Progress is a community of women who share their experiences. I know there are people out there who have read these stories and who have become more educated about postpartum mood disorders (PPD, postpartum anxiety, postpartum psychosis, postpartum OCD, postpartum PTSD) from visiting the site. By sharing to educate and to inspire, we can prevent or minimize the occurrence of postpartum mood disorder hospitalizations by catching the symptoms early. Keeping more mamas and babies together by sharing one story at a time.

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Postpartum Psychosis Doesn’t Equal Failing as a Mom

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A few days ago, I walked into the grocery store holding hands with my three and five-year-olds. The delicate scent of baby powder overwhelmed my nostrils the second we stepped into the diaper-filled walkway of the baby aisle for pull-ups. Immediately and without warning, my memories drifted back to my first postpartum experience. A fresh pack of Pampers always does it.

In September of 2008, I was eagerly awaiting the impending arrival of our first child. I thought we had prepared for everything – nursery, diapers, clothes, breastfeeding supplies – we were ready. I had even read up on postpartum depression. I thought I might be more susceptible to the illness since my mom had a touch of the baby blues after my brother was born and I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years before becoming pregnant. Little did I know it would be the complete opposite end of the spectrum that would grab ahold of my mind the day after our son was born.

I ended up having a C-section because my progress stalled after the epidural and the baby’s heartrate was becoming deeply affected by the contractions. My OB made the quick decision to do the surgery and get him out, to be safe.

It was scary, but over quickly and seeing my son for the first time was a dream come true. I was shivering uncontrollably from the epidural meds, but gave him a kiss and stared at him for a good ten minutes while a nurse took pictures for us and then whisked him off to the nursery. I was wheeled into Recovery for a few hours where I called our friends and family with the good news. The mania hadn’t set in yet, but by this time it was 1am and I had been in labor since 5:30am the day before. By the time I got settled into my room and my son was brought to me so we could try nursing, I had been up for a full twenty-four hours and I was yearning for rest.

But at the same time, I couldn’t take my eyes of my baby boy. This little life grew inside of me for nine months and I finally had the chance to hold him and feel his teeny fingers in mine. I was awestruck by what had just happened, and sleep was the last thing I wanted to do in that moment. I wanted to get to know my baby. I tried nursing him, and we did some skin-to-skin, but by that point I was dizzy with exhaustion. My best friend who is a labor and delivery nurse and who had been with us the entire time, urged us to send him to the nursery so I could try to sleep. I took her advice the entire time we were in the hospital, but with the hourly checks on my vitals, there was no way to get any real rest.

I had been medication-free during my entire pregnancy and planned to stay med-free so that I could breastfeed him. We were sent home after three days in the hospital, and even though I had felt the onset of mania while we were there, I didn’t dare tell anyone because I didn’t want to fail at my first attempt at being a mom to my son.

We arrived home and after the initial wave of exhaustion had passed the morning after he was born, it became fuel for the fire of the vicious escalation of my symptoms. I remember being so anxious about my milk coming in that I would wake up from short stints of sleep covered in burning hot, puffy red hives all over my legs and mid-section. The baby’s schedule made sleeping long stretches impossible, so my sleep deficit grew with no end in sight.

I wasn’t willing to let anyone take over night feedings and my symptoms kept getting worse. From the intensity of my anxiety over not being able to provide my baby’s nourishment, to my sudden sense that I could be supermom and extremely productive on barely any sleep, to auditory hallucinations which eventually were what tipped off my husband and parents that I needed to go to the hospital. I was admitted on October 22nd for Postpartum Psychosis.

Being taken from my four-week old son two days after he was baptized was one of the most grueling events of my life. Nothing can bring back that week we lost. I saw him grow and change so much in one short week via photos my family brought me in the hospital. It broke my heart to be away from my newborn.

But believe it or not, looking back now I can appreciate what we went through. I have embraced my past because it has brought me here. My hope is that sharing my story will help educate people so they can understand that postpartum mood disorders are brain illnesses are like any other illness that can affect the body. We can treat them and we can recover from them. And we will emerge stronger because of them.

No one should ever be afraid of admitting and asking for help. Help starts here. You are not alone.

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Why She Kept Quiet About Her Postpartum Psychosis Symptoms

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JessicaI’m so happy to welcome Warrior Mom Jessica Torres today, sharing her story of postpartum psychosis.

I gave birth to a beautiful boy that ended up in the NICU. Devastated, I knew immediately it was my fault. I could barely touch him – he was so scary and tiny to me. Fast forward two weeks later and he was finally home.

Everyone was happy, and I do mean everyone. The house was full of well-wishers the day after he came home. I couldn’t help but think: How dare they come to my house during flu season? Didn’t they know they had the potential to kill my son? HE was gonna die right here because of their selfish stupidity! My husband was just as anxious so I shrugged off these scary thoughts. I was a new mom, right? It’s normal to think people are gonna kill your son, right?

A couple of months later, we moved into a new apartment. Scarier thoughts started to come. I won’t share them – but trust me I knew I needed help. I talked with a doctor. She told me not to worry. She explained, “Postpartum depression is when you can’t stand to be around your family.”  She said I was just tired. I didn’t believe her, so I kept asking until I heard: “You can’t get postpartum depression after your child is six weeks old.”

So, my family and I needlessly suffered as I went through hell undiagnosed, despite me crying out for help. Then – we found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I went through such severe antenatal depression and anxiety that I can tell you I don’t remember much of the pregnancy. Just feeling that I had the worst life in the world – and at times wanting to end it. But like a good Christian girl, I just prayed it away. It was just the enemy attacking me – how little did I realize it was so much more than that.

