Naked on the Side of the Road: One Mother’s Story of Postpartum Psychosis

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postpartum psychosisToday, I welcome a guest post from Heather, who has bravely and graciously agreed to share her story of postpartum psychosis in hopes it will help others.

Aren’t there supposed to be warning signs?

On a late Friday afternoon in October 2008, I was standing stark naked on the side of a DC highway, nearly facing death because of a mental illness I didn’t know I had.

Thankfully, two couples stopped their cars when they saw me running, naked, in the breakdown lane, and encountered me screaming something about being baptized. I literally thought the world was ending. Soon I was on a bridge being restrained by police officers.

The night before had been a Thursday evening like any other. I’d gotten home from work, played with my 2-year-old son and 4-month-old baby daughter for a bit and then gotten them ready for bed. The next thing I knew, I was in the midst of a postpartum psychotic episode being institutionalized against my will. I would eventually spend five days at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.

I’ve since been diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, and I learned from Brooke Shield’s Down Came the Rain that a postpartum psychotic episode can be the first sign of bipolar disorder. What a way to find out you are sick and need help.

Postpartum depression, a form of clinical depression which can affect women after childbirth, affects 15 percent of women. The more severe postpartum psychosis affects only one or two women in a thousand, which may not sound like many until you realize that this translates to anywhere from 4,100 to 8,200 women in any given year.

You’re probably familiar with the horror stories like that of Andrea Yates, who tragically drowned her five young children in 2001. But only five percent of women with postpartum psychosis commit suicide, and only 4 percent commit infanticide.

Looking back on my experience, there were warning signs. The week leading up to the incident, I felt abnormally good (I now know I was experiencing mania). I had all this extra energy, a ton of ideas, and wanted to write everything in my head down on paper. I started keeping a small journal; my ideas, quotes, to-do lists, books to read — you name it, I wrote it down. My anal-retentive self was trying to manage the racing, manic thoughts I was having.

Friday morning, I woke up early and decided to attend the funeral of my coworker’s mother (a Catholic service). I’m an atheist — sometimes an agnostic — yet I suddenly felt it was more important to attend the service than the reception, as I had originally planned, even though I might be uncomfortable. In the shower, I dropped to my knees sobbing, feeling that God was communicating directly with me. I needed to attend the service.

God had an amazing sense of humor, I thought as I got ready to go, because there were all these coincidences throughout my life, signs that He had been sharing with me that I was just that morning noticing. My brain was acting like Wikipedia, helping me quickly and easily connect the dots between people and places that shared common names and themes. Then, as I drove to the funeral, I got behind a vehicle that had a sign that said, “Follow me.” God was being humorous again; he was sending me another sign.

In the funeral service, the minister spoke about the role of a mother and how much this woman had embodied the meaning of mother, simply by how much she gave to others. The entire service spoke directly to me and I found meaning in each and every word, and in the fact that I was at the Church of the Little Flower since my name is Heather and my daughter’s name is Lily.

By the end of the service, I was compelled to take communion for the first time in my life. I’m not even sure if that was appropriate or not — I’m not Catholic, not baptized and not religious in any way. But there I was, walking up to the front of the church and doing something that before that moment would have felt foreign. I truly don’t know what events were cause by my mental illness and what could be attributed to something greater at work that day. That’s where my agnostic side kicks in. All I know is that the experiences felt extremely real at the time. I felt more at peace than I’d ever been in my life, as though I was completely in sync with the world around me.

Even though the route back to work was unfamiliar, I didn’t use GPS. I just followed different cars as though I was being guided. When I arrived at work, I felt invigorated. I started making requests of other departments to help on projects I knew I wouldn’t get to. It seemed that everything I put out into the cosmos was coming back to me. When I got hungry, someone stopped by and gave me a granola bar. Another coworker left a coin purse from Ecuador for me, a little gift with a penny in it. Everything seemed to be going my way. I decided to leave work a little early to beat the Friday traffic.

As soon as I hit the DC beltway, traffic came to a halt. My world began deteriorating.

