Straight Talk About Hospitalization & Postpartum Depression

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One area I don’t like to talk about is hospitalization. I don’t know why. It’s like the ultimate embarrassment for me or something that at one point I had to be hospitalized in a mental hospital (UGH!) for depression. It was only for a few days, but it’s one thing of which I have to say I still feel slightly ashamed. If our society considered mental illness a physical illness, then of course I wouldn’t be ashamed, because there is nothing at all wrong with being sick and having to go to the hospital. But you and I both know that’s not the way people think when it comes to "mental institutions." Nonetheless, I can’t let that stop me from talking openly to you about a type of treatment that some women with postpartum mood disorders must experience, so here goes …

The truth is, if we are a danger to ourselves or others we need to be hospitalized. Period. I wish there were another way, a better solution, but as far as I know there isn’t. I got to a point where I thought I might kill myself. And so, that’s where I was sent. The minute I got there and saw what was coming I completely changed my mind about killing myself, of course. I told them very articulately that I was all better and there was no need to move forward. (Stop the train, I want to get off!) But once the proverbial cat is out of the bag you can’t put it back in.

Here’s what you should know: Mental hospitals aren’t a treat. It can feel like being in jail. Once you are in you can’t just get out any old time you want. At least not for 48 hours or so. You don’t have access to all of your things because they take them away from you to make sure there’s nothing dangerous or illegal in them. You don’t have free access to the people you love, except during limited visiting hours. The decor is sorely lacking. The food stinks. The beds are lumpy. You don’t even have the right to go to the bathroom at any time without permission. I remember at one point being in the cafeteria trying to eat the awful food and I needed to pay a visit to the facilities. They wouldn’t let me, because they couldn’t leave my group and couldn’t let me leave the cafeteria alone. I was humiliated and infuriated. "I’m a competent grownup! How dare you tell me I can’t go to the bathroom! What happened to basic human dignity??!!" They were unimpressed by my reaction, and I had to wait. Also, I was in the general adult ward, with men and women in all sorts of mental states — addicts, schizophrenics, people suffering from depression or bipolar disorder — and I was scared. The truth is no one would choose to hang out with a group of people she doesn’t trust to make safe choices. But be all of that as it may, it was the exact right place for me.

I truly benefited from being in that hospital at that moment. Once we get over the thinking that we are somehow better, special and different from the rest of the people in the "asylum", it can be a profound experience. First, they took care of me and helped me become stable. I was in a crisis and they helped me out of it. Second, I was humbled and made to understand via circumstance that we are all one step away from losing our minds no matter where we come from or how much money we make or what we look like or what job we have or how competent we’ve been up ’til now. Third, I learned that severely mentally ill people are still people, and I became very empathetic to their plight. I remember watching a man who stood in the corner all day brushing himself off and found out it was because he thought there were snakes on him. Another young man curiously kept cutting the eyes out of pictures of people in magazines. Only later did I notice he had been taping them up surreptitiously in strategic places throughout the ward — in the leaves of the ficus tree, on the wall clock, in the plastic floral wreath covered in a layer of dust. The eyes watched me wherever I went. I imagined what those two men, and some of the others, might have been like as innocent, happy children with no inkling of what was to come in their lives. Could they help the situation they were in now? Maybe, maybe not. I went from a state of fear to one of wonder and to one of caring about these people and hoping for their well-being.

I have family members of women with postpartum depression or psychosis reach out to me to tell me their sister or daughter has been hospitalized and that it’s absolutely the WRONG place for her. "She doesn’t belong with those other people. She’s not crazy. She’s just not doing well." I completely understand what they mean. It’s the wrong place for everyone. Wouldn’t we all like to go recuperate from wanting to kill ourselves in Tahiti? Don’t they have a "Mental Health Weekend" 3-day package at the Ritz? That would be lovely but that’s not how it works. So I tell them I know it seems like a mistake, but it’s actually the exact right place for her at that moment. I tell you that if it’s what you have to do to restore your sanity and return home a more healthy mother to your baby, just do it. Suck it up and do it. No matter how yucky it is, you will live. And you might be a better person for it.

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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. I've always been curious how hospitalization works with a mother who is exclusively breastfeeding. Would they allow her and sit with her to pump (since the tubing could be considered harmful)?

  2. Thank you for your comments. You are obviously well educated and have given much thought to mental illness. I appreciate your candidness about your situation.

  3. Cheryl Jazzar says:

    Most of us would never realize that we are the lucky ones. We, who have been hospitalized have gotten the care that we need. No, the psychiatric ward is certainly not a place we would choose to spend time. But, all too often, women do not have the "luxury" to be treated.
    I spoke with a woman last week who called on everyone she know for help. She even called the authorities in her state, admitting she was a threat to herself and her children. They did NOTHING. She couldn't even warrant a trip to the psych ward.
    This happens more that we know and it is the worst travesty. Of all the unsettling, violating, undignified things that can happen to new mothers who are suffering; the inability to get treatment must be the worst.
    I was locked up for six weeks over the holidays twelve years ago; it seems like another person's life.
    The first time I admitted this to another person I had no idea that my words would unlock the dark realities within her psyche. For the first time in over ten years, she was able to speak of her experience. Her mother and sister actually thanked me for sharing my story.
    I learned to think about this part of my past in an entirely different way. I learned to see it as powerful.
    The morality of being a woman is so, very different that the morality of being a man. We, as a group, are not about 'power over one another', but 'power WITH one another'.
    A woman learning to use her voice is the start of something beautiful. It is the start of women taking care of one another. It is a sign of courage to look past our own pride or ego and toward the possibilities of another woman's healing.
    That is what support is all about.

