One of the hardest aspects of postpartum psychosis is the feeling that you’re being lied to, over and over. When in reality, you are. Your mind convinces you that things are happening, when they’re not. You have to put blind faith in those closest to you; that they’re telling you the truth about what you’re witnessing and this can cause long-lasting trust issues in those relationships. In my case, I whole-heartedly believed someone was out to murder me. I felt that no one would listen and it was even possible that they knew too. How do you convince yourself that what your head is telling you is very different than reality? It’s a hallmark symptom of postpartum psychosis.
How do you cope with the thoughts that everyone you ever loved and trusted was suddenly lying to you? It felt overwhelming.
I’ve spent the last few months being filled with prescription drugs, in almost a revolving door fashion. They often seemed more concerned with what happened, than what I thought I saw. There were times that I was in what seemed like a drug induced amnesia and I felt like this is what they wanted. To my benefit or someone else’s? The intrusive thoughts came and went, a constant ebb and flow of conspiracy theories. All of which seemed to attempt to fill voids in my mind’s timeline.
In the earliest weeks of my psychosis, I remember my aunt asking me what I thought someone had one me. I replied, “nothing.” Nothing seemed to be the answer befitting the weeks that followed.
I kept repeating to myself, “Nothing makes sense.” And it didn’t.
I knew that the things that I saw and heard couldn’t possible be real, but my senses told me otherwise. “Who wanted, almost needed me to die? Who pushes a new mother to kill herself?” they were questions I’d asked myself 100s of times.
It’s funny how much we underestimate the work of the Devil. He will plant thoughts in our head, either subconsciously or through others. The Devil will tell you that you’re a failure, that there’s no way you can win. I saw him everywhere and in everything, trying to play on my weaknesses. He knows your doubts and fears, and will capitalize on those. I few times I wanted to scream, “Get thee hence Satan,” but just as I thought I’d lose my peace, my God always showed up to put him in his place.
“Did anyone else see him?”, I thought to myself. A tiny 4th grader stood staring at me, less than a foot from my face. His eyes met mine and they didn’t blink. His stare was blank and expressionless. I started to wince a smile, but instead, I started looking for his parents. Then I remembered seeing him being dropped off by a man in a silver/gray truck. My mind started to wander from him staring to wondering who drops their kid off instead of watching them shoot Nationals. “Snap out of it!” I told myself, “no one put a child up to stare at you.” It was weird to begin with, he was the only elementary school archer that I didn’t know and I didn’t remember ever seeing his parents. “Who was this kid?”, was I imagining him? I glanced around to see if anyone else was looking and I noticed he was gone. “They’re right Jessica, you’ve truly lost your mind.,” as the conversation with myself continued. Jeremy and Gabe hadn’t seemed to notice the interaction. Do I tell them? “Nah, no one would abuse the innocence of a child like that.” I started to consider that I was hallucinating again; I wiped the thoughts from my mind and went back to watching Gabe shoot. I told myself to hide a note when I got home, “ If I die, look for the eyes.”
When we left the archery tournament, all was quiet. It seemed quieter than it had in weeks to me. The skies were blue, the air was crisp. There were no cars following us, no people staring and I felt like I could breath. We had lunch at Mellow Mushroom to cheer Gabe up after his performance shooting. The lunch was memorable but mundane; was the first day I remember since I had started to come out of my psychosis. It was a just a few days prior that I realized I was having hallucinations and delusions. In a moment of clarity I told my husband, I” know that no one is out to get me or murder me.” I was still having a hard time making sense of the events. My mind had betrayed me. I felt emotionally “raped”, my trust had been taken.
The weeks following I would battle intrusive thoughts. I found myself flooded with them. I found that everyone was using words or phrasing that were triggering to me, despite what my mental health professionals had ordered. I started to believe that someone was putting them up to it. It wasn’t until I realized that several times my eleven year old cousin had said things that seemed out of place to me and I found myself questioning what he said. I came to immediately realize how ludicrous the idea seemed. Who would be capable of putting a child up to do such things? I had started to believe that the Devil was “messing with my head” but instead I reasoned that it was just intrusive thoughts.
