Throughout my life, I have always had extreme highs and lows. In high school, I was either on benders that involved no sleep and lots of guitar playing, or I would be sleeping, down in the dumps. I got to rock bottom a few times, where I could see no purpose in anything and I acted accordingly, but in my high times, I never quite fell into a full hypomanic episode. I would stay up for nights on end and then crash, rest, and reset, or hit a depressive stage. Alcohol was a big part of my life back then. Later in high school, I would drink four full-sugar energy drinks every morning during home room to give me an energetic edge. I had ADHD – which I still have – but I was unmedicated and very, very impulsive.
Immediately after Soren’s birth, I was mildly depressed from the trauma of having to have my life stabilised after a massive blood loss, but otherwise, I was okay. I dealt with waking up every two hours and didn’t seem too tired. As soon as I was able, I started running again. I started off small, doing a few kilometres here and there, but somewhere along the way, I stopped sleeping through the night. I would wake several times a night to horrific night terrors, basically my own death in a thousand different ways – and sometimes, I woke up with paranoia that someone had taken Soren. Sometimes, I would leave the bed and check his cot, but he would be sleeping soundly. I would wake up at 3, toss and turn until 5, when I would leave the house and go for a run – usually around 5 or 6 kilometres.
I was going pretty hard. About 3 months after birth, I ran my fastest 5km. I was barely sleeping, but I felt fantastic. I had a thousand ideas and I would bounce from running in the morning, to breastfeeding my baby when he woke up, to playing, to walking to the cafe and reading my textbook to my baby to get him to sleep, to walking home, to studying, to smashing out hundreds of words, back to playing, feeding, tummy time, and so on. I had no off switch. I remember thinking at the time, is this the motherhood that everyone complains about?
I carried on this routine for quite some time. It probably started around mid-February of 2019. At the time, I was preparing to give a presentation about inclusion at a high school. I was also preparing a half-hour presentation for a conference at the Gold Coast. I was writing one paid article every fortnight and studying. Whenever Soren would go to sleep, I would get to work. No such thing as ‘sleep when the baby sleeps.’ I had stuff to do.
One morning, while my wife was getting ready for work, I decided to bake. She asked me why I would do that? I didn’t know. I don’t even like baked goods that much. But here I was, at 7 in the morning, baking. When she told me to clean up the kitchen, I completely lost it. I could not understand why she wasn’t as excited as I was.
That night, I had my first full blown panic attack since the birth. I was so overwhelmed by my love for Soren, that I felt death was around every corner. I would not let him out of my sight. I’m sure I must have needed a break, but I couldn’t imagine leaving him in anyone else’s care. I got panicky when someone else held him. I could not cope with these feelings. I went to see my doctor.
My general practitioner prescribed me with an anti-depressant. At first, I felt okay. Then, I started sleeping the day away. I lugged myself from one baby activity to the next and then slept every time he slept. He was little, so this was a lot. I started to become worried that my two presentations were not going to go smoothly. I went back to my doctor and asked for a referral to a psychiatrist. I also went off the meds.
“Psychiatrist? You don’t need one of those. Just keep seeing your psychologist and work through that birthing trauma.”
I found visits to the psychologist hard. Her office was in a small retail building off a main road. She had stairs. I would push Soren’s pram into her office awkwardly, then try to feed him to sleep in between discussing my intrusive thoughts. Sometimes, he would cry, and the appointment would be wasted. I counted every visit against my mental health plan and worried about burdening my wife with the bill of further sessions, because I was not getting anywhere with it.
“So lucky I don’t have any clients in a wheelchair!” She said one day, as I pushed Soren’s pram down the stairs. I recall thinking that this comment was pretty off-colour, especially coming from a psychologist.
By the time I had started seeing the psychologist, I wasn’t just tossing and turning. I was actively avoiding sleep. I knew I would inevitably be woken by a night terror, so I sat up most nights on Pinterest or chatting to friends on messenger. One such friend started to suggest my self-centredness I had adopted in trying to deal with my trauma could be a sign of narcissism or delusional disorder. The next time I logged in to Pinterest, my whole feed was flooded with articles about narcissism. I could not find any recipes or crafts, or the usual content I would look at. I idly wondered if Pinterest’s algorithms were targeting me to force me to confront something in myself that I had not been previously aware of.
No, I remember thinking. That’s mad.
I had started to unpack some of my childhood traumas to this friend, and she sent me articles about how childhood trauma leads to the development of narcissistic personality disorder. Well, I thought. It must be true, then.
