Puerperal Psychosis

November 5, 2013

As soon as she had her second child, Sharon Gaffney was ready for the next one. She didn’t know what horror she was about to experience.

After the birth of my daughter, Faye I was elated. I’d struggled with my first child, Chloe, who never slept at night. But from day dot Faye was a very good baby. I was in great form, thinking how great life was. I even said to my husband John, ‘we will definitely have another one’. I was just so happy all of the time.

I had so much energy, was always on the go. The house was spotless, the girls were done up to the nines. I was constantly inviting my friends around for lunch. People wondered how I was coping so well so soon after having a baby.

That lasted about a month. Then the elation turned manic. I wasn’t sleeping. I’d get maybe one or two hours a night, then I’d get up and clean the house. John was a little concerned, but he figured if something was wrong I wouldn’t be in such a good mood. Then Faye got Bronchiolitis and I was terrified that something was going to happen to her. I was constantly looking at her in the cot, my mind racing.

The day before we were supposed to go on our holidays. I was in flying form, telling friends how close to God I was, that I couldn’t wait to go to mass. They were laughing at me, as I wasn’t religious before this. I even tried to call the priest as I felt he would understand how I felt.

We were on our way to my Uncle’s in Kerry when I had my first episode. I started sending John, who was driving, text messages, telling him they were from God. The local elections were on and I thought the men in the posters were all evil. Their faces would become distorted. Every time I’d pass one I’d scream. I felt if I roared at them I’d get rid of them. Then I’d be delighted with myself.

John realised something was wrong. He pulled in at a hotel in Ballyvourney and told me to take Chloe to the bathroom. While he was ringing my brother to tell him something was up, I was getting Chloe to approach strangers, to tell them God wanted them to watch Oprah. I’d seen the show the day before and it was all about spirituality, so it was on my mind.

When John took me to the Doctor’s I didn’t want to go in. He literally had to carry the girls and me in the door. When the Doctor went to help him by taking Faye, I freaked. I thought the devil was taking my child. We didn’t even make it as far as the surgery before I attacked him.

I grabbed him by the hair and pulled him down to the ground. The nurse, John and the Dr tried to hold me down to sedate me. The guards had to be called to restrain me. I had super strength. I kept staring into people’s eyes to see if I could see the Devil.

The baby was crying. They wouldn’t let me near her. Eventually they let me cuddle her. But she needed to be fed. I’d been told I couldn’t breast feed her (because of the sedative) but I was so confused. And when I tried, they ripped her from my arms. I was devastated. Why wouldn’t they let me feed my child?

When I woke up the next day in the psych ward in the Mercy Hospital I felt like my whole life had fallen apart. I was such a happy person and now I thought I was in a mental institution. I thought my children had been taken off me forever. A nurse came in and told me I had puerperal psychosis. I’d never heard of it. But it made me feel better. It was postnatal. It wasn’t permanent.

They had given me medication to bring me down off the high but the hallucinations were gone and I was back to myself. I stayed in the psych ward for two and a half weeks and I was still a little high when I was released.

But I came down to earth with a bang. The hospital had warned me but I didn’t expect it to be so bad. I was severely depressed for about two months. I had no mind for anything, not even the kids. I couldn’t get out of bed, I wasn’t eating, wasn’t sleeping. I was back to the hospital every couple of days so they could check my medication

They couldn’t give me an anti-depressant because they were afraid it would make me high again. But I begged them and eventually they put me on a low dose. As the weeks went on I stopped waking up thinking about what happened and slowly but surely got back to normal.

I had my second episode six months later, on Valentines Day 2010. John had recognised the signs and taken the kids to my parents. The Doctors hadn’t warned me I could relapse. They didn’t seem to know much about it to be honest and they don’t seem to want to learn.

After my first episode I was so depressed, I went on the computer, desperate to speak to somebody in the same boat as me. I discovered Post Natal Depression Ireland, a support group that meet every last Tuesday of the month. The hospital I attended for months never told me about it and when I mentioned it to them as a way to help others they didn’t seem that interested. It was the best thing I ever did. It made me feel normal, like there were other people like me.

I’ve been told now that there is a high risk of it happening again, which means I can’t have any more children. I don’t know if I can ever see myself going back to work. My concentration is gone. I’ve very poor focus and I’m very scatty when I used to be so well organized.

I’ve cut my dosage of Lithium down from 800milligrams to 400 and am working to wean myself off it altogether.

While it’s important to note that what happened to me is very rare, people should be aware of it. It can happen to anyone.

Puerperal Psychosis: The Facts

It affects 1 in 500 women every year. It comes on after giving birth, usually straight after delivery but it can come on anytime up to ten weeks later.

It’s brought on by a chemical imbalance in the body after childbirth.

A severe change in character is the primary symptom. Women get very high and then have a corresponding low, suffer from a lack of sleep, disjointed speech and can be irritable, obnoxious and aggressive.

99% of women who get psychosis end up in hospital for up to six weeks.
According to Madge Fogarty, Co-ordinator of Post Natal Depression Ireland (PND), no counseling is offered.

PND run a help line, Monday to Friday, 10am-2pm, as well as an after hours number for emergency cases.

Postnatal Depression Irl 021 4922083

In conversation with Caomhan Keane


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