I’m allergic to childbirth.
Have you ever gone eight days and nights without sleeping? The mind you have by the end of that period is not the same one you started with. That’s how I came to be sitting in A&E in the middle of the night talking to the duty psychiatrist about my electric cats. That one followed me around in my notes. If anyone needed evidence that I’d lost touch with reality, there’s always the electric cats. But that was the first time: this is all about the second time.
Postpartum Psychosis (also called ‘Puerperal Psychosis’, ‘Postnatal Psychosis’, ‘Postpartum Bipolar Disorder’ or PP) is a severe episode of mental illness, which starts suddenly in the first few weeks following childbirth. PP occurs following 1-2 in 1000 deliveries, and can be very severe and serious. There are some groups of women, women with a history of bipolar disorder for example, who are at much higher risk. There are a large variety of symptoms that women with PP may experience. These include:
-symptoms of “high” mood (mania) – for example, racing thoughts and pressure to talk too much.
-symptoms of low mood – for example depressed mood, lack of energy, poor appetite and poor sleep.
-psychotic symptoms – such as believing things that are not true (delusions) or seeing or hearing things that are not there (hallucinations). Delusions may be grandiose, and can include fears of harm coming to herself or her baby.
With treatment, the vast majority of women will recover fully and there are usually no long term effects on the relationship between a mother and her baby.
Unfortunately we know little about the causes of PP. Research points to biological, probably hormonal, factors related to pregnancy and childbirth but many other factors are likely to be involved.
Action on Postpartum Psychosis
I’ve had it twice, following the births of my two sons, Kajek and Samek. The second time was the more severe – but far better than the first time, which was the worst. The second time I had a privileged experience: I experienced madness. The first time I had a shocker: I had a breakdown, Kajek came close to death, and social services incarcerated me in a psychiatric hospital for five weeks. Both times I had a baby, which in the longer term is the most important thing. The second time I thought I was dying, and being reincarnated, and that I was Gaia giving birth to myself. I railed and raved in an empty room, I begged the powers that be to record what I was saying, I was euphoric, inspired, desperate, a loon. I scaled the heights and I plumbed the depths. The first time I was afraid, trapped, angry, frustrated, abused and defeated. The first time I cried my heart out. The second time I laughed my ass off. Among other things, I actually had a great time. Among other things. There was darkness too – not least leaving Kajek unmothered for nine weeks. But – and take this with a pinch of salt – I enjoyed being mad. (Did I? I don’t know. You tell me).
After having postpartum psychosis following the birth of my first child, I had a 50% chance of falling ill after another child. I was unlucky to get postpartum psychosis again. I was lucky to get postpartum psychosis again. The second time created the conditions that made it possible for me to recover from the first time. (Have I? I don’t know. You tell me).
I have a souvenir from my first stay at the Mother and Baby Unit: one of the hospital towels that got mixed up with my belongings. It hangs, dirty and ragged, on the inside of the door of my garden shed. It is unlovely. I also have a souvenir of the second time, not-accidentally ferreted away in my packing before I left the unit. It is a soft, clean, comfortable woollen blanket which I would happily have on my bed, touching my face. I will keep it, unless they demand it back.
I write this as my record of my experience of psychosis and mania. I write this to abolish the ghosts of the first time and celebrate the highs of the second time. I don’t want to leave the scattered fragments of my mind unintelligible and unintelligent in a heap at the back of the wardrobe; I want to sift those fragments, shuffle and order them, curate them; make them cohere. I would do almost anything for this never to have happened to me, but it did, so I can either let that experience disappear into the mists of memory, throw away all my scraps and notes and memorabilia and delete my text messages. Or I can write it, and even let people read it, and I can own it. I choose to own it so this is my record. I’m letting it go by hanging onto it.