The more I read about narcissistic personality disorder, the more I became convinced I had it. I felt I would not connect with my son because of it, and I never stopped reading. I realised that it was malignant, incurable.
One day, he was fussing while I was feeding him.
“I must be feeding him my mental illness through the breastmilk,” I cried to my friend. I was so conscious that I had not birthed him correctly, and I was turning him away further through the illness I was convinced I had.
“Go and see another doctor.” She said.
I booked in to see another GP down the road. The problem I had, was I would go to my doctor’s appointments with nice clothes, make-up, hair done, and speaking as an educated person. I did not appear as a mess. They assumed I was too high functioning to be mentally unwell. He did not give me a referral.
“You’re doing better than you think. Just keep dealing with your birthing trauma. You don’t need a psychiatrist. They just deal in meds. If you get down, kick the cat.”
And I paid $62 for that appointment.
That night, I logged into Pinterest to see if I could find a recipe for baby food. I was keen to start the solids journey. What I saw shocked me. It was a “death cocktail” – an alcoholic beverage that contained Valium and vodka, designed to take someone out. My heart beat rapidly inside my chest as I was reading the ingredients. I never told my wife, for fear that she, too, would become sucked into my trauma with no way out.
I started to really, truly believe that Pinterest was sending me secret messages that I needed to see, and I wondered if I was actually supposed to die during birth, and my death was actually waiting for me just around the corner. After all, my son did not need a mother who was a narcissist.
Since seeing the cocktail on Pinterest, and becoming well again, I have never been able to find it. I actually question if this pin existed at all or if it was a figment of my imagination.
The next day, I woke up for my morning run. It was still somewhat dark, with the slightest bit of sunlight peering through the fence of the high school I ran past every day. The light seemed to ricochet off the path and surround me, in a spinning, lighted tube that I was running towards. It was like a vortex, sucking me in. I could barely stay on the path because it was so bright and distracting. I kept hearing something behind me, so I paused my music and turned around. Nothing.
When I was home alone during the day, I started to believe my son was not attached to me. Looking back in hindsight, he was so attached to me. He was very cuddly and excited when I would play with him or hold him – but I was so deluded that I thought I was a refrigerator mother figure, and that I was turning my son away from me. I kept telling my friends the attachment wasn’t right and that I was a narcissist. They assured me I was not, offered evidence to the contrary, and told me it was all fine, but my beliefs could not be shaken. One of my particularly clever friends asked who was gaslighting me into believing this nonsense.
“It is not nonsense. This is the real me.” I said.
By that stage, I knew something was gravely wrong. My frantic late-night Googling had offered me insights about post-birth mental health conditions, and I wondered if I was having a psychosis. I begged my wife to hospitalise me, but we ended up going to stay with my parents. She was worried that our son would be taken if I was in hospital. During that time, I became convinced the police were after me for misadventures from a decade earlier, back when I was a teenager. I became so paralysed, and so scared, that I could not even leave the house. I panicked any time I heard someone knock on the door, absolutely sure someone was after me.
It got to a point where I believed my offences, my big, bad wrongdoings as a 17 year old, were to be dealt with by a federal authority.
I still carried on conversing with the friend who had told me I was delusional. The conversations became increasingly dark and I realised she wanted revenge on her ex. When the friendship started to break down because I expressed to her that her revenge plots were a bad idea, I worried that she was going to set me up to get me in trouble with the law. I felt cornered and that I had no way out, that I was going to go to prison and never see my son again.
“Please make sure he grows up better than me,” I told my parents and wife.
One morning, I woke before the sun at my parent’s house and began wandering the streets. I contemplated all sorts of things – including running away and disappearing. Ending it all. Then I saw a car come around the bend, and I ran back to home base, terrified it was the police. I let myself in through the back door and I could hear my wife yelling for me.
“I’m here!” I said.
But I didn’t feel safe.
The whole weekend was all about trying to get me admitted to a hospital. The first hospital we attended – a private one – refused admissions on the weekend. We then went to the Royal, where they left me in the waiting room with others who were going to be admitted. In the waiting room, I saw people who scared me. One man was playing with a tissue box.
“It’s a sign. Remember I took that tissue box home from work that one time? I may as well have stolen it. I am a bad person.”
I was so convinced that every tiny little thing I had ever done wrong was coming back to bite me. Every piece of technology – televisions, radios, my phone – they all had messages for me, and they were all telling me terrible things.
