“Why I Keep Away From Madness” – A Stigmama Contribution

Me and my writing muse Lucy 

 

Since its inception a year ago, I’ve been a Regular Contributor to the groundbreaking website STIGMAMA.  There’s nothing like this website out there…you can take my word for it!  I’m so glad it exists because STIGMAMA has become one of my virtual tribes.

STIGMAMA’s tagline is “Motherhood. Mental Illness. Out Loud.”, which I love, and its Facebook page has almost 17,500 likes, clearly demonstrating that there’s a need for an outlet and resource such as STIGMAMA.

STIGMAMA has given me a platform to share my feelings about living with postpartum bipolar disorder. The fact that I can receive feedback and encouragement from its followers is fulfilling, to say the very least. 

I encourage you to check out STIGMAMA http://stigmama.com/about/ and consider becoming a contributor.  You can submit any type of writing, be it a poem, fiction or nonfiction, that addresses women and mental illness. (PLEASE NOTE: you do NOT have to be a mother to submit a post. Check out my friend Elaina’s contribution “I Am Not A Mom” for an excellent example:

http://stigmama.com/2014/09/24/i-am-not-a-mom-by-elaina-j-martin/

STIGMAMA offers monthly themes that contributors can write about. March was “March Madness” month.  April is “Open Submission” month, and May is “STIGMAMA# Poetry Slam” month. 

Of my latest STIGMAMA March post, Dr. Walker Karraa, founder of STIGMAMA and author of the bestselling book “Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth” wrote,

“The amazing STIGMAMA Regular Contributor Dyane Harwood rounds up our month of posts regarding the topic of “Madness”.  I want to thank Dyane for her deeply felt embodied response to the topic, to the word itself. There are millions of images, interpretations, insinuations, and myths held within the concept of ‪#‎madness‬. Dyane poignantly reveals the lived experience of how the concept can be an insult to injury. Thank you, Dyane for your work, your writing, and your leadership in the advocacy movement.”

 

WHY I KEEP AWAY FROM MADNESS

In the past I considered “madness” to be a fascinating topic. I never shied away from facing it through books, movies, or art until I was diagnosed with postpartum onset bipolar one disorder (PPBD) at age thirty-seven.

My PPBD manifested as hypomania immediately following the birth of my second daughter.  As the weeks flew by, I became more and more manic.  I even became hypergraphic, a little-known, bizarre condition in which one writes compulsively.  I wrote hundreds of pages in less than a week, often while tandem breastfeeding my newborn and toddler.

Something was clearly wrong.

Six weeks postpartum, I voluntarily hospitalized myself in our local behavioral health unit for treatment. I used to live one block away from the distinctive redwood building.  Every day while I drove to work at a state park non-profit, I glanced at the “B.H.U.”, never imagining in my wildest dreams that one day I’d be locked inside there.

I had been in locked-down mental health units before, but as a visitor. My father, a professional violinist, had manic depression like so many of his brilliant colleagues.

I visited my Dad at UCLA’s renowned Neuropsychiatric Institute.  As soon as I got my driver’s license at sixteen, I drove alone to visit him during one of his numerous hospitalizations. I brought his Stradivarius violin and his favorite Wrigley’s spearmint gum to cheer him up.

How naive I was back then – I didn’t realize that neither item was allowed in such a place, especially the million-dollar violin!  When I left his unit, I felt like I had just gotten out of jail.  I felt so guilty to see him that depressed.  As I watched my father shuffle away in an ugly hospital gown instead of the elegant black suit he wore for his Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts, I never thought I’d be a patient in such a hellhole.

When my turn arrived to be a mentally ill patient, I had to walk away from my six-week-old baby and my toddler and husband into a sterile unit. That was my first hospitalization among the “mad”, and I wish with all my heart it had been my last.

During my six subsequent mental hospitalizations, I was stigmatized by some of my own family, friends, and by a variety of hospital staff.  It was crystal-clear that I was regarded as “mad” and nothing else.

When I was housed among the “mad” I lived with many different kinds and degrees of madness.  I have PTSD from my time spent in those locked-down wards. As a result, I’ve experienced enough madness to last the rest of my life.

