[Trigger warning: This essay covers one mother's experience with postpartum psychosis.]
We all remember those first few months after our baby is born—the fourth trimester— where a flurry of wondrous firsts happen, like their first smile, first laugh, first blowout diaper, first time you fell asleep while breastfeeding and awoke with a gasp to check that everything was okay.
Those months are splendid, exhausting, momentous.
I remember watching my partner rock our baby in the wee hours of the morning, both of us half-asleep, catching micro-naps as we'd attempt to calm our tiny babe. Staring at him—at my love—bleary-eyed while he cradled a small version of us, I often found myself getting lost in a deep, intense feeling of love.
It was as if the heavens had fallen into our bedroom and I was suspended among the stars, with the most beautiful star of all right there in my partner's arms. Motherhood is joy and heartache existing simultaneously—and I have felt it all.
What I don't really remember feeling is a creeping sense of dread as I stared at my husband, on a day which, until 10 am, felt like I was finally settling into my new normal. There was nothing frightening in his gait or profile when I woke up that day—he was simply himself, the man I knew and loved.
He frustrates me occasionally but I love him fiercely. On this day in particular, he made me a coffee while I breastfed the baby. He made our 5-year-old breakfast and afterward, he sat eating his cereal in his pajamas, staring fuzzy-eyed into his phone as he mindlessly browsed Reddit. It should have all looked normal, felt normal.
But it didn't.
Then, little things started to become strange. Words and lyrics began repeating in my mind, soft at first, and then loudly. Colors seemed more vivid—as if the world was bursting and swelling with new light—and photos seemed to be shifting. Bulging, I thought. I was tired, though. So, so tired. Bone tired. I tried to normalize my changing vision—tired, stressed, hungry, I told myself. Nothing to worry about.
Then, suddenly, the panic set in. Deep panic. Anxiety lurking beneath the surface and pulsating saying to me, something is wrong. Something is wrong. Something is WRONG.
I called my mom. I told her I didn't feel right—that I felt trapped in a panic attack that wouldn't subside. My brain was glitching, tripping over words. Colors didn't look right. My husband, Matt, didn't look right. He had changed.
My mom came over. I didn't want to let her inside at first—I had visions, over and over, of hiding under the table and barricading the door. My world was splintering, coming apart at the seams. I was terrified and wanted to stop all of it.
By late afternoon, my husband had gone. Completely. In his place, a stranger stood—a stranger who looked and behaved just like my husband, only he wasn't. He was an exact copy, I reasoned. I knew this because when I Iooked at his face, something was off. It unnerved me, it made me feel frightened.
Every movement he made looked disjointed and overly pronounced. I had lost him, and I was devastated. And confused. He made silly jokes, tried to make me laugh—he danced around and his long, gangly limbs were so unknown to me I wanted to scream. Nothing made sense.
This was not my husband. Reeling, I tried to piece my world back together. I tried to fight off the persistent thoughts and the words that repeated internally. The noise felt as if a record was playing in my head, skipping every few seconds.
As tightly as I attempted to cling to reality, it slipped through my fingers like sand. After my husband, I lost my mom. Then my sister. And finally, my daughter—my beautiful 5-year-old was gone. Who were these copies? What were their intentions? I held onto my baby boy for dear life—the only one who hadn't left me.
What I was experiencing, as I eventually realized, was postpartum psychosis.
Postpartum psychosis is rare, and this was my second go at it, having first experienced psychosis after the birth of my daughter. Capgras Syndrome is also rare too, which is when sufferers are struck with the conviction that their loved ones (or pets, even) have been replaced with identical copies—doppelgängers. My previous bout of psychosis never presented this way.
I saw my psychiatrist that very afternoon, an emergency appointment. She looked immensely worried and I remember thinking that she never worried lightly. She told me if I had private health insurance she would admit me to hospital right away, but because I didn't, that she wanted me on meds right away and that a CAT (Crisis and Assessment) team would visit me daily at home.
That night, I took a shower and I wept. I felt as if my whole family, save for my baby boy, had been stolen. Earlier in the evening I was concerned that if they had any time with my baby they would have switched him for a doppelgänger also. As time wore on, I began to trust that these imposters were benevolent. They held him while I showered, they rocked him when he cried. They wouldn't hurt my baby. But of course they wouldn't, said the psychosis. They want to stay in this world.
When I laid next to my husband that night, I cried for hours. I missed him so desperately. I didn't know where the "real" Matt was. A few days later, I told him "It's like you've all gone missing, and I need to find you." He looked at me gently and said, "You're the one who's missing. And I promise, we will bring you back."
Six months, three different medications and 22 pounds gained (as a side effect) later —and I have arrived back home. My husband is no longer a stranger—my family has returned. Or, as Matt would say, I've found my way back... mostly. It hasn't been easy, by any means—I have my good and bad days.
This has tested our relationship and my own personal strength more than I ever could have imagined. There were times I teetered on the edge, times the postpartum psychosis wanted to drag me under, and I somehow managed to pull back because I had hope—hope that the real world was still waiting for me. It was, and I am here. I was lost but I found my way back—and we are okay. We survived.
Next step: thrive. Starting with one hour at a time.
If you look closely, there are small pockets of joy scattered throughout our days—it might be that first sip of hot coffee or the toothy grin your baby gives you during a game of peekaboo. I search for those moments and I take joy where I can find it.
I practice mindfulness. I keep up with my medication. I find things to be grateful for, every day. I look at my family and I delight in their familiarity and warmth. I remind myself, nothing worth having is ever easy—and my children, my family, are worth any hardship.
I'm not alone. And mama, if you're going through this too—please know you are not alone either. I hear you, I am with you, and together we will thrive. Hold on.