I called my husband on my cell phone and my mind began to race. I obsessively asked him questions about The Matrix and The Fifth Element. Just like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, I was extra special, I believed, some kind of “chosen one”. I asked him about the story of Adam and Eve and wanted to know exactly how it ended. Maybe subconsciously knowing something was really wrong with me, I told him, “Don’t listen to me, whatever I say.”

Suddenly I hung up on my husband. I dialed 911 and told them that my husband was going to hurt my children. I gave them the address to my in-law’s house where my children were staying. When the operator asked me how he was going to hurt the children, I yelled, “You know how!” and hung up. I started driving in the breakdown lane with my flashers on. When a car followed me, I feared those inside were government agents trying to track me down.

The delusions worsened. I believed that my husband was the devil and that I was God. I thought he was trying to trick me. While talking with him on the phone, I answered his questions with questions, to avoid giving away where I was on the highway. When helicopters flew overhead, I was convinced the world was going to end and that presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were headed to DC to join forces and save the world. I thought of a few ways I could help save the world: My husband and I could kill each other. Or we could kill our children. Or my parents. Or I could get baptized by a friend.

I don’t remember everything that happened before I stopped my car on the side of I-295, got out and removed all of my clothing. I remember pulling my shirt up over my head, but don’t remember moving on to remove my pants, socks, shoes and undergarments. My parents, my husband and my friend have all shared some of their recollections from phone conversations with me as I drove. While talking with my mother, I swore that I heard my aunt’s voice and demanded to talk to my mother instead. Somewhere during the conversation with my parents, I begged for their forgiveness and then abruptly hung up on them.

That was the last my parents heard from me that day. The next time they tried to reach me, a police officer answered. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom the fear they must have felt during those several excruciating minutes, not knowing if I was still alive or what the hell was happening.

I was extremely lucky. I owe my life to the two couples that stopped immediately and called police. How easy it would have been to keep on driving. And I can’t think of one good reason why I didn’t end up in a car accident, on the news, or in prison, like some other unfortunate, yet infamous, mothers that have suffered from postpartum psychosis. For once in my life, I was thankful for the impossible DC traffic. It kept me from reaching my children.

Nearly a year-and-a-half later, I’ve gone through counseling and am still on medication to keep my mind on an even keel. One of the first medications my doctors gave me put me ina deep depression — and back in the emergency room. It was as if I was constantly walking in quicksand — even the smallest movements or thoughts took extraordinary effort. At one point, fearing the depression might go on forever, I contemplated howI might go about ending the suffering.

Now I am trying to come to terms with the idea that I have a mental illness. I have a mental illness? The words just don’t seem to fit. I’ve also been struggling to make sense of everything that happened that day, to put the puzzle pieces together, to find closure and avoid ever going down that path again. There are still so many questions. How do I help myself so that one day I might help others with similar experiences? How do I provide the best care for my children, when I’m relearning how to take care of myself? The entire process has been stressful, but I’m in a far better place today than I was after the incident.

I’ve even sought out spiritual and religious friends to try and understand the meaning of some of the moments I experienced that day. I expressed this struggle to a coworker, how I didn’t know whatwas caused by my mental illness and what might have been something greater at work. I could tell I struck a chord with her and later that day she came to my cubicle and told me that itdidn’t matter, whatever I “wanted itto be it was.” If this was meant to be my spiritual journey, so be it!

Today, I just strive to be healthy (mentally and physically), to appreciate my family and my blessings and to reach out to my community with my story. We all get so wrapped up in the daily grind sometimes, so concerned with minding our own business that we lose a little bit of our humanity. I thank God that humanity wasn’t lost on me that day.

Note: If you’d like to learn more about the symptoms of postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression with psychotic features, click here.

Photo credit: © Elenathewise – Fotolia

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. Katherine says:

    thanks for telling your story Heather – I hope you co.ntinue to recover

  2. workout mommy says:

    wow–how incredibly scary for you and your family. I'm so glad you got the help you needed and continue your recovery. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  3. Heather, thank you so much for sharing something that was such a powerful and frightening force in your life. I'm sure you're helping many people touched by PPD.