I hold a Bachelors of Arts degree in English and American Literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz.  I’ve been an avid reader since a young child.  Since my PPBD diagnosis, I’ve read many bipolar memoirs and bipolar-themed blogs that have become ubiquitous, but I’ve become much more cautious with what I read when it comes to bipolar disorder.

Nowadays, I automatically avoid anything with the title “mad” or “madness” in it.  I refuse to read all accounts of mental hospitalizations.  I may seem like I’m burying my head in the sand – and yes, I might be missing out on a gem of a read, but I can no longer immerse myself in the world of the insane.

I first went mad when I wanted to hang myself with my thick, green bathrobe belt hours after I took one amitriptyline (Elavil) pill.  Even in my darkest moments, I had never wanted to hang myself before I took that medication. It was obvious that the amitriptyline was causing the suicidal ideation in
my brain, and – thank God – my husband was home.

“I need to get to the hospital,” I told him, unable to look into his eyes. Once again he took me to the behavioral health unit with our baby and toddler in tow. I entered the ward as a ghost of my former exuberant self.

Losing myself that way – losing my will to live and wanting to take my life using a method that had formerly been anathema to me – traumatized me.  I don’t want to read about others’ experiences in insane asylums.

Because I’ve spent weeks in mental hospitals and I have PTSD as a result, I don’t want another glimpse into those environments.  I understand why others wish to learn about people’s experiences with madness, but I’ll refrain from examining those mental states as much as I can.

As I continue to keep away from creative works that focus upon madness, I feel empowered. I value the freedom I have to make this decision, as for far too long I felt powerless when it came to my own sanity.

I’ve been mad for long enough. Thanks to the help of medication, a good psychiatrist, therapist and self-care, I’m able to stay sane.

Avoiding the world of madness helps keep me that way.

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Validated!

 

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If we don’t ask for what we need, we usually won’t get it.  Yes, that’s an simple truism, but when we start incorporating it into our lives and ask for what we need, awfully nice things can happen, both big and small.

It hasn’t been easy for me to ask for what I’ve needed, for I’ve often felt unworthy and I’ve feared rejection.

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Yesterday I blogged that I emailed an Associated Press journalist named Frazier Moore.  I contacted him to ask if he would consider changing his writing terminology in regard to bipolar disorder.   His review of the new ABC television show Black Box was titled “Bipolar Doctor” and there were other phrases in the piece such as “bipolar people”, etc.  I explained in detail why I prefer to say  “I have bipolar.” instead of “I am bipolar”.

My post about this topic can be found here:

http://www.ibpf.org/blog/i-am-bipolar-i-am-blessed-it-and-get-it-over-itis

After emailing the journalist, I got on with my day.  I let the whole matter go – I didn’t even expect a reply.  By simply writing my email, I experienced a nice catharsis.  As I mentioned in yesterday’s post,  I received a courteous response from Frazier.  He agreed with me!  Frazier wrote that in his future articles he’d take my point and “aim to be more sensitive in writing about this subject in the future…”

Super-cool!

Every success inspires me, and my small victory with Frazier fired me up to ask people more often about matters important to my heart.

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This past month I asked  to have postpartum bipolar disorder (PPBD) be officially recognized by the most influential non-profit addressing pregnancy/postpartum issues facing mothers: Postpartum Progress.

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The Postpartum Progress website states:

“We offer in-depth information, community and hope for pregnant and new moms with postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth (including postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, depression during pregnancy, post-adoption depression, postpartum PTSD, depression after miscarriage or perinatal loss and postpartum psychosis)…. We are fiercely proud to be the world’s most widely-read blog dedicated to these illnesses, with more than 1.1 million pageviews annually.” 

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been “pooh-poohed” when I’ve mentioned I have postpartum bipolar disorder to others, either face-to-face or through writing.  Hardly anyone has heard about this postpartum mood disorder.  However, I feel excluded that my mood disorder is not found in the list in the above paragraph.  It’s nearly impossible for me to explain my feelings of feeling a sense of invalidation in the postpartum world to my family and friends.

