Jen Wight lived in fear of mental illness after her elder sister, Jo, was sectioned when they were teenagers. But by the age of 36 she had a good job, was happily married and had just given birth to a healthy baby. It seemed that she had been worrying for no reason.
People always said we were like two peas in a pod. We were so similar that people would come up to me in the street and say, “Hey, Jo! How’re you doing?”
There were three years between us, but we were really close. Even when we were teenagers, Jo always wanted to include me and would take me out with all her cool friends.
We had a very secure, happy childhood growing up in Stamford Hill, north London. There was no history of mental illness in our family, so when Jo became ill at 18 it was quite a shock.
The first time she went into hospital she was there for nine months. I would go and visit her in the psychiatric ward at Homerton Hospital, but a combination of the very strong medication she was on and the illness itself had completely taken her personality away. My beautiful, kind, loving, creative sister was gone.
I kept my head down and made sure not to upset Mum and Dad or cause them any more problems. They did as much as they could to support me and shield me from what was happening with Jo, but it was very, very hard. I missed her so much. I always had a box of tissues beside my bed because I’d cry at night, the tears falling sideways and filling up my ears.
Somehow I came to the conclusion that because I had a schizophrenic sister I would end up the same – Jo and I were so similar that I was convinced that it must be in me, as it was in her.
So on 15 March 1993, three years to the day since Jo had been sectioned, I spent the whole day in bed crying at my student house in Brighton, waiting for it to happen to me. I was 18, as Jo had been, and I felt so sad. The funny thing is, I’m a rational person – I was doing a science degree – yet I was completely convinced I was going to go mad that day, just like Jo.
But nothing happened, and, with the passing of time, my fear of going mad ebbed away.
By the time I was 29 I was living back in London. I’d had a number of boyfriends but no-one that I’d wanted to settle down with, so I told all my friends that I was ready to meet someone and my friend Harriet said, “I know just the guy!”
Kai was so good-looking, so intelligent and so kind. We moved in together after a year.
Unlike me, he’d always wanted to have children and gradually I came round to the idea. I really, really wanted to be with him, and as more and more of our friends started to have kids I was surprised by the strong love I felt for them.
At the tail end of 2008 we’d quit our jobs in London and moved to Australia, and we were living in Sydney when our baby son arrived in January 2012.
In those first crazy weeks after my son was born I was mostly incredibly happy. I really had no experience whatsoever of looking after a baby, but before the birth I’d read this fantastic book, written by a midwife, which covered everything. There was a bit about postnatal depression which I remember reading and thinking, “That’s not going to happen to me – I’ve been through tough times and been really sad, but I’ve never got depressed.”
But on my third night in hospital after I’d had my son I was so exhausted that I couldn’t sleep and things began to feel like they were unravelling in my mind. My thoughts were racing, my heart was beating too fast and I began to panic that I was going mad. In the middle of the night, after hours feeling paranoid and crying, I eventually pressed the call button for help.
The nurse who came said, “This is all totally normal. Almost all women go through this after their baby is born. You’re exhausted and your hormones are plummeting, you just need a good cry.”
Relief flooded through me. I cried and cried and cried for hours on end. It felt like my tears were washing away my very worst fear, the one that had dogged me for more than 20 years. I’d been as close to madness as I was going to get and I hadn’t gone mad.
Where to get help
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues raised here, including schizophrenia, depression and postpartum psychosis, help and support is available via the BBC Action Line
When we left hospital it felt like I had started my life anew with my lovely baby and my beautiful husband. We were living in a flat on the waterfront in Sydney and for a while everything seemed wonderful.
I felt light and free, and quite euphoric. It seemed as though the part of my brain that had been unconsciously taken up with worrying about going mad for all those years was now free and available for other things.
I wrote lists and lists of everything I wanted to achieve, planned trips abroad, and spent hours surfing the net – though most people with a newborn baby wouldn’t have time for such things.
Neither of us realised that anything was wrong. At some point, Kai did say to one of his friends that he was slightly worried because I was acting a bit crazy, but his friend just said, “My wife was exactly the same, they all go a bit crazy when the baby comes.”
As the weeks went by I was sleeping less and less, and as the highs got higher, lows also started appearing. I started having arguments with Kai that would go on and on until we were exhausted by them, I was feeling really irritable and anxious about going out, and really struggled with breastfeeding. I’d really wanted to breastfeed my son, but by week five I was expressing milk and bottle-feeding him it instead because the pain had become unbearable.
The 22nd anniversary of Jo’s breakdown was approaching when the psychosis hit me. Kai and I had taken our son to the doctor for his six-week checks, and as I flicked through a magazine in the waiting room I became convinced that I was the actress Cameron Diaz and had secretly moved to Australia to have my baby.
