Postpartum psychosis: “I started to hear a man’s voice during my second pregnancy”
Warning: this article contains references to self-harm and suicide that you may find triggering or upsetting.
Throughout her life Marija – a career-focused and driven person – had never experienced any struggles with her mental health. It wasn’t until she was pregnant with her second child Max that she suffered from depression, anxiety and postpartum psychosis. Below, she shares her story with Elvie.
What happened when we decided to start a family
My husband and I decided to have a child soon after we got married, welcoming Theo in 2017. My pregnancy with Theo was lovely and I fully embraced my growing bump. As Theo was just too comfortable in the nest I had made for him, I was induced two weeks after his due date. He came out naturally following an emergency shoulder dystocia, weighing an impressive 11lbs. Needless to say, I was torn considerably with a stage 3c tear. It took a while to recover, but once Theo had turned one, we started to discuss growing our family.
Not long after, we fell pregnant and we were thrilled that we were going to provide Theo with a sibling. However, I experienced a slightly rocky start to my second pregnancy as I had my gallbladder removed when I was roughly six weeks along. Thankfully, Max was a fighter and his little embryo wasn’t fazed by the operation.
I must admit that the first five months of pregnancy were pleasant. Due to the size of Theo, I was under regular consultant-led care, and had the most fabulous obstetrician doctor that I could have only hoped for.
How the psychosis began
However, this all changed when I reached the 26-week stage of my pregnancy because this was when I started to hear a man’s voice. It was sinister and unwelcoming, and he would constantly remind me of how bad a mother, wife, daughter and more I was. At first, I genuinely believed that a man was following me. This increased my paranoia and I found that I was always looking over my shoulder when the voice would speak to me. However, after a few days, I realized the voice was in my head.
To be honest, at the time, I didn’t know a lot about mental health awareness, so I was unsure of how to process it and fight this strange companion that had entered my life. I decided to try and fight it on my own. I knew that I couldn’t tell my husband or my consultant about it because I was concerned that they would think I was mad – but maybe I was? I found myself shouting back at this voice, telling it to leave me alone, but it just made it louder and clearer. After 10 days of living with this voice, I eventually broke down and opened up to my husband about it. He was great, although he had never had to deal with anything like this before.
I then entered into what can only be described as a downward spiral of dark depression. I found my bed to be my only comfort. I stopped washing myself as I just found the task too long and daunting. I stopped caring for my two-year-old son. I stopped feeling. But this voice was getting louder…
Dark thoughts began to consume me
Daily tasks started to become a real struggle. I remember having to go see my consultant for my regular monthly check-up. The journey was awful. My anxiety was at its peak, causing me to have diarrhea and sickness. Truth be told, I cried the entire journey. When she saw me, sheer shock spread across her face. She couldn’t believe how this confident and happy woman had changed into a depressed, anxiety-driven, gray shell of a person. She told me to be open with her and to tell her exactly what was going on. I did. She booked me an appointment with a perinatal psychiatrist. She also wanted to see how I was feeling about the baby, so gave me an impromptu scan, and I felt nothing for my baby.
The following day – with my husband by my side – I made my way back to the hospital to meet with the psychiatrist. It was like nothing I’d experienced before. He was very frank and didn’t seem shocked by what I was telling him. I told him that I was struggling to live with this voice and the way it was making me feel. He simply replied: “Well, why haven’t you tried to kill yourself yet?” I remember being taken back by the question. But, I responded by making it clear that I didn’t want to die. I wanted to be there for Theo. I just wanted this voice to stop. I was given anti-depressants and diagnosed with antenatal depression, anxiety, and psychosis. I now know these are far more common in women who’ve already given birth.
I thought about hurting myself
Within the first five days of taking my new medication, for the first time, I thought about hurting myself. (There was a disclaimer on the packet that said depression can be exacerbated and thoughts of suicide were a side effect.) It was a moment that truly scared me which is why I immediately phoned my husband and contacted my psychiatrist, too.