  4. Thank you for sharing your story–you are a brave woman!

  5. Thanks for sharing your story Heather – so brave of you. I'm so glad you and your family are safe and you are having a successful recovery. Best wishes for the the future!

  6. I'm in awe. It's so important to hear stories like this. It's so important to share. Thank you!

  7. You wrote:
    "How do I help myself so that one day I might help others with similar experiences?"
    You already are helping others Heather. Just by being brave enough to write this, you are letting people who experience similar things or have experienced similar things know they are not alone.
    I too suffered from postpartum psychosis and have thankfully recovered. But reading your writing (and you write very well about something that is very difficult to explain to others), I can see how all of us that have been through this illness experience it very similarly. I love the way you describe how your mind connected all the random dots to create a cohesive whole – that was exactly what happened to me.
    And I really get how the bizarre violent thoughts often present themselves as solutions to totally unrelated problems. For me, this was the most sickening part of the whole illness and why I wanted to be dead.
    I am so grateful that you made it through this illness and proud to have a fellow PPP survivor like you – one who is so articulate in expressing the hell we've been through.
    Keep up the good work.
    Katherine, thanks so much for posting this!

  8. Thank you for sharing your story! I also suffered from postpartum psychosis and had some similarities to your story. It is awesome that you had a supportive network of friends to support you in your recovery. I find that it is very hard for friends to relate to the illness (afterwards you sure do find out who your true friends are!) Best of luck to you!

  9. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I want to thank all the Postpartum Progress readers sending supportive comments Heather's way. You guys are awesome.

  10. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I thought her story was extremely well-written and descriptive too. That's why I'm so pleased to be able to share it here. We need to talk more often about postpartum psychosis.

  11. Thank you for sharing, Heather. I have recently been struggling with how I can prevent other woment from going through the same thing I have, and your bravery and honesty have helped me see that it is safe to share my story, too. Thank you for taking this step, for us all.

  12. Thank you for sharing your story, Heather. I found myself nodding with recognition at various points and I definitely share the feeling of "I have a mental illness?"
    I'm starting to come to terms with the fact that I have bipolar disorder, but your story makes me realize I'm not used to thinking about my episode as postpartum psychosis.
    I'm glad to hear that you're healthy. Know that you're helping others by being brave enough to share!

  13. Thanks for sharing this. So many of the incidents paralleled what my wife went through (also a PPP sufferer, but she didn't make it). It is somehow comforting for me to hear that someone else went through such a similar bewildering experience.

  14. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    If you ever want to share your story, let me know. Thanks for commenting Paige.

  15. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I'm so sorry for your loss Jeremy. Thank you for carrying on the message. People need to know about postpartum psychosis.

  16. Heather,
    It was very moving to read your story. You have touched many lives by sharing with us today. Many well wishes to you.

  17. Heather,
    I think this was a very brave thing for you to do – to share your story with others who may suffer from postpartum psychosis. You continually impress me with your strength – how you have persevered through some of your worse moments in life. I know it hasn't been easy, at all, but it's so amazing to see where you are today, just a year-and-a-half later.
    I have not suffered from PPP. I am a friend of Heather's. As Heather was struggling with PPP, I often wasn't sure how I could be supportive to her. I didn't want to pry too much, but I also didn't want to be too distant. I think that is one of the most difficult things to balance when trying to "be there" for loved ones who suffer.
    Heather – I am so proud of you!
    :-)

  18. Heather, your story never ceases to move me. Thank you so much for your honesty and objective approach. I, too, am so thankful to those people who stopped for you on the side of the road! The world would be less without your voice. Your words and the way you share what happened make it easier for others to understand, even when they've never been in that kind of place and just can't imagine.
    I'm so glad you are doing well and continuing to grow and heal. *hug*

  19. Heather,
    Thank you for your courage in sharing your story. By doing so, you are helping others with similar experiences realize they are far from alone. At the same time, getting your thoughts out and knowing you are helping others can be very therapeutic. I am so glad you are well on your road to recovery!
    Take care,
    Ivy

  20. Carol Geisler says:

    Thank you

  21. Michelle S says:

    Thanks, Heather, for sharing your story. And thanks, Katherine, for running this website.

