I was treated for postnatal psychosis in a mum and baby unit

postnatal psychosis
postnatal psychosis Photo: Getty Images

"I think you need to go into hospital," my GP says. And the silence between us is so fragile, I'm scared to speak in case it shatters.

My nine-month-old son starts grizzling, and I rummage around in my handbag for one of his toys. Eyes filling and overflowing, I try to process my doctor's words.

I haven't responded to the antidepressants he prescribed. I can't eat or sleep. I'm numb. Anxious. And tired. A new kind of tired though - my entire body is slow and heavy, as if I'm dragging it through mud. I feel completely disconnected from my little boy too, and it terrifies me.

My depression is worsening. I'm desperate. Increasingly suicidal. For months I've denied the symptoms, believing I simply needed more sleep. But I don't. I need help.

Three days later and halfway to hospital I'm overcome with thick tears. I turn my face away from my baby, happy and oblivious in his car seat. "If they make me do arts and craft, I'm leaving," I tell my husband. He laughs but I can tell he's nervous too. "You'll be fine," he says.

At the admissions office of the mum and baby unit, the tears keep falling. I swat them away and they stain the forms I'm filling out. The kind woman behind the desk hands me a wad of tissues and says, apologetically, that she needs to take a photo of me. And so I look at her and smile, a broad, wet, incongruous smile, because that's what I've always done. I smile. The photo is printed, black and white, and affixed to my papers.

The first night I lie awake, listening to the newborn crying in the room next door. My son snores softly in his cot beside my bed. My husband texts, tells me he loves me, and that he'll see us tomorrow night. It's too far for him to commute from hospital to work each day, so he's staying at home while we're admitted. I feel strangled with guilt.

I meet some of the other mums and babies in the unit meeting the next morning. My son is the oldest and the most mobile, and while we're all being introduced he knocks a stack of magazines onto the floor with a thud.

"How are you feeling?" one of the nurses asks me. I tell her that I don't think I can stay here, that I'm not sure it's for me. She smiles gently, says my reaction is quite normal and suggests I give it a little longer. I know she's right and that I have to stay - for me and for my little family. I need to get better.

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The psychiatrist I'm to see twice weekly is softly spoken and thorough, probing her way through my pregnancy and the blurry months since my son was born. She takes me off my current medication - a gradual withdrawal - before putting me on a different one. Only a day later, the withdrawal side-effects start. My body jolts periodically, little electric-shock like buzzes that I feel in my head through to my fingers.

My new medication is doled out each night at the nurses' station. For the first few days, until my body adjusts, it makes me feel drowsy. The unit staff watch my son when I need to rest and when I'm too tired to function. I sleep the deepest, most restorative sleep I've had in months.

We have groups each morning, run by nurses and psychologists while our babies are looked after in the play room. We learn basic cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), mindfulness and stress management techniques. And some days we simply talk about motherhood, the shock of it. About depression and hopelessness and the strange intrusion of sadness at a time we're supposed to be full of joy. And it's a relief not to have to worry about cooking and cleaning, to just be able to focus on recovering and on bonding with my son. I feel protected from the world, from the everyday noise of living I was too porous to filter out.

As the weeks pass, I settle into hospital life: the busy cafeteria, the cycle of nursing staff, my husband's evening visits. Almost 10 months old and stronger each day, my son does laps up and down the ward with his baby walker. One morning, as I'm dressing, he escapes down the hallway naked on wheels in a nudie run. The nurses shriek with laughter as he reaches their station and I feel my heart swell with pride for my beautiful, cheeky boy. The streaker. It's a new feeling and I'm giddy with it. Smitten.

I make a friend, a woman with extraordinary warmth and insight, her little boy a few months younger than mine. We take walks together in the grounds around the hospital, pushing our prams through splashes of autumn sunshine.

And, much to my husband's amusement, I even do art therapy. Always more comfortable with words than with paint, I cut text and phrases from glossy magazines, arrange them in a collage on a piece of cardboard during the child-free hour in the arts and crafts room. I empty the knotted mess of my brain onto the page in a cathartic spill. And the relief of silence, a break from the telling and re-telling of my story is immense.

During the three weeks I spend in hospital, and in the months after I'm discharged, the extent of my illness is clarified. I have postnatal psychosis, a rare psychiatric illness affecting approximately one or two per 1000 mothers. The diagnosis was made more challenging due to my reluctance to seek help, to speak up, honestly, without censoring the worst.

And while the hospital stay is only the beginning of what is a slow and humbling recovery, it's the help I need. It saved my life.

Support is available for anyone who may be distressed by calling Lifeline on 131 114 or the beyondblue Support Service on 1300 22 4636.

This article first appeared on Daily Life. 

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