Still not completely sure about the previous weeks, I left myself the note, “If I die, look for the eyes.” If it had been postpartum psychosis, then one day I would laugh about it, but if someone found it after my death, maybe they’d be curious and look for the “eyes”. Who were the eyes? They were the ones watching through phones, televisions and even using strangers walking around. Months later, I’m still finding notes that I’ve left for myself and for others. It’s almost unfathomable that I was that far removed from reality.
These pieces are excerpts from my struggle with postpartum psychosis. I’ve written them in hopes of helping other mothers and families who are also dealing with postpartum psychosis.
She crept into my room. I could hear the creak of the door through the sheet over my head. I lay there pretending to sleep. She stood watching me. I could feel her eyes and the growing agitation. Who was she and what did she want? In a sudden fit of rage, she screamed and ran down the hallway. I laid there, absolutely terrified. There were no nurses or staff that came running to my aid. I laid there quietly trying to gather the courage to walk to the nurses station. Eventually one of the regular nurses came to my room to bring me a glass of water. Again, I laid there pretending to sleep. She seemed to peek around my sheets to check to make sure I was breathing and that I hadn’t been injured by the other patient. The general psychiatric ward was scariest at night and this proved no different. This is one of several nightmarish experiences that I had during my five day stay following the onset of my postpartum psychosis.
There is only one dedicated Mother Baby Unit in the entire United States that is dedicated to postpartum mental health. It is located on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill and focuses solely on the specific psychiatric needs of perinatal patients. There isn’t even a licensed perinatal psychiatrist in the entire state of Kentucky. In comparison, Great Britain has 19 and that doesn’t include the extension postpartum services available to postpartum women there. In fact, according to the American Journal of Managed Care, of all industrialized nations the United States ranks among the worst for maternal health and mortality. Why is that?
My care was so lacking that I wasn’t even diagnosed with postpartum psychosis until after my discharge. I had presented to the ER with severe insomnia, delusions, mania, anxiety and I had started to become suicidal. My medications were changed almost daily. They refused to provide me anything adequate to help me sleep, the excuse was that I was pumping breast milk and they didn’t consider them “safe”. There are lots of medications that are considered safe and acceptable for lactating mothers. They also had no “protected sleep” protocols in place to allow already sleep deprived new mothers the ability to rest. I was treated just like other patients and someone opened my room door to “check” on me every 15 mins. This combined with the blaring sirens from the arrival bay nearly directly below and “peeking neighbors”, I never felt safe or secure enough to sleep. My near daily request to be relocated to an empty room in front of the nurses station was denied and I was left too scared to sleep at the end of a long hallway that was surrounded by unfamiliar male patients most of my stay. This was no place for a new mom, it wasn’t even suitable for a psychiatric patient.
I could bombard you with all sorts of facts regarding maternal health, but those don’t seem to encourage readers to engage in action as much as the personal stories of women who have battled the demons associated with postpartum issues. Why is it that a country who has roughly 1/5 of the population of the US, invests in 19x more medical facilities dedicated to maternal mental and physical health?
Pumping breast milk isn’t easy, but could you imagine having to pump in front of strange healthcare workers? Or in front of the occasional “peering Tom” who would look through the cracks in my door to see what was going on? When I was admitted to the general psychiatric unit, my son was solely breastfed. I hadn’t had much luck pumping, so when I was admitted, he had never had a bottle. I wasn’t allowed to possess my breast pump without a ward staff member present, which if that wasn’t unsettling enough, my next door neighbor who I could only describe as ” Post Malone” seemed to enjoy attempting to watch. Nonetheless, I preserved and managed to pump milk to freeze to send home to my son. The whole experience of trying to pump there was degrading and humiliating. My perinatal psychiatrist–who I drive out of state and pay cash to see, since she doesn’t accept private insurance–said she was surprised that I had been able to maintain my milk supply during my stay, but no one should ever question how much a mother can and will endure for their children. Whittaker just celebrated his 11th month and I’m still breastfeeding.
