Four months after giving birth to her second child, Heather Coleman suffered a harrowing postpartum psychotic break.
At 32, Heather had what many women strive for: great health, a loving husband, two beautiful children, and a satisfying career as a government contractor in marketing and communications. So if you’d told Heather then that, four months after giving birth to her second child, she’d be running naked down a freeway shoulder in rush-hour traffic, she’d have said you were out of your mind.
After the birth of my first child, Darius, in 2006, Heather went through the baby blues. They were mild; once, for example, she became overly upset after accidentally spilling apple juice on her laptop. Other times, she got strangely emotional, breaking into tears when close friends or family came to visit. But the blues only lasted a couple of months and went away. Everything seemed perfectly fine after that. Two years later, her husband and her self-welcomed their daughter, Lily, and were again overjoyed.
But within weeks of her birth, she started to feel differently than she had the first time around. There were various triggers at play, but the biggest, Heather think, was going back to work eight weeks after her daughter was born. Eight weeks didn’t feel like enough time at home, but she’s the breadwinner, and her financial situation was such that she couldn’t take additional time away.
Within weeks of giving birth, Heather started to feel differently than she had the first time around.
When she got back, immediately she was under a lot of stress: she had a difficult relationship with her boss and a commute of almost two hours each way between her home in King George, Virginia, and her office in Rockville, Maryland. Her morning routine included feeding and dressing the children (with my husband’s help), and then dropping them off at my mother-in-law’s on her way to work. Evenings were spent getting dinner on the table and bathing the children in preparation for the next day.
Oddly, in the days leading up to my breakdown, her husband noticed that she seemed more energetic, despite the fact that she was getting very little sleep. (She usually needed 12 or 13 hours, if she could grab it.) The truth was that it was becoming harder and harder for her to organize her thoughts. She scribbled notes and to-do lists and left them everywhere.
Heather’s increasing stress levels started to show in other ways, too. In the mornings she’d compulsively worry that she’d accidentally leave the baby in the car. Every few minutes she’d spin around in the driver’s seat, checking and rechecking that she never forgot her daughter.
Reaching a Breaking Point
Then, one Friday morning four months after her daughter’s birth, her world fell apart.
Heather had gotten up early that day to attend the funeral Mass of a co-worker’s mother before heading in to work. Despite being agnostic, she was feeling uncharacteristically compelled to attend that service, like she had to go. In the shower that morning, she dropped to her knees, crying, overcome with emotion. It was like she was having some kind of religious epiphany.
Back at work that afternoon, Heather was bursting with ideas, feeling more energetic than she had in a while. At around 4, she left work to try to beat the traffic home. As soon as she hit the Washington, DC, beltway, she was overcome with a feeling she’d never experienced before.
Experiencing a psychotic break feels a little bit like being on a roller coaster, blindfolded. Wildly bizarre thoughts began racing through her mind. Her heart felt like it would beat out of her chest.
It unfolded like this: First, Heather dialed her husband, who was on his way home from work, to ask him, totally randomly, about the sci-fi movie The Matrix. She was babbling about random topics, not making sense.
Then, out of nowhere, Heather accused him of wanting to hurt their children — something he would never, ever do. Looking back now, she think she was projecting her own fears about herself, trying to warn him that she was feeling like she might actually hurt their children. Whatever the comments meant, wherever they came from (she still doesn’t know), her husband grew confused and really upset. He knew something was drastically wrong.
Without warning, she hung up on him, dialed 911, told the operator that her husband was going to hurt their children, breathlessly gave her the address of the home of her mother-in-law, where the kids were, and hung up. Then she swerved her car into the breakdown lane and pressed on the gas. When she saw a car behind her, she was convinced it was government agents, trying to track her down.
Heather pulled over, stepped out of the car, and yanked off all her clothing.