What has helped me the most when it comes to my diagnosis is to bring my experience out into the open and write about it.  Writing is not only validating; when I hear from another mother who has read my writing and has also experienced postpartum bipolar disorder, I feel like I’ve found a member of my tribe.

Last March Cristi Comes, a content editor for the Postpartum Progress website and founder of Motherhood Unadorned, gave me the opportunity to write for Postpartum Progress about PPBD.

http://www.postpartumprogress.com/story-postpartum-bipolar-disorder

This was the big break I had been wanting so badly!   I submitted my piece about postpartum bipolar disorder to Cristi, and she and Postpartum Progress founder Katherine Stone published it on the website.  I received great feedback and comments from other mothers with PPBD.

After my piece was published on Postpartum Progress, I stepped outside my comfort zone, and asked Katherine to please add PPBD to their list of mental illnesses afflicting mothers, and she did!  That may seem like a minor triumph, but for me it was a giant step for humankind!  If I didn’t force myself to ask, it wouldn’t have happened.

So I invite you to join me in moving forward together to ask for something you normally wouldn’t ask for – services, favors, money, guidance – whatever we want! In the comments tell me what you want to ask for and I’ll support you in your vision.  I’m currently asking for donations for my Postpartum Progress Climb Out of the Darkness walk that I’m doing on June 21, 2014.

loathe asking for money, but I’m doing it anyway because it truly is for a worthy cause; it’s not for me to spend on some fancy designer shoes.  It’s easier for me to ask via social media, I must admit, so I’m going to challenge myself and ask three people face-to-face in the coming week if they care to donate.  I’ll let you know what happens!

For more information about my June 21st walk for Climb Out of the Darkness and to donate please visit:

http://www.postpartumprogress.com/join-climb-out-of-the-darkness-2014#comment-18563

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Draggin’, Green Cupcakes & Climb Out of the Darkness

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I am draggin’ today.  The weather is gloomy, and while I’m not depressed (Thank you GOD, thank you GOD. Always thank you GOD for that one!) I’m feeling lethargic and anxious for no good reason except perhaps existentially-speaking.  It’s just one of those days where I’ve become banana slug-like.

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(Here’s a sluggish side-note.  I live in banana slug heaven: Santa Cruz County, California. U.C. Santa Cruz, the college I graduated from, boasts none other than the banana slug as its mascot.  Banana slugs love to creep and crawl where I live up in the redwoods, especially on a rainy day like today.  They are not dangerous, so that’s good – just slimy.)

So on this day of apathy what do I do?

I commit to participating in not one, but two special events taking place within the next two months.

May is Mental Health Month and its theme is “Mind Your Health”.  (Kinda cute…)  I was reminded of that early this morning when I groggily attended an online meeting of the International Bipolar Foundation’s Consumer Advisory Council.  Our facilitator was Ashley Jacobs, the Director of Operations for the International Bipolar Foundation.  At the close of our meeting Ashley asked if any of us would be participating in Mental Health Month-related activities.   There was a resounding silence; out of nowhere I felt my mouth open and I spurted out, “I could make green cupcakes with green fondant ribbons symbolizing mental health, and sell them somewhere!  The proceeds would go to the International Bipolar Foundation!”

“That’s a great idea!” Ashley replied.

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Some backstory is helpful here.  Ashley and I have worked together for some time, and she edits my weekly blog for the International Bipolar Foundation.  She diligently answers my plethora of IBPF-related questions, never judging me for their sometimes-strange content.   Apart from IBPF topics, we’ve emailed one another about baking, specifically cupcakes.

Ashley knows that my daughter Avonlea is going through a cupcake-obsessed phase.  I’ve emailed Ashley photos of our cupcake creations (mostly failures, I hate to admit) that Avi and I have toiled upon.  Ashley has given me links to amazing baking websites to inspire us.  Ashley is pro-cupcake.

Green frosting is a bit sketchy, as I’m not thrilled with using yucky artificial food coloring.  There are natural (costlier) alternative colorings, however, and I’ll consider buying one  – but they’re three times the price of regular food coloring.  I also feel conflicted about selling sugary treats instead of healthier ones, but green vegan banana bread won’t cut it.  I need to figure out where to set up my table, and I’ll contact our local paper for free advertising, and give it a go.

