Francoise’s story: It was 24 years before I spoke to someone else who experienced PP – it’s never too late to access peer support

It took me 24 years to access peer support through APP after my experience of postpartum psychosis (PP) in 1998, but it has completely changed my life. I went from being a survivor to actually living my life, and the self-stigma I used to feel has diminished dramatically. 

We had no idea what postpartum psychosis was.

I had never heard of PP when I was diagnosed with it after giving birth to my first child. While I’d had a fairly difficult birth, my pregnancy was fairly easy, and I had lots of support from my husband and family. In retrospect, however, my elation and need for perfection after the birth was a definite warning sign.

I wasn’t sleeping much but I figured that was normal for a new mum. One night, however, I had this terrible feeling – like I was being struck by lightning. It was like some kind of out of body experience and I became obsessed by the idea that my daughter was the second coming of Christ. I spoke to my husband and my mum and they both knew something was very wrong.

Sadly, however, even though my husband was calling our GP surgery, nobody spotted the problem. After four different GPs saw me and suggested I simply had baby blues, we eventually saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PP. I was then rushed to hospital by ambulance and spent a night on a mixed ward.

My mother-in-law was also incredibly supportive, and she had trained as a nurse and had worked in midwifery so she knew about Mother and Baby Units (MBUs) and said that I needed to be treated at one. She and my husband pushed for a transfer and I was thankfully given a bed on the MBU in West London.

I was very delusional by this point and I ended up staying there, with my baby daughter Eva, for three months (although during the final month I was able to go home for short periods of time).

It was a really traumatic time. I wasn’t really aware of how unwell I was, and I found it incredibly upsetting that I was unable to breastfeed due to the medication I was on. It felt like a primal wound not to be able to breastfeed when I really wanted to.

My recovery felt quite sudden.

Although it took me a long while to get better, I remember waking up one day and feeling suddenly quite different. I was still incredibly anxious though and felt frightened at being left alone with my baby. And I was feeling very ashamed because I didn’t fully understand PP and knew nobody else who had experienced it.

Looking back, I think I was looking after my baby girl really quite well, but my lack of confidence was so low. It was a different time back then in the 90s, and I had no access to therapy or peer support, so I felt very isolated. However, I carried on, feeling more like a soldier than a mum.

I did access a local mother and baby group and made some good friends there, but I felt so ashamed talking about what I had gone through. The two friends I made through that group were so compassionate though, and my experience of PP didn’t put them off being my friend.

I gave birth to a second child, a boy, and it all went really well. I had been told that I was at risk of another episode of PP after giving birth again, but nobody said there was a risk of a psychotic episode months later. And this is precisely what happened when my little boy was three years old . I was eventually diagnosed with bipolar and experienced a few more episodes and hospital admissions over the years which deeply affected me. I felt as though I had this awful illness that I was stuck with forever, and I was overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness.

Thankfully, I haven’t experienced another episode since 2015, but it’s not just the time that has elapsed that has helped me come to terms with my illness. It’s the peer support that I found through APP that has really helped me to feel more hopeful and less alone.

It was 2022 when I found out about APP’s peer support.

I reached out to APP and the first person I spoke to who had experienced PP was Ellie, and it was such a moving moment. After all these years, I’d finally found someone else who had been through what I had.

It was like after all these years, and this long ordeal that felt so hard and endless, I was able to see that there was light at the end of the tunnel. My husband and I also went along to an APP café group and we met all these beautiful people. They were much younger than me and my husband, but we both sat listening to them with tears in our eyes. We had never cried about the experience before. It was like relief. Finally, we could face what had happened and address it in a more open way.

I think in all the years previous to this I had been so determined to get through life that I forgot to address it, to face it head on. Now I am doing it all with my eyes open, with less shame and with so much more support. I always had my husband, my family and the brilliant staff at the MBU. But being with others who have been where you are is so powerful.

My daughter Eva is now 25 and she came along to one of the meetings too. They can help all family members – whether you have experienced PP yourself, your partner has or your daughter or parent has.

Now I feel like I can give something back, I can share my story so that other women going through this  won’t feel as alone as I did.

There’s a dangerous myth about perfection in motherhood – and peer support reminds us that nobody’s perfect and that if we are struck by postnatal mental illness that is no reflection on who we are or how good a mother we are.

The illness is the illness, it is what it is, but the stigma and isolation need to be worked on. I was unlucky to get the illness, but I was lucky to have my husband’s love and the support of others. I feel very lucky and privileged in that sense and I don’t want young women to go through the same isolation that I did for all those years.

But I also think it’s important to mention that it’s never too late to benefit from peer support. Whether you’ve just experienced PP in the last year, or whether it’s something that affected you many years or even decades ago, reaching out and hearing from others is a comforting and life changing experience.

Don’t hesitate to find your community. It really has helped to change my life.