In a highly personal post to her 32 million followers Monday afternoon, Adele revealed that her best friend, Laura Dockrill, recently survived postpartum psychosis, a mental illness that strikes one to two out of 1,000 women who give birth each year. Characterized by paranoia, hallucinations, and rapid mood swings, it is an affliction that’s often overlooked in discussions of maternal health — making Adele’s post all the more powerful.
“This is my best friend. We have been friends for more of our lives than we haven’t,” Adele writes. “She had my beautiful godson 6 months ago and it was the biggest challenge of her life in more ways than one.” Dockrill, who also attended the BRIT School for the Performing Arts in England, is a writer and illustrator who has decided to use her own experience to make others feel less alone, Adele says.
“She has written the most intimate, witty, heartbreaking and articulate piece about her experience of becoming a new mum and being diagnosed with postpartum psychosis,” Adele writes. “Mamas talk about how you’re feeling because in some cases it could save yours or someone else’s life x”
Dockrill’s piece, published on the blog Mother of All Lists, goes into excruciating detail about what it’s like to endure postpartum psychosis. For the U.K. artist, the symptoms began immediately after giving birth in February. After a “dream” of an easy pregnancy, Dockrill said her birth experience was “horrifying,” involving an emergency C-section and the revelation that her son was severely underweight.
In the days after his birth, Dockrill says she was left “sobbing” and in pain, both from the wounds of her C-section and a rapid sense of “doom” about her new role as a parent. “The second I got home and into bed I was drenched in this terrifying overwhelming sense of fear and dread,” she writes. “Like that Sunday-night-before-school feeling times a million. I felt like I was dying. My breath was short and tight, my heart was pounding out of my chest and my stomach churned.”
As the weeks went on, she says the feelings of panic and dread only worsened — eventually leading to severe depression, suicidal thoughts, and full-blown paranoia. “My psychosis took a dark turn. I still can’t exactly work out what exactly happened or what form it took on, all I know is I was completely terrified, lost, confused and scared for myself and my son,” she writes. “I didn’t trust ANYBODY — I even accused Hugo [my boyfriend] of kidnapping our baby.”
Dockrill says her family moved into her living room with “blankets and shopping bags full of baguettes and fruit and set up camp to help.” But at that point Dockrill was too sick to even understand why they were there. “My personal compass had gone, my maternal instinct had vanished,” she writes. “I was an insecure self-hating soulless shell with no confidence, I lost all faith in myself. I felt like I had done something terrible in my past and I was being punished for it.”
After watching her teetering on the edge of collapse, her family staged an intervention, which landed Dockrill in the hospital for two weeks. Through medicine, therapy, and lots of support, the dark cloud finally lifted and the artist and new mother began to feel like herself again. But getting there took an enormous amount of strength — something she wants to help other women find.
“Talking about this has been a huge part of my recovery and I was constantly searching for any stories that offered me hope or salvation in this dark and testing time, so that’s why I’ve shared this and to raise awareness of this awful sickness and to confront the stigma,” she writes. “Birth and motherhood are]a shock to the system and traumatic, and we shouldn’t have to suffer in silence.”
Her story — beyond brave — sheds light on the overlooked issue of maternal mental health. Karen Kleiman, a maternal health expert, author, and founder of the Postpartum Stress Center in Pennsylvania, says understanding these issues ahead of time is key. “Postpartum psychosis is a serious mental illness that requires immediate medical intervention and hospitalization,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Onset is rapid and occurs as early as two to three days after childbirth.”
Kleiman, who has also written multiple books on maternal mental health, says recognizing that something is wrong early on can help with treatment. For warning signs, she lists “hyperactivity, excitability, overactive preoccupation with strange beliefs, thoughts or delusions, religious references, paranoia, lack of trust, not able to sleep or less need for sleep, speaking rapidly, racing thoughts, and confused speech.”
Although the strongest predictor for the condition is a history of bipolar disorder, Kleiman says it can also occur in women with no history of mental illness — another reason that vigilance is key. “Often, it is people closest to mom who first notice that something feels off,” Kleiman tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Any concern that mom is not acting like herself should be taken extremely seriously and called to the attention of her healthcare provider.”
Susan Benjamin Feingold, a clinical psychologist, author, and advocate for postpartum psychosis, echoes the need for a quick reaction. “Women with postpartum psychosis are delusional; therefore, it’s not safe. They can hurt themselves or their baby,” she tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It’s an emergency situation that requires immediate hospitalization.”
Feingold, one of the nation’s leading experts on postpartum psychosis, says that Dockrill’s birth story sounds like the “perfect storm” — one that puts a much-needed microscope on a stigmatized condition. “Good for this woman for having the perseverance and endurance to stick around and come forward,” Feingold tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The more people know about these things, the more they need to get help so things don’t get worse.”
With treatment — medicine and therapy — women can make a full recovery. But in some cases, those who don’t can end up in situations that turn deadly. “Of the women with postpartum psychosis, approximately 4 to 5 percent commit suicide, and 1 to 4 percent commit infanticide (killing their own infant),” Feingold says. “That’s the absolute worst-case scenario.”
Although some countries — including the U.K. — offer protection for mothers who commit infanticide, there is no federal law in the U.S. that keeps women in these situations safe. Hoping to change that, Feingold helped pass an Illinois law that took effect in June and is the first law in the nation that protects women with postpartum psychosis from facing criminal sentences.
While shifting the legal landscape is vitally important, Feingold says that stories like Dockrill’s prove that there can be a happy ending when treatment takes place. “It’s excruciating, but it is a chemical imbalance that is treatable,” she says. “The more people are talking about this, the more likely they will be to get help or to prepare someone else to look for the signs if they are at risk.”
Secrecy about the condition is something Dockrill says exacerbated the symptoms. “I tried to hide my illness from my family and friends because I was so full with shame and guilt because there is a huge expectation on women to be perfect beautiful glowing mama queens that are all encompassing wonderbeasts that can manage anything and hold it all together whilst wearing one of those hippy wrap-around slings, in cool Nike trainers and red lipstick but it is HARD and FALSE,” she writes. “And sometimes — like in my case, way too big to hide — now I know hiding it is the worst thing you can do.”
Now she’s reclaiming her story — and hoping to prevent it from happening to someone else.
“It’s not easy to admit that the worst time of your life was when your baby was born,” Dockrill says. “Social media gives a very shiny exterior of life to be frank and it’s not the full picture, so I wanted to unlock some doors and be honest — I’ve been somewhere I can’t unsee and — in case there is anybody out there struggling — to open up a dialogue and say it’s OK.”
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