Mothers & Mental Illness

Mothers & Mental Illness January 2, 2014

My childhood girlfriend was institutionalized following the birth of her first-born. Here she was, ten years later, in the third-trimester of her second pregnancy, talking out of her head again. We were having one of our catch-up phone calls. She from her home in Georgia. Me from my home in Oregon.

“I know what the problem is,” she whispered.

“Problem?” I asked, holding the phone closer so I could hear better.

“Yes,” she replied. “I know why I can’t get anything to eat. I can’t get into the kitchen.”

“Why can’t you get into the kitchen, honey?”

“Because the boys are at the table putting together a model airplane. I want them to do things like that but I can’t get into the kitchen to eat.”

“Honey, why don’t you just walk around the boys?” I suggested.

She paused for a long moment. “I’m not thinking clearly, am I?”

“No, you’re not.”

“Whatever happens, don’t let me hurt my babies.”

Don’t let me hurt my babies. Those were the words that reverberated in my newsroom cubicle a couple of years later when the AP wire reported that a Texas mother named Andrea Yates had drowned her five children in a bathtub.

Don’t let me hurt my babies came to me again when I heard Miriam Carey had been gunned down in D.C. after she tried to drive her car through barriers at the Capitol building. It wasn’t until after the unarmed woman was shot dead that police discovered a toddler in the car.

Postpartum psychosis is the official name for the illness, although we didn’t know that when the Yates children were murdered, or when my girlfriend attempted suicide six weeks after her daughter was born.

Postpartum psychosis, an extremely rare, but too-often deadly, form of mental illness affects thousands of women every year. An average of 1.3 million pregnant women experience some manifestation of postpartum depression (PPD) annually, reports Katherine Stone, founder and editor of Postpartum Progress (

Miriam Carey was under a doctor’s care.  A physician had warned Andrea Yates after her third pregnancy to not get pregnant again. My girlfriend’s illness went misdiagnosed until that last attempt on her life when her family realized what she needed wasn’t solely a psychiatrist but an endocrinologist.

The symptoms of postpartum psychosis are often excused as something all new moms experience: Irritability, lack of sleep, hyperactivity, mood swings, difficulty communicating.

What new mother hasn’t experienced one or more of these?

But the mother suffering from postpartum psychosis will also experience delusions, which she will rarely mention, because her delusions often involve doing harm to her children or herself. And because the paranoia invoked by postpartum psychosis prevents her from trusting others.

My girlfriend was convinced that the CIA was listening to her every thought. She saw roaches climbing the walls of her baby’s room.  She thought her husband might be trying to harm her. Mixed into all that was overwhelming despair. My girlfriend felt that she was a bad mother because good Christian mothers don’t have the kind of thoughts she was having.

Had a doctor on vacation not discovered my friend lying on that beach that afternoon, an empty bottle of pills at her side, I would be writing about suicide, not postpartum psychosis.

My girlfriend knows she could easily be serving time in a state hospital for the murder of her own children. She could have been gunned down by police in some awful confrontation gone awry.

Educate them so that what happened to me, what happened to Andrea Yates, what happened to Miriam Carey doesn’t happen to them, my girlfriend said.

Okay, I promised.

But the problem with talking about a mental illness associated with motherhood is the stigma we attach to those who suffer from it. My girlfriend lives in the same community where she grew up, just blocks from the high school where she was a cheerleader, a princess on the  homecoming court, voted one of the top most-liked personalities among a graduating class of hundreds. Everyone knows her, loves her.

It’s difficult for her, even decades later, to not feel like she let people down because of a medical condition so rare and so misunderstood that its name is never spoken from the pulpits or uttered in university hallways.

How does a mother tell her children of the mental breakdowns their births invoked without terrorizing them, without leaving them feeling guilty or fearful that they, too, might suffer some silent disorder of the mind?

“What I wish most is that for one day of my life I could have known my mother the way you knew my mother – before her illness,” her son said to me upon his own high school graduation.

Her children have never known a time when their mother was not under a doctor’s care. And although postpartum psychosis can be treated effectively, there is no getting around the fact that for a woman who experiences it there is a forever sense of lingering fragility.

People look at you differently when you’ve suffered from mental illness. Even when you’ve healed, there remains the nagging “what ifs” in the minds of others.

It’s that stigma that kept me from writing a non-fiction account of my girlfriend’s struggles. Instead, I turned to fiction. “Mother of Rain is the story of Maizee Hurd, a young mother of a deaf child named Rain. On the heels of Pearl Harbor, Maizee’s husband Zebulon enlists in the Army and leaves Maizee and Rain to the care of the community of Christian Bend, Tennessee.

