‘If my mom didn’t fight for me, I would be dead’: Life with postpartum psychosis

Here's what happens to your baby’s body during birth.
Here's what happens to your baby’s body during birth.

“Take. It. Away.”

This is what Cleo, now 45, said to the nurse who brought her 36-hour old son to her for a feed. It was like a switch in her head.

“They walked in the door with him and I just remember feeling very disconnected. Like ‘why are you bothering me?’ It wasn’t because I was really tired and didn’t sleep. No, it was just pure annoyance,” says Cleo of that initial experience.  

“She insisted that I should feed him and I said to her ‘you need to remember we are two floors up and we are by a window. Take it away.’”

Her son Miguel’s father heard this later and called the obstetrician for help. He was told that the obstetrician’s job was to deliver the baby and that’s it. This doctor’s license has reportedly been revoked since.

A social worker even came to the hospital, but she spent five minutes with Cleo and did no follow up investigations.

Cleo says it didn’t feel like psychosis at first, but rather a form of depression. Everyone told her it was normal to feel overwhelmed by your first baby. “There are supposed to be bits in-between where you’re like ‘oh, my lovely little baby.’ I never felt that.”

Cleo never neglected her baby. She fed, changed and bathed him when it needed to be done. “I felt a very overwhelming sense of responsibility and I knew this child’s welfare was all on my shoulders. But everything was done very clinically,” she says.

But when he was about five or six weeks old, the psychosis set in.

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“Little weird things. Hearing voices in my head. If we went to a mall, he was in a pram and I would push the pram between racks of clothing and walk away,” says Cleo, who admits to then feeling disappointment that she was caught when the security guard would run after her and she would laugh it off and just say she was tired.

One day, she asked the neighbours to look after Miguel while she took a bath. But instead of taking a bath, she drove to the airport. “I had my passport in one hand and credit card in the other and tried to buy a one-way ticket to London,” she says.

Luckily, the woman at the counter knew her and asked why she was there with no luggage in her pyjamas. Cleo doesn’t remember what happened next as she has big gaps in her memory, but she got home a few hours later and the neighbours just assumed she had fallen asleep.

Not all of her hallucinations were even connected to Miguel. “I would see people that aren’t there or become displaced. I would be in my house, but not feel like I’m in my house. Or my bedroom would look different,” says Cleo.

Cleo’s mom, Mirta, insisted Cleo and Miguel move into her house when Miguel was two and a half months old. She then began dragging Cleo to several doctors; five GPs, two psychologists and back to the awful obstetrician. They all dismissed it as tiredness, being overwhelmed, or ‘baby blues’.

Eventually, Cleo’s original gynaecologist came back from his long sabbatical. Mirta dragged her daughter there and he was horrified. He called a neurologist, used his favours and Cleo was seen and booked into hospital for five days and put on anti-psychotic medication. Miguel was six months old by this point.

After she was discharged, she had to see this neurologist every single week for four months until they found the right mix of meds. She was on those meds for two years.

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“What I wasn’t prepared for, what no one was prepared for, when my son was about 18 months, was the immense guilt that kicked in. That remained with me for years. My son was about eight or nine before I let that go,” says Cleo sadly.

Cleo says she’s one of the lucky ones because she still had private healthcare. “And a medically knowledgeable mother who doesn’t take no for an answer. What happens in public hospitals? In communities where women don’t have someone fighting or advocating for them? They just keep this dirty secret to themselves until one day they hurt one or all of their children or even themselves.”

Miguel is now 15 and knows about his mom’s postpartum psychosis. They are very close and talk about mental health often, to the point where he was comfortable enough to ask her about therapy when he was 14.

“Thank goodness for my mother and my family. If it were not for her, I can guarantee you that one or both of us would have ended up dead,” says Cleo.

If there is a new mother in your life who exhibits any of the signs of psychosis, listen to her and seek professional medical help immediately.  

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