MY BIPOLAR, WHICH FOR THE MOST PART HAD LAID DORMANT FOR THE SIX YEARS PRIOR, ERUPTED AFTER THE BIRTH OF MY DAUGHTER.
Within weeks of my daughter’s arrival, I had horrible waking dreams, night terrors that I had left her in my bed and fallen asleep, and she got suffocated or forever lost in the duvet. They were so vivid and one of the most distressing things I’ve experienced.
Then I sensed, not quite heard, but sensed, this violent masculine voice almost without fail, at her 3am feed: “Why don’t you bang her head against the wall?” I would never bang her head against the wall. Or do anything this voice told me to do. If it popped up during the day and I was with someone else, I would tell them I’m sorry, but I can’t be with my baby right now, please can you help while I calm myself.
Then panic attacks. Then the thought that I had psychic powers.
I WAS SLEEP-DEPRIVED. DESPERATE FOR SLEEP. THEN WITH THE NIGHT OF TERRORS I WAS SCARED TO FALL ASLEEP. NEXT I DIDN’T NEED MUCH SLEEP AT ALL.
I was awake, cleaning the kitchen, catching up on laundry at 3am. Sending emails to my boss about amazing fundraising opportunities and long rambling messages to my family and friends. Trying to do some copywriting work in the dead of night. In short, everything but what I should be doing – sleeping.
WHEN YOU DON’T HAVE THE LANGUAGE FOR AN EXPERIENCE, YOU CAN EITHER SHRUG IT OFF AND THINK THAT IT IS NORMAL, OR YOU CAN AMPLIFY IT UNTIL IT BECOMES ISOLATING AND SCARY.
My brain and body were experiencing two seismic shifts: psychosis and matrescence. Each on their own are massive. Going through both at the same time threatened to destroy me.
WHAT IS PSYCHOSIS?
From: mothersmatter.nz: “The most severe form of postpartum depression (PPD) is known as postpartum psychosis. This occurs in one to two out of every 1,000 pregnancies. Postpartum psychosis is commonly seen in women with bipolar disorder; however, research has shown that many women are misdiagnosed with postpartum major depressive disorder due to the absence of a manic or hypomanic episode at the time of diagnosis. Some affected women may experience a break in reality that causes them to have delusions or unusual thoughts that they believe to be accurate. Additionally, they may report hallucinations, irritability, hyperactivity, decreased need for or inability to sleep, paranoia, rapid mood swings, or difficulty with communication.”
WHAT IS MATRESCENCE?
Matrescence is the “physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition to becoming a mother.” It’s not something that’s talked about much in general discourse.
Dr Jen from Tough Mothers is doing all she can to change that.
PART OF WHAT MADE ME SICK WAS THE EXPECTATIONS I PLACED ON MYSELF, AND HOW HEAVY THEY WERE.
I “should” exclusively breastfeed my baby until six months; I “should” be able to have lots of visitors and get the rest I need. I “should” return to my pre-baby weight, my pre-baby lifestyle, my pre-baby work as soon as possible. I “should” know how to keep a tidy home and not argue with my husband. I “should” know the difference between what’s normal for me and what’s a symptom of something.
We give adolescents a fair amount of grace when they go through the transition from young person to adult. Why aren’t we the same with ourselves when we become a new mum or with other new mums?
“ADOLESCENCE IS A GRADUAL PROCESS –
it isn’t instant in the way motherhood can be divided into pre-baby and post-baby life. But we need to be forgiving of ourselves, and to acknowledge that it might take time to adjust to all the shifts and challenges happening at once. Your body, your brain chemistry and your identity are all changing.”
UNDERSTANDING MATRESCENCE WOULD BE HELPFUL WHEN YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT STARTING A FAMILY AND AGAIN WHEN YOU FALL PREGNANT.
At the time, I thought antenatal classes were helpful, even inspiring at times, but as I reflect on them now, it was just surface-level stuff. The focus was on the baby and the external or physical things. The birth – which is a big deal, but one moment in time. Like before you get married you might focus all your energy on the wedding day and not what it’s like to actually be married. What that does to your identity.
The external, physical things – how to put on a nappy, how to read baby’s cues, how to drink cold coffee – can all be picked up. What’s much harder is the identity shift, the loss, the grief of the life you once had. You’re grateful, of course you’re grateful if it’s planned, you have the privilege of being a mum, but you’re going to compare your new life to the life you once lived, the freedom and impulsivity you once enjoyed.
NOBODY CAN GO THROUGH MATRESCENCE FOR YOU.
My introduction to matrescence was muddied when I experienced postpartum bipolar and a full-blown psychotic episode.
WHERE DID THE MANIA END AND MATRESCENCE BEGIN?
I remember fantasising about going for long car rides by myself or checking into a hotel for a couple of nights. I wanted the impulsivity back. I wanted my freedom back. This made me feel yuck about myself and ashamed – further adding to my postnatal distress.
The thing about matrescence – and any experience with mental distress – is it’s so important to have a label, a framework, a context to hang your experiences onto. I wish I was introduced to matrescence during antenatal classes, or during my interactions with psychiatrists and the maternal mental health team. I wish we discussed it at coffee groups instead of who needed the least amount of pain relief during birth (not me, by the way).
But we hardly have the language for it. How can we talk about a thing when we don’t realise it’s even a thing?
How can you practice mindfulness or meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy when you don’t have a reference for these changes?
