Coming to Terms with Your Selves

Last week was the first official walk I took while talking to another survivor of postpartum psychosis.

It is such a comfort to talk to other survivors, and so inspiring. She is an unbelievably strong person.

It takes a unique kind of strength to come to terms with your psychotic self. That part of you that often feels like a stranger: some asshole who stole your old life away from you.

Many well-meaning people, when you apologize for something you said or did while psychotic, will say, “It’s ok, I know that wasn’t really you.”

I know what they’re trying to say. I catch myself doing it, too, when I try to reiterate to women in my support group how understandable it was for them to say or do things that they would never in a million years do under normal circumstances.

But I try to catch myself.

Because when I hear someone say, “That wasn’t really you,” I hear, “That wasn’t a person I can love.” I hear them saying that the only way they’re going to be able to accept what happened is to leave that stranger behind.

But the uncomfortable reality is that person was still me, even if that version of me was unrecognizable in many ways.

And the more I’m encouraged to leave a piece of myself behind, the lonelier I feel.

That stranger wasn’t a bad person. She was just someone whose brain gave her flawed information. She made the best choices she could given those false facts, but as we say in the world of research, “Bad data in, bad data out.”

My choices were embarrassing.

I sent message after message to celebrities through their Instagram accounts or public Facebook posts or even just by typing their names into my phone and sending the empty number a text.

The information my brain gave me was that I was the star of a popular reality TV show about motherhood during the pandemic and that these celebrities had become my friends. My mind fabricated experiences that we’d had together: elaborate video shoots, inside jokes, TV interviews.

My newfound fame made me insufferable and pompous. My sense of humor became vulgar and impulsive, but it was what the viewers wanted. I wouldn’t stop playing music at full volume, thinking I was controlling the soundtrack of the show and picking the best songs to fit the exact mood of each moment. I even subjected my mother-in-law to an embarrassing rendition of the “Cell Block Tango.”

Looking back, many of my psychotic moments would have been funny if their root cause wasn’t so severe.

But it’s purely luck of the draw that my brain decided to give me information that, while flawed, was harmless.

Through no fault of their own, some women are plagued by visions of demonic creatures or delusions about government conspiracies or the belief that they have the power of flight.

The choices they make in light of that flawed information may seem irrational or irresponsible or even evil. But they were the best choices they could make with the information they had.

We all take a leap of faith every day by trusting that what our brain is telling us is true. It’s no one’s fault that, for some of us, our brains start telling us lies. In those moments, we are sick- but we are still ourselves. And that’s the hardest part to explain.

The old me didn’t stop existing when the stranger appeared. I was still there. I still remember many of the things that happened, even if the memories are jumbled. Even if I remember some things that didn’t really happen.

It’s unsettling to become an unreliable narrator of your own story.

So after psychosis, I felt an obsessive need to uncover the truth of what really happened and what didn’t. Matt and I spent hours reviewing old text messages, social media posts, and our own fragmented memories in order to put together a timeline.

Matt is notoriously forgetful and usually relies on my mind for names and dates and memories. So there were times when we found ourselves at an impasse. I was sure that we’d had a conversation and he just didn’t remember it in the chaos of everything that happened. But he was sure it wasn’t real.

The truth is that there is no real way to know the truth, and we’ve had to learn over time to sit with that discomfort.

My psychiatrist warned us, during psychosis, that we wouldn’t be able to understand everything that happened. “She’ll come out of it and all the writing she’s done won’t make sense to her anymore,” she told Matt. I think he found this really comforting at the time- to envision a future where I was back in reality with him, instead of lost in my own world.

But when he told me that I was indignant.

The thought of a future self who wouldn’t understand the intricacy, the nuance, the genius of the things I’d been writing was inconceivable to me.

“I think this is one thing she has wrong,” I told Matt, desperately. “Maybe it didn’t make sense to those other women,” I said, “But it will always make sense to me.”

Looking back, I can see how lonely the stranger was in that moment- knowing that she would be overruled, reabsorbed, dismissed.

I can empathize with her because I am her.

Many of the things I wrote did still make sense to me when I came out of my psychosis, but many didn’t. And they all lost their significance. What seemed like the most insightful, original poetry at the time turned out to be a simple pun, or someone else’s song lyrics.

Now that the information my brain is giving me is better, my perspective is better.

But there’s still a strange comfort in remembering the abstract connections I was making in my writing. In being able to follow where my brain was going when it shifted gears in the middle of a sentence. In being able to explain my actions to other people, even if I can’t fully justify them. Maybe I can’t absolve the stranger of her sins, but I can at least help people understand her.

She really needs me to not leave her behind.

She really needs me to carry her with me as we become a stronger, healthier version of ourselves.

We really need to tell this story together.

Thanks for reading,

PsychoSister

40 miles