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'After our first son was born, I experienced mania that turned into postpartum psychosis.'

My name is Mel. I am a wife, a mother, a critical care nurse, and a lived experience representative. In 2011, I experienced  a severe and lengthy psychotic episode, known as postpartum psychosis after our first son was born. There was no history of mental illness in our family. The symptoms developed over a two-week period, came completely out of the blue and hit our family very suddenly.

The day our son was born, it began with feeling excited, like the night before Christmas. A happiness that grew and grew inside me until it evolved into a euphoric state of mania. This quickly developed into a dangerous psychosis.

After giving birth, I was very excited and chatty. I remember clearly that food had intensified flavour. The world had a weird clarity and I felt I could remember everything I’d ever learnt. This was followed by a passion and energy for cleaning that I had never enjoyed before.

I didn’t feel tired and spent the nights cleaning, writing, sorting, making lists, gardening by moonlight, and feeding the baby. I had boundless energy and enthusiasm despite barely sleeping. I also had fascinating ideas that required lots of thought and experimentation.

The theories hatching in my head were enthralling. I was obsessed with them and was sure if I could just round them up and write them down into sensible sentences, I could publish a book that would change the world. I wrote feverishly. Too busy. Too much to think about. Too excited to sleep. Not tired anyway.

postpartum psychosis symptoms
Mel with her two children.

When the mania tipped over to psychotic behaviour, I was still at home. I had carefully hidden the mania through lies and deceit. The day I was admitted to hospital, the mania took off like a kite in a tornado and I lost control as the strings of rational behaviour broke.

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I made wild accusations. Strange sentences erupted out of me at a horrifying pace. I told graphic and inappropriate stories. I threw myself around the house like a basketball, causing injury to myself and the walls. I begged my husband to understand, but there was no logic left. I was in my body but I had no control over its strange antics.

My husband sat astride me on the kitchen floor where I had crash landed while he rang the hospital to ask what to do. I was thrashing and screaming at him while trying to tear his clothes.

My mind was whirling out of control while on the world's highest swing. Swinging from dangerous insanity then briefly back to reality. I grabbed at reality but each time the swing pulled me back toward that awful place where nothing made sense and the things that came out of my mouth did not belong to me. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and exhausting all at the same time.

It has been important to understand that nothing I did caused my puerperal psychosis. There was nothing I could have done differently that would have changed the evolution of events. I have no shame or guilt. I was just unlucky.

I had never heard of postnatal psychosis either, there had been such a focus on postnatal depression in my antenatal classes. Psychosis was never mentioned and is either not, or barely, touched on in the baby and pregnancy books that I had on my shelf.

When I was finally admitted to a psychiatric hospital and sedated, it was such a huge relief. I had slept for less than 20 hours in over two weeks. My brain was yo-yoing out of control.

postpartum psychosis symptoms
Looking at her brush with mental illness, Mel has this to say about her experience: "I had misunderstood so much."
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As a registered nurse I grappled with what this all meant. I had seen this type of behaviour before. I had been frustrated by it before. I had misunderstood so much. I had some insight into mental illness.

Despite how unwell I was, I felt ashamed. I felt a responsibility to try and gain control. I was appalled to be detained under the Mental Health Act. I couldn’t believe this could be happening to me. It took an eternity to give in and let the professionals treat me and stop trying in vain to sort myself out. The most important thing that i thought was that I had to tell people what this was like.

Even in the depths of psychosis I had moments of clarity where I just wanted to help people understand what this terrible illness was really like. I work in a profession that sees first hand the devastating effects of not only poorly managed mental illness, but also of poorly understood mental health conditions and the very invasive and enduring influence of stigma.

I work in a large workplace where roughly 100 people will pass through the tea room each day. I decided to begin fundraising by making yo-yo biscuits (melting moments) for a gold coin. Not only are these a firm family tradition, well loved and delicious, they were significant to me as I felt that when I was unwell with psychosis my brain yo-yo’d out of control. I could be one minute chatting cheerfully about my day feeling rational and in control, the next I was compelled to do something completely out of character and even dangerous.

Out of these thoughts I started ‘baking for beyondblue’ in an effort to promote conversation around mental health and I tried to be transparent about my own very frightening experience of mental illness. Fundraising for beyondblue has created lots of new and different conversations with friends, colleagues, and even strangers, allowing me to be open about what I went through and why organisations like beyondblue are so important. I hope in some small way I can be a representative for those that can’t speak. Those who cannot articulate what it feels like.

