Living as a Mom With Bipolar Disorder

How I survived a psychotic break after delivery and what I'd like other women to know

Ten years ago, shortly after giving birth to my first son, I was diagnosed with a mental illness. It was a shock to me, but after a difficult labor and a 10-day period of little to no sleep, I began to experience what psychiatrists call mania. I spoke incessantly and told everyone who came to visit the baby a gory and detailed account of what had happened during my delivery. I had a tremendous amount of energy that I couldn't contain, and I was also so enthralled by my son that I stared constantly into his eyes, thinking I could see his soul.

At first, everyone (myself included) assumed I was elated over having a new baby. But as the days wore on, it became clear that I was in a psychotic state. From thinking that I had made a fabulous, patent-worthy invention for hands-free breastfeeding to believing that I was going to be the editor in chief of a parenting magazine, I thought I was unstoppable. I can remember watching Regis and Kelly and thinking that they were speaking directly to me.

At no time did I put myself or my baby in danger, but I was living in a deluded state that made it impossible for me to care for myself, let alone my baby. I was hospitalized and prescribed heavily sedating medication to stop my psychosis.

After a week in the hospital, I was stabilized on lithium. My son and I were reunited when I returned home, but I still felt like I needed constant company from someone in my family. Although lithium was effective in getting me back to "normal," and enabling me to care for my baby, it left me flat and without any range of emotion. I felt like a shell of my former self. I was also unsure of myself as a mother. I felt like I didn't have a bond with my son, and I had little confidence about taking care of him on my own. Fortunately, I have a supportive and understanding husband and family who helped me through one of the hardest times of my life.

Nearly three years into my diagnosis, I was hospitalized a second time so my doctors could finally find the right combination of medications to treat my bipolar disorder effectively and allow me to completely return to myself. Through medications and talk therapy, I became a confident, competent, loving and engaged mother and developed a strong bond with my son.

Trying for a second baby
Once I was stable for an additional two years, my husband and I decided to have another baby with the assistance of fertility experts and mental health professionals. I was slowly taken off any medications that could be harmful to a developing fetus and was kept on a low dose of medication to treat my bipolar disorder without presenting a risk to a developing baby.

I got pregnant but had a miscarriage and an ensuing bipolar episode. The low dose of medication that I was on was insufficient to buffer me from relapsing, and I ultimately ended up back in the psychiatric ward for more than three weeks. 

It took another six months for me to fully recover and heal emotionally from my third hospitalization. Luckily, the same cocktail of medications that I was previously prescribed got me back on track to where I was before I tried to have a second child on my own.

When I did, my husband and I decided that surrogacy was the best option for us. It was clear I had to prioritize my health and could not run the risk of being hospitalized again. I was fortunate to find a surrogate who carried our biological baby, and I had a wonderful journey that brought me a second son who is now a beautiful, healthy 3-year-old. While being a mother of two boys has its challenges, I am able to face them with confidence and raise my boys to be the best they can be as a healthy and present mother.

What I want to share with other women
My pregnancy was normal and without incident. I thought I had done everything right.  I took prenatal vitamins. I went to every doctor's appointment. I ate well, exercised, and read countless books about perinatal and newborn care. I loved being pregnant and had that so-called glow about me. But that does not mean I wasn't at risk. Looking back, I wish that I had been screened more carefully during and after pregnancy. 

There is a strong history of bipolar disorder in my family, and I lost a close family member to suicide because he was not properly treated for it. Given my family history, it would have been reasonable to think that the stress of labor, the surge of hormones, and the lack of sleep from having a newborn could bring on a mental health disorder.

Research shows that having a family history of mood, anxiety, or other disorders puts you at greater risk for a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder. I should have been told that. I should have been educated about what to watch for and what to do at the first sign of trouble.

But, like many pregnant women, my focus before and after birth was on the baby. And nobody asked about my family’s mental health history during my pregnancy. Little attention was paid to my state of mind as I lay, weeping and exhausted, on a hospital bed after having a traumatic birth. My son was delivered and rushed to the NICU, and I was left alone.

When I later took my son to his first checkup, the doctor did not ask about my mental state, even though I was anxious, hyper, and wide-eyed – already on my way to a full-blown psychotic break.

I don't blame the health professionals who were involved. But I am gratified to hear about the new recommendation that all pregnant and postpartum women be screened for depression (which could also identify other disorders) because I believe strongly that much more attention needs to be paid to a mother's needs before and after giving birth.

Perhaps if I had been screened and knew that I was at risk for bipolar disorder, I would have taken better care of myself postpartum. I would not have tried to pump and breastfeed all night, and I would have had my husband wake up with my son throughout the night so I could get enough sleep.

And when I began showing clear signs of bipolar disorder, I could have gotten the help I needed more quickly. That could have saved me from having to be separated from my son and hospitalized. It could have made my transition to motherhood so much easier.

I know my story is frightening, but I want to share it so other women can have an easier time than I did. I want them, their families, and their health care providers to be on the lookout for any kind of mental health disorder before, during or after pregnancy, especially if there is a family history of mental health issues.

I also want women to know that even with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, you can be a completely functioning mother and wife with proper treatment and self-care. I live by the motto, "healthy mommy, happy family." This means that I take my medication daily and go to therapy biweekly. I am disciplined about my sleep, and I exercise to relieve stress.

That is the success story I want people to know. I want women to know that I live with bipolar disorder, but that it does not define me. Rather, I am an intelligent, strong, competent, loving, and devoted mother and wife. I strive to make an impact on the world through my dedication to community service and now by sharing my story, which I hope will spare other women even a fraction of the struggles I faced.