My postnatal bipolar scared me and my family

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

Up until July, 2013, the only experience I ever had with mental illness was studying it in my psychology degree.

To be honest, I think I was pretty smug about my mental health because I was a very stable person with a good life. Surely I could never be subject to any sort of mental illness? 

Then, after the birth of my daughter, my first baby, I became severely manic followed by intense periods of depression, which were cyclical.

I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder. It was a nightmare.

Not only was my mental state incredibly compromised, we also had a brand new baby and no family support close by.

I had never heard of postpartum bipolar and even my midwife was unfamiliar with it. Thankfully, I had a wonderful obstetrician who recognised the signs of mania, but I wonder how long it would have taken to diagnose if she had not intervened. 

In Auckland, at the time, there wasn't a Mother and Baby Unit as there is now. So, there were only two options; be treated at home or be admitted to the psychiatric ward and be separated from my baby.

Although I was desperately unwell, I was never considered a risk to my baby so the decision was made to treat me at home.

I had carers around the clock. They were there at night to help me get to sleep and there during the day to make sure I was safe. 

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My mania caused me to stay up all night with no sign of tiredness, have never-ending thoughts racing around my head (sadly none of which involved my new baby), and extreme self-confidence, about both my appearance and my abilities. 

I talked non-stop and flew into a rage if anyone questioned me about my excessive phone calls, or my lack of attention to my baby. I also went on excessive spending sprees and had poor judgement.

It took at least six weeks for the mania to subside, only to be followed very quickly by unbelievable depression.

Depression was extremely different to how I had perceived it before I was unwell. It wasn't sadness, it was panic and absolute distress. I had a feeling that something was terribly wrong and I couldn't find joy in anything - even colours looked muted to me.

I couldn't escape it, it followed me everywhere.

From the moment I woke up to the moment I finally fell into a drug-induced sleep, it was pure hell. I had three periods of this depression but learned some tools and techniques to help me cope, including mindfulness, and I had some wonderful carers.

My husband and my family were so supportive but they were so scared too. Overall, it was an extraordinarily terrible experience. 

The journey through the mental health system was often fraught with issues. Understaffing and underfunding seemed to be a huge problem and some of the facilities I visited were dire.

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Photo: Hannah Hardy-Jones

The lack of information or resources, particularly at the beginning, was concerning and the care staff I had would often be reallocated to other areas so I would have to start with someone new. This caused me no end of stress.

It was a very distressing experience but I am thankful for the support and medical care I did get. I am so pleased that there is now a Mother and Baby Unit in Auckland so women can recover and not be separated from their baby.

We ended up moving to Christchurch where we had another baby under the care of the Mother and Baby Unit team here. I was able to stay well and stable throughout my pregnancy and after the birth, with the help of that wonderful team.

I hate to think how unwell I would have gotten if I didn't have the support of wonderful friends and family or if I had lived in a rural location far away from any mental health services.

There is so much shame with mental illness and I struggled with this when I went back to work and when I would meet new people. I felt like I was a completely different person with a huge disability, but over time I have become comfortable talking about it.

I have recently started a blog about my experience in the hope that it will help normalise mental illness and raise awareness for postpartum bipolar.

I am now stable and happy and living a full life.

One day I hope we can talk about mental health exactly the same as physical injuries or illnesses.

There are so many people suffering in silence for the fear of being judged and it is heartbreaking.

It has to change because we are losing too many incredible people.

- Stuff Nation