[Editor’s Note: Today, I welcome a guest post from Heather, who has bravely and graciously agreed to share her story of postpartum psychosis in hopes it will help others. This piece may feel triggering to some, so please only read if you are in a safe place. -Katherine]
Aren’t there supposed to be warning signs?
On a late Friday afternoon in October 2008, I was standing stark naked on the side of a DC highway, nearly facing death because of a mental illness I didn’t know I had.
Thankfully, two couples stopped their cars when they saw me running, naked, in the breakdown lane, and encountered me screaming something about being baptized. I literally thought the world was ending. Soon I was on a bridge being restrained by police officers.
The night before had been a Thursday evening like any other. I’d gotten home from work, played with my two-year-old son and four-month-old baby daughter for a bit and then gotten them ready for bed. The next thing I knew, I was in the midst of a postpartum psychotic episode being institutionalized against my will. I would eventually spend five days at the Psychiatric Institute of Washington.
I’ve since been diagnosed with mild bipolar disorder, and I learned from Brooke Shield’s Down Came the Rain that a postpartum psychotic episode can be the first sign of bipolar disorder. What a way to find out you are sick and need help.
Postpartum depression, a form of clinical depression which can affect women after childbirth, affects 15 percent of women. The more severe postpartum psychosis affects only one or two women in a thousand, which may not sound like many until you realize that this translates to anywhere from 4,100 to 8,200 women in any given year.
You’re probably familiar with the horror stories like that of Andrea Yates, who tragically drowned her five young children in 2001. But only five percent of women with postpartum psychosis commit suicide, and only four percent commit infanticide.
Looking back on my experience, there were warning signs. The week leading up to the incident, I felt abnormally good. I now know I was experiencing mania. I had all this extra energy, a ton of ideas, and wanted to write everything in my head down on paper. I started keeping a small journal; my ideas, quotes, to-do lists, books to read—you name it, I wrote it down. My anal-retentive self was trying to manage the racing, manic thoughts I was having.
Friday morning, I woke up early and decided to attend the funeral of my coworker’s mother (a Catholic service). I’m an atheist—sometimes an agnostic—yet I suddenly felt it was more important to attend the service than the reception, as I had originally planned, even though I might be uncomfortable. In the shower, I dropped to my knees sobbing, feeling that God was communicating directly with me. I needed to attend the service.
God had an amazing sense of humor, I thought as I got ready to go, because there were all these coincidences throughout my life, signs that He had been sharing with me that I was just that morning noticing. My brain was acting like Wikipedia, helping me quickly and easily connect the dots between people and places that shared common names and themes. Then, as I drove to the funeral, I got behind a vehicle that had a sign that said, “Follow me.” God was being humorous again; he was sending me another sign.
In the funeral service, the minister spoke about the role of a mother and how much this woman had embodied the meaning of mother, simply by how much she gave to others. The entire service spoke directly to me and I found meaning in each and every word, and in the fact that I was at the Church of the Little Flower since my name is Heather and my daughter’s name is Lily.
By the end of the service, I was compelled to take communion for the first time in my life. I’m not even sure if that was appropriate or not; I’m not Catholic, not baptized, and not religious in any way. But there I was, walking up to the front of the church and doing something that before that moment would have felt foreign. I truly don’t know what events were cause by my mental illness and what could be attributed to something greater at work that day. That’s where my agnostic side kicks in. All I know is that the experiences felt extremely real at the time. I felt more at peace than I’d ever been in my life, as though I was completely in sync with the world around me.
Even though the route back to work was unfamiliar, I didn’t use GPS. I just followed different cars as though I was being guided. When I arrived at work, I felt invigorated. I started making requests of other departments to help on projects I knew I wouldn’t get to. It seemed that everything I put out into the cosmos was coming back to me. When I got hungry, someone stopped by and gave me a granola bar. Another coworker left a coin purse from Ecuador for me, a little gift with a penny in it. Everything seemed to be going my way. I decided to leave work a little early to beat the Friday traffic.