The other event, “Climb Out of the Darkness”,  is connected with Postpartum Progress, an amazing non-profit founded by women’s maternal health advocate Katherine Stone.  Stone describes this annual event, the only one of its kind, on her Postpartum Progress website:

“It’s the world’s largest event raising awareness of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety and OCD, postpartum psychosis and pregnancy depression and anxiety. The event was created by and benefits Postpartum Progress Inc., a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization that raises awareness and supports pregnant and new moms with maternal mental illness.

Women around the world participate in this grassroots event by going on a hike, climb or walk outside on the longest day of the year (June 21st) to shine a light on PPD and related illnesses. The event is open to anyone and everyone who supports our cause. Anyone can participate, as long as they register, and registration is free.”

A few days ago I commented on the Postpartum Progress Facebook page.  I wrote that I’d love to be involved in the Climb by producing a large-scale walk in my town in 2015, not 2014.  I added that I have experience in special event production and I’d want a full year to plan the event.

I forced myself to mention that in order for me to take part, I’d like my postpartum mood disorder (postpartum bipolar disorder/PPBD) to eventually be added to Postpartum Progress’ list of maternal mood disorders before the June, 2015 climb.  (I’ve bolded the currently displayed postpartum disorders in the Climb description above .)

I’ve wanted PPBD to be recognized by Postpartum Progress for a while.  When the Postpartum Progress content editor Cristi Comes (Motherhood Unadorned) gave me the chance to write about my PPBD experience for the website, I jumped at it.  If PPBD was acknowledged by Postpartum Progress, I could truly put my heart and soul into my efforts. I want my mood disorder to be represented, ya know?)  It’s a perfectly reasonable request, I think.

After noticing that I wished to hold off until 2015, Katherine commented asking me, “Why not start out this year?”  I paused for a moment.  Then I reviewed the Postpartum Progress Climb website more closely  and I realized that I didn’t have to organize a big, ol event in less than sixty days.  (By the way, I could have joined another Climb group, but the closest one is too far away from me for my comfort.)

This June 21, the Climb date, it can all be very simple.  I won’t have to gather up a bunch of people.  There are three ways to participate, and of them is that I can walk as an individual.  I can involve my family and friends (and hopefully my new puppy!!) if I choose.  That’s the perfect way for me to get crackin’.  I registered a few minutes ago, and if you’d like to sponsor me, please visit this link:

http://www.crowdrise.com/dyaneharwood-COTD2014/fundraiser/dyaneharwood

My two daughters donated the contents of their piggy banks, and my husband donated too!

Thanks, as always, for reading, and I wish you a wonderful weekend!

Dyane

 

For more information about the Climb Out of the Darkness event and Mental Health month, please visit:

http://www.postpartumprogress.com/join-climb-out-of-the-darkness-2014

http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may

 

Promoting One’s Writing without Losing One’s Head, Completing a Book and More

If—

BY RUDYARD KIPLING

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

 

 

I was introduced to this poem in high school English, and I never forgot it.  While I am not a poetry lover per se (sorry, sorry, I know that’s going to offend some of you!) there are some poems I love, and Kipling’s “If” has some amazing language in it.  The first two lines have always stayed with me, and I thought of them while writing this post today.

Lately when I’ve queried editors regarding submitting my articles for their consideration, it has been difficult for me to fully promote my work and “keep my head” as Kipling so eloquently states.  Of course good writing speaks for itself, but the writer behind the writing has to present well too!  I’ve been caring for two sick little ones over the past couple weeks, and that situation has not only distracted me; it has gotten me out of my writing groove and my writing confidence has been zapped as well.

Now my girls are well, and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to return to my regular writing schedule.  But I’ve been procrastinating on certain projects and I’ve grown lackluster in promoting my writing to various outlets. I haven’t lost all hope about returning to “zestful writing” as the awesome author Elizabeth Sims calls it  – I’ve been through this dilemma before, and I know I’ll get back to where I want to be.  It’s just going to take more time than I’d like – time I hate to lose, because I’ve lost enough time since my 2007 bipolar diagnosis when my writing career stalled for oh, eight years.

