Days after giving birth to my son, post-natal psychosis entered my world

Bringing a child into the world is exciting and daunting. For me, it brought with it an unexpected life-changing experience.

Genevieve Whitlam and son Arlo.

In January 2020 I gave birth to our second son, almost four weeks early, following a spontaneous labour. Our family of three was ecstatic to finally meet our newest edition, baby Arlo.

Soon after giving birth, I developed mastitis – an infection of the breast tissue causing pain, swelling and redness. The pain was excruciating, so I presented to the emergency department (ED) where I was given intravenous antibiotics and discharged a day later with oral antibiotics.

The infection continued to rage throughout my body. Seven days after giving birth I was rushed back to the ED where I was surrounded by a tribe of health professionals asking questions and jabbing me with needles. I was confused and scared. Eventually to be told that I had sepsis – a life-threatening systemic response to infection.

Coronavirus was new on the scene. Community anxiety was building. In the ED I was unable to sleep, my mind was racing, and paranoia began to develop. I feared the authorities were monitoring me for the virus through hidden cameras in the light fixtures above my hospital bed.

My paranoia grew worse when I was transferred to a single room on the maternity ward. In this new, dark room I began to think I’d been wired up by scientists who were controlling my body. The nursing staff were in on it. Both sons had been cloned into robots. TV shows and songs contained hidden messages specifically for me. I was confused and became withdrawn.

My partner noticed that my behaviour was out of character. Luckily, she is a mental health nurse and advocated for a psychiatric review. Not everyone is this lucky.

“I began to think I’d been wired up by scientists who were controlling my body.”

The doctors tried to explain that although my thoughts felt real, they were not. I was experiencing post-natal psychosis (PNP) – a severe mental illness characterised by paranoia, delusions, hallucinations, confusion, agitation, and racing thoughts.

I’d never experienced mental ill health before.

I was in a state of disbelief. Disbelief turned into shame, embarrassment and self-stigma.

Once the infection had been treated, I was transferred to an adult mental health unit. During this time I remained separated from Arlo as there was ongoing concerns about my capacity to care for him. The unit was also not a safe or suitable environment for him. I continued taking anti-psychotic medication and started focusing on mindfulness and sleep.

When my mental health improved, I was transferred to a private specialist mental health unit that allows parent and baby to be together while continuing mental health treatment. Arlo and I were finally re-united and supported to bond and develop our routine.

My experience of PNP also had a ripple effect of trauma on my partner and broader family. My partner had very real concerns – what will Gen’s recovery look like? How will her diagnosis impact our relationship? Will Gen be able to care for our children when I need to return to work?

Perinatal anxiety or depression impacts one in five mothers and one in 10 dads. PNP occurs in one to two new mothers in every 1000. It is more prevalent than most would think. But many people who experience it remain silent because of shame, fear and stigma.

Perinatal mental illness, in particular PNP, is highly stigmatised and largely misunderstood by expectant and new parents, healthcare professionals and society at large. It is an isolating experience for all involved.

In my experience, connection – with myself and others – was the antidote to feeling isolated.

It took a long time to come to terms with my diagnosis. Now, two years down the track, I feel my experience has changed me for the better. I feel more in tune with my mental health and have gained a unique insight and empathy with those who experience psychotic disorders. I have gained confidence to share my story in the hope that it helps others in the future.

My story has a positive ending. My partner and I reflect on the rollercoaster ride of 2020 – when we managed life with a newborn, a pre-schooler, severe mental illness, a pandemic and lockdowns. Our discussions have helped me to understand what it means to live with PNP and recover. They have also helped me to reflect on the importance of maintaining our solid support network; trusted people we can be honest with and who will not judge us.

World Maternal Mental Health Day is May 4. This year’s theme is “Stronger Together”.

Crisis support is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14. Support is also available from the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306 and Gidget Foundation.

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