(12-12-22) What causes mental illnesses to surface and interrupt our lives?
A scientist at the National Institute of Mental Health once suggested that I imagine an electrical cord. It works fine until one day when it causes a fire because part of the sheath covering its wires was thinner than the rest of the cord and sparks broke through. This is what happens with a serious mental illness, he explained. Whether or not you accept this theory, it helped me understand why my son, Kevin, had his break when he was in his early 20s after an uneventful childhood.
We know that stress is a trigger and giving birth certainly can be stressful.
Guest Blog by Jessica Ekhoff, author of Super Sad Unicorn: A Memoir of Mania.
Before I had my son, Wells, in February 2021, I read every book about pregnancy and early parenthood I could get my hands on. I thought I was fully prepared to handle anything I might face in the postpartum period. But nothing prepared me for what ultimately happened.
Within a few days of having my son, I began experiencing a slew of bizarre and unexpected symptoms. I became paranoid that my husband, Dane, was trying to have DCFS take Wells away from me. I went through bouts of rage so intense that I blacked out afterward. My thoughts were so confused and disjointed that I started having trouble speaking, and I felt like I never needed to sleep.
The symptoms culminated in me locking myself in a closet at 2:00 a.m. and calling a friend to come and pick me up because I thought Dane was having a mental health crisis and I felt unsafe. Instead, an ambulance took me to the psychiatric ward, where I stayed for six days. I was ultimately diagnosed with postpartum-onset bipolar disorder and psychosis. What I had experienced was an extreme manic episode, catalyzed by the combination of postpartum hormones and the lack of sleep that comes with parenting a newborn.
When I came home from the psychiatric ward, I desperately searched for firsthand accounts from other mothers who had gone through what I was going through and survived, but I found almost nothing. Experiencing extreme mental health struggles during what was supposed to be a joyful time was incredibly isolating. I felt like no one would ever truly understand my experience or be able to relate to me.
Six months after giving birth to Wells, and two months after being discharged from an intensive outpatient group therapy program for pregnant and postpartum women, I started putting my story on paper.
What started as journaling meant to help me process my experience slowly turned into a memoir. I decided I wanted to write the story I wish I could have read during the hardest, loneliest time in my life. My book, Super Sad Unicorn: A Memoir of Mania, will be published a month before Wells’s second birthday.
My hope for the book is that it will give readers a broader understanding of the full range of mental health challenges that can result from having a baby.
I want readers to come away with an extra layer of empathy for the new mothers in their lives. Most importantly, I hope other women who have experienced postpartum-onset bipolar disorder or psychosis feel seen and less alone, and that they understand there is a path to recovery.
In the excerpt from my book below, I had just called my friend Katie at 2:00 a.m. and begged her to come and pick Wells and me up because I feared my husband, Dane, was having a mental breakdown. A few hours later, I found myself in the psychiatric ward.
From Super Sad Unicorn: A Memoir of Mania, by Jessica Ekhoff, excerpt reprinted with author’s permission, New Degree Press publishing.
I hung up and looked down at my hands, which were trembling violently. I clenched them into fists and tried to calm my ragged breath. I had no intention of lying down. Despite not having slept all day, I wasn’t the least bit tired. My mind was racing with all the things I needed to do. Pack a bag for myself. Gather all of Wells’s things and bring his car seat inside. Figure out how to get Dane professional help. My mind stuck on the last item. It was so incredibly unfair. I had so much going on. It wasn’t right for me to have to worry about Dane too. Suddenly, I had an idea.
I picked up my phone and called Dane’s dad. When he answered, I didn’t even bother to say hello.
“Eric, I need your help. Something is wrong with Dane, and I don’t have the capacity to deal with it.” My words came tumbling out of my mouth. “He’s losing his damn mind at the worst possible time.” Anger began to billow in my chest. “I don’t know if he needs therapy, or meds, or to go to the hospital, and I shouldn’t be the one to have to figure it out.” I could feel myself getting more and more worked up at the injustice of it all. I could no longer moderate my voice. I started to yell. “I can’t believe he’s choosing right now to fall apart. I just gave birth in the middle of a fucking pandemic. I’ve got enough going on without having to worry about Dane too. I need to be focused on myself and Wells and nothing else. He needs to get his fucking act together!”
Dane and my mom had begun whispering urgently outside the bedroom door, but I ignored them. I needed Eric to jump into action. I couldn’t be the only grown‐up in the room who was managing to hold it all together. I needed someone else on my team.
“You need to do something, Eric. I don’t know what, but I need you to figure it out and then do it. I can’t handle this all on my own. Dane has completely abandoned me and I need him to get the fuck over himself and come back to reality. I need my fucking husband back!” My heart was beating heavily against my rib cage and my entire body was trembling. But it felt good to finally ask for what I needed. I was so used to taking care of everyone else, but it was my turn to be selfish. Someone else was going to have to swoop in and save the day for once.
“So, can I count on you to fix this?” I demanded.
“You don’t have to worry. Everything is going to be fine.” Eric’s voice sounded unnaturally slow. Was he somehow failing to grasp that this was an emergency? Why wasn’t he springing into action as the situation warranted?
“I need you to fucking do something, Eric! Your son is falling the fuck apart and I need you to do something!” I was screaming now. “Do you get it? Do you hear me? Do something!” My voice was beginning to feel hoarse.
I could hear Dane in the hallway, louder now. I heard him say “mental health crisis” and “emergency.” I threw the door open and saw Dane on the phone. “What are you doing? Who are you talking to?” I demanded.
Dane didn’t answer, and instead turned and hurried down the hallway. I tried to follow him, but my mom blocked my way.
“Who are you talking to?” I yelled over my mom’s shoulder.
I heard Dane giving the person on the other end of the line our address and asking them to hurry.
“Are you calling 911? Are you kidding me? You’re the one losing your fucking mind and you’re calling 911 on me? No! I’m calling 911 on you!”
I raced back down the hallway to our bedroom and slammed the door behind me. What the hell was going on? Was I in some sort of twisted alternate reality? My husband was falling to pieces before my very eyes, and now on top of everything he had somehow convinced himself that I was the one with the problem?
I locked myself in our bathroom and dialed 911. My hands were shaking so badly I could barely press the numbers. When the dispatcher answered, I told her my husband was having a mental health crisis and I needed her to send someone immediately.
“Are you safe right now?” the dispatcher asked.
I checked the knob to make sure the door was locked. “Yes. I’m locked in a bathroom.”
“All right, ma’am. Are you able to stay there until the paramedics arrive?”
“Yes.” My teeth were starting to chatter. What had happened to my picture-perfect life?
To read more, visit Jessica Ekhoff’s webpage.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jessica Ekhoff is a trademark and advertising attorney by day
Jessica Ekhoff’s Author’s Photo
and a figure skating, podcast, and fiction enthusiast by night. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their toddler son. She is one of the co-leaders of the Chicago chapter of Climb Out of the Darkness, an event supporting Postpartum Support International (PSI), and she facilitates PSI’s support group for postpartum women with bipolar disorder.
For more information, you can connect with Jessica on Instagram @JessicaEkhoff or send her an email at JessicaEkhoff@gmail.com.