When Carla Louise Phillips was 23 years old, she learned she was pregnant with a beautiful baby boy.
Nine months later, after giving birth to Alfie, now three, she developed postpartum psychosis.
This left her terrified that her baby would be taken away.
Content warning: This article contains references to suicidal thoughts and experiences of psychosis that some may find triggering.
Carla, a single mum living in Bedfordshire, found out she was pregnant the week before she turned 24. She didn’t enjoy pregnancy, as she suffered badly with sickness from the moment she fell pregnant right up until the day she gave birth.
‘Mentally it was the sanest I’d been, however I found pregnancy very draining’, she tells Metro.co.uk.
Carla, who has a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, was supported during her pregnancy by the perinatal mental health team. She was told she may suffer with postnatal depression, but she was never spoken to about postpartum psychosis.
Carla gave birth to Alfie on 13 October 2016, 10 days before her due date. She says she didn’t feel that ‘sudden rush’ of love so many parents talk about. Instead, she felt only immense shame.
Soon Carla fell into a ‘blur’ of psychosis, experiencing intense paranoia towards her family, friends, strangers, and health professionals.
She was convinced there was a secret plan to take Alfie from her and that everyone was involved.
What is postpartum psychosis and what are the symptoms?
Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental illness that can occur after having a baby. It’s very different from the ‘baby blues’ and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Usually starting suddenly within the first two weeks after giving birth, symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, manic moods, low mood, paranoia, confusion, restlessness, and behaving in a way that’s out of character.
Dr Jess Heron, Director of Action on Postpartum Psychosis, tells Metro.co.uk: ‘Postpartum Psychosis is a severe, but treatable, form of mental illness that affects thousands of women in the UK each year.
‘It is a severe episode of mental illness which begins suddenly in the days or weeks after having a baby. Symptoms vary and can change rapidly.
‘The early symptoms of PP can be difficult to identify because many women feel a little bit elated and sleep deprived in the first few days after having a baby so telling the difference between ‘normal’ emotions and symptoms that indicate the start of an episode can be difficult.
‘The early signs to look out for include the mother feeling elated and talkative, increased irritability, confusion and a rapidly changing mood. In 75% of cases it is a friend of family member who recognise the need for intervention.
‘Women may also begin to display strange beliefs and may experience hallucinations such as seeing, hearing or feeling things that are not there. This can be really frightening for the mother and those around her.’
Dr Heron adds that there are some mums who are particularly high risk of postpartum psychosis – including mums who have previously experienced an episode of bipolar disorder, or a previous postpartum psychosis.
She continues: ‘The cause of the illness is still not clear. The best guess at the moment is that biological and hormonal factors are involved. There’s been some studies into the most likely candidates and they haven’t found anything consistent. We do know it runs in families more often than you’d expect. We know there’s a strong link with bipolar disorder. So some of the risk factors that have been found in bipolar, like sleep disruption, may be implicated.
‘It can get worse very quickly and should always be treated as a medical emergency. Most women need to be treated with medication and admitted to hospital, ideally to a mother and baby unit to receive specialist psychiatric care.
‘Women do go on to make a full recovery, however, the journey to full recovery can be long and difficult. Action on Postpartum Psychosis runs a peer support network for women (and their partners) who have experienced this illness. We know that this support can be life-saving with 1 in 3 people helped by the charity’s peer support saying they might not be here today without it.’
‘I suffered quite badly with delusions,’ said Carla. ‘I believed everyone was out there to take my baby away from me.
‘I went to baby groups every day to prove I was a good mother. I did everything I could to make people believe I was a good mother.
‘I didn’t suffer hallucinations, thankfully, but my delusions made me suffer on a day to day basis.
‘Because of the delusions I was extremely paranoid and constantly looking over my shoulder. It’s all very much a blur but I pushed a lot of people away while I was unwell due to my beliefs.
‘I did not trust anyone. I was adamant that there was a plan to take Alfie from me and everyone was involved in it.
‘It was hard to open up when no one knew what to do to help me.’
While many who experience postnatal depression report feeling disconnected from their child, Carla says she felt an ‘overpowering’ love for Alfie, which only intensified her fears that he would be taken away.
Her illness led to strain on her relationship with Alfie’s father and they eventually split.
When Alfie was four weeks old, Carla was brave enough to ask for professional help, knowing her psychosis could spiral completely out of her control.
But Carla says she was dismissed because she seemed fine.
The mum tells us: ‘Because I was attending baby groups and doing well in the public eye my voice wasn’t heard.
‘It felt like something tragic had to happen for them to listen. [It wasn’t until] Alfie was 10 months old that they finally listened after I ended up in A&E with suicidal thoughts and intentions to carry out my thoughts.’
When Carla finally got help, she was admitted to a mother and baby unit, put on medication, and given daily therapy. The also had dialectical behaviour therapy, which took place once a week for six months.
Though she didn’t know exactly how long her psychosis lasted for as she ‘wasn’t aware of what was happening’, Carla knows she was discharged from the mother and baby unit at the end of 2017.
While Carla still struggles with mental health issues, she got through her psychosis with professional help.
But coming out of treatment, the mum was left with a lot of shame and embarrassment.
‘I was aware that I had been in a very dark place, but a lot of it was a blur with my actions and behaviours’, she said.
‘Nothing changed with how I felt towards Alfie, with everything that happened I never once felt disconnected from him.
‘But still to this day I feel like I fail as a mother. Struggling with mental illness as well as being a mother is exhausting. Some days I feel awful, but I will continue fighting my mental health issues to make sure my little boy has the best life.
‘I’m worried that my mental health affects Alfie, but I can promise you: I love that little boy more than anything… and he saved my life.’
Currently, Carla is under a mental health team which supports her with her bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder. She hasn’t had any episodes of psychosis since 2017.
She said: ‘I am on regular medication and I also attend a peer support group for DBT every two weeks. Many know of my story, but not the full story.’
Because of her terrifying experience, Carla doesn’t plan to have any more children – especially as she is high risk for psychosis again if she were to get pregnant.
‘My experience scared the life out of me’, she said. ‘I wouldn’t change Alfie for the world but what happened scares me that it could happen again.’
Carla believes people should be more aware of psychosis, and says those struggling need to be more open about it.
She’s sharing her story to urge other women who are suffering to speak up and seek help.
‘Talk about how you’re feeling as much as you can, to family, friends, strangers and professionals,’ said Carla.
‘Just keep talking until someone listens. Keep strong and remember everything passes.’
Need support? Contact the Samaritans
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
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