  4. Thank you for writing what many of us do not want to talk about. I had a short hospital stay at a general mental hospital and a 2 week stay in a mother-baby Day program for PPD. Of course the later it what worked better for me. However if the Day program didn't exist I know I would of stayed hospitlized because I was in danger. This is the true horrifying PPD experience that many do not speak of. Thank you for you support in my passion to fund a mother-baby program, Women & Infants Hosptial Day Program "STEPPING OUT OF THE DARKNESS". Thank you for your comments and your strength!

  5. To FireMom: I too was hospitalized and at the time of hospitalization, I was an exclusively pumping mom for a medically fragile infant. They allowed me to pump – my rental hospital grade pump was kept in the office and I was checked on every five minutes while pumping but at the hospital I was at, I was given a private room to myself in which to pump and was eventually able to leave my pump and supplies in that room (other residents did not have access and I had to get a nurse to unlock it for me) My husband picked up the breastmilk which I was able to keep refrigerated there as well.
    To Katherine: Thank you for sharing your feelings on this topic. I too was scared out of my gord when I was admitted even though it was for two days. I was searched with one of those metal detector wands and had my personal items searched through, found myself in the acute flight risk ward, and it was the scariest experience to date of my life. However, I know that was the turning point in my recovery and it was also what drove me to do what I am doing now. I also ended up befriending a woman who came in not talking. I was one of the first people she talked to – leading me to strongly believe that God put me in that place for her. Mysterious ways, right?
    Looking forward to meeting you on Friday!
    warmest,
    Lauren

  6. I too was hospitalized for 7 days only days after the birth of my infant daughter in 2003 for postpartum anxiety and obsessive thoughts. It was the scariest and most humbling experience that I have ever gone through. The psychiatrist I was seeing at the time made the hospital seem like it was the most morbid and scary place that I would ever go to. I continue to fault her to this day for her description of the hospital (after my release from the hospital I changed to a more educated and less narcissistic psychiatrist). After she forced me to be admitted to the hospital and I finally consented, I found the place a journey that I needed to take. I did not fit in with the crowd who was there, (and was often mistaken for a doctor because I dressed and showered each day) but I needed to be there to become well. They put me on high doses of medication and were able to watch me while I became stable. I heard stories about other people who had struggles that were more severe than my own. I was able to be taken "out" of the situation I was in at home that was scarying me out of my mind and was self-perpetuating my scary obsessive thoughts about hurting myself or my child.
    Those seven days are forever etched in my mind, however, if I knew someone in the same situation, I would recommend that they too visit the hospital. However, I would be very clear with the person that it is NOT a BAD place. It is a place that is a "means to the end" of becoming healthy. It serves its purpose and that purpose is extrememly important and life saving. Bringing the hospital experience into normalcy is IMPORTANT. I thought I would be locked away for months if not years….but come to find out that an average hospital stay at a psych unit at a general hospital is usualy 7-10 days. That made me happy to learn those facts (after, of course, I had been frisked and my possessions searched).
    FireMOM, I also was able to continue pumping. It is amazing to my that only 5 years ago, medication in postpartum women was thought to be life threatening for the baby. During that time, I wanted to continue to breastfeed and pump because it was the only part of myself that felt like a real mother. I was told that I was able to pump but that I had to continue feedig the baby my breastmilk. I pumped-and-dumped (a term I now consider derogatory) because of the descriptively "poisonous" medication that the doctors were putting into my body. I remember that liquid gold being thrown down the sink every 4 hours, but the pumping kept me soothed and made me feel useful. The hospital was accomodating to my use of the pump and made it available to me. I shared a room with another woman who asked to be moved because of the pumping sounds in our room. The hospital was very gracious in allowing me to be in my own room and finding the other woman another room. The pump was taken away while I was not using it, but they did not make me feel like I was going to strangle myself when it was around. I think there was a very real respect that the staff had for my need to pump my milk for my daughter. In the end, the pumping proved to be successful. After moving to another psychiatrist after I left the hospital, I was informed that it was OK to breastfeed while on psychotripic mediations.
    Thanks you very much for sharing, Katherine. My experiece still gives me chills down my spine but it is heartwarming to know that I am not alone in being hospitalized. I have shared my story (although sparingly) and found other that other women, like yourself, have been hospitalized and have survived.

  7. Thanks for this entry and your blog — I've just found it. Glad you're here.
    I too was hospitalized for ppd, about a year ago. It was scary at first, but I soon found out that the staff really cared about us. They were very helpful.

  8. Kudos for Katherine! Where one woman steps forward with "manly" strength to share a not-so-good, maternal experience, especially in the mental health arena, there too through sharing, shall all women be able to one day come to terms with past to affectively deal with present and future. We are to each other "Post Partum Angels". D.A. GRAY, "Always A Mother's Friend".

  9. Mariah Warren says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your story, Katherine- and the other moms who commented as well. I was hospitalized twice for PPA/D when my son was six months old, and it was just as scary as it was the first time I had ever been hospitalized (six years prior). And yet- it was the place I needed to be, to regain some stability. I agree, it’s something I feel some shame about as well, but I vow to be open about it b/c despite popular misconceptions, it’s not the horror show as depicted in movies such as “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Yes, general hospital psych wards usually lack in décor and stimulating activities, and often the food is subpar (although not in the hospital I last stayed in), and we’re with people of diagnoses across the spectrum of the DSM-IV- BUT- we’re there for our own safety and perhaps the safety of our child(ren) as well. It’s a necessary unpleasantness, one that may yet have a silver lining. I was blessed to meet a kindred spirit and several caring nurses who encouraged me to talk, journal and use affirmations in my recovery. Sure, it would have been nice to have a luxury resort for moms with PPMDs, but without lots of money, that isn’t going to happen. We have to take the help we can get, if we’re blessed to get it, even if it’s gray and despairing- there are glimmers of light if we open ourselves to the experience.