Ironically, it’s much easier for me to promote others’ work.  Promotion was a skill I learned in my first “grown-up” job working at a special event production company.  We produced on average ten large-scale annual events in Silicon Valley.  I started out as the office manager and then was put in charge of more challenging projects, such as working with the media, talent agents, and vendors.  Our publicity consultant taught me how to write press releases, and I was interviewed about our events by prestigious newspapers such as the San Jose Mercury News.  My boss had very high standards, and he had established a great reputation.  Before creating his company, he had founded the highly acclaimed Paul Masson Mountain Winery Concert Series and he worked with the greatest names in music.  Fortunately I was able to represent his company in a professional manner over the phone, in person and in writing, and while it was a stressful job, it taught me a great deal.

So yes, to reiterate, the bottom line is that when it comes to promoting my writing these days, I’m not as gung-ho as I’d like to be.   One thing I know for sure is that enthusiasm about one’s work (in moderate doses) is a wonderful quality, and I want to cultivate it to the best of my ability.

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As most of you reading this piece are also bloggers, I’m sure some of you know a thing or two when it comes to promoting your blog or anything else that you believe in, for that matter!  Recently I pushed past my comfort zone and asked an authority figure to publish my essay.  While I didn’t expect a resounding “no”, I didn’t exactly expect a “yes” either, as worthy as my article seemed in my eyes.  Well, that question, which literally took me less than ninety seconds to formulate, type out and email, paid off.  My essay was published and I got a strong response from readers that felt very validating.  As far as I was concerned, that incident was a sign that I must keep plugging away with my writing and don’t let the turkeys get me down.  (What a great phrase, eh?)

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I shouldn’t put all my eggs in one basket with any one contact, project or dream.  Believe me, at age forty-four, apart from my first job, I’ve dealt with promotion-related issues throughout my work history.  After I left the special event production company, I became a certified personal trainer.  I built up my own business at a popular gym whose members included the founder of Netflix and the editor of our biggest local newspaper – these people could afford personal trainers!  I advertised myself and my training services to prospective clients, and I was able to achieve a modest success.  After working in fitness for a couple years, I worked at three different non-profits:  Friends of the Santa Cruz Libraries, COBHA/The College of Botanical Healing Arts, and Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks.

My jobs focused on administration and development, and I was required to help promote their numerous special events.   I was expected to be knowledgable and enthusiastic about each non-profit’s mission.  While I loved the public library system, botanical healing products, and our gorgeous local state parks, none of these worthy organizations captured my heart.  At these three workplaces I suffered from chronic depression and I wouldn’t be diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder until years later.

Even if I hadn’t been depressed when I worked with these groups of dedicated, talented people, I still would have been less than fired-up working with them because I wasn’t truly passionate about the causes – yes, even the libraries!

During my pre-bipolar diagnosis years, I always thought that if I could find the right job that inspired me, I’d give it my all and I would be successful.  Well, ever since I left the University of California at Santa Cruz when I was twenty-one, I’ve been writing, mostly without pay, because I love to do it.  (I know I’m preaching to the choir here.)  When I reached my late twenties and I achieved my dream to have my articles published in national magazines and I actually got paid for them, I realized that I could be a writer, but I still didn’t go for it and make writing my “real” job.

Now I finally do have the opportunity to “go for it” and complete my book Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder.   I’ve written eighty pages so far, and I’m at an impasse of sorts.  I’m scared that I won’t achieve my dream to finish writing this book and I’m worried I’ll fall short of my two goals: for it to be interesting and #2) It will help people.  But, the old cliche rings true here – if I don’t give it a shot, I’ll never know.

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What matters is keeping up my habit of typing regularly (or putting pen to paper for some of you) and not giving up.  When it comes to writing, I’ve proved to myself that I am a slow-but-steady writer.  Slow is not always a negative trait – I witnessed my husband Craig Harwood complete his award-winning book Quest for Flight – John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West and have it published by University of Oklahoma.  It took him seven years to write his book, but who cares – he did it.  I’ve also been inspired by my friend the author Rebecca Moore, who wrote Moorestorms: A Guide for the Bipolar Parent and four other books.  She has the gift, along with my favorite authors Madeleine L’Engle and L.M. Montgomery, of being a prolific writer.

