What do you think when you see a vacant-looking mom of a new baby and a toddler? That she is probably tired? Exhausted? That’s what most people would think. But would you ever think this was the look of a mom who was about to experience postpartum psychosis? Maybe you’ve never heard of it. I certainly hadn’t. So what is postpartum psychosis? And why would it happen to someone who had everything she had ever wanted?
My story begins in 2011. I had packed up and left my hometown in the UK to move to beautiful British Columbia on the West Coast of Canada with my husband at the ripe old age of 24. I had no concerns or worries, just a feeling of excitement for the adventure to come.
Those first few years were hard. I was a registered nurse with experience in the UK, but I was still required to upgrade my education to Canadian standards with courses and exams. I worked minimum wage jobs while studying to make ends meet. When I finished the courses and passed the Canadian Registered Nurse Exam, I was euphoric. Now I could finally start my life again, and a part of that plan was to become a mother.
I have loved children ever since I was a toddler myself and always envisioned myself with a big family of four or five kids. It was one of the reasons I became a pediatric nurse. Unfortunately, my trying for a baby was resulting in negative tests month after month. What was wrong with me?
I visited my general practitioner who sent me for a bunch of blood tests and an ultrasound scan on my ovaries. A random doctor from the office called me back to come into the office a few days later. “Your bloodwork and ultrasound show you have quite severe Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome. You don’t ovulate.” But what did that mean for me? “You will struggle very much to have any children.” And with that sentence, he got up and left the room.
I was referred to a fertility specialist, who I saw a few months later. He was a lovely, compassionate doctor who carried out further tests to see if there were any other issues. I eventually started fertility treatment and tried numerous forms before I finally got that positive pregnancy test in October of 2014. The pregnancy proved to be troublesome when, at 16 weeks, we were told the baby looked like it could have numerous medical conditions that would be incompatible with life. There was lots of uncertainty during the pregnancy and, looking back, I feel I suffered with a form of prenatal depression and anxiety which I would say is understandable, given the circumstances. My first daughter was born in July 2015 completely healthy, and I was overjoyed with happiness and love.
I struggled with postpartum depression throughout my 12-month maternity leave, but I put it down to the loneliness of being in a country away from my family and the trauma I had experienced during the pregnancy. My daughter cried and screeched for the majority of the day and night due to silent acid reflux, but I had still never felt love like that before.
When I became pregnant for the second time in November 2016 without any fertility treatment, I was shocked but overjoyed. This pregnancy was pretty much smooth sailing. There were no worries or concerns for the baby’s health, and people assured me that this baby would be happy and content, as you never get two the same.
My second daughter was born in August 2017. I didn’t get that same feeling of love when they put her on my chest. I didn’t feel a connection, but I didn’t worry because I figured this would come a little later.
But the connection didn’t come. When people said I would never get two babies the same, they were right. This one was worse. She cried. 24/7. She screamed in her stroller. She screamed in her carseat. It didn’t matter where she was, she was screaming. I tried everything the pediatricians told me to — medication to reduce acid, going dairy-free so no dairy was going through my breastmilk, but nothing worked. She wouldn’t nap in the day, and she wouldn’t sleep in the night.
I tried taking the two girls out, but with the baby’s screaming, it was always a big, stressful mess. I already struggled with driving anxiety due to a previous car accident so I just gave up trying to go out all together. So here I was, stuck indoors alone with a screaming newborn and a high energy two-year-old, all day, every day. The postpartum depression at this point was deep enough and every day I wished I could run away from it all and never come back.
The connection with my daughter never came. In fact, I didn’t even love her. I felt not one ounce of love. I kept thinking of how much happier I’d been before she arrived, and in my head at that time, I wished I’d never had her.
After a couple of months of constant crying, no sleep, no social interaction, I began to get intrusive thoughts. Thoughts where I would be holding my baby and could vividly see myself throwing her against the wall. Thoughts where I would be rocking her to try to get her to sleep, and imagine that I would take her out onto the balcony and throw her off the side and watch her fall to the ground. Thoughts where I would watch her drown in the bath and not even attempt to save her.
I hid these thoughts from everyone out of fear of someone taking my other daughter away from me. These kinds of thoughts were daily and so vivid that I couldn’t get away from them. How could anyone feel that way towards their own baby? I can hear you thinking it. Believe me, I used to think this too. How can anyone feel anything other than love for their own baby? I wish I knew the answer, but it was as if I were replaced by a completely different person at this point who had no sense of reality. This was not me.
I was sick, but I didn’t know or understand this yet.
Eventually, when she was five months old, something snapped. My husband had been working various shifts and was working night shifts at this particular time. It was 2:00 a.m. and my baby had not slept and was just screaming the house down, keeping my two-year-old awake — and she was also now crying through tiredness. An incredible rage came over me and I had to put my baby down and leave before I did something I would regret. I went into my garage, sat between the bins and sobbed like a little child.
I went outside (in Canada, in the middle of the night, and in January!) and called my mother, who was in the UK. I don’t remember much from this point onwards, but I was apparently not making any sense and screaming and stamping my legs like a child during a tantrum. I was eventually found, but I cannot remember anything about where or when. All I know is that my husband said I had a scary, vacant look in my eyes and I didn’t remember whether I had hurt the baby or not. He ran upstairs; the baby, thankfully, was safe and I had put her back in her crib.
Following this episode, I was required to see a specialist maternal psychiatry team and was placed on medication along with other interventions. My husband was also instructed to take immediate leave from work for the safety of our children and to help care for me. The letter the psychiatrist wrote to his employer labelled me as “critically ill.” As a nurse, I tended only to think of people being critically ill when they were in the ICU.
After 15 weeks of my husband being on leave and receiving only 55% of his wage, we made the decision that we had to return to the UK — a decision that continues to break my heart to this day. I had worked so hard to build the life I had created in Canada, and it was all taken away from me due to something I couldn’t have seen coming. After all, how could this happen to me? How could I have feelings of hate towards my baby? My babies were so desperately wanted.
Eventually, I built up a bond with my daughter when I began feeling better, and now I cannot believe I ever felt this way about being her mother. She’s now a funny, beautiful, energetic two-year-old whom I could not imagine my life without. My guilt about the feelings I had towards her in the first year of her life will never leave me. I don’t have the same happy photographs with her that I had with my first daughter, and it kills me knowing she will realize this one day and ask me why.
Postpartum psychosis does not care who you are, what you do, or how many people you have around you. Although I am now recovered, I will never be the same person I was before. I now make a point of being open and honest with women about my journey — so if I can help just one woman or her family recognize these symptoms and gain help quicker, I have done more than I could ever have anticipated.