Real life mental health stories: postpartum psychosis

Disclaimer: this may read like a story, but it is a real life account by someone. Please note that this story may be difficult to read if you are a mum, if you are pregnant, or if you want to be a mum in the future. 

Please do not read if you are afraid this will negatively impact your mental health – and take the necessary precautions. 

The original of this post was written in French and you can find it here.

postpartum psychosis
Photo by Josh Willink from Pexels

Who are you, and what made you want to share your story?

My name is Aurélie, I am the mother of three children, and I work in childcare. After the birth of my first son, I experienced the worst time of my life. I wanted to share my experience because while baby blues and postpartum depression are somewhat well known, they are still relatively taboo in our society.

On the other hand, postpartum psychosis is barely talked about at all if not completely unknown for most people. And yet, a number of young mothers go through this experience or through depression, while their friends and family aren’t able to understand or identify what’s happening to them. 

Before giving birth  

I’d like to share what led up to my postpartum psychosis, before sharing what I went through and how I saw things at the time.

Before becoming pregnant with our first child, I had never experienced depression. Thanks to my studies, I knew that pregnancy and birth could present some mental health challenges, but I wasn’t considered at risk because I had no history of mental health problems. 

First, I experienced a miscarriage after 5 weeks of pregnancy. I wasn’t particularly upset but it meant that throughout the rest of my next pregnancy, I had this constant fear of losing my baby. Before every scan, anxiety would kick in and I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that the pregnancy could end at any moment. 

Luckily from a medical point of view the pregnancy progressed without any issues. I wanted to give birth in a “birthing home” (a special type of establishment in Switzerland) so my husband and I could spend the first few days with our baby. In birthing homes, the father is allowed to spend the first 2 to 3 nights with the mother and the baby in the same room, something that isn’t possible when you give birth at the hospital. I was therefore prepared to give birth without using any pain medication so I could make the most of this special location for the first few days. 

Giving birth – trauma

After 36 hours of labour and two sleepless nights, I was about to continue into a third night with no sleep when I was rushed to the emergency room completely exhausted. “Incapable” was the word I heard at the time. “My body is playing games with me, I won’t be one of those mums who can give birth without pain relief in 10 hours.”

Finally I gave birth but suffered a massive haemorrhage. I was separated from my baby and had to be taken to the operating unit immediately. On the way there, I could see how worried the staff were and I could feel I was losing consciousness. I barely had time to tell the nurse before I blacked out completely. 

I woke up in the post-op room realizing what I’d just been through, knowing where I was and wondering what happened to my baby that I had abandoned a few hours earlier… My baby to whom I couldn’t offer a moment of calm and skin to skin contact after his birth. I’d failed as a mum, “incapable” came back to haunt me.. My son would suffer because of this.

Over the next few days I struggled to realize this baby was mine. I was so used to looking after other children that it was hard for me to realize that in my arms was the baby that was in my womb for 9 months, and for whom I was so worried.

The start of the postpartum psychosis 

I was a total zombie, and “incapable” of looking after my baby as I wanted to. I cried every night, I talked to my husband about it… I was totally shell shocked. I almost died! I’m still alive because I live in a country where healthcare is good, but if I had given birth alone at home in a country where there wasn’t access to healthcare, I would have died and my son would be an orphan.  

At the same time I had to give up on my other dream: that of breastfeeding my son. I had planned on breastfeeding him until he was 6 months old but I had to face the facts: something wasn’t right and he wasn’t gaining weight. I had to feed him with bottles and the word “incapable” started to haunt me yet again…  My child’s survival depended on others, like cows… My self-confidence took another blow. My friends and family didn’t understand me. Why was I upset about this? Bottles would do just fine! But for me, becoming a mum also happened through the act of breastfeeding. 

One day the midwife came by, and confirmed what I thought: there was a problem. I wouldn’t be able to breastfeed my children as I wanted, and I’d have to wean my son. I was all alone crying on the sofa. My husband said goodbye to me quickly, he had weekend plans and had to go catch a train. I wanted him to stay with me but he didn’t or wouldn’t sense my pain and struggles. The world started to crumble around me, I felt so alone, so lonely…

Hitting rock bottom

I was exhausted, my haemoglobin levels were still very low. Every small thing I had to do was exhausting, how would I be able to start again and take on any kind of project? Why could other mums give birth in 10 hours, without pain relief, get right back into shape and breastfeed, while I couldn’t? 

I wasn’t the mum I had imagined, I had failed once again. “Incapable” of protecting my baby and giving him what he needed. I couldn’t sleep anymore because I was riddled with anxiety. What was going to happen to my baby? Was he going to suffer because I couldn’t breastfeed him? Of course he would! He wouldn’t benefit from the physical contact he would have if I was breastfeeding, worse still, since I couldn’t give this to him after birth.

He wouldn’t get any antibodies from bottled milk. I thought, “I’m such a bad mum, I won’t be able to help him defend himself against microbes!” I could see myself falling into this dark hole, falling falling falling with nothing to hang on to… It was a very deep hole and I saw this vision every day, sometimes several times a day.

