Psychosis During Pregnancy and What It Taught Me

Baby Viv

My postpartum psychosis episode in 2008 after the birth of my first child provided me with a deep understanding of the importance of medication in my long-term recovery plan. But it was the severe psychosis I experienced during the early weeks of pregnancy with my daughter that taught me the extent of the deficiency of certain chemicals in my brain and how I would need to adhere to my medication if I wanted to there for my kids. And I did. Without a doubt.

We had been trying to give our son a sibling for about nine months without luck, but in March of 2010 I saw the definitive pink lines on the home pregnancy test and I knew it was real. I’d been visiting my family in Florida over Easter with just my little man since my husband had to stay home to work when the timing was right to take a test. I couldn’t wait, so I did it late at night and when the lines showed up I called my husband right away, texting him a picture to show off the proof.

“Well, don’t get too excited in case it doesn’t stick.” he cautioned, reminding me of the miscarriage we had before our son was conceived.

“I know, I know. I just have a good feeling about this one. I think it’s going to work out.” was my honest reply.

He encouraged me to try to sleep, sensing how amped up I was by the news. And I was. My skin was buzzing with anticipation for the nine months ahead of us. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that there were cells dividing and multiplying inside of my belly and those cells would grow into our baby. I didn’t take my usual medication that night since I had discussed coming off the med upon learning I was pregnant with my doctor. The miracle of life was starting within me, I needed to protect it, and I was so incredibly happy.

So happy I barely slept that night. My son and I had to be on a flight home at 7:15 in the morning, so we were up packing away the last of our stuff at 5am to get to the airport on time.

The hypomania was in full effect, but I kept it well-hidden from my parents as we kissed and hugged goodbye, my stomach in knots because I wanted so badly to tell them the exciting news, but also wanted to get home and confirm it with my OB-GYN before telling them they’d be grandparents again in December.

They didn’t have to wait long though, because the following week I was manic to the point of psychosis and had to be hospitalized. I was five weeks pregnant. They immediately flew up to help.

After returning home from our visit in Florida, I could barely sleep at night I was overwhelmed with the expectation of another baby joining our family. To try to get myself to fall asleep, I’d run through baby names in my head, my husband snoring melodically beside me. My technique didn’t work and the three hours of sleep I was eventually able to get each night weren’t nearly enough to prevent the mania from taking over my mind.

By the time my husband called 911 to safely get me to the hospital, it was evening and we had already put our little guy to bed. In hindsight I bet he did this to prevent our son from witnessing an event that may have been traumatic for him. But at eighteen months old and with his obsession with police officers and police cars, I remember thinking the exact opposite in the moment the officers stepped into our bedroom to talk me into going with them to the hospital. I even asked them if they would say hi to him before we left the house, as ridiculous a request it was, at the time it made perfect sense to me. That was how far gone I was without my meds.

My mother-in-law arrived to take care of our son, and my husband followed the police car to the hospital where I was held under a temporary detention order until the doctor evaluated me. By this point I was experiencing extreme dissociation and confusion along with hallucinations. The following morning I was finally admitted to the psychiatric ward, and was stabilized with medication over the course of the next four days.

No medication is completely safe during pregnancy, but together with my doctors I chose one I felt comfortable. One that brought me out of the psychosis and back to reality. Back to life, with a life growing inside me. I saw a High-risk OB-GYN, my psychiatrist, my therapist, and my regular OB-GYN throughout the duration of the pregnancy.

Taking medication during pregnancy is a gut-wrenching decision for a mother. But in my case, the benefit of me being on the medication that allows me to function as a human being greatly outweighed the risk to the fetus. Having kids while living with a mental illness has its challenges. The obstacles I overcame during my childbearing years were ones I wouldn’t wish upon anyone; rather, I hope people can learn from what I experienced.

There is no ideal way to do this. There is only the intense desire to have a family and the need to work closely with your doctors and therapist to achieve the best, safest, most ideal outcome possible.