Soon afterwards, at a group for new mums, a nurse became alarmed by my behaviour. I was laughing uncontrollably and told her I was too excited to sleep, my words tumbling out over one another. At the end of the session, when Kai arrived to collect me and our son, the nurse urged him to ring the mental health crisis team straight away.
I was terrified that they would section me, but they asked how I was feeling and if I’d had any thoughts of harming my son or myself, and then prescribed me a sedative to help me sleep.
After they’d left they called Kai to tell him not to leave me on my own with my son, or on my own full stop. Some people would be really freaked out if somebody said that about their wife, but Kai never transmitted anything to me, he just carried on taking care of us. But when he did tell me, some time later, that they’d thought I might harm our son I was completely devastated.
I was having more and more strange thoughts, as well as periods of elation followed by crushing anxiety. They started talking about postpartum psychosis and put me on an antipsychotic drug – the same drug that Jo had taken when she first became ill. I felt frightened and hopeless, I was one step closer to being just as ill as her.
The delusions came and went: I was going to find a cure for cerebral palsy; Barack Obama was coming to Australia to discuss how to catch paedophiles with me; I could control dogs with my mind. I was so wrapped up in what was happening in my head that I didn’t really realise how much Kai was struggling. He was doing all the night feeds, the daytime feeds, nappy-changing and bearing all the responsibility for my son and me, with no family support.
He’d sit in our bedroom listening to me moving around the flat in the middle of the night, bone-tired but fearful of what I might do. Sometimes he’d find me in our son’s room with the lights blazing, staring down at the baby or picking him up out of bed, after he’d spent hours trying to settle him.
Finally, I pushed Kai too far. In the middle of one of our arguments, I opened the front door of our apartment, stepped on to the landing outside – five storeys up – and flipped my leg over the handrail. Kai screamed at me and pulled me away from the edge.
- Postpartum psychosis is a rare but serious mental health illness that can affect a woman soon after she has a baby
- Symptoms usually start suddenly within the first two weeks after giving birth, but it can take several weeks
- They may include: hallucinations; delusions (thoughts or beliefs that are unlikely to be true); a manic mood (talking and thinking too much or too quickly); feeling “high” or “on top of the world”; a low mood; being withdrawn or tearful; lacking energy; loss of appetite; anxiety or trouble sleeping; loss of inhibitions; feeling suspicious or fearful; restlessness; feeling very confused; behaving in a way that’s out of character
- Most women with postpartum psychosis need to be treated in hospital
I don’t remember that happening, Kai only told me when I was much better. He was horrified and furious, but it made him realise that I had to go into hospital.
In the car I was scared. I pictured padded cells and straitjackets, electrodes being attached to my head, electricity scrambling my brain.
Thankfully Kai and my son were allowed to stay with me, but after a week I discharged myself. The delusions seemed to have passed and I just wanted to get home and try to get to grips with being a new mum again. But I’d only been out of hospital for a week when the depression came.
The doctor told us it’s very common to experience depression after a period of mania and delusions, but that was the start of months of grinding misery. The pain was so bad on my really bad days that I considered suicide as a way out. Terrible thoughts went round and round in my head.
“I can’t cope with this pain, I have to do something, that’s the only thing I can do, I can’t do that, I can’t cope with this pain…”
The only thing stopping me from acting on those thoughts was the hurt that I would cause Kai, my son and my family. But then I felt so guilty that as a parent I could even consider doing that to my child, that I felt even worse.
Progress was slow and painful, but gradually, once I was on an effective dose of antidepressants, I felt as though I was returning to normal. The best thing was when I realised I’d started to really enjoy being with my son, rather than being frightened of looking after him.
One of the silver linings of being ill with psychosis is that it’s helped me understand Jo’s experience. She’s 46 now and she’s crafted a life for herself – cooking, growing things in her garden and making cards for the local charity shops. She absolutely adores my son. She sends him little parcels and paints him pictures, but her illness is an enormous burden for her and life is very hard.
I tried my best when I had depression, but I wasn’t the mother that I would’ve been otherwise – I didn’t laugh, and though I tried to sing it was just too hard. I worried that my lack of love and care in those early days might somehow have damaged my son’s development, but a child psychologist told us that she thought the bond between us was good and that perhaps the more significant thing that my illness had done was affect my confidence as a parent.
I’ve put lots and lots of effort in and now my relationship with my son is so much better. We’ve both changed, him and I. He’s seven and I get so much joy from being with him. When you’ve had the extreme pain of severe depression, felt suicidal and got through it, normal life and the little things just seem so wonderful. For me, being a mum is getting better and better with each passing year.
Kai and I went through a horrendous experience together, but we survived it and that’s made us stronger – we feel almost bombproof now. But I wouldn’t have any more children, mainly because I want to minimise the risk of experiencing depression like that again. And we are just really, really happy – we love being a family of three.
As told to Sarah McDermott
Jen Wight is the author of Rattled: Overcoming Postpartum Psychosis
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