Moore, L’Engle and Montgomery were able to keep their noses to the grindstone and complete numerous books in a timely fashion.  I wish they could bottle their talent and fortitude up because I’d be the first to buy it!

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When I do complete my book, I’ll promote the heck out of it.  I consider completing a book similar to having a child, and it’s an enormous accomplishment.  I have respect for anyone who finishes writing a book, whether or not it wins the National Book Award.  Just call me Dyane “Turtle” Harwood, because I will be crossing the finish line of completing Birth of a New Brain someday , and when I do, I’ll become a P.R. whiz.  Just wait and see! 😉

I’d love to read about how you promote yourself , your blog and your books – feel free to comment below…

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The Fateful Week – A Journey with Postpartum Bipolar Disorder

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Yesterday I was honored to be asked to submit a piece of writing about my experience with postpartum bipolar disorder to Postpartum Progress (www.postpartumprogress.com).  Postpartum Progress is a highly acclaimed organization helping women with postpartum mood disorders all over the world.  Here is a description on their website about what they offer:

“Postpartum Progress® offers in-depth information, community and hope for pregnant and new moms with postpartum depression and all other mental illnesses related to pregnancy and childbirth (including postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, depression during pregnancy, post-adoption depression, postpartum PTSD, depression after miscarriage or perinatal loss and postpartum psychosis). We know that perinatal mood and anxiety disorders like PPD are temporary and treatable with professional help.  We are fiercely proud to be the world’s most widely-read blog dedicated to these illnesses, with more than 1.1 million pageviews annually. Our award-winning site is consistently ranked among the top blogs in both the categories of depression and pregnancy/childbirth.”

The below article is a highly condensed version of what took place before and after my diagnosis.  This post will give you an idea of the main events that occurred during the fall when I was diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder.  

On a warm Indian summer night, I was a sweaty nine months pregnant when my water broke.  During my pregnancy I tested positive for Group B streptococcus, a bacterium in my body that could result in a life-threatening infection to my baby. Right after my water broke, my husband Craig called the hospital to see if there was a room available. Due to my having the Group B bacterial infection, he was instructed by the maternity nurse to get us to the hospital right away. In pain, I stayed up all night in labor, not sleeping one wink.  This innocent-sounding act — enduring one night without sleep — would be my biochemical trigger for postpartum bipolar disorder.  Despite my having a strong family history of bipolar disorder, at age thirty-seven, I didn’t have any inkling that mental illness was latent in me.  My first daughter Avonlea had been born almost two years earlier, and I was incredibly fortunate that I did not have a postpartum mood disorder following her birth.

My second daughter Marilla was born at noon, on August 26th, 2007; I was thrilled she was a robust seven pounds.  During the first two days of Marilla’s life, obstetricians and nurses examined me at the hospital, and I visited with family and friends, but no one detected that I was in jeopardy.  At first I was hypomanic, exuberant with joy over the birth, and I appeared relatively normal.  Sweet Marilla attracted most of the attention.  However, I sensed I was in growing trouble of some kind, but my fear of being an inept mother caused me to keep my feelings inside.

Since we didn’t have family members immediately available to help us, my mother gave us the gift of a postpartum doula named Grace.  Grace and I had planned that she be with us after Marilla’s birth, but she had a completely unanticipated allergic reaction.  She wasn’t able to join our family until four days following Marilla’s debut.  As Grace hadn’t known my personality well before coming to work with us, and she didn’t realize that my manic behavior was different than how I had been before Marilla was born, although she was absolutely concerned with what she witnessed.  Grace was wonderful with our girls and with me and Craig; she was an excellent doula, but she couldn’t rescue me from my dire situation – no one could at that point.  Grace had worked with over 150 mothers; while some of them suffered from postpartum depression, none of them presented with postpartum mania like I did.

