A drug allergy and the memory of my postpartum psychosis

“Any drug allergies?” the doctor asks.

I’m seeing a new physician during the after hours clinic at my regular doctor’s office. I think I might have pink eye and I want to make sure the cold I’ve been nursing for a week isn’t pneumonia.

“No,” I say, which is a lie. But it shouldn’t matter. I don’t think the treatment for pink eye is going to involve the drug that caused me so many problems. Really, I just want to avoid the questions that come from the particular drug reaction I experienced.

“Says here you’re allergic to an antipsychotic medication.”

“I am.”

“What happened?”

Every appointment with a new doctor goes down this road.

“I had a psychotic episode when my daughter was born in 2005,” I tell her. “The antipsychotic medication caused muscle cramping.”

“Oh,” she says. “Are you on anything now?”

“No. I’ve been off of all medication for five years.”

“That’s great!”

“It is.”

The exam continues (it was viral conjunctivitis and not pneumonia) and I congratulate myself on how nearly matter of fact the postpartum disorder conversation was on this day. It wasn’t always this easy.

My daughter was born in March of 2005, 7 pounds 4 ounces, beautiful and perfect. The birth was drug-free and if I’d had my full faculties on that first day after her midnight arrival, I’d have known something was wrong. It was as if my body was filled with electrical energy at the moment of delivery. I wheeled the baby’s bassinet from the delivery room to the postpartum unit as a nurse followed with an empty wheelchair. Everyone marvelled at how well I was doing. There was no pain. No tiredness. Only this complete, invincible energy.

Sleepless nights became the norm. I did all of the nighttime feeding and comforting. I was going to breastfeed exclusively. There was no other option.

On nights when I was busted for being awake almost the entire time, my husband would say, “make sure you get a nap today.”

And I would lie and say, “yes, I will do that.”

I had no intention of slowing down.

Sleeplessness and misguided nursing techniques suggested by the hospital’s male lactation consultant gave way to full blown delusions. My husband and I were going to own one of the Big Three auto manufacturers. We were going to buy my parents’ property and all of the surrounding farms to construct our factory. The company would be staffed by family and friends. I had a notebook detailing each person’s skills and their potential position.

I was fascinated by reincarnation at this time and began to spend the hours between feedings online. I researched my family’s lineage and determined in the wee hours of one morning that we were the reincarnated disciples of Christ and my husband was Jesus.

It’s notable that I didn’t have a religious upbringing and was so confused that I couldn’t remember how many disciples Christ actually had. I don’t think I knew.

The month of May brought paranoia and one morning I couldn’t get the phone to work. There was surely some logical explanation, maybe I was only dialling nine numbers, but I became panicked. I dressed the baby haphazardly in a bath robe and left the house to find a working phone.

There was a bit of a family intervention at that point. My husband and parents tried for several days to find someone to treat me on an outpatient basis. When no one would, they took me to the hospital and I voluntarily committed myself.

The road to the antipsychotic medication still listed on my chart was long and filled with many different drugs that produced various unseemly side effects. It was late summer by the time my outpatient psychiatrist told me, “there’s a new med that I think will really help you.”

My family was convinced that my side effects were hypochondria because they so closely matched the informational pamphlets included with the prescriptions. It was decided that this new pill, one that the insurance wouldn’t cover without lengthy preauthorisation, should be a blind trial. We self-paid for three pills, at a cost of $60, and I took one.

I was rounding the last bend on a walk around my neighbourhood, wearing my daughter in one of those baby carriers, when my right foot began to cramp. By the time I reached the door, my right leg was completely rigid.

A call to the doctor revealed that this was a “potentially life-threatening side effect.” By that evening, my neck was too stiff and unruly to hold my head up straight. The leg took weeks to soften and return to normal sensation. A very low dose of another antipsychotic was prescribed and I began to sleep. My husband got up at night to give the baby bottles of formula. They’d switched her while I was in the hospital. Slowly the delusions decreased. It took until my daughter was almost a year old for my mind to clear and return to my control.

Another psychiatrist modified my diagnosis to “mild, sleep-dependent bipolar disorder” and I embarked on a phase of regret and anxiety that this episode might be repeated. Every sleepless night or stressful day was cause for worry. How many nights without sleep does it take for me to become delusional? I would wonder. How much of this can I take? I was afraid to feel happy as it was the euphoria of psychosis that “got me in trouble.” Tiredness and feeling low were preferable to the risk of soaring over to the point of delusion.

My confidence in my own mental health was shaken for years. I had to learn how to trust myself and eventually, I had to be honest. My mental breakdown was nothing I could have controlled on my own, but now, through that experience, I would be able to catch it early if it happened again. I would feel myself slipping. I would seek professional help and the plethora of medicines not included in the class that caused my allergic reaction. I would be okay.

In 2012, I undertook to wean myself from the ¼ of one already low dose pill that helped me conquer persistent insomnia and began sleeping on my own. I told my daughter about what happened, truthfully answering her questions. I own what happened and conquered the fear of a recurrence.

Eventually, I will shed the last vestiges of embarrassment that make me want to erase that drug’s name from my list of allergies. It needs to stay there and I should have no shame in accepting it. It’s a lofty goal for my next appointment with a new doctor.

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