Postpartum psychosis: 'I was scared I might harm my baby girl'

One mother shares how her life spiralled out of control and how she eventually found happiness again.

Grace* 52, is an interior designer. She lives in South London with her husband Matt*, also 52, a civil servant and their daughter Scarlett*, now 10. Here she shares her experience of postpartum psychosis and her journey to recovery, in the hope it will help other mothers.

Postpartum psychosis affects around one in 500 mothers after birth. Mother holding baby looking upset. (Getty Images)
Postpartum psychosis affects around one in 500 mothers after birth. Posed by model. (Getty Images)

Sitting alone at home with my seven-month-old daughter Scarlett* in her cot, I lifted the phone and rang a number I’d never called before. It was a mental health helpline, given to me by a psychiatrist days earlier.

A social worker called Katy* picked it up. "I want to kill myself," I told her. "I’m scared that I’m going to hurt my baby. I’ve been trying to get help but no one will listen to me and I think it’s probably best that we aren’t here anymore."

Katy’s voice was calm and reassuring. "It’s going to be alright," she said. "I’m going to help you." The very next morning she turned up at my house and told me she suspected that I was suffering from postpartum psychosis – a mental health condition that affects around one in 500 new mothers. It is not postnatal depression. It's far more serious and can lead to extreme confusion, suicidal thoughts, paranoia and hallucinations. She was going to get me some medication and help and she told me everything was going to be ok.

Delighted to be pregnant

It was the first moment since I'd given birth that I felt I was going to be alright. I really don’t like to think what I would have done if she hadn’t turned up that day.

I’d never had even a hint of mental health problems before having my daughter. When I met Matt in my late thirties and married him at 40 we knew that time was against us when it came to starting a family. But I got pregnant straight away at 41 and we were delighted.

Pregnant woman's bump. (Getty Images)
Grace* had a vision of how motherhood would be, but nothing went to plan. (Getty Images)

Like so many women, I had this 'perfect' idea of what pregnancy and new motherhood would be like – lots of yoga and coffee mornings, taking the baby out in the pram to meet friends. But of course, it rarely turns out as you imagine.

I was incredibly stressed as we were told we had a high chance that our baby would have health issues. A blood test when I was four months pregnant seemed to rule it out, but it terrified me and I thought something would go wrong.

I had this perfect idea of what pregnancy and new motherhood would be like – yoga and coffee mornings – but it rarely turns out as you imagine

Both Matt and I liked to keep fit and before my pregnancy I loved working out, eating healthily and staying slim. But once pregnant, I couldn’t stop eating and I put on around five stone.

On top of that, we were renovating our home and living in a small part of the house. We had a kitchen without a roof and cooked in it as the snow fell. It wasn't the most relaxing time and I wonder now if this stress contributed to what happened later.

A difficult birth

The birth wasn’t what I'd planned either. I ended up needing an emergency C-section after my baby became distressed. With every moment, I felt as if I was losing all control of what was happening to me. I remember laying on the operating table as two male doctors talked over me and I was saying: "My name is Grace and I am here and I can hear what you’re saying and it would be nice if you could tell me what’s going on."

I ended up having an emergency C-section after my baby became distressed. I felt as if I was losing control

Thankfully Scarlett was born a healthy 7lbs 6oz. During the birth I'd been terrified I was going to die. Matt says there was no reason for me to think that way, that the operation went smoothly, but my mind said otherwise. When Scarlett emerged, she was crying out and the doctors asked if I wanted to hold her and I said no – perhaps the first sign that all was not well.

It suddenly dawned on me that while I knew I was pregnant and knew I was going to be a mother, I hadn’t thought beyond the birth. Now, here was this baby girl who I should love with all my heart and yet I felt nothing but shock and fear.

Mother holding baby looking sad. Posed by model. (Getty Images)
Grace's baby had silent reflux, leading her to cry through the night. Posed by model. (Getty Images)

Spiralling out of control

I was moved to a private room and Matt had to leave the hospital but I felt nothing for this little baby lying next to me. I can’t even remember much about the hours following the birth but there is a photograph of me at home a day later where I’m holding Scarlett and smiling, surrounded by cards and flowers. Everything appears fine and I look happy. Yet inside I felt numb.

Three days later, I was back in hospital with dangerously high blood pressure. I had visited the GP, telling him that I was having suicidal thoughts. He took my blood pressure and I was at risk of having a stroke if I wasn’t hospitalised. Everything seemed to be going wrong.