My son wasn’t even allowed to visit me once during the duration of my stay, despite what the hospital regulations stated. I even witnessed another infant going to visit a sibling on the pediatric ward. The lack of contact permitted could be detrimental to both the mental and physical health of the mother and infant. My husband was allowed two brief visits during my stay.
The menagerie of patients who cycled in and out of the psychiatric ward during my stay seemed cartoon-like and often scary. Their psychiatric diagnosis’ were greatly varied and much different than my own. I saw and heard things on the general psych ward that would have driven a sane patient mad. But sleep deprivation alone can do that and I was more sleep deprived at discharge than on admission. I convinced myself that two nurses were out to scare me for some reason and one nurse had even tried to harm/murder me by infiltrating both of my arms when starting IVs. I believe it was a combination of psychosis progression and sleep deprivation. My dignity and my faith in the healthcare system had been broken. I was pleading to go home the morning that I was discharged and thankfully I was.
Some of my family and friends found Postpartum Support International and helped me to find the help that I really needed. It took a combination of medications, therapists and other healthcare providers, along with extensive support from my friends and family to bring me out of psychosis. Months after my diagnosis, I’m still receiving treatment and trying to find the right combination of medications to help make me the best mother possible.
Before someone litigious reads this and states that I need to sue this hospital, my experience is not an uncommon one for postpartum mothers facing a mental health crisis. The psychiatric needs of perinatal patients are often considerably different than the general population. I currently don’t feel like the hospital is to blame, it’s the entire US medical system that is broken. Our mothers and children deserve better. We should not be ranked so incredibly low compared to other industrialized nations for both maternal health and maternal mental health. Please help advocate for maternal mental health by sharing this post and others from Postpartum Support International and Cherished Mom. You can also encourage lawmakers to enact legislation to invest in and protect maternal health.
In late Oct 2019 Gabe came home and asked to join his elementary school archery team. It seemed like a sudden change of heart, he had asked to play basketball just weeks before. I was so apprehensive; in my mind, a bow was a weapon. It was used to kill or maim, it wasn’t a child’s sport. He had been diagnosed with ADHD in second grade, which gave him a whole other set of challenges. We had so many questions. Was it safe? Would he listen to the coach or get along with his teammates? Could he be still and quiet enough to participate without disturbing others. We decided to encourage him and help to set him up for success as much as possible.
We sat down with Gabe and asked him a lot of questions and eventually we hesitantly agreed. He had already started practice weeks later than a large portion of his team. His very first tournament was at Lincoln County and he shot a 143 out of 300, which ranked him 49 out of 59 elementary school boys. We thought that maybe archery wasn’t the sport for him and he set out to prove us wrong. Gabe started practicing nearly every day and we enlisted the help of Jessica Curtsinger in Danville to work in technique. When COVID-19 stole the end of their 2020 season, he had increased his score to 244 out of 300. Gabe didn’t let COVID and an uncertain 2020-2021 season keep him from practicing. He continued with lessons and shooting nearly every day, including outdoors in the frigid winter.
The past year of archery was anything but normal. There were new rules and many fewer tournaments. Gabe’s coach struggled to find tournament spots for both his elementary and middle school teams. It was mid-Jan before they had a tournament to enter, the typical season started before Thanksgiving. Despite having to miss multiple tournaments due to precautionary COVID quarantined; Gabe would go on to win 1st place elementary school male archery in every regular season tournament that he participated in. During the Kentucky NASP State tournament he won 5th place elementary school male in the bullseye tournament and an impressive 2nd place elementary school male in the IBO 3D State tournament; he had only shot in 2 previous 3D tournaments this season and COVID had seriously restricted their practice time. Gabe also took 1st place elementary school male at the Centershot tournament during state in both bullseye and 3D. He would go on to win elementary male at the TopShot Invitational in Georgetown, KY.
