Jenny’s story: Postpartum psychosis left me with PTSD – earlier diagnosis might have stopped this from happening

PTSD is so often associated with external traumas – people experiencing a serious incident such as a car crash or serving in a war zone, for example. But while PTSD is a mental health problem in its own right, I discovered that it can actually be brought on by other mental health problems – in my case postpartum psychosis.

In April 2020, I gave birth to my first baby. Within days, I was presenting with signs of postpartum psychosis (PP) – a serious postnatal mental illness that affects around 1,400 women every year in the UK.

Neither myself or my wife had ever heard of PP, so we had no idea what was happening or indeed what to expect – but it was an incredibly distressing period.

When I gave birth, we were in national lockdown. This meant that I was alone most of the time as I wasn’t able to have any visitors. I remember that I wasn’t eating properly, and it got to the point that I simply couldn’t stomach any food or drink – even a little sip of water would be spat straight back out. I was becoming really anxious and frightened as well and I wasn’t sure why, but I was constantly pacing the room alone.

After a while I started watching films on my phone as a distraction, but the sounds from the films became really overwhelming and disturbing, so I stopped watching almost completely. I was also struggling with my memory and wasn’t able to recall simple instructions the midwife was giving me, and my moods became erratic too. I would be really low in the early part of the day, but by around 4pm each day I became really wired, like I was buzzing on a high level of adrenaline.

I started believing strange things, for example that the painkillers I was taking were building up in my throat, and I got songs stuck in my head, tormenting me as I tried to sleep. But sleep simply wasn’t happening, so I would just sit awake all night staring at my baby daughter. One night, I felt so overwhelmed that I asked the nurse to take my baby away for a while. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten over the guilt that I felt about that, and it formed a big part of my illness because I was so ashamed by it.

When I went home from hospital, friends started worrying because my text messages were a bit strange, and I refused to let anybody else, including my wife, hold my daughter. I started experiencing suicidal thoughts, stopped speaking to people and refused to leave the house. There was lots of pacing and I had really bad pins and needles and I felt very confused.

After many sleepless nights, extreme distress and being unable to properly eat or drink I was diagnosed with PP. I was so terrified of going back into hospital though, especially as it was during lockdown, so I was treated at home by the community team.

Eventually, the medication I was given started to work and the PP symptoms began to subside. However, even after all the psychotic symptoms disappeared, I realised that there were certain triggers and times of the year that made me feel really anxious and unwell again.

April is a particularly difficult time for me.

So many simple, everyday sights and sounds take me back to the feelings I experienced when I was unwell in 2020. From the Spring sunlight streaming in through the window to the birds singing in the morning and even the bin men coming to collect the bins - all these things trigger memories of postpartum psychosis and the distress and shame I was feeling at the time.

Over a year after experiencing PP, I realised that what I was now going through was PTSD connected to those traumatic memories of being so unwell and anxious. I found a trauma therapist who specialised in birth trauma, and we spent some time looking at anxiety and how to deal with triggers – as well as the worries about future triggers which form a big part of my PTSD. We also did some relaxation exercises and some counselling linked to the guilt I was feeling about being so unwell and asking the midwife to take my baby away from me overnight. I also tried some EMDR Therapy (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing which helps you process traumatic memories). Combined, all these treatments, as well as moving house which was incidental, helped me to put some distance between me and my experience of PP.

Since having these treatments, Springtime last year was much better – I wasn’t completely trauma and anxiety free, but I was definitely in a better place.

I am still a bit anxious about this year’s change of season being just around the corner, but I am hoping it will be better still and am prepared to do more work with my therapist if I need to.

I still have feelings of guilt and regret relating to my experience of PP, but I have accepted that it wasn’t my fault and it doesn’t make me a bad mum. And our family, which has since grown adding two more children to the mix, is so close and bonded.

I don’t think many people realise that experiencing a mental health problem can actually trigger PTSD longer term. The symptoms of psychosis might have gone long ago, but I do have to keep working at the residual trauma of it all and learning how best to manage the triggers. It’s definitely getting better, but I think it’s something we should talk about more, and I also think that, if there was more awareness of PP amongst the general public and health professionals, I could have been diagnosed earlier, which may have decreased the intensity of the trauma I experienced.

One thing I have learnt throughout all this is that it’s so important not to minimise what you’re going through. The sooner you can get help and support the less traumatic the experience will be.