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Emerging from the Darkness - Postpartum Psychosis and Me

This is the third week of our Maternal Mental Health series, which is dedicated to Postpartum Psychosis —a rare but extremely severe postnatal mental illness, which must be treated as a medical emergency to protect the safety of the mother and baby. This week we are publishing two blogs: one by Eve Canavan on her personal experience, and another by researchers Alessandra Biaggi and Katie Hazelgrove from King’s College London, focusing on what we know about the illness and what further research is needed to help the people affected and their children.

12 years ago, I fell pregnant with my son Joe. He was much longed for as I had experienced miscarriages previously due to a uterine condition, and as we reached each milestone of my pregnancy with a scan, showing our baby growing, our hopes grew. Being a mother was my dream and one I had started to think would not come true, but in January 2010, Joe was born, changing my life forever.

However, becoming a mother didn’t follow the path I had assumed and had been told it would. I had bought everything the baby would need, read every book and attended antenatal classes, noting down what I thought was all the information I needed to help me through those first few weeks and months of being a parent.

But, just hours after I had given birth, I realised something was happening to me that I had not been warned about. While I had pages of notes on how to change nappies, I realised I knew nothing about what could happen to me after giving birth. I had assumed I would be enjoying the much-fabled tea and toast in the recovery ward, staring in wonder at my baby. But this didn’t happen. Instead, I found myself staring at the old Victorian hospital windows, which had bars on them, wondering if it would be possible to climb out of them.

Because I felt trapped.

My mum came into the ward, arms wide yelling, where is he, searching for her grandson but as she pulled the curtain back, she stopped, lowered her arms and said “Evelyn, what’s wrong with your face?”.

She said I looked glazed over and like a zombie, and was worried something was wrong with me. The nurse said, “a c-section is a major operation and I imagine you are tired aren’t you, Eve?”

I nodded yes, that’s it, I feel tired, all while staring at the windows. But as everyone was cooing over the baby, my hearing in my right ear became muffled, my vision blurred, and I felt as though was on a train standing still while everything was whizzing past me.

Later that night, after my husband, John, had been made to leave the hospital just 3 hours after I had given birth, I sat in my bed, sweating, eyes darting around the room. I had a sense of intense panic that something awful was about to happen. I started writing long lists of things I needed for the baby and at one point found myself crawling around the floor of my bed. It was as if I had temporarily found myself in another dimension and as my brain switched back to reality, I had no idea why I was on the floor on my hands and knees, in the dark.

When we left hospital 3 days later, as soon as I felt the outside air hit me, I burst into tears. I got into the car and declined when asked if I wanted to sit next to the baby. I said someone else can, trying to sound as though I wanted to share the love I had for him but, I didn’t want to be near him. I felt my head going into the other dimension again, as my vision blurred and all I could see was a tunnel. Voices became muffled and when I looked out of the window, the car was surrounded by hundreds of people, shaking it, making me rock back and forth. I started crying asking what was happening, who were all these people.

Those people were not there. No one was shaking the car.

My Husband, Joe and I

At home, John was becoming really worried about me as I started to refuse to be near Joe. He took me to our GP, the start of many, many medical appointments where he begged for help, but he struggled to get it. I was hallucinating, thinking the duvet was dancing and that I was floating in the corner of my room. At my worst, I thought I was in a coffin, buried alive, unable to get out. I found myself on the bed on all fours, screaming so much, the side of my mouth bled while John was on the phone all morning trying to get a psychiatrist to come and assess me.

In his frantic endless search for help, he had discovered online that there were specialised psychiatric mother and baby units for women experiencing mental illness while pregnant or after the birth of a baby.

A few hours later, I saw a psychiatrist and I was admitted to a mother and baby unit after it was confirmed I was experiencing symptoms of psychosis.

As I walked down the hallway, with no shoes on, convinced I could smell burning, and I saw the signs saying psychiatric wards, I was crying.

The nurses were amazing. As soon as I walked into the unit, they gave me a hug and promised me things would get better. One of them gave me a folder to read which contained letters from women who had been in the unit and recovered. The stories gave me hope.

A week later, after lots of support and new medication, I closed the door, and was on my own with Joe, and the nurses gave me a cuddle. It was a massive step for me to take and the most ground-breaking turning point in my illness.

Joe and I

My recovery took time. I started with spending a few minutes on my own with Joe each day and had to build up to walking to the local shop, spending the afternoon on my own with him in the house — ‘exposure therapy’- and eventually, spending all my time with Joe to accept that he was here. We spent 3 months away from home altogether, with John having to take compassionate leave from work, to get me to a point where I could come back to London. Without knowing it, I developed a natural love for Joe.

My path to parenthood was one that went down a road no one had warned me about. I so wish someone had told me that it can affect 1 in every thousand women and that the healthcare professionals I saw knew about it and the treatment options available. I am so grateful for organisations such as Action on Postpartum Psychosis, who provide information, advice and training to ensure families and health care professionals are knowledgeable about the illness but most importantly, the fact that recovery is possible with the correct help.

If you would like to learn more about Postpartum Psychosis, don’t forget to check out the next blog in the series by Alessandra Biaggi & Katie Hazelgrove on the science behind it — out 20th October 2022.


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