Long Reads

“My postpartum psychosis made me believe I was Cameron Diaz”

Channel 4 documentary Losing It shone a light on what it’s really like to experience postpartum psychosis, a rare mental health condition that can affect new mums. Here, one writer shares her own experiences of postpartum psychosis and postnatal depression following the birth of her son.

I was expecting a lot of things after becoming the owner of a freshly minted baby; sleepless nights, sore nipples. What I was not expecting, however, was the utter conviction that I was Cameron Diaz. But thanks to the postpartum psychosis (PPP) I experienced after my son’s birth that is precisely what happened.

I was lying on the examination couch in my doctor’s office with my dress hiked up around my armpits, my boobs leaking milk into my maternity bra which rested on my still swollen stomach. As my doctor bent over my crotch, dismayed to find a five-inch piece of suture material that the nurse had accidentally left in my caesarian wound, I stared at the ceiling thinking, “OH MY GOD. I am Cameron Diaz.” 

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This idea had come to me a few moments before, while I was sitting in the waiting room, flicking through a glossy celebrity magazine. I had become convinced that the famous people I saw in the pages were friends of mine, convinced that the other people in the waiting room were staring at me and then looking away was because I was also famous, rather than, as is more likely, I was acting strangely. 

I turned a page and saw a grainy, long-distance paparazzi shot of Cameron Diaz on a beach wearing a light blue shirt and pale cut off shorts, identical to my favourite beach outfit. The realisation that I was Cameron Diaz hit me, and I can barely remember being called into the doctor’s office and lying on the examination couch.

The doctor was apologising profusely, dabbing at my wound, but her words barely registered. I was too busy pondering what I was doing in Australia married to a ‘civilian’, while also being one of the world’s most beautiful women.

woman alone
Postpartum psychosis: "Women with PPP can experience one or more symptoms such as mania, depression, loss of inhibition, paranoia, hallucinations and delusions."

I had read briefly about postpartum psychosis during my pregnancy, and dismissed it along with postnatal depression (PND). No, I thought, that happens to other women, not me. A life-threatening illness, PPP affects one to two women in every 1,000 new mums. Women with PPP can experience one or more symptoms such as mania, depression, loss of inhibition, paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.

My experience of PPP and PND were horrendous, scary and life-shattering, for both my family and me. My psychosis lasted only two weeks, as the antipsychotic medication was fast acting and effective for me, despite the horrible side effects, including heavy sedation and ravenous hunger. The sedation meant it was incredibly hard to wake up in the morning and stay ‘with it’, something most babies demand of their mother on an almost daily basis. I also had a dry mouth, dizziness, muscle spasms, and an increased risk of heart problems, meaning I needed to get regular ECGs and blood tests. But I’d take all of those symptoms over being psychotic, any day.

Sadly, the PND took much longer for me to recover from, partly as the psychiatrist was reluctant to give me an effective dose of antidepressants due to the risk of becoming psychotic again. I was in excruciating, agonising, mental pain, every waking minute, of every hour, of every day. The everyday tasks of life, such as getting up, having a shower and getting dressed were overwhelming, but I forced myself to do them. Having a shower, in particular, felt mind-bendingly pointless, when I knew I would need to have another one the next day, and the next. It was almost too much to bear, but I made sure I had one every day.

I made sure I got out of the flat every day, even though it would sometimes take me 40 minutes to pack the nappy bag in an agony of indecision. I made sure I exercised twice a week. I ate healthily. I drank plenty of water. I had counselling. I tried to see friends.

I did all the things, anything that anyone recommended to me, which might help me recover. It was a herculean task. I tried my best to play and sing with my son, as I’d read it was essential for his development, though I felt like a fraud and a failure. I remember singing along to, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’ at a baby and me yoga group with tears streaming down my cheeks. I knew I had to fight for my recovery, for my sake and my son’s. So I did.

It took many months of grueling hard work on my part and generous, loving support from my family to recover and I still wasn’t fully back to my old self by the time I returned to work when my son was 12 months old. But I made it.

postnatal-depression
Postpartum psychosis affects one to two women in every 1,000 new mums.

As part of my recovery, I wrote a book about my experiences. And one of the most common comments I get from readers is: “I laughed at some of it. Is that OK?” The answer to this question is most definitely yes.

The first time I can remember laughing about my Diaz daze was six months later, when I was talking to an old friend, Suzanne, who I hadn’t seen since being ill. I was still recovering from PND, and every day was a struggle. We were sat at her kitchen table as our children napped. She listened with a grave face as I told her what had happened. And then I told her about the six-week check.

“Cameron Diaz?” Suzanne asked. There was a moment of silence when she looked at me, and I looked at her, and then we both burst out laughing. It was like a beam of sunlight into the gloom, like the light at the end of the tunnel.

Later, I was talking to another friend, Lloyd, who asked: “What was it really like having a delusion?” I told him how strongly I believed the delusions, and how clear some of my memories of that time are. I told him about the moment I looked at my husband thinking, “You lucky bastard. You get to have sex with Cameron Diaz.” At this, Lloyd threw his head back with a big laugh.

I’ve given talks to promote my book, and I often mention the delusion when I’m standing on stage. The audience always laugh, and I see shoulders relax on mass. “This is going to be OK,” you can almost see them think. “Jen is OK.” And I am.

postpartum psychosis
Postpartum psychosis: "When you have any serious illness, but especially one with so much stigma like psychosis, you can feel alone and isolated."

I think humour is one of the best ways to cope with the difficulties that life throws our way – from irksome to life-shattering. Laughing helps you form a bond with your friend, or the group you are talking to. 

When you have any serious illness, but especially one with so much stigma like psychosis, you can feel alone and isolated. But sharing a moment of joy at how absurd life can be even in the midst of a crisis, can help you feel connected to your friends again. And they to you.

Laughter is also a therapy of sorts, as it requires you to take a step away from the awfulness and see things from an outsider’s perspective. This is exactly what psychological support helps you do. Getting to the point where you can laugh about a painful thing that happened to you is a real watershed moment, but it does take time.

Having psychosis is no joke, but bits of it were also funny. If you can find a glimmer of humour in your own bleak experiences, that glimmer can bring warmth and healing, connection and peace.

Note from the author: There has been a surge in interest in PPP this week thanks to a Channel 4 documentary, Losing It. I’m not ready to watch the documentary, but I’m so glad it exists as the more people who know about PPP, the more the risk for women affected (and their babies) is reduced. Early intervention becomes more likely. Stigma is squashed, no matter how minutely.

PPP is the mental health equivalent of a heart attack, i.e. life-threatening and in need of immediate medical treatment. If you are worried about yourself or a loved one call 999.

Action on Postpartum Psychosis is the national charity for women and families affected by postpartum psychosis.

Jen Wight is a mental health advocate, author, fundraiser and feminist.

Images: Getty, Unsplash