I kept thinking about this failed breastfeeding, and then I wondered “could I continue to breastfeed, while giving him bottles at the same time as a supplement?”. No one had mentioned it to me so I must have been hallucinating, I was just the most incapable mother…

Everyone knows I’m a bad mum  

My neighbours could see me washing the bottles because my kitchen sink was right by the window. They all knew I was a bad mum. The strangers I crossed in the street were all looking at me, judging me because they could see I was in bad shape and therefore I was useless. That’s why the mum I saw with her baby in the park didn’t reply when I greeted her, because she knew I was a bad mum who couldn’t take care of her child’s most basic needs. 

I constantly felt alone, I didn’t see many people because my husband worked, exercised and came home late, my friends didn’t have kids and were also working. My family lived more than an hour away, everybody was always at work…

One day whilst changing my baby, I was talking to him, and he looked at me in a way that caught my attention. It seemed that he was judging me… “Is he actually able to think and realize everything that’s happening around him? Does he also think I’m “incapable”?”   

When I was sometimes able to sleep, my mother in law interrupted my dreams. She often called to find out how her grandson was doing, and couldn’t help herself from judging just about everything I did. She always had to contradict me, and there she was, terrorizing me in my dreams. She told me I was doing it all wrong, that my child’s development was at risk, that she would come to save him and he would be better off with her… I could see her trying to hurt me, to get me out of the way and take my baby.

My dreams became reality (in the worst possible way) when one day, we told her we were planning on going on holiday when our baby turned 4 months old. She said we should leave him with her, and that he’d be better off with her than on holiday with us. I was completely panicked and fell even deeper into the dark hole: I was convinced she wanted to steal my baby! She wasn’t able to fully enjoy with her children, and so now she wanted mine to make up for the past. She haunted me night and day from then on…

By that time,I had to deal with terrorizing thoughts of my mother in law, the dark hole I was falling into and an overwhelming feeling of being absolutely useless. I suddenly realized something was very wrong when, upon seeing my neighbours close their curtains, I thought they were doing it because of me. My neighbour was so mad at me for being a bad mum that she had to close the curtains so as to not see me wash bottles… 

Asking for help

In a rare moment of lucidity I realized something wasn’t right at all, I was depressed if not worse. Yes my mother in law was overwhelming and intolerant but she wasn’t there. My baby was fine and if he was looking at me, it was because he was observing me, not because he was judging me. My neighbours didn’t have a problem with me, whether I was breastfeeding or not. And it was time I climbed out of the dark hole, back to the surface where there was light.

On a daily basis I tried to focus on my baby. He was smiling at me and I loved him more than anything in the world. It wasn’t easy but I was determined that this emotional bond would not suffer because of the state of my mental health. I needed to get help, and win this battle I had with myself. 

I didn’t dare tell my husband, I was ashamed and afraid of scaring him. I plucked up my courage and talked to my sister, who confirmed that what I was experiencing wasn’t normal. She gave me the contact details for the psychologists in the maternity ward where I gave birth.

One week later I was sitting with the psychologist and he confirmed that I experienced a severely traumatic moment when my son was born. He handed me a questionnaire to determine whether or not I was experiencing postpartum depression. 

One question asked about “suicidal or self-harm thoughts”. Of course I’d already considered it! Of course I’d thought it might be better to just put an end to it all… But this thought was very quickly overridden by reason: I didn’t want to leave my son without his mum because it would be very traumatizing for him. 

I knew there were many beautiful moments waiting for us once I started to feel better and that were worth fighting for. I checked “no” on the formula because I didn’t want to be hospitalized, a separation from my son would have been bad for me. His presence was beneficial and I felt that our emotional attachment was preserved. I was also really scared that the social services would take my child away from me. That’s why I never mentioned my suicidal thoughts to the psychologist, I was sure they were only thoughts and I would never go through with it, I trusted myself on that one.

He referred me to a colleague of his who specialized in therapy for trauma patients, and after several appointments I started to feel better. I was able to feel a lot less guilty, and started to take a step back from the situation, as well as acquiring tools to control my thoughts and disturbed visions. 

Regarding the breastfeeding, after the midwife’s visit that pushed me into the black hole I decided not to give up and contacted a specialized nurse. She told me that indeed I could breastfeed and supplement with a bottle and it would be ok for my son, that I could feed him like this. It required quite a lot of organization but it helped me to feel better about providing for him, and I was able to finally accept the situation a bit better. 

Ultimately I decided to stop all these efforts after a while, only feeding him with bottles so we could spend more time together playing. It was a difficult decision but it was the right one, as I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. 

I continued the weekly therapy sessions and started to feel better. I stopped hallucinating and little by little I allowed myself to start falling asleep again. I still had to fall asleep on the sofa with the TV on because I was too afraid to be left alone with my mind, and I wasn’t yet ready to deal with that. 

Finally getting “back to normal”

It took me five more months after I first got in touch with the psychologist to feel fully “better” and be able to fall asleep in my own bed, alone, without having to occupy my mind with something else. 

The therapy I underwent also helped, and time mended a lot of the issues I had been facing. It’s now been five years since I experienced this trauma and I no longer feel guilty about the birth or the breastfeeding. I’m a bit sad I wasn’t able to go through with it, but I’ve accepted that things don’t always go to plan. In fact, for my other two children I made no plans at all… 

I lived on the edge for the first few months after the birth of my other two children, it wasn’t easy. I had to fight my demons every day. But this first experience had given me a lot of strength, and I was much more confident that I’d be able to overcome it. 

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Currently working in marketing and comms in Amsterdam. Passionate about all things digital, writing, dancing, travelling and much more. Mental health blogger and advocate.

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