When his NASP season didn’t start as anticipated, we sought an alternative league to allow him to shoot. Several local kids were shooting for a National organization called Scholastic 3D. The local team wasn’t having regular practices, so we found a team in London, KY for him. The team, AimTakers is a very tight knit organization and have been very accepting of Gabe. He struggled at first due to the change in distance, but he also had trouble with the monocolored target. His S3DA season wasn’t always pretty, especially when he had 8pm or later flight times. Gabe’s most impressive accomplishment was winning the S3DA National Indoor Eagle Barebow Champion Male which is 9-11 year old boys shooting a bare Matthew’s Genesis bow like NASP uses.
Gabe has taught us so much this season about perseverance and adapting to change. He no longer had us to support and correct him during practice. His coach often had an entire team of elementary archers with no helped; this resulted in my husband becoming a NASP certified instructor and helping coach the last weeks of the season. The kids had to shoot in masks and they no longer scored each other’s arrows. It would have been easy to get discouraged and accept the season for what it was; but he improved at nearly every tournament.
One of the main reasons I didn’t want to write previously about my postpartum psychosis episode was that I didn’t want to deal with the triggers and intrusive thoughts associated with it. Many people, including myself, get intrusive thoughts confused with hallucinations but they aren’t the same thing. In a formal disclaimer, I’m not a healthcare professional, and these statements are drawn entirely from my personal experiences.
Intrusive thoughts are often scary, horrifying or upsetting thoughts that creep into your head. They’re always unwanted and can be repetitive. They can even trigger a fight or flight response, in some instances. Recently, intrusive thoughts caused a major argument between my husband and I. I’m going to share a very personal story from my recovery. Shortly after my psychosis episode, I started dreaming about snakes. It happened nearly every single night. The dreams varied wildly but nearly all involved the presence of a snake. So I started to Google (we all know that you should never Google involving health or mental health, but I still did) the meaning of snakes appearing in dreams. I started to convince myself it was an omen or God warning me about a physical or psychological “snake”. Shortly after, my snake dreams seemed to get worse. I told my therapists and psychiatrists, and of course, my husband. A few days later my father in law came down to our house and he was singing a rather weird tune. It was a song called Sneaky Snake from 1974. I hated that song from the minute I heard the lyrics. But my husband proceeded to sing it over and over, for weeks. I initially didn’t voice my opinion about the song, because I felt it was harmless. As time passed, I grew agitated that someone was repeatedly using a triggering word in front of me. I felt like it was very inconsiderate. But a second intrusive thought popped up, “was someone or some entity putting them up to distress me?” My therapist and I had been discussing setting healthy boundaries and I stood up for myself. I yelled at my husband and asked him if he was the “sneaky snake” from the song. If you Google the lyrics, it sounds like a sleazy old man making sexual reference, and it’s very triggering to me for other reasons. He promptly stopped and apologized, but it created a very unnecessary argument. The reality was, who would honestly put my father in law and husband up to harass me, and why would they agree? The Devil? I can reason that the notion is pretty far fetched. There are times that you have to just accept an intrusive thought as an unwanted and untrue thought, and move on. There are also times that you can use reasoning (like the above) to remind yourself that it’s just your mind trying to play tricks on you.
