bipolar parent

How I (Mis)managed my Bipolar Disorder During my Pregnancies

Photo by Anna Hecker on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This post contains a discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please:

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Text TALK to 741741
  • Or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources. 

For a post with a list of domestic crisis lines, click here

For a post with a list of international crisis lines, click here.

This post appeared on The International Bipolar Foundation’s website, here.

Pregnancy.

It’s a time of joy for some, a time of horror for others, and a time of anxiety for most.

Becoming pregnant, regardless of the outcome, changes your life forever. And if you have a mismanaged mental illness that’s affected by maternal hormones like bipolar disorder, irrevocable damage can be done.

May is National Maternal Depression month in the U.S., a time to reflect and raise awareness for mothers who face challenges such as postpartum depression.

According to WebMD, “Pregnant women or new mothers with bipolar disorder have seven times the risk of hospital admissions compared to pregnant women who do not have bipolar disorder.” 

And I was one of them.

Here are my completely different experiences with my two pregnancies and how I managed and mismanaged my bipolar disorder–and what a difference that made.

During my first pregnancy, warning signs of an undiagnosed, worsening bipolar disorder were missed or ignored by my obstetrician. As I wasn’t aware that I had a mental illness, my anxiety, depression, and mania–a mixed mood episode–quickly grew out of control and ravaged my mind and body.

Because of lingering issues centered around going hungry as a child, my manic fear that my new family would go hungry forced me to build a balcony garden with recycled tin cans and bulk soil purchased for pennies. I was terrified that my husband and I would run out of money despite his stable, high-paying job.

The garden never took off, and due to my burgeoning depression, I quickly became suicidal. I became obsessed with a show I saw once a week on television, Avatar: The Last Airbender, living only for new episodes. I forced my husband to watch the show, saying I identified with the sociopathic character who has a psychotic break in the end because I was so numb and messed up.

Faced with decorating a nursery on what I perceived to be a shoe-string budget, I dove in our apartment’s huge dumpster for mismatched, broken lamps, bassinets, and other baby items. I crammed our guest room/nursery so full of filthy items, we couldn’t even walk through the room.

I could not bond with my baby, instead concentrating on how awful I felt. I was jittery, depressed, irritable, lonely, and physically sick–I suffered from a condition called hyperemesis, which means I threw up several times a day for nine months straight.

Rather than gaining weight like I was supposed to, I lost thirty pounds and only gained back ten, and was placed on bedrest four months in. I lost even more weight after the baby was born. I started out the pregnancy at 148 pounds and ended it at approximately 100–not exactly a healthy weight for a 5’7” woman.

Throughout the pregnancy, I faced challenges such as social isolation (my husband and I had just moved 1500 miles away from friends and family for his job), limited mobility (I sprained my ankle and couldn’t drive), and completely wild hormones. It’s no wonder that I suffered a psychotic break after giving birth!

Fortunately, I committed myself to a mental hospital with the help of my therapist, whom I’d started seeing at the beginning of the pregnancy. The doctors there gave me an official diagnosis–bipolar I–as well as medication that saved my life.

Following the pregnancy, I suffered from a crippling postpartum depression that rewired me completely. I went from a bold, confident, intelligent young woman to someone fearful and constantly seeking validation from others.

It took me three long years and several medication changes to recover–and even now, 13 years later, I’m not quite 100% back to my former self.

However, three years after recovering from postpartum depression, when my first child was six, I was ready to try for another baby. My husband had always encouraged me to be in control of our reproductive choices, so he willingly agreed to a second pregnancy.

For the second pregnancy, I insisted on taking medication. I didn’t want to go back into the depths of suicidal depression. And I faithfully attended therapy once a week, discussing coping strategies I could use.

During the second pregnancy, I once again suffered from hyperemesis. I threw up 6-8 times per day from the moment I conceived until the day I gave birth.

Despite that, I my spirits were high and I didn’t suffer a massive depressive or manic episode. I was no longer depending on a television show to emotionally sustain me.

My routine of medication, therapy, and self-care kept the awful mood episodes at bay. I was sane, stable, and dare I say, happy. I was able to bond with my baby and suffered no ill effects after giving birth.

All things considered, except for the hyperemesis and bedrest, the second pregnancy was much closer to “normal” and expected for a healthy pregnancy. I certainly didn’t suffer as much emotional pain!

My bipolar disorder diagnosis–and appropriate approaches to treatment–made such a difference in my two pregnancies. After the first one, I was terrified to have more children; after the second, I considered having a third.

If you have bipolar disorder or even think you do, carefully consider the risks of getting pregnant before you embark on that journey. It may take you somewhere you don’t wish to be.

But there are steps you can take to sustain a safe and healthy pregnancy. Low-risk psychotropic medications are available to you. Talk therapy poses no risk to the baby. And a self-care routine prioritizing sleep can do nothing but good for you.

