Jennifer Hentz Moyer, author of A Mother’s Climb Out of Darkness: A Story About Overcoming Postpartum Psychosis, speaks to Women’s Health Today.
It was as if I’d suddenly started speaking a language that no one around me had ever heard. I could not explain what was happening to me to anyone I loved; the gulf in our experience had grown too vast.
What I remember of that day is my growing sense of panic. My mind and heart began to race, and I started to shake with fear. Why, I didn’t know. I tried to tell myself there was nothing to fear, but I could not relax physically. I couldn’t calm my mind. I could not remember who I had been before this illness took control of my life. All I knew was that I was in terrible danger.
Postpartum psychosis is the rarest of the mental illnesses related to childbearing, but it is also the most serious. Jennifer, how did you come to write a book about it?
I always loved to write but when I lost my mother in a car accident, her death was devastating. The tragedy of this loss led me to act.
Reflecting on my personal experience with postpartum psychosis, I know that suicide is one of the leading causes of death with relation to childbearing. The tragedy of untreated mental health complications following birth is that children are growing up without their mothers. I had my amazing mother in my life for 35 years. I cannot imagine those years without her. So after her death, I sat down and began my journey of writing. The title of the book and the chapter names came to me quickly, but it took 3 years to compile a full-length book.
The challenge came in trying to get the book published. It got rejected repeatedly. Then, finally, I prayed to either make it happen or take the desire away. My literary agent was not a mother, yet she saw the importance of my story. Finding her was a blessing as I did not have the resources to self-publish. Everyone has a story to share. Over the years, this has been a very healing process for me. Not everyone can write a book but everyone should share their story because out of our trials we are called to encourage and comfort others.
Why do you say, “Sometimes I wonder if the only people who actually do understand psychosis are those who have gone through it”?
It is hard for a person to empathize with another if they did not go through a similar experience. A person can sympathize but to have an understanding, a similar experience is needed. Psychosis is an often misunderstood condition, even among professionals, unless the individual has experienced psychosis too. Most statistical references state that postpartum psychosis is rare, only occurring in 1 to 2 out of a 1,000 births, but worldwide the illness affects many moms and families. Receiving support and encouragement from someone who has experienced the same illness is, in my opinion, essential in the recovery process.
Maybe you’ve wondered what you would do if everything and everyone you loved were threatened. What would you do if your own life were in danger? I’d thought about things like that, of course; I guess that most people have from time to time. I always imagined, though, that I’d bravely defend myself, that I’d be able to fight for those I loved. I had no idea what helpless terror was like. Maybe it’s something you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there.
Can you summarize what is wrong with a system in which patients do not understand what is happening to them in hospital?
I could write an entire new book to answer this question. Maybe one day I will. To summarize briefly, when sick patients are treated like prisoners, there is something wrong. Patients with mental health challenges should have the same rights as any other patient. Education is empowering and although there has been some improvement in mental health patient care, the USA has a very long way to go to address the brokenness of the health care system.
The next thing I remember is being attacked. I was lying on a bed in a small room and two men were holding me down. A third person, a woman, was trying to inject a needle into my arm. Fearing poison, I struggled against them. “Wow, she’s strong,” I heard one of them say, but it didn’t matter. They won and I felt the needle slide into my arm. “Why are you doing this?” I asked. “What have I done wrong?”
No one answered. No one explained. No one said anything at all. Since I wasn’t wearing either my contacts or glasses, their faces were blurred. They strapped my arms to the bed and left me alone. I was too exhausted even to chant and the darkness closed in around me.
Can you tell us about the interview you once did for Glamour magazine?
Jane Honikman, the founder of Postpartum Support International (PSI), was contacted by a freelance writer to do a positive story in light of the Andrea Yates tragedy, the harrowing case of a mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub. The writer knew I was right for the story but the editor was not so sure. The writer had to convince the editor that only a woman who had experienced postpartum psychosis would completely understand what the illness is like. The editor agreed after he saw my photograph. The research and preparation made the article a positive experience. I was impressed with the professionalism. As a result, I was invited to be a guest on CNN. There is a link to the magazine and the CNN transcript on my website. When I began volunteering, I said, “If I can help at least one person, it (the illness) would be worth it.” I share more in the book how impactful that article was to those who read it.
Why is it important to put aside shame, guilt, and embarrassment when talking about mental illness connected with childbirth?
There should be no shame, guilt or embarrassment as a result of a mental health challenge related to childbearing. I’m not sure why these illnesses involving the brain and our hormones, have such stigma but I do know that no one is to blame. Women’s health has been neglected for years so that may be part of the problem. Thankfully, there has been amazing progress in the area of women’s health as well as mental health. The USA needs to continue the strides being made to eliminate the stigma, misunderstanding and negligent care in mental health.
One day, as I lay in bed, a man I recognized from work came into my room. He was a primary care doctor, and he told me that he and his partner saw all of the patients on the fourth floor. So now, I would have to see him as a patient. As he turned to leave, he said to me, “I cannot believe you did this to yourself.”
The words still pierce my heart.
How did helping others help you? Can you please share with us something about your considerable work as an advocate?
When I became a volunteer with PSI and the first time I gave emotional and informational support to another mother who had experienced postpartum psychosis, it was very difficult for me. Thankfully with the support of Jane Honikman, my training as a Stephen Minister and conversations with my own doctor, I learned to assist another, who had had a similar experience, yet not get pulled back into my own traumatic experience. It took some time but ultimately I learned how to provide support without becoming emotionally attached.
I had to take a 5-year hiatus from advocacy to focus on my family and my own health and well-being. It was exactly what I needed. I learned that I could only do so much. I enjoyed my early years as a volunteer PSI Coordinator, a postpartum support educator and postpartum doula but my formal education and professional experience in marketing has helped me the most. I have always loved writing, but being willing and able to speak about my life experience in front of legislatures and other audiences has been the most impactful advocacy work. I hope I continue to have more opportunities to do so, as it has been healing and rewarding to me.
Jennifer Hentz Moyer‘s mission is to bring hope and inspiration to individuals and families facing mental health challenges. For more than 15 years she’s been a spokeswoman for education and outreach related to postpartum psychosis. She advocates, writes and speaks on mental health issues striving to increase awareness, education and support of mental health related to childbearing as well as mental health in general. Jennifer lives in Florida with her husband and soon to be college-graduate son. She is a trainer for wellness recovery action planning (WRAP®).
Listen to a podcast with Jennifer here. What she has to say about sleep deprivation will strike a chord with many new mothers.
A percentage of the proceeds from the sale of Jennifer’s book will be donated to non-profit organizations that are working toward raising public awareness, providing education, and supporting the prevention and treatment of mental illness related to childbearing, and mental illness, in general.