I discharged myself after 10 days as I thought being home would make me feel better, but without the support of the nurses the suicidal thoughts remained.

There's a photograph of me holding my baby girl, smiling, surrounded by cards and flowers. I look happy, yet inside I felt numb

Things went from bad to worse. Scarlett had silent reflux – a condition that meant she was crying throughout the night, unable to feed or vomiting when she did feed. Matt did what he could to help, often sleeping on the floor next to her to feed her in the night but we were both sleep-deprived and it was incredibly distressing.

I felt so judged as a bad mother. I was once walking around a park trying to get her to sleep with a black cloth over the pram and white noise being played on my phone and two women asked why I was being so cruel. I could have burst into tears.

When she was five months old, one consultant asked me how I was doing because he said that when he met mothers of children with this condition they were usually close to breaking point. I lied and said I was fine. But I knew I wasn’t.

Postpartum psychosis sets in

But two months later, postnatal psychosis really took hold. I started to feel that the words coming out of my mouth weren’t making sense. I was frightening people by what I was actually saying – things like I really regretted having a baby. I was so confused and didn’t know why I was finding it all so hard. I didn’t want to live like that and was terrified by the suicidal thoughts I kept having.

On one occasion when my parents visited I told them that if they didn’t leave me alone, I would kill my daughter. In my heart I knew I wouldn’t ever harm my baby – or myself – but at the same time I was terrified in case I might. I now know these are called 'intrusive thoughts' and don't mean a mother actually wants to harm her child or herself.

Mother holding baby looking distressed. Posed by model. (Getty Images)
Grace* became so unwell with postpartum psychosis she started to have frightening thoughts. (Getty Images)

Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to see my GP who referred me to a psychiatric nurse. I tried to explain that although I looked ok, I really wasn’t. But I felt I had no support at all. My parents were elderly, I didn’t have any other family nearby and although Matt is a fantastic father, I somehow resented him for not being able to make me feel better.

Fears for my baby

My anxiety and stress grew daily. I imagined something horrible happening to Scarlett even in the most bizarre scenarios. One day I even worried about what would happen if a fox came into the garden and tried to eat her. It felt like I was starring in the middle of an awful black drama where I’d been given a baby I didn’t even want. But I felt it was all my fault.

The catalyst came one day when Scarlett was about seven months old and Matt and I had decided to go away with her to an AirB&B place for a couple of days. I was terrified that the cars on the motorway were coming directly at us. I kept yelling that they were going to hit us. Matt was really worried. I rang my best friend who is a GP and she said that I was having a mental health crisis and needed help.

Postnatal psychosis took hold – I started to feel the words coming out of my mouth didn't make sense

Reaching crisis point

It wasn’t long after that that I made that life-changing phone call to Katy, the social worker who turned up on my doorstep. She arranged for me to have anti-psychotic medication, which helped alleviate those dark thoughts almost immediately and she would come to see me once a week to check up on me.

I bumped into her again early this year in a shop and told her that she’d saved my life. She burst into tears. But I meant it. I feel extremely grateful that she came into my life that day because I don’t like to think what might have happened otherwise.

It took four years for me to feel ‘back to normal’ again, exacerbated by the fact I returned to my highly stressful job two years later. I took medication for three of those years.

I bumped into my social worker again recently in a shop. I told her that she’d saved my life and she burst into tears

To my dismay, after returning to my well-paid job in advertising, I found that my role had been removed from the organisation and there was a lot of animosity following my lengthy ‘break’.

I was sacked 15 months later. I put up a fight and came away with a substantial payment. But it was another knock to my confidence and probably the reason why I took so long to get better.

Rebuilding my life

Scarlett is now 10 and I’ve adjusted to my new life as a mother. I feel sad that I didn’t enjoy those first few years of her life but I accept that it wasn't my fault. I was ill and I was the best mother I could be at the time.

Mother and daughter walking in park (Getty Images)
A decade on, Grace* is happy and well with a career she loves. Posed by models. (Getty Images)

I’m in a much happier place now and I feel fundamentally changed by what happened. I'm much more relaxed about life, and it’s made me more empathetic and less career-focused. It helps that I left advertising and am now doing a job that I love.

But it worries me that if I hadn’t kept fighting for someone to listen to me and sought help so often, things might be very different. I want to share my story to show other women what to look out for and to always keep asking for help.

For support, contact the charity Action on Postpartum Psychosis.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.