About Jennifer Marshall

I married my college sweetheart at 24 and we have two fun-loving, energetic kids. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 in 2006, I had to navigate my pregnancies while managing my mental illness. I write at bipolarmomlife.com to share my experiences with others so they realize that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

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  1. Congratulations, Jennifer, on your second post for Postpartum Progress. I am so proud of you and you inspire me each and every day through your blog and various articles. Thanks for all that you do to help us mothers with postpartum mood disorders. As you know, I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder six weeks after the birth of my little girl. I am now in recovery and doing well, working on my first book. You are a great role model to me, and I look forward to following your advocacy journey and to reading your memoir next year!

  2. I also took meds during both pregnancies and for me it was the right choice. I’m so sorry you lived through that but once again I am so glad with the support you got. You’re so brave to share and I’m so proud of you Jenn.

  3. Wow Jennifer, I can totally relate to many things you went through. I have had to be on medication for both of my pregnancies, (15 month old and now 19 weeks pregnant) for Bipolar II. I feel a lot of guilt much of the time, but know that in order for my babies to be healthy and happy I must do the same. Thanks for sharing! It brings me much hope 🙂

    • Thanks for reading, Alissa! I felt the guilt, too. But as moms we need to cut ourselves some slack. We did it for the right reasons and under the supervision of our doctors. I’m so glad to hear my story gives you hope. 🙂

  4. Thanks for posting this! I had a psychotic break in my second trimester with my first pregnancy. It was terrifying for everyone involved. My psychiatrist at the time refused to put me on any medication and suggested Benadryl. I ended up I. The hospital two nights later and my husband just recently told me he had to fight me to prevent me from jumping out of the car on the hour long drive. After a week long hospitalization and consultation with doctors that specialize in pregnancy, I was released with no psychiatrist as mine dropped me. Luckily, I called every doctor in the area and one called me back and was willing to take me on right away. My amazing almost two year old son was born perfectly healthy and has hit every milestone. I was so nervous through most of my pregnancy. But I also knew if I didn’t take care if myself and get back on the medication I desperately needed that I would end up back in the hospital it even worse.

    We are now discussing a second pregnancy and it breaks my heart but my husband just doesn’t want to go through the risks again. I would be willing and feel that we finally gave the right doctors in place and that we would be much better prepared. But we also have my son to consider and the fact that we would need to hire someone to help us when the baby is born. My husband is a firefighter and is gone every four days and nights. Unfortunately, my medication makes it tough to wake up at night. We were very blessed to have my husbands sister help us last time.

    Your posts have been very encouraging! It’s nice to know that someone else went through a similar battle and came out the other side.

  5. Such a memorable experience it must have been. My cousin was also diagnosed with PPD, I remember her saying sometimes she wanted to drown her newborn. It was really intense for us, luckily she got out of it. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Thanks for sharing ur story. Always remember their light at the end of the tunnel. Have faith in God. In dark times ppl turn to God and that faith lasts forever. I dont regret my bi polar illness . I have got so much through it.

  7. I wish I had known about the possibility of mental illness being brought on by pregnancy. I have no history whatsoever of depression or mental illness of any kind, and yet i ended up with a severe case of antenatal depression during my long awaited pregnancy. I was 39 and so happy to have finally met someone and become pregnant. However at 8 weeks an awful cloud descended upon me complete with hearing voices telling me to kill myself, my baby, the world would be better off without me, etc. Add to this awful, awful all day all night sickness bordering on HG, etc and it was hell on earth. I had wanted to be a mom my entire life. I would cry at home alone, so afraid I would never meet anyone in time to be a mom. And here I was pregnant and suddenly having these awful thoughts. I didn’t even know I was ill. I got no help, an no doctor ever asked me about my mental health.

