Locked Up In D.C.
A Postpartum Psychosis Story

 

Written by Martha Valiquette

 

A week after my precious son was born, I was in a straitjacket, face down on the floor of a rubber room. Helloooooo postpartum psychosis.

I would shuffle down the hall, stooped over and drooling.  Aware, but unaware.  This was the doing of haldol or haloperidol – a strong anti-psychotic drug with tremendous side-effects.

As defined on-line by the Royal College of Psychiatrists:  Postpartum Psychosis is a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days or weeks after having a baby. Symptoms vary and can change rapidly. They can include high mood (mania), depression, confusion, hallucinations and delusions.  Postpartum psychosis is a psychiatric emergency.

My pregnancy with Leo was textbook:  I took daily naps; walked gently with the dogs; swam; ate good food and drank lots of water; no caffeine; no alcohol.  We were living in Virginia because my husband Dean had accepted a job there with a dot com start-up in the late 1990s.  It was a lovely nine months.

Monday, Aug 9, 1999, Leo arrived.  He was perfect and beautiful.  A seven-pound boy whom I hugged, caressed and kissed.  I was so happy.

We went home early from the hospital but shouldn’t have.  It was my idea.  Hospitals were bad. I was sure of it.  At home, we struggled to get into a routine with the feedings and diapering of our newborn.  Dean and I were quite worried about making any mistakes with Leo.  We were in Virginia without family to tell us what was what.

I started to become very very happy.  Elated, even.  I was unable to sleep, and I wasn’t one bit tired.  I started making phone calls to all kinds of friends and family, in the middle of the night.  I had crazy ideas that didn’t seem crazy to me at the time.  I clearly remember calling one of our old army friends at four in the morning.  I had this idea that I wanted to gather all of our friends together to live in a tent city in our backyard.  Somehow, for some reason, I would be in charge. While I write, I cannot quite recall what the mission of this gathering would be – just that it was very, very important.

Dean would be fast asleep, exhausted from the ordeal of the birth and the nighttime feedings and diapering of Leo.  I however, seemed to not need sleep at all and my thoughts would race all night.  I began sending emails in the middle of the night. In one particular email that I sent to my younger brother, Luke, I clearly stated that I thought I must be manic.  Remember, at this point in my life, I had never had mental illness, but I had witnessed it in my mother and my brother, Mark.

Next, I began writing furiously in my journal.  Whatever I wrote, I was sure it was profound and would gladly show it to Dean or anyone else.  I became delusional and started to have visions of myself being the Virgin Mary and Leo being baby Jesus.  My friend, Nancy, came to visit and I wanted her to massage me and do my hair and my nails, as if I was a celebrity and she was my servant.  When she wouldn’t comply, I screamed hysterically at her.

One of Dean’s work colleagues, Jamie, who had become our close friend down there, came to visit one night.  After he took one look at my wild eyes and heard the nonsense I was spouting, he said to Dean: ‘Marti is manic.’  He explained that he had just recently been with another friend who had gone through a similar trauma.  He told Dean that I would need to go to the hospital now.

Dean’s face froze.  He knew Jamie was right.  My psychosis was worsening by the moment.  I was turning into a screaming banshee because people weren’t doing what I wanted them to do – things that were completely ridiculous.  Things that I wouldn’t normally EVER ask of anyone.  Dean and Jamie took me to the local hospital, and they put me in a room for the night.  Of course, I was very afraid of not being close to little Leo for feedings. The next day I was admitted to the psych ward of the George Washington University Hospital in D.C..  I was screaming and crying and carrying on.  They put me in a straitjacket, shot me in the ass with a sedative and man-handled me into a rubber room where they threw me to the ground roughly.  That might be funny in Monty Python movies, but it was dead serious for me.  I felt like I had just entered the ninth circle of hell.

Hours later I was put in a private room with an ensuite bathroom.  This was an old hospital, and it was not pretty.  The windows were covered in a thick mesh and let in very little light.  There was a highway of ants at the bottom of the wall beside my bed.  What had I done to deserve this?  All I wanted to do was breast-feed Leo.  That wasn’t going to happen, I was told.  Due to all of the medication.  My breast milk was no longer any good for Leo.  Oh my.  That was a sad pill to swallow.

My mind was abuzz with all kinds of nonsense.  I thought I was in a movie and that all the other patients on the floor with me were actors.  I would try to catch them out on their lines.  I thought I was the Virgin Mother still and that this was a big test of my sainthood. I thought I could save people by laying my hands on them.  One day, I called my sister Eva and told her I had had a miscarriage that morning.  Before that phone call, Eva didn’t really think I was that ill.  Now she got it.  I called my old friends from Barrie whom I had grown up with.  Sally was the most attentive and seriously tried to help me out of this major predicament.  Kelly used medical-speak on me and it infuriated me to no end.  I called Sally several times.  I asked her to call my little brother and say ‘Snowball’.  I told her that he would know what that meant.  ‘Snowball‘  had been the code word for immediate deployment that we used in Germany in 4 Service Battalion in 1990.  Sally did it and I was ever grateful.

Dean called his eldest sister and asked her to come stay for a few weeks, to help with Leo while he was dealing with me and going back and forth the hour to the hospital in D.C. every day.  She was wonderful and did very well with Leo.  I called my mom’s older sister too.  She also came down to help.  The two of them got along famously: both red heads, both mothers, both having had careers in education.  One day, the two of them, with Leo, drove to D.C. to bring Leo to me for a visit.  This was huge.  Two older women, from small Canadian towns, driving to the heart of a large US city with a newborn.  They did it and it made me very happy.   My eldest brother’s wife, June, also came down for several days.  We were loved and taken care of.  What a blessing.

Immediately, to get my head straight, I was put on Haldol and it caused me to shuffle down the hall, stoop over and drool on myself.  It is a very strong anti-psychotic with awful side-effects.  I was also put on lithium.  Whenever I could, I would get on the phone and call any friend or family member whose number I had in my head.  I called Dean’s mom in Newfoundland and started spouting off about all of my troubles.  She told me simply: ‘Just do what the doctors tell you to do and get the hell out of there. That was good advice.

I was discharged in twelve days.

 

Text © Martha Valiquette

 

 

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2 Responses to “Locked Up In D.C.
A Postpartum Psychosis Story”

  1. MMV

    Hi Jen, yes, definitely hormonal changes. At the time though,
    we didn’t really get it. But, hormones are powerful and they can change you into a screaming banshee. I know. It happened. At the time, there was very little awareness of postpartum psychosis. I’m so relieved that there is more awareness these days.
    Thanks for your words. Hugs back to you. Martha

  2. Jen

    hugs to you. i was in the psych unit twice five years ago. i wonder your psychosis was triggered by the hornonal changes? i have a hard time tolerating my hormones and taking the Pill made it worse.

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