Then my daughter was born. The paranoid thoughts came as soon as she did: My husband loves this little girl more than me and this perv is gonna use her to replace me. That’s why he got me pregnant again so soon. He KNEW I was gonna have a girl and he wanted to replace me. But I shrugged them off like I always do; I mean, I did just give birth after all. I figured I was tired and loopy with hormones so I pushed on with praying.

One day at home, I went to change the baby and my son. I clearly heard my front door open and close twice. I grumbled that my husband just left me alone with the kids, but at that moment he walked out of the bathroom. I freaked out and told him what had happened – clearly the family of drug lords that lived downstairs came to case us out. “We need to protect ourselves,” I told him. He tried to convince me that I just was dreaming what I’d heard because of how sleep deprived I was. I didn’t believe him; I knew the neighbors were out to get us. TiIl the day we moved out, every time I passed by the family that I had been convinced entered our house illegally I held my babies tighter.

There was also another issue. Ever since my daughter entered the house, I felt nothing towards her, towards my son or my husband. Nothing. Often times I equated myself to a robot or a slave in my mind and I wanted to escape. I even had a plan.

I hated that empty feeling, I mean I loved them – would die for them. In fact I was planning on it if the drug lords came into the house while we were there; but really in essence I felt numb. I resented the fact that I had to take care of my daughter. She was just such a hard baby to take care of. She wouldn’t cry, she would scream. She would scream any time and all the time unless she was held – shoot, even then.

Then there was that night. I just could not get to sleep. For the first five months of her life I think I slept all of four hours a week. I tried to but I could not sleep. Anyways, that night came. I manhandled her and had a crazy thought … I can’t go on from there and tell you what I was thinking. I just remember sitting down on my bed and crying.

That next day I went to the OB. She told me that I had PPD with major anxiety disorder. Little did she know of the other thoughts that I had – the suspicious thoughts, not trusting the neighbors, the fact that I felt like I was going crazy and hearing things constantly. So I stayed quiet. I didn’t want her to think I was crazy and take my kids away.  I found Katherine Stone and Postpartum Progress; Lauren Hale and #PPDchat and began to get the information I needed. It took me months, but finally after some weird symptoms and convincing myself I needed help I finally saw a doctor who diagnosed me as bipolar and I began healing.

Please open up – get the help you need. Talk to someone, if you know something is not right with you – keep searching for a doctor who will listen. Postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are very treatable diseases. You do not need to suffer needlessly like I did.

Ask for help.

~ Jessica Torres

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For Miriam Carey on World Mental Health Day

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Miriam CareyAny time a mother with symptoms of perinatal mood or anxiety disorders is gravely hurt or her child is hurt I’m angry, but not at her.

I’m angry that our system doesn’t recognize how crucial a mother’s mental health during pregnancy and the first year postpartum is to the health of her child. I’m angry that our healthcare providers don’t have enough training and are resistant to screen. I’m frustrated that we don’t have enough psychiatric care providers, and perinatal mental health specialists who have a deep knowledge about medication for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers. I’m frustrated when mothers are told they have to keep breastfeeding or they have to stop breastfeeding to get better, neither of which is true. I’m frustrated that anyone and everyone doesn’t rally around each and every mother who has a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum psychosis.

Most of all I’m upset that our lack of a consistent and effective system across the US and around the world of caring for the mental health of mothers can lead to suicide or infanticide. Or, in Miriam Carey’s case, being killed. I know those losses are very rare in the larger scheme of the hundreds of thousands of mothers who struggle each year, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

I don’t blame the police in DC for what happened last week to Miriam Carey. I know some people do, but I don’t. They didn’t know. Their job is to protect the White House and the U.S. Capitol and in today’s environment, with the constant threat of terrorism, how were they to know she was a struggling and confused mother? Everything happened so quickly and they believed their lives and those of others were in danger.

Instead, I want to know how much everyone around her knew about her condition? Was she hiding it, which can happen? Was her doctor fully informed about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders? Did he or she believe Miriam had postpartum depression, or postpartum psychosis, or perhaps bipolar disorder or schizophrenia? Was she properly diagnosed and given an effective treatment, and if so, was she actually taking her medication or had she chosen not to?  Did she go to her appointments or was there too little follow up on the doctor’s end? Was she encouraged by those around her to follow through on her medical care, or was she told, as people often are, that she shouldn’t need medication or therapy or help? Was she able to continue her job or did she feel her employment was or might be threatened by being treated for a mental illness?

Everyone around Miriam Carey says she was a smart woman, a good person and a loving mother. I’m sure that’s true. But something happened to her, and by all accounts what happened was related to her mental health, or lack thereof at least for a period of time. I’d like to say I’m a smart woman, a good person and a loving mother, too, and I have needed help for my mental health. So many people do. We need to make sure that everyone can get it and that no one is made to feel like they shouldn’t.

Today, on World Mental Health Day, I think of Andrea Yates and her children. I think of Melanie Blocker Stokes. I think of Jennifer and Graham Gibbs Bankston.  Aimee Zeigler. Lisa Gibson.  Otty Sanchez. Alisa Lorraine Evans. Shontelle Cavanaugh. So many more that I can’t begin to name them all.

And now, I also think of Miriam.

Today, hundreds of mental health bloggers are dedicating posts to Miriam Carey. If you’d like to join #ForMiriam, go here

Today is also National Depression Screening Day. Are you wondering whether you might be depressed? Know someone who might be? Find out whether you need help. Help yourself. Help others. Schedule a screening or take one online here

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