This could be a difficult or triggering story to read, so please bear that in mind and read from a safe place.
Before I had my first child in 2013, I was not excited to be a mother. Even when I saw her pinched little face in the delivery room, my thoughts could best be summed up with the words, “Cool, it’s a baby.” It wasn’t until we brought her home and I learned to breastfeed comfortably that I began to form a bond with her, and that bond has grown every day since then.
Everything was great until she turned four months old. I dropped into a deep depression, and even after telling my doctor that I thought I had postpartum depression and that I had thoughts of harming my baby, I was told to just “get more sleep.” I found a new doctor and began taking an antidepressant, but over the next several months the thoughts of hurting my daughter got stronger and more graphic. When she was nine months old, I was hospitalized for postpartum psychosis, medicated, and sent home.
I became pregnant with my son when my daughter was 18 months old, and during that pregnancy, I was outspoken to my doctors that I had had postpartum psychosis before. I saw a prenatal therapist, and it was all over my birth plan. I even told the doctors and nurses in the delivery room that it had happened before. Despite all of this, I was sent home with a two-year-old and a newborn, even after trying to explain to everyone at the hospital that I was hearing voices.
“You’re just tired,” they said.
I went home, and the deep depression that I’d been in through the entire pregnancy was replaced by an intense and all-encompassing hypomania. My body and brain raged with energy. I was exercising intently, despite the fact that I kept hurting my back over and over again. When my thoughts began to darken, I entered into a mixed manic state.
When my baby was six months old, tragedy struck as a friend close to me lost her 17-month-old son. This occurred at the same time that I had to give up breastfeeding because my son had an unfixable lip and tongue tie that was giving me blisters.
The trauma and the abrupt change to my hormones worked in unison to ignite my first psychotic episode, during which I almost took my own life, and I entered into an outpatient program through my medical insurance. I talked to people, but not much. I didn’t know what to say, this broken mother so fearful of judgement, and I wasn’t comfortable telling my story. I graduated from the program after two weeks and went back to my job as a teacher, pretending everything was fine.
As time went on, I began hearing a man’s voice in my head telling me to kill myself. He told me that I was worthless and that I needed to die to set my family free from me. He helped me create a plan to leave home and end my life. He wheedled me for months, saying, “You need to die” to me over and over again, so many times that it stopped being his words and became mine: “I need to die.”
My daughter, who was just shy of three at the time, overheard me talking to my husband about it one night when we thought she was asleep. “I just want to go away,” I said, fearful of saying the actual words.
She came stumbling into my room sobbing, “Mommy, please don’t go away. Don’t go away.”
With tears falling down my cheeks, I slumped down and gathered her into my arms, promising her that I would never go away, that I’d always be there.
I almost broke that promise many times over the following year-and-a-half, but that night jarred me to my senses, and I called my psychiatrist and told him about the man in my head. He put me on an antipsychotic, and just as suddenly as the man arrived, he was gone.
We moved to a new house when my son was seven months old, and the mixed manic state worsened until, despite the antipsychotic and mood stabilizer I was on, I began to have urges to harm my son. I described to my psychiatrist that there was a monster living inside me, and it was telling me what to do. I could see it, feel it inside me, large and looming and full of smoke, eyes glowing.
One night the monster’s presence became so strong that I stopped being myself. I was sitting on our loft, bottle feeding my son, and I knew I had to do what it told me. Tears dropped onto his beautiful face as I sobbed to him over and over, “Mama loves you, no matter what.”
I don’t know how to describe what happened, but I didn’t do it. I put him in his crib and shut the door, and I called the crisis line. Police officers came to my house and waited with me until my husband came home. They asked if I wanted to be sent back to the hospital, but I told them no. I told them I would call my psychiatrist. My husband came home, and they left.
I went back into the outpatient program, and I went back into it again several months later when there was a CPS case opened. No one knew how to help me. They were there with their canned words, constantly asking me, “Are you safe? Are you safe?”
No. I was never safe. No one was safe with me.
My drinking, which had always been a problem, had escalated during all of this, and I got sober when my son was 14 months old. The day after I got sober, through the help of Postpartum Support International, I got in touch with a doctor in nearby San Francisco who specialized in maternal mental health. A month later, I went to see him, and he diagnosed me with postpartum psychosis and peripartum onset bipolar disorder. He put me on Lithium, and the monster went away.
What followed was darkness. The monster was gone, but I was reacting to the 15 months of mania and psychosis I had endured. The strong, beautiful bond that I had had with my son had shattered, and I saw him as nothing more than a reminder of my trauma. I hated myself for this, and I mourned the loss of my baby. I obsessed over things and had a strong aversion to weeds. I would come home early from work just to try and dig weeds out of my yard. They were everywhere, and I couldn’t stop them. I felt like they were choking me. Trauma does strange things.
About two months after my diagnosis, my new psychiatrist—I had to transfer care to her because the San Francisco doctor said I was too far postpartum—decided to change my antipsychotic to a new one because the original medication was causing unpleasant side effects. I quickly went downhill, and the psychosis came back. I ended up back in the psychiatric hospital when my son was 19 months old with a new CPS case and the requirement that every time I had an episode I had to leave my family and live with a friend for a week.
This went on for months as my episodes came more quickly and violently than they ever had before, and now the monster focused on both of my children. No one was safe. I spent weeks and weeks living outside my home, and I still had no bond with my son. Thankfully, the CPS social worker I had this time around was very helpful, and she got me connected with an organization near me that began working on attachment parenting.
Finally, when my son was almost two, I argued with my psychiatrist until she put me back on the medication that was working. Thanks to a lot of therapy, the support of family and friends, sobriety, and medication, I was stable and beginning to feel joy again.
It’s an uphill battle, and it’s one that I will likely face for the rest of my life as bipolar disorder, alcoholism, and trauma are now a part of my story. My son is three, and I’m so blessed to say that I feel a love for him that is so pure and deep that it makes me cry. I know I went through all of this for a reason, and I truly believe that reason is so that I can help other women. No one should have to go through two years of hell to finally be stable. No one should have to feel that they don’t love or connect to their child. If my story can help just one person, then it will not have been in vain.
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