    I began to become obsessed with the idea of terminating the pregnancy, courtesy of the voices and the fact that I had essentially lost my mind. One day, I got up and that is exactly what I did, 12 weeks in. About 24 hours later, I woke up from sleep that morning and it was like I had returned from some long trip. I looked down and realized my baby was gone…it felt literally like someone, some demon had come and taken my baby!! I screamed an awful scream that morning and feel like I’ve been screaming inside ever since. It’s been 18 months since this tragedy occurred, since my life’s dream was taken from me by this awful illness. I told the few people who knew of my pregnancy that i had a miscarriage because i couldnt bear to tell the truth of this awful experience. I tried for 7 months afterwards to get pregnant again to no avail. I gave up after i found out my bf was cheating on me. I found this out shortly after the month that my baby wouldve been due. The regret and the grief is incredible. I also have a lower back pain that wont seem to go away that started during pregnancy but never left. Now it remains as a reminder of the baby i do not have.

    I wish I could’ve been one of the lucky ones who had a smooth, normal pregnancy. It’s all I wanted all my life. How cruel for my precious child to be taken from me in this way. Some days it feels like it would be easier to just check out of here, the pain is that intense. I was literally not present beginning at 8 weeks until the end. I don’t know if i ever fully will be present again. Im working on letting go and forgiving myself and moving on, but it is challenging.

    The only hope I have is that someone may read my story and get help if they recognize themselves in it. Please get help before something this terrible happens to you. And I hope people will be more aware of antenatal mental illness, not just post natal.

    • Heather King says:

      My heart hurts for you. I’m so sorry for your loss and pain. We strive to educate and empower doctors to do MORE, to ask more, and to fight the stigma that comes with antenatal and postnatal mental illness. Thank you for the telling of your story here, because you are exactly right–you HAVE and WILL continue to help others to get help. Thank you.

      I hope you are getting help with your grief and pain from a good therapist. You are worthy of finding joy in your life again. Peace to you….

      • Thank you, Heather. It’s hard to actually believe that i deserve joy or anything good after this. I try to think about it as an accident, because really it wasn’t my fault. It’s sad, because I am a good person who has always been one to help people and I’ve loved kids all my life. It’s all so unfair, and ithe grief eels like an awful torment I’ll be saddled with for the rest of my life, through no fault of my own. All because I wanted to have a family like anyone else. Unfortunately, I do not have a lot of money for therapy right now. I was able to talk to one therapist immediately after this occurred, and she was the one who told me about psychosis during pregnancy. If you know of any free resources for therapy for someone in my position, I’d be open to it. I just want my life back, if that is possible at all. Thank you for your blog. It is pretty much the only site online that talks about it. I felt all alone for the past 18 months.

  8. The same thing happened to me at the beginning of my pregnancy. I didn’t sleep for a full 2 weeks. I wasn’t having visual hallucinations, but I was hearing voices. No medication they could give me would bring me back. I spent the first two months of my pregnancy in the hospital. I never thought I would get better.. Trying different medications every other day. My mother had discussed abortion with the doctor because I was just so far gone. I tried telling everyone to leave me alone so I can sleep and that I don’t need the medication, but no one would listen to me. I just needed sleep. After the third month started of being in the hospital, they had to release me. There was nothing they could do anymore. I was still taking my meds (forced by my mother and fiance) and continued to hear the voices for the next three weeks.. I finally convinced my fiance to let let me quit taking them since it wasn’t helping anyways. So he said that we could try it and not even a week later.. The voices were GONE. I just woke up, and that was it! I broke down in tears calling my fiance at work a million times because I was so happy. I could leave the house fully relaxed, I could get a full nights sleep without the feeling of trying to sleep in a room full of people talking as loud as they can. I was finally normal again.

  9. Jennifer, is there a name for this condition? I am researching a family story of my aunt, a woman who lived 100+ years ago and had 3 husbands. All of them died when she was in an early pregnancy. She also accused a neighbor of rape and he was sentenced to 21 years in State Prison. So many accounts don’t add up. I wonder if she was suffering a psychotic break that occurred with some of her pregnancies during the 1st or very early second trimester.

Trackbacks

  1. […] both a postpartum mood disorder (postpartum psychosis) and a perinatal psychiatric issue (a manic episode which lead to psychosis) very early on in my second pregnancy. I had been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder two years before […]

  2. […] experienced postpartum psychosis after my first child was born, and five years ago I suffered from antenatal psychosis during my second pregnancy. Those were some of the most isolating and terrifying times of my life. […]