I never considered my mental health as part of the decision to have a baby, because when I first fell pregnant within a month of trying, I had never experienced mental illness.
The pregnancy was uneventful.
Then I went into a thirty-three hour labour on two hours sleep. This severe sleep deprivation and the swirling hormone levels woke a slumbering monster, a genetic predisposition, which ensured that by the time my baby was one week old, psychosis had wrenched me away from reality. I found myself in the Special Care Unit of a private psychiatric hospital trying to explain my way out of my delusions, while my husband and mother cared for my daughter at home.
Have you ever had a moment when your answer to a question determined whether your life imploded?
It came five days into parenthood. I was lying on the floor in my maternity hospital room crying because I was trying to outrun a jaguar chasing me towards a cliff. Things were starting to go very wrong in my brain.
In the following months, when my mind warped and writhed in the grip of psychosis and later catatonic depression, and when what started out as postnatal psychosis turned out to be a first episode of bipolar 1 disorder, I could not imagine things being worse.
I’ve been told the first time we met I was shuffling slowly up and down a blue carpeted corridor. Slumped body. Empty eyes. I barely registered being asked how I was with a slowly exhaled
‘Not so good.’ before moving on with my pram.
I say ‘I’ve been told’, because I don’t remember our first meeting or the following weeks. I was sicker than I’d ever been. Not many people would have repeatedly made friendly conversation with someone as unresponsive as I was.
She did. At a time when she wasn’t well herself.
When I finally re-emerged after several months of illness, I was delighted to find I had a new friend. A friend I never would have met in my geographical or professional circles. A friend who, like me, had spent the early months of first-time motherhood in a psychiatric hospital instead of at home.
The day I found out my first baby was a girl, I cried. Until that moment I hadn’t thought much about gender. So, the heaviness that settled on my shoulders when the ultrasound revealed it, was unexpected. The weight of believing I had to be the perfect female role model for a daughter momentarily choked the joy of having one out of me.
I don’t dwell on what might have happened had I been sent home on day five after my daughter was born. But whenever the news throws up sensational stories reporting murder, infanticide, or suicide, and there is even a slim possibility the perpetrator might have been psychotic – then I think about it. Because that could have been me.
How do you learn to live with the difficult truths of your life? The ones you can’t just step over and leave behind?
Confirmation of my Bipolar 1 diagnosis was one of those truths for me. For several years after my first episodes of illness, we didn’t know whether we were dealing with Postnatal Psychosis or Bipolar Disorder. In my mind one was transient, the other a life sentence. Each time I’d press my psychiatrist for a definitive diagnosis he’d say:
‘We’ll have to wait three to five years to see if you have another episode.’
This answer frustrated me immensely. I wanted to put the whole experience of being mentally ill behind me.
I was laden with milk, my arms filled with the incredible warm softness of my five-day old baby. Snuffling, and startling into starfish arms every now and then. Pink velvet skin, translucent enough in places to see the faint network of blood vessels sustaining a life that a week ago had been completely reliant on me. My first entry into a psychiatric hospital was like many people’s first-time admissions. I felt I didn’t belong there.