  22. I suffer from bipolar, brought full force by postpartum something, and I cannot imagine what you've been thru. Or I can, and I wish I couldn't.
    I'm an atheist, and I've had those same thoughts, over and over and over for years. It's so hard to beat back some days, and so confusing. I'm glad it brought you peace-it's brought me nothing but terror most times.
    You sound like you're in a good place.

  23. So powerful and so well written.
    I also am struck by your tremendous generosity in sharing this painful experience. Another thank you.

  24. I too am an atheist whose beliefs and lack thereof have been challenged due to mental illness. I looked and looked for some heavenly intervention during my post partum depression both after the healthy birth of my daughter and after the death of my son at 20 weeks gestation. I can clearly remember things suddenly making connections in my mind that were never before connected just as you describe.
    Thank you so much for sharing your story Heather. You not only have been given the gift of living to tell your story but also have the gift of being able to write in exquisite detail to make the readers truly understand what you felt. I wish you much peace and joy on your path.

  25. Heather,
    My own PPP experience in 2005 had many parallels with your story. It is comforting to know that I am not alone in what happened. Thank you for sharing your story, and for being so open. Your courage and your honesty really helped me. No one can get through life alone–I'm so glad you got help in a moment of need.
    Thank you for writing and sharing your story.

  26. Teresa Twomey says:

    Hi Heather: Thanks for sharing your story – it is so important for others to hear! And I'm glad for your continuing "post recovery recovery" – I know it is so hard coming to grips with the idea of having had this illness.
    Katherine, thanks for your site and for shining the light on PPP. Please remind your readers of my book, Understanding Postpartum Psychosis: A Temporary Madness — I wrote it to try to help all the "Heathers" out there – all those women that have had and will have this illness and their families.
    Best Regards,

  27. I always knew there were many of us PPP sufferers/surviviors out there – more than the statistics actually report. But for so many of us to come out and say it on this forum really makes me realize 100% that I was not alone in the secret pain I had to endure.

  28. Deborah Rimmler says:

    It is amazing how sharing your story is healing both to you and your community. Thanks so much Heather for being brave enough to share this with us….and thanks Katherine for creating this forum. Having gone through a second bout of PPOCD, this website has been amazingly helpful in my own recovery and has encouraged me to be honest with my community about what really happened to me. Thanks to all you amazing women for helping me and my family heal. All the best to you Heather!

  29. Heather,
    Thank you for sharing so freely about your experience. Your willingness to share so honestly and seeking to help others is sincerely appreciated. You have made a difference in my life today. Thank you!

  30. VANESSA says:

    I AM SO GLAD THAT MORE PEOPLE ARE WRITING THIER STORIES OF POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS. I WENT THROUGH IT IN 2003, I ONLY REMEMBER BITS AND PIECES. I NEVER HAD THE THOUGHTS OF HURTING MYSELF OR ANYONE ELSE. I GOT TO THE POINT OF COMPLETE MEMORY LOSS, MY NAME, THAT I EVEN HAD A CHILD. I DID NOT FEEL PAIN. I TOO HAD THE RELIGIOUS CONNECTIONS AND DELUSIONS, ALSO THE AS YOU CALLED IT (CONNECTING THE DOTS). I WROTE EVERYTHING DOWN, WHICH AT FIRST MADE SENSE, THEN LATER MADE NO SENCE TO ANYONE BUT ME. MY THOUGHTS WERE CLEAR IN MY HEAD AS TO WHAT I WANTED TO SAY, BUT THE CONNECTION WASN'T THERE TO SPEAK. IT WAS AS IF I WAS TRAPPED INSIDE MY OWN HEAD. PARANOID, DELUSIONAL. FORGOT TO EAT AND DRINK, DIDNT SHOWER. REFUSED TO SLEEP. I WAS IN THE PSYCH WARD FOR 2 WEEKS, WHICH WOULD HAVE BEEN LONGER IF MY MOTHER WASN'T A NURSE AND ABLE TO TAKE CARE OF ME IN HER HOME. SHE STILL TO THIS DAY WILL NOT LET ME LISTEN TO RECORDINGS OF MY PHONECALLS TO HER IN FEAR THAT IT WILL TRIGGER IT TO RE-OCCUR. I KNOW THIS WILL NOT HAPPEN. I WILL NOT HAVE ANY MORE CHILDREN FOR THE FEAR OF IT HAPPENING AGAIN. MY SON IS THE BEST, HAPPY HEALTHY AND SUPER INTELLIGENT. I RECOVERED AND WENT TO NURSING SCHOOL, WHERE POSTPARTUM PSYCHOSIS WAS NEVER EVEN MENTIONED. I WISH THERE WAS A CURE OR PREVENTATIVE TO THIS HORRIBLE PROBLEM. WOULDN'T IT BE GREAT TO FIND ALL THE SURVIVORS AND FIND A COMMON LINK TO THE CAUSE. THANK YOU FOR YOUR STORY, I KNOW YOU ARE HELPING MANY TO COPE WITH THE EXPERIENCE.

