I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder type 1 in 2006, and after two separate hospitalizations for mania, spent the entire year in the darkest depression I have ever faced. Each and every day of that year I cried. I cried for the person I thought I was. I cried for the life I had lost. I cried for the future I thought I had ruined by getting sick. I didn’t think I would ever see my dream of becoming a mom turn into reality. Not now. Now that I had a mental illness. I just didn’t think it was possible anymore.
Through the support of my loving husband, my family, and my friends, I somehow made it through that horrible year, what felt like the longest year of my life. I fought the demons of anxiety, overcame thoughts of suicide and emerged a fighter. Someone who will not give up hope; someone who refused to give up on her big dream of being a mom.
And at the very end of 2007, my husband and I found out that we had made that dream a reality.
We were expecting our first baby. Leading up to the pregnancy, I had been working closely with my psychiatrist and he agreed to allow me to taper off of my medications in order to conceive and complete the pregnancy without exposing the baby to any unknown side effects they might cause. (Looking back now, I should never have come off of my meds, but hindsight is 20/20 and this is the reason I am writing this letter – to share my experience in case it can help others.) I was very fortunate, in that my entire pregnancy was completely normal and surprisingly, despite the challenges of pregnancy sleep, I didn’t experience any symptoms of my illness whatsoever. It was as if it has disappeared from my body all together.
That is until two days after my son’s baptism, when he was four weeks and two days old, and I landed in the psych ward because of a full-blown manic episode.
From the moment we got home from the hospital after our little boy’s birth, I barely stopped moving. I hadn’t slept much at all after my emergency c-section, and the lack of sleep, instead of wiping me out, seemed to fuel my productivity as a new mom. If the baby was napping, I’d inevitably find something to do when I should have been lying down myself. The more I did, the less I needed sleep. But the stress of breastfeeding was draining from my body not only the little milk I was producing, but also what little sanity was left in me.
I remember about halfway through that first month of mommyhood, there was a point where all of a sudden I felt incredibly smart. Things around me seemed to just make sense. One afternoon I thought my dad was broadcasting a special radio signal to me from outer space, when in reality, we were talking to each other on our cell phones. I kept these thoughts of superior powers and alien life to myself, for fear of being taken away from my son who needed me to survive. I was his only source of nourishment; I had to keep going, had to keep this secret to myself.
Please mama, if you ever feel these things, or similar symptoms to these which I experienced after the birth of my first child, please don’t keep this dangerous secret.
The decreased need for sleep was a vicious cycle that eventually knocked me down with such impact that I basically needed to be forced to sleep with meds in a medical environment in order to be brought back to reality. I never did experience intrusive thoughts of wanting or needing to harm my baby, but some women who experience postpartum psychosis do. Sadly, those are the stories that media does an injustice to because those mothers were just ill and instead of taking a compassionate approach, they’re usually portrayed as monsters. Not human beings who simply were in desperate need of help.
My precious dream started to crumble around me. I missed out on my son’s life, week 4 to week 5, only getting to see how much he was changing from the photos brought to me at the hospital. For six days I followed doctor’s orders and they praised me, telling me I “respond beautifully to medication” as if the sentiment would bring comfort. It didn’t. I was exhausted beyond belief, so physically and emotionally drained from the stress of a week in a mental hospital. I just wanted to get home to my baby. I wanted to get my life back in order. I wanted things to return to normal.
Slowly and steadily, they did. It took a lot of work on my part to educate myself on my illness and what I needed to do in order to stay healthy and prevent another hospitalization. My support network of family and friends are always there to listen if I need someone to lean on.
Today, I am the mom of not one, but two beautiful babies. My husband and I are blessed beyond belief. I am finally writing openly about my journey as a mom living with bipolar disorder. I am no longer ashamed that I live with a mental illness because I fight like hell every single day to stay well. For myself and for my family. I am a warrior mom and I wear my badge proudly.
I am hopeful that by sharing my story I may help to end the stigma the surrounds mental illness by doing my small part to help educate the world of the signs and symptoms. Postpartum psychosis is one of the lesser-known postpartum mood disorders. Let’s change that by continuing to speak out, and by talking about it with open hearts, embracing those struggling so that they too can get back to their true passion in life: being a good mom.
I survived postpartum psychosis and I emerged a stronger, more resilient and determined mother because of it.
Jennifer Killi Marshall is a 34-year old wife and mother of two young children. Over seven years ago she suffered her first manic episode and several months and many doctor’s appointments later was finally diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder – type 1. Her blog, Bipolarmomlife.com is her way of documenting her progress, of keeping herself accountable and healthy for her family. She is currently blogging for WhatToExpect.com’s Word of Mom community and is also working on a memoir. Along the way she hopes to help fight stigma and inspire other young people who are struggling with the same feelings, fears, and insecurities that she was at one point. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just need to keep fighting hard to get there.
* * *Postpartum Progress, the world’s most widely-read blog on all things related to emotional health around pregnancy & childbirth, is a service of Postpartum Progress Inc., a 501c3 nonprofit devoted to raising awareness of postpartum depression and similar illnesses. Please consider making a donation today, Mother’s Day, so we can continue and expand our work supporting maternal mental health. Thank you!