I wish you well on your journey.

Related posts:

bipolar parent

Mother’s Day: 5 Things I Wish People–Including New Mothers–Knew About Postpartum Depression

Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

Trigger Warning: This post contains discussions of suicide. If you or someone you know is at risk of suicide, please:

  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255
  • Text TALK to 741741
  • Or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.

For a post with a list of domestic crisis lines, click here. For a post with a list of international crisis lines, click here.

Like many mothers who have just given birth (up to 20%, in fact), I suffered postpartum depression.

Most mothers get the baby blues, a period of sadness after birth that lasts anywhere from 4-6 weeks, but postpartum depression (PPD) is so much more severe than that.

On this Mother’s Day, where we honor the parent who gave us life, I think it’s perfect time to let you know what PPD is really like. Or, at least, how my own experience with the illness was and what it can teach you.

5 Things I Wish People–Including New Mothers–Knew About Postpartum Depression

1. Take PPD Seriously

Postpartum depression is no joke.

My experience was slightly different than most moms out there: I suffered an episode of postpartum psychosis that hamstrung me.

But the following three years of postpartum depression kept me from functioning and destroyed my confidence that I would ever be a whole person again.

Indeed, 13 years later, I’m still feeling the effects of my bout with PPD. I used to be a strong, independent young woman who’d just earned two bachelor’s degrees, paying for college by myself by working two jobs. Now I’m nervous, insecure, and almost entirely dependent upon my husband not only financially, but also for things like taxes, buying airline tickets, changing a tire, driving in snow, and picking out phones.

My dependance on my husband is shameful to me. I don’t know how to do those practical things, and I’ve been afraid I’m too stupid to learn. Me, the woman who was smart enough and bold enough to earn two bachelor’s degrees!

I was never this bad off before my struggles with PPD.

And the PPD itself was a living hell. When my baby cried, I cried. I was terrified of putting him down just in case something bad would happen to him—either I’d step on him and crush his chest, or I’d forget about him, and he’d starve to death. I had nightmares of me throwing him down the stairs or boiling him alive.

For the first three years of my son’s life, my home was completely trashed. Moldy dishes piled up in the sink and on tables, unwashed clothes littered the floor, and a figurative ocean of dirty diapers coalesced on the living room floor.

I could not function. When I say that, I don’t mean that I was lazy. I mean that my brain could not parse out “pick up the dirty diapers on the floor one at a time, and you’ll be able to clean the living room floor.” I looked at the whole picture of the mess I had caused and felt completely overwhelmed.

Isolating myself and my infant, we rarely went outside or to mother-baby activities. I did have a Program for Early Parent Support (PEPS) group of mothers and their infants that was set up by the hospital, but after I broke down sobbing at one of the meetings, screaming, “I have PPD and it sucks!” the other mothers alienated me.

I spent all day sobbing. I lost several friends, and found no pleasure in anything, not even my infant, and then felt terribly guilty for not bonding with him in the way I “should” have.

Trying to establish himself in his new, high-stress job, my husband worked 12-hour days and sometimes slept at the office. I was alone most of the day, left to my brain fog and inability to do anything more than breastfeed my baby when he cried, at which point I was also crying.

Postpartum depression is not the baby blues. It’s severe, and if you or a loved one has been experiencing any of the following symptoms, please call a doctor right now:

  • Mood swings
  • Anxiety
  • Sadness
  • Irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Crying
  • Reduced concentration
  • Appetite problems
  • Trouble sleeping

2. PPD can be Dangerous to Mothers and Their Babies

There came a point in my PPD two and a half years after my son’s birth that I began dreaming of ways to die. Watching my son toddle around all day and unable to answer his constant questions of why, why, why, I would craft suicide letters in my head.

Suicide is a real risk for mothers who suffer PPD. Over the past decade, suicide attempts during and after pregnancy have nearly tripled. And it’s a silent suffering. No mother wants to alarm their loved ones by spilling their secret thoughts to harm themselves.

Which leads into my next point.

3. Pressure on Mothers is Immense

The pressure on mothers, especially mothers of tiny babies, is immense.

I speak of mothers specifically because dads tend to be praised for their efforts in “babysitting” their babies, which is a whole different problem. Both caregivers are under a lot of pressure, but new mothers, assumed to be the primary caregiver, bear the brunt of the social pressure.

Breastfeeding is touted as what’s best for the baby, and I agree that nutritionally, it is, but breastfeeding in public is met with either derision and ogling, or both at once.

I have been drooled at before. I have breastfed on a toilet seat. I have been scoffed at, glared at, and put on display for both mockers and people who would stare at my breasts and lick their lips lasciviously. All I was trying to do was feed my baby in the “best” way possible.

There’s nothing worse on an airplane than a crying baby. Why won’t that mother shut that baby up? Sure, the baby is tired and hungry like everyone else, but seriously, that mother is terrible, or so the thinking goes.