After a wait, the nurse interviewed me. Her name was Rebecca Miles as well. I thought this was too close to be a coincidence. I felt like the police had set up an environment full of actors to get me to finally admit to all of my wrongdoings. I sat in the interview room, stone faced, not able to say a word.
They assumed I just needed sleep and sent me home with a sleeping pill.
The next day, I was no better. I was taken to another public hospital and interviewed twice, including once by a security officer, and then taken into the emergency department. It was absolutely terrifying. I sat on a bed with my family around me, unable to say much at all. The person in the room next to me was throwing chairs and screaming. Amongst her screaming, I heard her yell, “AND I HATE BUNDABERG!” I sat bolt upright in the bed. I had spent my teenage years in Bundaberg and had hated it too.
Was she me, from the past? Or was she another actor?
I was so agitated and when I did finally talk, I told the psychiatrist I was not going with her – I did not belong with those chair throwers. And I had an assignment that still wasn’t quite finished.
“Here, take this,” she said, and handed me a pill.
All I remember from that point forward was being seated in a wheelchair and taken into the ward, through the dark and dusty back hallways of the hospital. I could barely keep my head up. The porters who took me away started high fiving each other and moving the wheelchair all about the hallway. I was so tranquillised that I could not say a word or tell them to stop.
I was taken to a shared room, where I apparently slept for two days.
When I woke up, I was still completely paranoid. The nurses gave me olanzapine – an anti-psychotic – to try and help me come down from my paranoia.
The days in public hospital were spent watching many hours of TV – still feeling that it was full of secret messages – and attending group sessions. The nurses would check on me throughout the night and they shone lights into my face to check that I was safe. I never got used to that.
At one stage, another patient cornered me in the laundry and told me about her baby who had been born with its cord wrapped around its neck, deceased. I told my wife, and she attempted to get me a referral to a private postnatal ward on the other side of the city.
It took a while, though. In the meantime, I was allowed out of the hospital on day leave. My family took me to the Redcliffe Show with Soren and my wife. It was absolutely wild. There was a man with a puppet and smoke coming out of his stage. I thought he was somebody I used to know, and that he was going to follow me around to collect evidence on me. There was a police stand and they gave Soren a sticker when my parents took him to have a look. I would not approach them, though. I knew they could smell my fear.
Once I got to the postnatal ward, I saw a psychiatrist who reassured me I was not narcissistic after interviewing me for what seemed like hours. I kept watching her phone on the table, wondering if she was recording me. She kept saying “Oh, that’s terrible,” an awful lot as I told my story, which felt oddly affirming. She changed my meds and got me booked in for an MRI, to prepare for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was so scared of ECT that I barely slept in the nights leading up to it, but my son was with me and I was surrounded by other mothers who had mental health concerns, so I was beginning to recover and realise I was, in fact, not alone.
After I was discharged, I began to feel normal in some ways. I started functioning again and the paranoia disappeared. I was sleeping through the night and after six rounds of ECT, I was no longer plagued by night terrors.
Since that time, I have had mini-relapses while trying to find the right meds. This came about in the form of mini hypomanic episodes and mild depressive episodes. However, I was aware of what they were and able to keep them at a manageable level.
After finding the correct medication and sleeping all night, every night, I have become completely stable. In my journey, I also found a Mum’s group for parents with mental illnesses, and a better psychologist more suited towards trauma. As my stability increased, I started to take on casual days at work, which built my confidence again. I started to feel like myself.
Maybe not the ‘myself’ that I was before the birth, but a capable and high-functioning 2.0.
In many ways, I have had to grieve. I did not ever foresee becoming so unwell and the whole process was very traumatic. Prior to his birth, I was very stable and functioned very well, despite having a history of anxiety and depression. I did not ever consider becoming so unwell I could not function, work, or leave the house. I grieve the “me” that was there just prior to the birth, and I grieve the fact that I will now likely never know a life without medication and regular appointments with specialist doctors.
The silver lining is that I stayed engaged with my studies throughout, I have amazing friends who share my struggle, and I am well enough to do all of what I need to do, to fulfil the life I imagined for myself back then. I have an amazing psychiatrist and psychologist who keep me on the stable path. In 2021, I will be undertaking DBT therapy to give me internal strategies to deal with triggers.
Everything will work out, and my son and wife absolutely adore me.
Felix culpa. I say it often, but life really is good.