'Post-partum psychosis made me try to kill my family'

Photo: DAVID ROSE/THE TELEGRAPH
Photo: DAVID ROSE/THE TELEGRAPH 

Most of us are aware of postnatal depression, and midwives are primed to look out for the signs in new mothers. But far fewer people would recognise the symptoms of post-partum psychosis - a rare, but serious, mental health condition that affects between one and two in every 1,000 women.

Laura Arthur, 31, from Derbyshire, UK, had never experienced any mental illness before giving birth. But after having her first daughter six months ago, her husband, Dan, 29, grew increasingly concerned about her behaviour and had to step in to save all three of their lives.

Now their story is being told as part of a new, four-part series currently airing in the UK, Losing It: Our Mental Health Emergency.

Here, in their own words, the couple share how post-partum psychosis came close to destroying everything they hold dear.

Laura's story

I'd always wanted children. But when I became pregnant at 30, I'll admit I was scared - the morning sickness and gestational diabetes didn't help either. Nevertheless, as my due date neared, I felt excited. I couldn't possibly have imagined then the terrifying start to parenthood I would have.

Olivia-Mae arrived a week early. Like any new parents, we found the early days a sleepless blur. Every time we put our daughter down, she would wake up again, and soon I was failing to produce enough milk to feed her. Then I noticed a red mark on my leg.

My family has a history of deep vein thrombosis, so I went to the GP. He told me not to worry and just to keep an eye on it. By that evening, my leg had started to swell and Dan took me to hospital, where I was diagnosed with a clot and put on blood-thinning injections.

Shortly after that, Olivia-Mae developed a leaky eye. We called NHS 111 (a medical help line), only to be reassured it was normal. The next night, I had a rash on my leg and we feared sepsis. By now I'd begun to feel worried, and was increasingly convinced that something was trying to kill one of us. I honestly thought I was going to die. But in hospital I was given the all-clear. Everything seemed to be fine.

In reality, things were far from fine. I couldn't sleep. If I did drop off, I'd wake up shouting: "Where is she?" I had nightmares about horrific things happening to our daughter - that she'd been molested or strangled - and resented Dan for being able to sleep soundly.

Advertisement

We started to argue. I was screaming and shouting in a way I had never done before. I even lashed out at Dan physically after he tried to restrain me when I had chest pains and wouldn't sit down. One day, I smashed a glass bowl on the floor and threatened to walk on the shards so I might bleed to death. Something was trying to take me, I thought, and I might as well get it over with. I'd also been maniacally cleaning the house, convinced that germs would make our baby ill.

Two weeks after her birth, we attended a routine hospital appointment. I didn't know how weirdly I was acting. When we left, I insisted on driving, convinced that Dan would fall asleep at the wheel. In my head, we were in a version of Thelma & Louise, at the part where they drive off the cliff. I hadn't slept for almost 40 hours.

"Let me end it," I said to Dan. "Somebody's trying to take one of us. Let's all go together." I put my foot down and headed around a bend towards a wall.

If he hadn't pressed the stop button, God only knows what would have happened. But he did, and then got himself and the baby out of the car. I sped off and would have ended it, had I not heard a voice in my head, asking: "What if you just need some sleep?"

Dan got me back to hospital, where I was diagnosed with post-partum psychosis and sectioned at Nottingham's mother and baby unit, on the night of my 31st birthday. They put me on suicide watch and kept me there for six weeks. The illness left me a shell of my former self.

I'm now slowly coming off my antipsychotic medication and feel more normal again. But I am still ashamed of what happened - even though I now know it wasn't my fault.

We lost six weeks - and almost a lot more - to an illness we'd never heard of. I hope other new parents going through this will, at least, recognise the signs, and know when to get help.

Dan's story

I was looking forward to being a dad. Holding my baby in my arms for the first time felt amazing. But once we got home, Laura's behaviour started to change. She was talking faster than usual and doing everything at pace. She was nice one minute, then would become manic and aggressive. If I fell asleep, she'd shake me awake and say, "You can't sleep, you must fight it!"

I put it down to tiredness and the pressure of trying to breastfeed. When she argued, I took it on the chin to avoid making things worse. When she had chest pains and wouldn't sit down, I restrained her and she tried to attack me.

When Olivia-Mae was two weeks old, we visited our midwife. She was worried by Laura's swearing and a mark on my face from when she'd hit me, and told us to make a GP appointment. But after leaving the hospital, Laura flipped. Back at the car, she grew menacing.

Trying not to cause an argument, I let her take the wheel. That was a mistake, because she slammed her foot down. Faster and faster we tore through winding country roads with a 30mph limit. I spotted a bend ahead and shouted at her to stop, but she ignored me. I didn't know at the time she was trying to aim for the wall.

Scared, I slammed the stop button. Once we had ground to a halt, Laura explained the bad thoughts in her head and I did my best to comfort her. But when she spoke of all three of us dying together, I got out of the car with Olivia-Mae, hoping this might bring Laura around.

Instead, she sped off on her own, and I braced myself for the sound of a crash. In fact, after what felt like an age, she reappeared, stopped the car and got out, breaking down in tears.

It wasn't easy getting her back to the hospital. On the way, her temper flared up and when we stopped at traffic lights, she got out and stormed off. She ended up walking in the middle of the road, threatening to jump into the path of an oncoming vehicle. Luckily, the police turned up before she could come to any harm.

In hospital, they asked: "If you were alone, would you try to commit suicide?" She answered "yes". It was like she was a different person from the Laura I knew; a woman possessed.

It was a relief when she was diagnosed with post-partum psychosis and given the treatment that saved her. We both want to have another baby, and are scared the illness will return. But at least we'll be prepared.

The Daily Telegraph​