At least three times a day I remember that I had postpartum psychosis. It can be the smell of baby diapers, still fresh in the rows of packages, reeking of powder as I walk through the infant aisle to pick up the tear-free baby shampoo my kids still use. Or a song on the radio as I’m driving my son to preschool, the lyrics ingrained in my mind the same way the mental images of my hospitalization reside in my memory. No amount of therapy can erase these thoughts from my mind.
Back then, in my new role as a mother-to-be, I was striving so hard for perfection that I didn’t allow myself an ounce of grace if I made a mistake. During both my pregnancies I thought zero medication was best for the baby. I thought good moms didn’t expose their unborn babies to any medication during pregnancy, not even for a headache.
I was absolutely determined to breastfeed my first child. I put so much pressure on myself to make it work that I was barely producing any milk because of the intense stress of it all. The internal fear that my body wasn’t going to be able to actually make food for my baby was doing just that: stunting my ability to lactate.
That fourth week of my son’s life, as the psychosis peaked, I felt as though I was invincible and hardly needed to eat or sleep. The less I slept, the more energy I seemed to have. I never napped when the baby napped because I’d always find something to do around the house that was of course more important than catching up on sleep. Everything around me had a certain sparkle to it. It was as if I were living in a dream world where everything was amplified and so vivid that I had to stay awake to soak it all in.
I worry my patient and loving husband may grow weary of dealing with me and my illness. I remember all I put him through the times I was sick and how he had to make the call to 911 to get me help. He had to see me taken to the psychiatric hospital. He had to see me at my worst. I fear he might leave one day when he’s reached his threshold for acceptance.
When the day is done, it’s these thoughts that keep me up at night.
At least three times a day I am grateful that I had postpartum psychosis. These moments of appreciation for the mental illness I’ve lived with for the past eight and a half years come to me in the form of conversations I have with people who have decided to be brave and talk about it. We’ve come to know each other over tweets, emails, blog posts, and, if we’re lucky, in-person meetings at advocacy events we’ve participated in to help others learn the power of peeling away the shame and guilt. We are warrior mamas.
Once I grasped how to manage my symptoms so they don’t control my life, I came to understand the value in accepting my illness for what it is. It’s one piece of me that, when put together with all the other wonderful qualities I possess, make me who I am. I am not my diagnosis. Yet, I still have moments of worry over whether another episode could land me in the hospital again. Instead of pushing the worry away, I embrace it with open arms and let it come. I remind myself how I recovered before and how I’d do it again if it came to that. Usually this is all I need to whisper inside to cause the fear to dissipate. And if it doesn’t fade, it’s added to my list of things to talk about at my next therapy appointment.
I used to think I failed my kids having gone through postpartum psychosis after the birth of my first and a severe manic episode at 5 weeks pregnant with my second. But now I appreciate all that those trying times taught me. Things that I am working on teaching my children: empathy, persistence, and imperfect, unconditional love of which I have a deeper knowledge having living through what I did.
When the day is done, it’s these thoughts that help soothe me to sleep.
With love and encouragement,
Jennifer Marshall blogs about her life as a wife and mother of two young kids at BipolarMomLife.com. She is the Founder of the theater show and non-profit with the same name, This Is My Brave. She hopes to help end the stigma surrounding mental illness by encouraging people everywhere to be brave and share their story to inspire change.
Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on all things related to emotional health around pregnancy & childbirth, is a service of Postpartum Progress Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of postpartum depression and similar illnesses. Please consider making a donation today, Mother’s Day, so we can continue and expand our work supporting maternal mental health. Thank you!