I THINK BIPOLAR ONLY GOES SO FAR IN EXPLAINING MY CHANGED THOUGHTS AND BEHAVIOUR. MATRESCENCE WAS STILL HAPPENING WHETHER I HAD A WORD FOR IT OR NOT.
A few months later, after being hospitalised and diagnosed, I slowly began to feel more myself. Whatever that is after matrescence. I started reading Dear Mummy, you’re important too by Tui Fleming. The exercises on self-awareness and self-care and finding your identity – during the sleepless nights, disturbing thoughts, and unending nappy changes – were so nourishing to me at that time.
Once you’re in the mental health system, you get access to new support around motherhood and planning your family. When we were ready to think about trying for another baby, we got to have pre-conception counselling.
During pre-conception counselling, we talked about medication, the risk factors and the concern that bipolar is genetic, so there is a chance of it being knitted into your child’s genes. My deepest concerns were the impact of the medication on a foetus and then the breastfed baby. It’s not without its risks. But it’s also dangerous for your growing baby if you stop taking medication and become unwell again. It’s a delicate balance.
Also, pregnancy and the postpartum period are some of the biggest risk factors for setting off a bipolar episode – either a deep depression or an uncontrollable high. Or both. We wanted to grow our family, but the idea came with its anxieties.
MATRESCENCE NEEDS TO BECOME A COMMON WORD, A GO-TO WORD IN OUR VOCABULARY.
I hope that when I write matrescence on my updated version of Word that it’s recognised and not underlined by a red squiggle.
Whatever the make-up of families, I hope that fathers and other caregivers understand matrescence too, so that they know how to best support mothers. I hope that matrescence is talked about in antenatal classes, maternal mental health support groups and coffee groups.
Just as we give grace to adolescents as they go through their seismic shifts, so should we extend grace and understanding to ourselves and other mothers as we transform – emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually.
And when I’m being kind to the mum I was, I remind myself that I just wanted to be mothered. I wanted to be held and listen to lullabies and live in a safe, gentle cocoon. I did listen to a lot of lullabies with my daughter in the first three years of her life – as much for my benefit as for hers. Lullabies are a gentle antidote to the mean voice in your head telling you you’re a piece of crap and you don’t deserve to be here.
I found myself turning to lullabies in languages I don’t understand. Most had a kind of melancholy sewn through the melody which I appreciated. For me, matrescence and melancholy are first cousins.
Matrescence is a nod to the past and a mirror, forcing you to reflect on how you were mothered and how you want to mother. It forces you to stop neglecting your inner child and think about how you speak to yourself. How you self-soothe. Or self-harm. How you sit with your emotions and your fears and your darkest thoughts.
SOME PEOPLE LOOK LIKE THEY GLIDE THROUGH MATRESCENCE. YOU KNOW THE ONES. THEY LOOK NATURAL AND INSTINCTIVE AND RESPONSIVE. THEY LOOK SERENE AND BEAUTIFUL AND UNSCATHED.
I thought I was doing well. I thought my mania was sheer, unadulterated happiness. It was a relief as I expected to be depressed.
I thought I was a natural. Maybe it was adrenalin. We were experiencing a lot of stress.
Writing this is painful. That’s another reason why I want to have another baby. I want to try and have a more serene start to motherhood.
Although matrescence is not a common word, it’s still loaded.
I surrounded myself with so many ideologies and so much pressure at a time when I was feeling rubbed raw and vulnerable. Thinking about it now, I do that a lot. It’s a form of self-sabotage – stockpiling on different people’s opinions, drowning my own intuition out with the voice and advice from experts.
Everything becomes polarising and stripped of nuance.
Cloth nappies or destroy the environment.
Breastfeed or open your baby to infection.
Take your medication or drink green smoothies and eat activated almonds.
I DON’T THINK MATRESCENCE CONVENIENTLY STOPS AFTER THE FOURTH TRIMESTER (THE THREE MONTHS AFTER BUBS IS BORN).
We become new versions of mums when our child first goes to kindy, and then school, college and leaving home. Each milestone demands a new way of being. New decisions to make. New identities to try on.
When my daughter went to school, I felt quite overwhelmed by the invitations we received to participate. The events and the paper slips. The fundraisers and the parent’s mornings. I talked to my counsellor about this. With each experience, she said, you navigate the new choices you face.
Participating at school as a parent, like most things, exists on a spectrum. At one end there’s little to no engagement – and I mean no judgment here, some parents can’t afford to participate, especially during school hours. To the other extreme, there’s the parent who’s on every board, attends every PTA meeting, sets up and runs fundraisers, you name it.
I need to ask myself where do I fit? Somewhere in the middle, I think.
So matrescence isn’t a one-time experience. A set and forget. I’m going to keep going through it. I’m grateful that I now know that there is a word for it. Like my bipolar diagnosis five years ago, I can now reframe what I went through (and what I’ll probably go through again at some stage) and how I behaved and forgive myself for where I fell short. I did my best. I continue to do my best
I WONDER WHAT IT’S GOING TO BE LIKE WHEN WE FIRST TELL OUR DAUGHTER ABOUT MY BIPOLAR CONDITION.
For now, I’m parking it and doing my best to focus on the mother I was made to be – imperfect but whole, trusting my intuition but letting some expert voices in, leaning on other people’s support while being myself.
And trying my darndest to forgive myself when I screw up. Because I will, and that’s okay.
Written by Katie Rickson from Compassion Poetry and reproduced with permission
Mental Health Support
If the topics in this episode are triggering for you, or if you need support, please contact your doctor or local mental health service. Simply Google “mental health help”.