Lobeh Osagie-Asiah, 38, works in social care and lives in Dagenham, Essex, with her husband and four daughters aged eight, six, five and four. Here she shares her story of overcoming postpartum psychosis, a serious mental illness that affects around one in 500 UK mothers after giving birth.
“Lying in my hospital bed, sore and tired from my C-section during the birth of my fourth daughter, I was convinced that something sinister was happening. Although my pregnancy had been perfect – better than my other three – the birth itself had been traumatic as my baby girl had not been breathing and she’d been whisked off to ICU. Although she was alive, no one seemed to be telling me what was going on.
Kidnap my baby
As I recovered and the hours and days passed, I was able to spend time with my baby in hospital but I refused to be discharged before her as I knew deep down that the doctors and nurses wanted to kidnap my baby. I kept these feelings mostly to myself. But I was convinced that they were all set to kill me to get their hands on my child. It was terrifying.
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. My baby was in good hands. But nobody realised – including me – that I was beginning to suffer from postpartum psychosis (PP), a debilitating but treatable mental illness.
Although I had suffered from a psychotic episode at university and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder (putting me at higher risk of PP) my regular medication had kept me healthy since then. I hadn’t suffered any relapses in the intervening years, even with the births of my other three daughters and was leading a very happy and normal life.
But it was when I got home two weeks after the birth that things took a turn for the worse. Part of my placenta had been left inside me and I developed a serious infection and ended up needing emergency surgery. I developed high blood pressure and had to stay in hospital for another week, separated from my newborn baby girl.
My postpartum psychosis became much worse. My mind was racing constantly, I could barely sleep and I kept forgetting I’d actually had a baby. Rather than recuperating and taking things easy, I became obsessed with clearing out the house and packing things up to sell in a car boot sale. I actually did do a car boot sale but to this day I have no idea what I sold or what I did with the money.
My husband knew something was wrong but couldn’t put his finger on it and had no idea how to help me apart from taking care of our children. He’d find me clearing cupboards in the middle of the night, preparing for ‘the new baby’ and although he’d urge me to sleep, I couldn’t.
I was speaking quickly all the time and became intent on organising everyone else’s life. I would take myself off in the car, driving around and not really knowing where I was going but I just knew I needed to be ‘out there’.
There were times when I started throwing water over people – family, friends, even strangers – because I thought they needed to be baptised. It must have been very scary for those around me to see me like this and not really understand the problem.
A few weeks later things came to a head. I left my husband and the children at home, got in the car and went driving for hours. I can’t remember where I went but somehow ended up at a friend’s house in North London. I’d been gone the whole day and my family had reported me missing.
My friend realised something was seriously wrong and called the police who took me to A&E. I remember someone saying: ‘She’s fine, the police have made a mistake’ but that’s the trouble with postpartum psychosis – unless you know the signs, it can be completely missed.
At the hospital I was assessed and the doctors could see from my history that I was not well. I was given an antipsychotic drug to stabilise my mood and admitted to an acute psychiatric ward. Gradually, thanks to the support and medication I was given over that month, I began to feel better.
But once again I was separated from my new baby because there was no specialist Mother and Baby unit available. The nearest one was five hours' drive away. It’s so important that mothers suffering from postpartum psychosis like I did can be with their babies. I’m convinced it would have helped my recovery and bonding with my baby. But right then, I knew that I had to focus on getting better and getting home.
When I returned to my family a month later, social services were allocated to us and I wasn’t allowed to be alone with my children due to my illness. It took around a year for me to recover properly and thankfully, I remained on medication until advised to stop, which took over two years.
Recovery varies for many women and it’s more of a process than an event. My family has moved forward from the experience; we are healthy and happy. We have not allowed my experience of postpartum psychosis to define the rest of our lives.
This week (26 September – 3 October) is Black Maternal Mental Health week and from a cultural level I do wonder if I would have received treatment quicker if I wasn’t a Black woman. I feel there is a general distrust in institutions like the NHS from members of the Black community and generally a paranoia about institutions based on events of the past.
I believe more training is needed within organisations like the NHS and a representation of diverse races and cultures is needed within some locations when it comes to maternity services. For instance, we need more Black midwives and a better standard of ‘aftercare’ for Black mothers, especially in assessing the mental health of women after giving birth, which might lead to better understanding about what is and isn’t normal.
It was a scary time and I sometimes look back on it as if I’m watching a film of my life. I wonder how much my children picked up on my illness. My eldest daughter, who’s eight, still always asks me, ‘Where are you going? Will you come back?’ when I leave the house, so clearly there has been some impact.
Thankfully though, there seem to be no effects or impact on my youngest daughter. I’ve processed the guilt, not only around her but also the fact I left the burden of childcare and placed so much worry on my husband. We are fine though.
Being able to reflect and accept what has happened and realise it’s not your fault is just as important as the physiological recovery. I just hope more women – and those around them – will ask for help when they realise things are wrong. The stigma about Black maternal mental health needs to stop.”
For more information about postpartum psychosis and for peer support visit Action on Postpartum Psychosis.