People have said, "But you are so normal and level-headed". Exactly! I want people to know mental illness can happen to anyone and that it is possible to recover and lead a meaningful life. I find the stigma surrounding mental illness so harmful. I won’t let it quiet me or make me ashamed. If I can help just one person understand the horrifying state of psychosis, then my job is done.

Postnatal depression is another highly stigmatised mental illness that affects women. These are the facts:

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The psychosis raged during the first few weeks in the psychiatric hospital. I spent three days in the intensive care unit before transferring to the mother and baby unit. I reluctantly resigned myself to medication after the fighting became tiresome and the security staff familiar.

My behaviour was dangerous. My baby was given back to me but I was watched continuously for both our safety. In many ways, my son somehow anchored me to life. When nothing was left of me, I clung to him. The nurses were amazing at advocating for mothers so that we were kept together. I am so grateful I was so well cared for and supported back to wellness.

The drugs thrashed away at the mania, chewing off portions of my happiness piece by piece until there was nothing left but a few crumbs on the floor. I crawled around frantically trying to piece it back together, but could only find fragments of myself there. The more the drugs battled, the further I withdrew and seemed to disintegrate.

Not only was any shred of happiness gone, but as the days turned into weeks, I felt 'myself' had been destroyed. The empty shell that remained was numb and lifeless. Emotionally paralysed and sedated by medication, any ability to try was long gone. I mechanically attended the mandatory day's activities hoping myself could be found in the debris.

I barely spoke. I distrusted myself and what might come out of my mouth. When I had to speak, it was slowly and carefully. Stunted. I compulsively told the truth. If I couldn't, I didn't say anything. Was it possible that I had once been a respected nurse? I was certain I would never again be able to work in critical care, or anywhere for that matter. I was a patient now. Worse. I was a psychiatric patient.

I read into everything. I manipulated words. Things that people said were twisted in my brain and misconstrued. I lost trust. I heard undercover detectives listening in on phone calls. Poisonous thoughts boiled dangerously in my head. Everything I heard, saw, or read had at least two meanings. Profound messages fed the crippling paranoia and anxiety. Being psychotic was a rollercoaster ride through the darkest places I never wanted to visit.

I was in the mother and baby unit for eight weeks. Five of those weeks I was held under the Mental Health Act. We needed help at home for another six months.

I spent an entire year feeling numb, empty and devastatingly lost following the psychosis. One of the things I almost forced myself to do during that year was to sew. I needed a creative outlet and I enjoyed working with bright colours of fabric. From five minutes every few days, I worked up to a few hours a week and found that sewing helped draw me out of that numb, empty place.

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I decided this year to sew a quilt to help with the fundraising for beyondblue. My mum had given me some beautiful indigenous fabric and I used it to make a quilt, giving away a ticket for each $10 donated. When I reached my target of $2500 I drew a name out of a hat. This helped me be bold in asking for donations and it gave me great pleasure to hand over the quilt to its new home where hopefully it will continue to raise awareness of mental health.

Each time I talk about what happened I feel like one more wall is crushed in the battle against the crippling stigma that surrounds mental health. Mental illness is complex and extremely diverse. The time to be ashamed or silenced has passed. Mental illness must be talked about. Events like Coastrek provide a powerful launching pad to open up about lived experience and not only raise money, but also raise awareness.

The growing evidence surrounding exercise and positive mental health is hard to deny. I’m still not exactly sure if I can walk 30km in one go, but I sure have enjoyed the training, the conversations about mental health, and the fundraising and I will stay optimistic and passionate until I can’t take another step - on the walk but also in my efforts to raise awareness and understanding.

For us, life goes on. It has taken a really long time to fully comprehend this strange illness and the impact it has had, and continues to have, on our lives. It took well over 12 months till I felt 'myself' coming back together. My illness will need a lifetime of management. I am OK with this. I am often overwhelmingly tired. I think all mothers can relate to this. But sometimes mine is a sad tiredness of dreams shattered, months half lived, and a blissful happiness that really never existed.

I remind myself regularly to climb from that strange place that haunts me and simply live each day. To find things that inspire me, to follow my dreams, and to talk openly about my experiences. I make a point of asking my friends how they really are, and try to focus forwards, on a future that is mine to write.

Coastrek takes place annually in Sydney, Melbourne, Sunshine Coast and Adelaide. Teams of four trekkers, (at least 50 per cent female), hike either 30 or 60 kilometres along the beautiful beaches, bays and clifftops to raise money for charity and join in a life-changing adventure. The event is one of Australia’s most popular adventure challenges because it’s stunningly spectacular and it’s not a race. Since its launch in 2009, Coastrek has seen more than 25,000 trekkers take the challenge and raise more than $20 million for charity.

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