The deceptive part of postpartum mania is that people often think the new mother is simply happy to have a baby.  After Marilla’s birth, I was filled with an overwhelming amount of joy and energy.  However, not one of my state-of-the-art maternity center nurses, OB-GYN’s, or our pediatrician detected my mania right away.  My father had bipolar one disorder, so I had a genetic predisposition to the mood disorder.  Furthermore, I had suffered clinical depression ten years prior to Marilla’s birth.  (Recent studies have shown that women with clinical depression prior to childbirth have a much greater chance of being diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder.) 

During my hypomanic state, I could feel my brain thinking much, much faster than it had before.  I also had a very rare condition triggered in tandem with bipolar called hypergraphia, which is compulsive writing.  I had been a freelance writer for years, but this kind of writing was totally different than how I wrote before childbirth.  Once I returned home from the hospital, I simply could not stop writing.  I wrote at every opportunity, even during breastfeeding, and it was completely bizarre!

During my sleepless nights postpartum, in a well-meaning effort to get me to stop typing, Craig hid my laptop.  As he slept, I cleaned for a good part of the night as quietly as I could.  While I scrubbed countertops and organized drawers at 3:00 a.m., I yearned to have some semblance of peace and balance in my life. I also went online and typed lengthy emails to friends.  I didn’t realize that my friends would be able to view the actual time I sent their emails, and some of them later told me they were puzzled that I was writing such lengthy epistles to them in the wee hours, night after night.

After I barely slept for so many days in a row, I was feeling much the way I imagined a coke addict would feel.  I was revving with energy, but I felt exhausted and I was on the brink of an emotional outburst. Still, nothing too dramatic happened, so no one thought I should consult a psychiatrist.  During that fateful postpartum week, my brain chemistry was markedly awry in every part of my body.  Apart from cleaning the house, I had the other classic signs of mania: tons of energy, pressured speech, no appetite and loss of weight.  Because it was hard for me to sit still for any length of time, my mania affected my ability to adequately breastfeed my baby. At Marilla’s one-week check-up we discovered her weight had dropped almost a pound, which perplexed my pediatrician, but at that point he did not recognize my mania.

After five days without sleep, I knew that I was sinking fast and that something needed to change. I called my OB/GYN and told her medical assistant Priscilla I couldn’t sleep. Priscilla suggested I try an over-the-counter drug such as Benedryl, but I sheepishly asked if I could try something stronger than that, because Benedryl had never made me sleepy in the past.  With my OB/GYN’s approval, Priscilla phoned in a prescription for Ambien.

I also felt compelled to speak with another mother who had experienced a postpartum crisis.  I called our local Postpartum “Warmline” but the number was disconnected!  I was incredulous and angry that such an important hotline had vanished. (I later found out it disappeared due to a budget cut.) I called information asking if they had some kind of a postpartum support line, but the operator couldn’t find a number, and I got even more discouraged. Finally, I called our local maternity hospital’s lactation center and they gave me the number of the Postpartum Support International (PSI) Bay Area hotline. The PSI volunteer I called, Linda, encouraged me to consider medication to help me sleep.  Her suggestion validated my earlier decision to ask my OB/GYN for a sleep aid.  After we ended our conversation, I felt so comforted in speaking with someone who understood how difficult the postpartum period was.   After taking my first sleeping pill, I got the first decent night’s sleep I had in five nights and I felt a little rested the following day. 

A month after Marilla was born, I knew I had mania; after all, I had witnessed mania firsthand in my Dad.  Before I told Craig or anyone else, I surfed the internet looking for anything related to postpartum mania.  I located a statistic that one in one thousand mothers who give birth will succumb to postpartum mania.  Then the name “Dr. Alice W. Flaherty” appeared in my postpartum mania search.  She was a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, a Harvard professor, and renowned author of The Midnight Disease, an examination of the drive to write, writer’s block and the creative brain. In The Midnight Disease Dr. Flaherty courageously shares her own experience with hypergraphia, the heartbreaking death of her newborn twins, and her hospitalization for a postpartum mood disorder. I couldn’t believe my luck, for I had the gut feeling that this woman could help me.  I made the necessary calls to track down her assistant. 