  31. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Thank you for sharing this Vanessa! I'm glad you and your son are doing so well.

  32. You have provided a monumental service to other mothers who have gone through similar experiences, or who are too ashamed to speak out and get help. Powerful story, well-told.

  33. Lisa McClellan says:

    Thank you for having the courage to share your story, you give many people who suffer from mental illness hope that they too will get better.

  34. This is such an important story for others to hear. Thank you for your bravery and your honesty.

  35. Survivor says:

    You pretty much just told my story. It's amazing how similar the religious imagery and delusions are. I'm so sorry you went through it, too. You are not alone. May you continue to thrive, learn, heal and teach.

  36. Thank you for sharing. You are an amazing and brave woman to show such honesty, and I know that you will help many others by putting your story out there.

  37. Michele Davidson says:

    Heather I too suffered from PPP at the same time in DC area. Strange. I work at GMU and am now doing research on PPP. If you have any interest in participating, you and anyone else, can contact me at mdavidso@gmu.edu Thanks for sharing your story….. YOU are not alone!

Trackbacks

  1. […] I’ve always enjoyed writing, ever since I was a little girl. I’ve kept a diary for many years, written poetry, and even written a short story or two. In recent years, most of my writing has come in the form of speeches for organizations like Toastmasters and Ignite. But I got my start writing about my health as a guest blogger on Postpartum Progress, a fantastic blog dedicated to sharing postpartum mental health resources (often in plain mama english). It also showcases personal stories from women who have experienced postpartum depression and other related mental health issues. In my case, I shared about my very personal experience with postpartum psychosis in 2008. […]

  2. […] those that don’t know my story, I suffered from a postpartum psychotic episode on October 3, 2008 a few months after the birth of my second child. On a Friday afternoon, I left […]

  3. […] this beautiful community. This conversation yesterday reminded me exactly why I shared my story of postpartum psychosis and keeps me going on my journey towards […]

  4. […] 3rd, 2008, I nearly died because of a mental illness I didn’t know I had. I suffered from a postpartum psychotic episode and was extremely lucky that four complete strangers stopped to help me by calling 911. I’ve […]

  5. […] had a complete breakdown on I-295 to the outpouring of positive feedback when I shared my story on Postpartum Progress, at Ignite DC, and everywhere else I get an opportunity to. My only hope each and every time I […]

  6. […] recognized that we both share a common outlook on life having survived extreme situations (mine was postpartum psychosis). He said that when people say to him, “it was good to see you”, he now responds with […]

  7. […] four months after my daughter, Lily, was born in 2008. The full story of that event can be read on Postpartum Progress. But the journey really did begin that fateful day. I had to basically relearn how to take care of […]

  8. […] Naked on the Side of the Road: One Mother’s Story of Postpartum Psychosis (my own personal story) […]

  9. […] say those types of comments are in the minority and most of the direct feedback I have received for blogging and speaking out about my postpartum psychosis experience has been overwhelmingly positive. But all […]

  10. […] and she agreed to post my story and only use my first name (at my request). On February 3rd, 2010, Naked on the Side of the Road: One Mother’s Story of Postpartum Psychosis went live. I was overwhelmed by the response. Almost every comment made me cry for one reason or […]