At some point Heather deviated from her normal driving route, taking a path leading away from her home. By now Heather was completely delusional, spinning. She imagined the world was about to end in the apocalypse and that she had to save it. Her next thoughts were: she need to get baptized, she needs to find water. As the timing would have it, she was approaching a bridge over the Potomac River.
So Heather pulled over, stepped out of the car, and yanked off all her clothing.
From that moment on, Heather memory is blank. She was told that as she made for the shoulder, passersby stopped their cars and ran her down. Three years after Heather’s breakdown, she got the recordings of the 911 calls placed by those good Samaritans, hoping to piece together what happened. You can hear frantic people shouting for help for “a naked woman running along the highway.” In one, she could hear herself screaming at someone to throw her in the water. “Kill me!” Heather screamed, over and over. “Kill me now!” Listening to the tapes for the first time was scary. She wept, thinking about what could have happened to her.
Ambulances arrived, and she was taken to the emergency room of a hospital in D.C. Despite two doses of the antipsychotic Haldol, she screamed for hours, shouting profanities. The next day she was transported to a psychiatric hospital on the other side of town. For five days, doctors ran tests and performed exams; eventually she was told she had bipolar disorder.
Her husband visited her every day and she was allowed to make phone calls to her parents and a couple of close friends. The first day was a cloudy memory, but by the third day, she began to realize the weight of what had happened. She tried to capture her overwhelming thoughts and fears in the journal that the doctors provided to her.
Learning to Live with Bipolar
Heather was terrified of the person she became that day, a person she didn’t recognize or understand. She’d suffered abit of anxiety once, in college, but never anything this severe. She knew what had happened this time was different, that it wasn’t a case of the baby blues. She knew she needed help.
After her fifth day in the ward, she went home; 10 days later, she went back to work, partially due to the fact that she’d used most of my short-term disability for maternity leave and needed to return for the financial support. She and her husband were both concerned she was going back too soon, but her job wouldn’t allow her to work from home. Luckily, she was reassigned to an understanding new manager, and made do.
With the help of a psychiatrist and a therapist, Heather recovered and learned to cope with her diagnosis. Through research and connecting with other survivors, Heather discovered that people with bipolar can be predisposed to postpartum psychosis.
Today Heather is vigilant about taking care of her mental health and conscious of balancing her stress levels. She has learned to guard her sleep and know the difference between feeling good and edging on manic. If she feels a flurry of thoughts overwhelming her, or if she starts talking faster or more than usual, she knows she might be on the brink of a manic episode, so Heather checks in with herself often. Heather no longer sees a therapist, but do check in regularly with a psychiatrist and her primary care physician to monitor her mediation. She has been prescribed an antipsychotic medication, which she’s expected to take for the rest of her life. Heather also gets a lot of help at home. Her parents and husband are very aware of her mood changes, and supports her in every way.
Heather still wonders about the people who stopped to help her on the day she had her breakdown. Heather knew from the 911 calls that it was a man named James and his sister, from Richmond, VA. She often thinks about them when she drives by that spot on the bridge. Heather is extremely grateful to them, and hopes that one day she will be able to thank them for saving her life. She has started a facebook page to help her find them.
Whenever Heather gets sad about what happened to her, she tries to focus on how lucky she is. Heather doesn’t know what would’ve happened if she’d made it off that bridge and into the Potomac River, or if she had walked into that house and reached her children. It’s hard to admit that she was having thoughts of harming them.
But she has forgiven herself, because she knows it wasn’t her fault. To the women reading this who are, or who may become, mothers, I want you to know this: Having negative thoughts about your children doesn’t make you a “bad mom.” I have loved — and always will love — my children deeply. What happened to Heather signaled that she was suffering from an undiagnosed disease. Mental illness affects so many of us, and it’s nothing to be ashamed about.
Mothers have huge responsibilities. Life is busy, and often hard. Asking for help when you need it is the best way to be the best mother you can be.
This article was retrieved from goodhousekeeping.com