Miraculously, I was able to reach Dr. Flaherty the following day.  Before we spoke, I shared with Craig about my suspicions and he wanted to be part of our conversation.  Dr. Flaherty generously made time for us to have a brief, pro bono phone consultation. Dr. Flaherty recognized my mania as she heard my pressurized speech pattern, and helped me calm down.  She said right off the bat, “I need you to focus right now.”  Focus I did.  Dr. Flaherty shared with me how medication stabilized her own postpartum mania.  She also strongly encouraged me to consider using formula as a supplement for Marilla, which I did. 

I scheduled an appointment with the psychiatrist I had seen for depression, but before I saw him, it was time for Marilla’s six-week checkup.  I brought Marilla in to our razor-sharp, UCLA-trained pediatrician.  Before arriving at his office I had gathered a bunch of thank-you gifts for him.  When I greeted him, he listened to my racing voice and observed the plethora of presents.  I’ll never forget how he blurted out, “You’re manic!”  I immediately burst into tears.  While I felt embarrassed and ashamed, a part of me felt relieved that he figured out what was happening with me.  From the point on, my mental condition deteriorated and instead of seeing my former psychiatrist it was clear to me that I needed hospitalization. It broke my heart to leave my family, but I admitted myself into our local hospital’s mental unit.  It was there I was officially diagnosed with bipolar one disorder and I took my first mood stabilizer. 

In the eight years since I was diagnosed, research organizations have been studying postpartum bipolar disorder.  A prominent 2013 study appeared in the journal Bipolar Disorders.  This study suggests that women with a prior history of depression should be screened for hypomanic symptoms after giving birth.  Canadian researchers asserted that childbirth is a potent, specific trigger for mania or hypomania.  They found the number of women who transition from depression to bipolar II disorder following birth is 11 to 18 times higher than rates reported for women who hadn’t recently given birth. 

I feel that it’s imperative the doctors and other caregivers who assess women for postpartum depression also screen them for hypomanic or manic symptoms.  My two daughters and husband have suffered immeasurably due to my postpartum bipolar disorder.  On the bright side, they have also observed my hard-won recovery.  After years of trying many medications, numerous hospitalizations and even two courses of electroconvulsive therapy, I am finally stable.  Bipolar disorder ravages many relationships, but Craig and I have been married for fifteen years.  With the guidance of counselors and psychiatrists, our marriage is stronger and more precious than ever before.  I am a member of the International Bipolar Foundation’s Consumer Advisory Board and I blog for them as well.  With any mood disorder, community support can be incredibly helpful.  To that end, I founded the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) chapter where I live and I facilitated a free women’s support group for two years.  I’m now focusing on my family and working on my book Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar.  Life will always be a challenge living with bipolar one disorder, but my girls have inspired me to work on my recovery with every ounce of my being. 

 Dyane Leshin-Harwood’s bio:

Dyane holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Dyane was diagnosed with Type I Bipolar Disorder in 2007 at age thirty-seven.  A writer, Dyane’s articles have been published in numerous magazines.  She has worked with one of her favorite authors, Madeleine L’Engle, author of the classic A Wrinkle In Time.  She had the thrill of meeting Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, author of the groundbreaking book An Unquiet Mind, to interview her for an article about women, depression and exercise. Dyane is a certified personal trainer with the American Council on Exercise.  Dyane founded the Santa Cruz, California chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA).  She is a member of the International Bipolar Foundation’s (IBPF) Community Action Board and blogs for them at www.ibpf.org.  She was selected as the IBPF’s first 2014 “Story of Hope and Recovery”. Aside from raising her two daughters Avonlea and Marilla with her husband Craig, Dyane is a women’s mental health advocate.  She is a group facilitator for women with bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. Dyane lives in the beautiful Santa Cruz Mountains that attracts a variety of holistic health experts, and she enjoys researching alternative fields in her quest to thrive with bipolar disorder.  She is working on her first book Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder and you can read Dyane’s blog “Birth of a New Brain” at http://www.dyaneharwood.wordpress.com.