A mum’s story: What it’s like to have postpartum psychosis

Aussie mum Ariane Beeston battled postpartum psychosis. Here’s what she wants you to know about this mental health disorder — and coming out the other side.

Ariane Beeston had been a mother to son Henry for less than a week when the first symptoms of postpartum psychosis clouded her thoughts.

“Henry had a little bit of nappy rash on day four or day five, and I began having delusions about child protection services coming to take him away,” Ariane recalls.

Soon, Ariane began to see a dragon in all the places her baby should have been. His cot. His pram. His highchair.

She didn’t know it at the time, but these were the markings of a harrowing descent into darkness where hallucinations, delusions and an overwhelming sense of detachment would define her first year of motherhood.

First signs of postpartum psychosis

In the years before Ariane welcomed her son, she worked as a psychologist and child protection caseworker.

Assessing children at risk of harm, which sometimes included bringing them into care, defined her days.

Unsurprisingly, these experiences would follow her into motherhood.

“I remember hearing a knock on the door one day, and I wasn’t expecting anyone,” Ariane says.

“I kind of lay flat on the floor until they left, thinking it was social workers.

“I guess I associated it with my old life in child protection and, in my mind, it was my turn.”

Interspersed with these delusions were hallucinations that Henry wasn’t a baby at all.

“I had hallucinations that he was a dragon, which would come and go.”

Other times her son’s face would appear garbled, blurry, featureless.

“Sometimes, when I looked at his face, it was really difficult to see him clearly,” she explains.

“At one point I thought if I took my own life it wouldn’t matter, because I had already died.”

A rumination cycle Ariane says would get stuck in her head, where she’d feel unsure if she was real, if she existed or not.

Postpartum psychosis doesn’t discriminate

Ariane experienced the hallmark symptoms of postpartum psychosis, which include erratic behaviour, mood swings and altered perception of the world around her.

Onset of the condition, which affects women shortly after childbirth, is rapid and unexpected, typically occurring within days or weeks after delivery, when symptoms start to present.

The condition is not choosy and can affect anyone who gives birth, whether there is a history of mental illness or not.

It is thought rapid hormonal changes related to childbirth can cause or contribute to onset, and certain risk factors can increase a woman’s risk of developing the condition, such as a personal or family history of bipolar disorder or postpartum psychosis, sleep deprivation and a complicated or stressful birth.

“For me, I think it was that I’ve always been sensitive to hormonal changes, but also looking back I’ve probably had periods of depression and put them down to burnout,” Ariane says.

Getting professional help

For months Ariane struggled in silence, feeling her sense of reality dissipating with each passing day.

“I was home by myself a lot because my husband was travelling for work, and I’m very good at appearing functional, put together, so what was going on inside my head wasn’t obvious to the people around me,” she says.

The tipping point came when Henry was around seven months old, Ariane says.

“One day I woke up and I just couldn’t stop crying,” she says.

“It was like something just broke and I cried and cried for about three days.”

It was the first real sign, to outsiders at least, that something was really wrong.

“My best friend came over and she held the baby while I made an appointment with my GP.”

Ariane says shaking the stigma was difficult.

“I wasn’t completely honest about how bad things were, so I was diagnosed with postnatal depression,” she shares.

Eventually she was referred to a psychiatrist and admitted to a mother-baby unit, a specialist treatment centre where she and Henry stayed for three weeks and Ariane was put on medication.

Maternal mental health matters

A woman’s journey through postpartum psychosis is incredibly personal — not just in a private sense but in that everyone’s experience is different.

Which is partly why Ariane wanted to write about her own experience in her recently published memoir, Because I’m Not Myself, You See.

Another reason is to shine a light on perinatal mental health issues, to shed the stigma.

“It’s important for women to know that they’re not alone,” Ariane says.

“Being honest about your mental health is such a brave thing to do, and it means you can get help and start enjoying motherhood and your baby.”

Ariane Beeston is a former child protection caseworker and psychologist with the NSW Department of Communities
and Justice. 

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Written by Sarah Vercoe.