As soon as I hit the DC beltway, traffic came to a halt. My world began deteriorating.
I called my husband on my cell phone and my mind began to race. I obsessively asked him questions about The Matrix and The Fifth Element. Just like Leeloo in The Fifth Element, I was extra special, I believed, some kind of “chosen one.” I asked him about the story of Adam and Eve and wanted to know exactly how it ended. Maybe subconsciously knowing something was really wrong with me, I told him, “Don’t listen to me, whatever I say.”
Suddenly I hung up on my husband. I dialed 911 and told them that my husband was going to hurt my children. I gave them the address to my in-law’s house where my children were staying. When the operator asked me how he was going to hurt the children, I yelled, “You know how!” and hung up. I started driving in the breakdown lane with my flashers on. When a car followed me, I feared those inside were government agents trying to track me down.
The delusions worsened. I believed that my husband was the devil and that I was God. I thought he was trying to trick me. While talking with him on the phone, I answered his questions with questions, to avoid giving away where I was on the highway. When helicopters flew overhead, I was convinced the world was going to end and that presidential nominees Barack Obama and John McCain were headed to DC to join forces and save the world. I thought of a few ways I could help save the world: My husband and I could kill each other. Or we could kill our children. Or my parents. Or I could get baptized by a friend.
I don’t remember everything that happened before I stopped my car on the side of I-295, got out and removed all of my clothing. I remember pulling my shirt up over my head, but don’t remember moving on to remove my pants, socks, shoes and undergarments. My parents, my husband, and my friend have all shared some of their recollections from phone conversations with me as I drove. While talking with my mother, I swore that I heard my aunt’s voice and demanded to talk to my mother instead. Somewhere during the conversation with my parents, I begged for their forgiveness and then abruptly hung up on them.
That was the last my parents heard from me that day. The next time they tried to reach me, a police officer answered. As a parent myself, I cannot fathom the fear they must have felt during those several excruciating minutes, not knowing if I was still alive or what the hell was happening.
I was extremely lucky. I owe my life to the two couples that stopped immediately and called police. How easy it would have been to keep on driving. And I can’t think of one good reason why I didn’t end up in a car accident, on the news, or in prison, like some other unfortunate, yet infamous, mothers that have suffered from postpartum psychosis. For once in my life, I was thankful for the impossible DC traffic. It kept me from reaching my children.
Nearly a year-and-a-half later, I’ve gone through counseling and am still on medication to keep my mind on an even keel. One of the first medications my doctors gave me put me in a deep depression—and back in the emergency room. It was as if I was constantly walking in quicksand—even the smallest movements or thoughts took extraordinary effort. At one point, fearing the depression might go on forever, I contemplated how I might go about ending the suffering.
Now I am trying to come to terms with the idea that I have a mental illness. I have a mental illness? The words just don’t seem to fit. I’ve also been struggling to make sense of everything that happened that day, to put the puzzle pieces together, to find closure and avoid ever going down that path again. There are still so many questions. How do I help myself so that one day I might help others with similar experiences? How do I provide the best care for my children, when I’m relearning how to take care of myself? The entire process has been stressful, but I’m in a far better place today than I was after the incident.
I’ve even sought out spiritual and religious friends to try and understand the meaning of some of the moments I experienced that day. I expressed this struggle to a coworker, how I didn’t know what was caused by my mental illness and what might have been something greater at work. I could tell I struck a chord with her and later that day she came to my cubicle and told me that it didn’t matter, whatever I “wanted it to be it was.” If this was meant to be my spiritual journey, so be it!
Today, I just strive to be healthy (mentally and physically), to appreciate my family and my blessings and to reach out to my community with my story. We all get so wrapped up in the daily grind sometimes, so concerned with minding our own business that we lose a little bit of our humanity. I thank God that humanity wasn’t lost on me that day.
Learn more about the symptoms of postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression with psychotic features. If you are in immediate danger or you think your partner or friend might be, please take them immediately to the emergency room.