“I was caught in a whirl of racing, obsessive thoughts, which is how many people describe their bouts of mania. Instead of noticing my baby girl’s sweet scent or feeling her rose-petal soft skin, all I could think was, I must write this idea down, and this, and this…,” writes Dyane Harwood.
In her new book, Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder, Harwood offers an unfiltered, unedited and heart-wrenching journey through postpartum bipolar disorder and reminds us all that, even in the seemingly worst circumstances, hope can remain.
Harwood’s story begins in the delivery room, a place where mania and hypomania can commonly be mistaken for the elation of bringing a new baby into the world. She writes, “During my two days at Sutter Maternity Hospital, I didn’t say a word to anyone about how I was feeling. My fear of being designated an unfit mother made me keep my disturbing thoughts to myself.”
The reality for Harwood was that at the time she gave birth, in 2007, little was known about postpartum depression, mania or bipolar disorder.
In Harwood’s case, just days after giving birth, she found herself in a state of hypergrafia, where she was writing manically. “I never knew hypergraphia existed until I experienced it firsthand. When I was hypergraphic, I wrote so much that my wrist cramped up in agonizing pain. I shook it vigorously to stop the aching, but the pain returned within seconds. I couldn’t stop writing for a moment, even when I breastfed my precious newborn or while answering the call of nature,” she writes.
As Harwood’s mania spiraled out of control, her creativity on overdrive, she wrote long into the night and, when her husband hid her computer, she began filling blank pages of a book. Finally, after being awake for several days, struggling to hide her mania from her extended family, and realizing that her newborn was underweight because she couldn’t focus long enough to breastfeed, she told her husband that she needed to go to the hospital.
Harwood’s mania, however, compounded her understanding of her diagnosis, offering a false sense of confidence and even excitement. She writes, “My mania acted as a buffer that prevented me from feeling upset. Now that I was officially diagnosed, my life made sense in an ineffable way. I felt joyful when I picked up the phone to call my father. I was, in fact, experiencing the grandiose thoughts of mania.”
The other side of bipolar is depression, and when Harwood finally came down from her mania and attempted to find relief from her depression in medication, nothing seemed to work. One pill, in fact, almost took her life.
She writes, “Two thoughts, one rational and one deadly, battled against one another in my mind: You don’t want to leave your girls — you can’t do it! I must hang myself.”
Thankfully, Harwood’s husband noticed her distress and quickly took her to the hospital. However, any relief was compounded by escalating medical bills and an uncertain future.
As Harwood’s depression continued unabated, she fell into a state of despondence, unable to work, concentrate or even try to improve her mental state.
After asking her psychiatrist about alternative medications, and hearing that it had never been effective, Harwood began researching on her own.
And she also stopped taking her medication. When she read one of her husband’s emails to his brother explaining that her mental state was deteriorating and he was contemplating separation, at first she tried to hide her fury behind a fake smile, but later exploded on him, tearing his shirt and punching him in the shoulder.
When her father died, Harwood’s depression reached new depths and after an exhaustive search for effective medication, she asked for electroconvulsive therapy.
Finally, for the first time since the birth of her second child, Harwood found a sense of hope. She writes, “ECT saved my life. The risks were completely worth it.”
However, shortly thereafter, Harwood again tried to go off her medication, this time convincing herself that she was “tapering.” When she finds herself depressed during what should have been an uplifting family vacation in Hawaii, she realized, finally, that she must take medication — and also, accept responsibility for her mental health.
She writes, “On certain days I’m exhausted physically, mentally, or both, and I want to crawl into my bed and hide. But if I stick to my routine, I surprise myself and find the effort is worth it. Taking care of myself is empowering, and there’s nothing indulgent or selfish about it. The more we practice self-care when life is relatively calm, the better equipped we’ll be in facing difficulties or crises when they occur.”
With sharp honesty, Birth of a New Brain presents postpartum as it is: full of starts and stops, missteps, false hope, staggering depression, and finally, acceptance that healing begins from within — with a commitment to maintain a consistent routine of self-care.
Birth of a New Brain: Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder
Post Hill Press, October 2017
Softcover, 208 Pages