I also convinced myself that the FBI or some government agency was after me during my psychosis. I haven’t talked about it much. I have no idea why I thought that. It’s actually not an uncommon psychosis hallucination/delusion/intrusive thought. I actually met another mother who had a similar incident. I convinced myself they were doing all kinds of horrible things to me including having two nurses try to physically harm me during my hospital stay, among others. A good friend would remind me that the idea was ludicrous and most of the things I was hallucinating would be illegal, and that was one of the few ways that they could bring me out (often only temporary). It then changed to someone was trying to murder me and they planned to use my mental illness to cover it up, or they were trying to drive me “mad” enough that I would do it myself. I mean, it was a storyline out of a bad scary movie. I thought text messages from friends and family seemed out of character, and that someone else must be sending them. I even thought someone else was sending Facebook messages to me from my dying and estranged father’s account. I believed things I was reading online and hearing on television and radio were sending me subliminal messages. But I eventually learned what I was experiencing was intrusive thoughts. I had to learn to recognize these ideas as intrusive thoughts before they spiraled into an irrational fear. My therapist once told me that everyone has irrational thoughts, but you have to let them come into your mind and let them quickly go back out. I hope this post can help someone who is struggling with intrusive thoughts. Please seek professional help and feel free to reach out to me if you have trouble doing so.
In words from the PSI website:
You are not alone.
You are not to blame.
With help, you will be well.
Check out www.postpartum.net for resources and providers online and near you.
Gabe’s 11th birthday was stolen by Covid, like most children who hoped to celebrate with friends in the last year. The week of his actual birthday I received a call from school that a classmate had tested positive for COVID. Gabe had to precautionary quarantined. It meant that he couldn’t even have a small, masked party with family. He also had to miss three archery tournaments that weekend. In an effort to lift his spirits that week, I promised him an 11 1/2 birthday party during the summer when we got our swimming pool opened.
We invited his close friends and our family. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it allowed him to have a special day with the people he cared about the most. Sam’s Club made feeding everyone easy. We picked up take and bake pizzas, along with two dozen cupcakes which I topped with Among Us themed toppers that I picked up on Amazon. I made a balloon garland with two sizes of latex balloons which I strung together with fishing line.
Jeremy rushed to get our new water slide up before the party. We had driven to Alabama to pick it up on the Sunday before the party. Did you know that the pandemic had also created a pool slide shortage? We drove 5 hours each way to purchase a used pool slide. It was well worth it to see the smiles on the kid’s faces.
How did you guys celebrate birthdays during the pandemic? I’d love to know what creative ways you used to help make a birthday special for your child.
A friend and I were talking about my blog several weeks ago; I told her that I had let it go to the wayside. I didn’t see much value in it anymore. Many of my posts seemed forced. I was tired of trying to tell people, or convince them that they needed, to buy certain foods or toys. It was in an effort to help meet the cost of keeping up A Southern Mother; it’s not cheap to maintain a blog. It made my writing experience miserable. Nearly every topic felt forced, and I often wrote with a sense of dread. My readers really didn’t know who I was anymore, but I’ll be honest in say that I got lost in building A Southern Mother. I felt like I needed to keep up an image to make them like me, in hopes that they would like me enough to share the content I wrote. When certain posts didn’t get many readers, I felt defeated. Instead of just ending all sponsored content on my blog, I stopped writing. I shouldn’t have stopped writing; I often find writing relaxing, especially when I get to write about topics I love. In the weeks ahead, I hope to write more. I need to introduce you to our newest addition: our son Whittaker Calhoun. I’d like to share how we struggled to get pregnant for months, and the relief when we finally did. I also want to share my nearly soul-crushing battle with a Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorder, but the silver lining in that is that I found a new cause for which I hope to advocate. I have high hopes of one day becoming a volunteer care coordinator for Postpartum Support International and advocate for their Affordable Perinatal Program. Many of my long-term readers know how much I love advocacy. I hope y’all will come back soon as I share more family adventures, non-sponsored recipes and things that I’m passionate about. In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy some photos I took of Hadley and Whittaker. If you’re looking for Gabe in these, he is getting some much needed time with his biological father in Florida for a few weeks. We’re looking forward to his return home soon. Thanks for stopping by and I hope you’ll stop back by again soon.