I was then in the care of the perinatal mental health team, who provide women with 24/7 support. My medication dosage was increased, too. And I was given an antipsychotic. And yet, the thoughts in my head became worse. I particularly remember the morning of my baby shower. I wanted to self-harm to get out of it. To me, this was an okay thing to do because I didn’t want to die, I just didn’t want to go to my shower. Up until this point, I’d kept myself hidden from my family and friends, but after they saw me everyone knew there was something wrong. To this day, it’s still one of the worst days of my life.
My dark thoughts continued
And these dark thoughts continued to consume me. I couldn’t live like this any longer, and I’d made a ‘pact’ with my husband that I’d give birth to Max, and then I’d kill myself. I don't think he ever really agreed to this, but he was buying time to make sure I wouldn't harm myself while I waited to have my c-sectionAfter I gave birth to Max in January 2020, the following days and weeks were a bit surreal. I became quite manic and I suddenly wanted to do things with my family that I wouldn’t have dreamt of during the past three months. I got Max a passport and I wanted to book a cruise around the Caribbean, but my husband objected due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, I took my children to London. I thought it was a really good day but my husband would say otherwise.
After six weeks of this manic-like feeling, I completely crashed. I stopped caring for Max. I’d leave him in his car seat and pray that someone would come and take him away from me. I had also decided at this stage that Theo was going to come with me. And I thought that my husband and Max could live happily together. And Theo and I could be together, finally in peace. At this point, I hadn’t told anyone about my plan as I’d heard that there were talks of me being hospitalized. I also knew that I’d be sectioned if anyone found out about my plan. In March 2020, I collected Theo from school and contemplated doing it. Luckily, my mum phoned me as I was thinking about putting my plan into action. I broke down and told her about it. She immediately directed me back to the house. I parked the car in the drive and I sobbed. I knew that I needed to be hospitalized.
How I got help and turned a corner
I was taken to the secure mother and baby unit in Leeds. When I got there, I met with a psychiatrist who decided to change my medication and provided different types of therapy, and ways to bond mothers with their babies. But Leeds was so far away from my hometown, so after a six-week stay, I was moved to a different mother and baby unit outside of Watford. Looking back, this was the pivotal moment for my recovery. They weaned me off an antipsychotic, which was horrendous. I didn’t sleep. I had night sweats and could not stop shaking for a number of days. I was discharged in July 2020. Leaving I was put on a new medication and an antipsychotic that I would take on a PRN basis (as and when required). I went back to the care of the perinatal team until Max turned one, and then I was discharged in January 2021. Currently, I’m being weaned off all of my medication, and by Easter 2022 I should finally be medication-free.
Where to get help
Looking back, I now see that I was affected by Theo’s birth more than I realized. I’ve since been told that what I experienced could’ve been delayed postnatal depression/psychosis as it can develop anytime from birth to two years postpartum.
While I found the groups that the perinatal team had set up to be useful, it was the other mothers who I met at the mother and baby units that really helped me. To this day, I still keep in touch with several of them because I know that they will be friends for life. In short: we’ve been through things together that not many people can fully appreciate.
I want other mothers who are going through the same thing to know that I found calling the helplines to be extremely beneficial when I was feeling very low and unable to rationalize my suicidal thoughts. Personally, I think that PANDAS and Mind provide some fantastic support.
Please don’t suffer in silence. You have to be open and honest as the teams cannot treat you if you hide your true feelings. Speak to your family, friends, doctors etc. Suicide is the fith most common cause of death of mothers during pregnancy and six weeks postpartum. I dread to think where we would be now if I hadn’t had support around me.
Please don’t ever give up on hope. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and recovery is always possible. Even though I remember thinking that there was no hope for me – there is.
This illness cannot be rationalized, so don’t try to understand why this is happening to you. And don’t try to rationalize the thoughts you have whilst experiencing this illness. I kept trying to find the answers and I never found them.
What I have taken away from this experience is that I am now a new person. I’ve changed for the better. I’m more empathetic and patient, and I’m able to understand other people’s situations more than before. I’m using my experience to help others by working as a volunteer tutor at the Oxfordshire Recovery College. I want to help others who are struggling with their own mental health battles to find hope and control.
Samaritans operates a 24-hour service every day of the year. You can call them free on 116 123, email them at jo@samaritansorg, or visit samaritans.org to find their nearest brand if you’d prefer to speak to someone in person.