And as a new mother, you’re expected to bond with your baby. New babyhood is glorified as this magical journey where everyone handmakes favors for their child’s first birthday bash (which are “supposed to be” huge) and posts them on Instagram.

The pressure to post your “perfect” life on Snapchat is never more intense than on new mothers. Everyone wants to see the baby’s involuntary smiles that are usually from gas bubbles, but no one wants to see the same baby spitting up or with a blowout diaper.

Especially not on an airplane, which has happened to both me and my husband while traveling alone with our infants.

The pressure on mothers is ridiculous. I beg you, if there’s a crying baby in your vicinity, please, please give the mother a little grace. If she has PPD, I can assure you that society’s judgement is the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

4. You Can Conquer PPD

All of this sounds like doom and gloom, right?

But don’t worry. Postpartum depression doesn’t last forever.

If you’re suffering from PPD, you can survive this, and yes, even thrive one day. It will take time, and patience, and maybe medication and definitely therapy.

But I promise you: You can conquer PPD. It’s dangerous, it’s terrible, it’s soul-destroying, but you will live again, and reach your full potential.

Call your doctor today. They want to help you.

If you can’t call your doctor, if your brain fog or your shame about not bonding with your baby prevents you from doing so, get someone close to you to do it. Tap that social support network you’ve so carefully built up.

And if you have no one and are truly on your own, go to the nearest urgent care center. Your life may be at stake.

And you deserve the dignity of a stable, happy life. I should know – I am thriving. My psychiatrist gave me lithium (I have bipolar disorder, so this drug worked for me) and it was like the clouds opened up and I could breathe again.

I no longer suffocated in PPD’s grip. I was able to pick up those dirty diapers and move on with my life, eventually bonding with my baby. I am now going to school for my graduate degree in clinical mental health counseling.

I am happy now. You want that, right?

Call your doctor today.

5. You May Not have PPD with Your Next Baby

After my bout with PPD, I was scared off of having babies for many years. I thought I was done with having children, that my son alone would be enough.

But then, one Christmas, I woke up one day wanting another baby. I talked it over with my husband, who always left our reproductive choices up to me, and he agreed to try for another one.

After a year of trying, I fell pregnant, and insisted that I be safely medicated for the pregnancy.

My daughter was born healthy and happy, and I suffered no ill effects that I was dreading. I had my treatment team (my psychiatrist and therapist) on standby, but I was stunned that I didn’t need them.

By grace of God, I did not have a second round of PPD. But if I did, I would have sought treatment immediately. Never again will I face a pit of depression without getting help, and never again will I allow myself to sink to such horrific depths.

Let’s Recap

This is a strongly worded post, I know. But my experience with PPD was so intense, it almost killed me.

The 5 things I wish people knew about PPD are easy to remember:

  • Take PPD seriously.
  • PPD is dangerous to mothers and their babies.
  • The societal pressure on mothers is immense.
  • You can conquer PPD.
  • And you may not even have PPD with your next baby.

If you or a loved one are suffering from PPD, don’t be like me. Don’t let the dirty diapers pile up on the floor.

There’s an ending to this. And you deserve better.

I wish you well on your journey.

Related Posts:

bipolar parent

Pregnant While Bipolar

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Photo by Nuno Ibra Remane. Used with permission under a Creative Commons License.

Going through pregnancy while bipolar is tricky. Bipolar disorder symptoms can worsen during pregnancy. According to WebMD, “Pregnant women or new mothers with bipolar disorder have seven times the risk of hospital admissions compared to pregnant women who do not have bipolar disorder.” As I’ve stated before, depression can lead to low birth weight in newborns, and stopping medications abruptly can harm both the bipolar sufferer and their unborn child. Manic episodes can contribute to poor decision making, such as smoking cigarettes or drinking while pregnant. And there are several medications which treat bipolar which can harm infants both in utero and while breastfeeding, contributing to neural tube defects as well as others.

People with bipolar disorder who wish to become pregnant need to closely monitor their health, even more so than people without mental illnesses. Especially because there is a clear link between bipolar disorder and post-partum psychosis.

Thankfully, there are steps you can take. There exists medication that can be safely taken during pregnancy which treat depressive and manic episodes. Lithium needs to be closely monitored, as it can cause a rare heart defect in the first three months of pregnancy for about 1 in 2000 births. Talk therapy poses no risk to the baby. Added structure during the day can contribute to good sleep habits, which can be disrupted during pregnancy. Sleep is a serious factor in whether a bipolar sufferer will succumb to a mood episode, so it’s important that a pregnant woman gets enough. Exercise, which is crucial in maintaining good mental health, will aid a pregnant woman in controlling her moods.

If you are planning a pregnancy, talk to your obstetrician and psychiatrist to make a comprehensive plan. Your treatment team will help you. Good luck!