I Spent 17 Days in a Psychiatric Ward With Postpartum Psychosis—Now, I’m Ready to Share My Story

ayana lage
I Had Postpartum PsychosisAyana Lage

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Content warning: This story contains details about suicidal ideation.

The moment my husband and I decided we wanted to have a baby, we prepared for the possibility of postpartum depression. I knew it could happen to me: The condition affects around 1 in 7 women, and due to a prior depressive disorder diagnosis, I had an elevated risk. I sought out a psychiatrist and discussed with her how I could manage my mental health (including my medications) if I got pregnant. In 2020, after finding out I was expecting, I put these plans into action. My husband read up on the postpartum blues. My obstetrician gave me pamphlets. I scheduled another appointment with my psychiatrist a few weeks before my due date. I felt equipped.

In August of that year, my daughter was born via emergency C-section. After we brought her home, I waited for telltale PPD symptoms to set in—but instead, I was deliriously joyful. A few days of extreme happiness later, however, my mood started to fluctuate…wildly. I felt irritated when my husband said he was exhausted. I snapped at people who asked how I was doing. I stayed up for hours on end with the baby, assuring everyone—including my parents, who’d come to help—that no, actually, I didn’t need to sleep.

A week after giving birth, I woke up in the middle of the night with a startling revelation: I couldn’t trust my husband. I bolted out of bed and sprinted to my daughter, certain that she was in danger. I paced the house as I held her, fearing she would simply die if I handed her to anyone else. “It’s just going to be me and you from here on out,” I remember telling her. It was at this point that I began to hear detailed messages from God. He told me I was his chosen prophet and my daughter was the second coming of Jesus.

My husband and parents didn’t know what to do, and I don’t blame them. It was peak pandemic, so sending me to the hospital would mean they wouldn’t see me for a while, but they knew I needed help. They made sure I was never alone with my daughter while they figured out a plan. I, meanwhile, paced around my bedroom, babbling and afraid, furious that no one believed my prophecies.

While my memory of the entire time period is hazy, I do remember feeling So. Much. Frustration. It felt obvious that my family was wrong—as if they kept pointing to the sky and telling me it was black while I knew it was blue. Eventually, I got really scared. I felt so alone and couldn’t wrap my head around why everyone was treating me strangely. I can’t explain it, but I was suddenly overcome with a gut feeling that something wasn’t right and I needed to go to the hospital immediately. But because my family was concerned about me being separated from my baby, I knew they’d only take me if it was absolutely necessary. I decided to take drastic action: I threatened to kill myself, even though I wasn’t really considering it.

They had rushed me to the hospital when I’d had suicidal ideations in the past, so I knew it would work. Sure enough, the next stop was the emergency room at a hospital in a quiet Tampa neighborhood.

If you had asked me about postpartum psychosis a few years ago, I would have mentioned Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in 2001. You probably saw headlines earlier this year about Lindsay Clancy, a Massachusetts-based woman who was charged with murdering her three young children before attempting to take her own life. Both tragic stories sparked national discourse about postpartum psychosis, forcing people to grapple with how normal-seeming mothers could kill their own children. In the media frenzy, these misunderstood women received little to no sympathy for the things they did during a psychotic break that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. For many, the only time they hear about PPP is when these horrific stories consume the internet for an excruciatingly tabloid-y cycle. That’s part of the problem.

According to Postpartum Support International, postpartum psychosis affects only 1 or 2 of every 1,000 birthing parents. (That sounds rare, but think about how many mothers you’ve met over the years.) It’s characterized by irritability, confusion, delusions, hallucinations, and thoughts of harming yourself or your child. It can set in days or weeks after giving birth. Warning signs can include paranoia, thinking you don’t need sleep, and rapid mood swings—all of which I experienced in the days after my daughter was born but chalked up to hormonal fluctuations.

There’s no one cause, but a family history of bipolar disorder or previous psychotic episodes can increase your risk. Studies also show a potential hormonal link, due to reproductive hormones like estrogen and progesterone dropping tremendously in the first few weeks after birth. PPP is the most extreme of the postpartum psychiatric disorders…and the most deadly. That said, it is treatable, and almost all people recover fully. But because it’s not talked about in public very often and it’s relatively rare, there’s a lot that doctors—and subsequently, their patients—don’t know. I’m thankful that my story didn’t end like Yates’s or Clancy’s. I had an incredible support system, from my family to my attentive psychiatrist, but all mothers deserve the same.

A couple of days after arriving at the ER, I was admitted to a psychiatric ward. I ended up spending 17 days there, unable to see my loved ones because of COVID-19 restrictions. My memories of that time are fragmented and cluttered by my delusions. A few months after my release, I requested my patient records from the hospital and pored over them.

I learned that I was a combative patient. I refused to take my medication, was convinced that the news anchors on TV were sending me secret messages, and pulled the fire alarm twice. Nurses had to inject me with a sedative. Toward the end of my stay, doctors recommended a long-term residential psychiatric facility, a solution that my husband adamantly opposed, even though I called him daily to share the messages I received from God. In a last-ditch effort, they gave me a high dose of Haldol, an old-school antipsychotic that left me emotionless. The delusions stopped, and I was allowed to go home.

When I returned to my life, the shame was all-consuming. I missed most of my daughter’s first month, days I’ll never get back. It was all so hard to process: I called myself a mental health advocate before my psychotic episode—in fact, I’d been hospitalized twice for suicidal ideation and wrote about the experiences publicly. I spent years learning to accept my mental health conditions, so why couldn’t I extend that understanding to psychosis? I realize now that it was veiled in too much mystery.

One day, my husband and I want to have another baby. I know that might come as a shock, but now I’m truly as prepared as I can be. We know what to look out for and what additional support we’ll need to have in place. The condition isn’t preventable, but there are measures that can keep families safer—measures that should be in place for and accessible to all mothers, all the time. Proper perinatal care should not be a privilege, and I hope one day it becomes a priority as postpartum mental health becomes more understood, both by the medical and legal systems in this country. If not, vulnerable new mothers will remain at risk.

I don’t know if I’ll ever fully trust my mind again, but I still consider myself lucky. My daughter and I are safe, and I know so much more about the condition and myself as a result. Postpartum psychosis may affect fewer women than postpartum depression does, but talking about it more openly can save lives. If telling my story can enlighten and educate even one person, it will be worth it. Because no mother deserves to be just another headline.

You can learn more about postpartum psychosis and read stories from those who have experienced the condition by visiting the Massachusetts General Hospital Postpartum Psychosis Project. If you are struggling with postpartum mental health, call or text the Postpartum Support HelpLine at 800-944-4773.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741, or go to 988Lifeline.org.

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