I set the book in 1940s Appalachia because the isolation of that mountain community serves as a metaphor for the loneliness that women who suffer from postpartum psychosis endure. It also serves as a reminder that when it comes to mental illnesses and the health of women, progress is woefully lacking.

“Mother of Rain” is not my girlfriend’s story. It is not the story of Andrea Yates or of Miriam Carey. It is, however, informed by women who have suffered from postpartum psychosis.

What made the difference between my friend and Andrea Yates was simply the community that surrounded them. My girlfriend comes from a big Italian family. She is married to a man wholly-devoted to her. When she was ill, they refused to leave her alone for even one minute. They moved mountains to get her the medical help she so desperately needed.

Had it not been for the loving community who relentlessly nurtured her back to health, my girlfriend’s name could have been as common among the general public as that of Andrea Yates.


Karen Spears Zacharias is author of “Mother of Rain” (Mercer University Press). She can be reached via Twitter @karenzach or at via her website @

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  • Constant Reader

    Thank you for shedding light on this. My sister developed postpartum psychosis 20 years ago after the birth of her 3rd child, and she’s never been mentally healthy since. Today, she is doing better than ever, for which I am grateful. However, since this is the evangelical channel, I feel the need to bring up a potentially hot topic: that her recovery was hampered by their church and my ex-BIL, who believed her illness was demonic and all she needed was prayer and repentance. I stood on the sidelines yelling as my sister was denied the care she needed — or when she did get it, she was encouraged to go off her meds because needing them meant she failed as a Christian. (Do some Christians say the same thing to insulin-dependent diabetics? I don’t even know — maybe they do.) If memory serves, Andrea Yates was denied care for the same reasons. I am thankful every day that my family’s story did not end like the Yates family story — it could so easily have gone another way.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Constant Reader: I appreciate your sharing your journey with this too often misunderstood and misdiagnosed illness. I don’t tell the whole story of my girlfriend here but it is similar to that of yours. The church in particular has been ill-equipped to handle these cases. In the case of my friend she was committed to a facility by a family member who was advised to do so by their pastor. Women of faith who struggle with this disorder often have the added burden of wrongful guilt. They feel as though if they were a better Christian, if they just had more faith, if they prayed more, etc. then they would be cured. My girlfriend went through all of that. But it is as you say: Who says such things to a diabetic? We are so backwards in our approach to mental illness because we understand so little about it. And yes, there are believers yet who fully believe that mental illness is simply a demonic possession, which, of course, creates all sorts of problems. So glad you sister was able to get the help she needs. Strong, relentless community support is the answer.

      • Y. A. Warren

        PLEASE help illuminate the reality that sleep deprivation psychosis is the actual term for the condition induced by too little sleep. It doesn’t matter if it happens to women or men, or in what situations. PTSD is the term for flashbacks to horrible memories associated with terrible abuse that are so real we reenact them to gain control over them.

        THE CHURCH is supposed to be committed human hands to help all of us cope. It is bullshit that “God” provides without the physical realm that is created “in the image and likeness” and shown how to behave by Jesus and his friends.

        Why do we always have different names for what afflicts women and men? Because we believe that men are the more rational, the women carry their afflictions and get treated for them. This is also patriarchal bullshit.

        • Karen Zacharias

          We have different names in this case because this is an illness prompted by pregnancy.

          • Y. A. Warren

            Pregnancy may be the prompt, but it is not why it continues to appear and escalate long after pregnancy hormones are gone.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Many religions are actually based on mental illness re-framed as mysticism.

    My mother was mentally ill as she gave birth to 9 children and endured 1 miscarriage. No matter what horrors happened to her body, and subsequently to her family, she was advised by priests that she should continue to surrender her body to “God” the surrender to the Roman Catholic church.

    I have a niece who gave birth to one child and was still plagued by suicidal mental illness. She was brave enough to deceive many in order to get a hysterectomy and ovarectomy as a still-young, still-married woman. For this, many find fault, but this was the most brave thing a loving mother could do to save her child and any future children from her intractable mental illness.

    It is absolute bullshit that “God” never gives us more than our physical selves can handle. This is simply an out for those who are not in the trenches with us and our demons.

    • Constant Reader

      ‘It is absolute bullshit that “God” never gives us more than our physical selves can handle. This is simply an out for those who are not in the trenches with us and our demons.’


      • Karen Zacharias

        Agreed. The whole notion of God handing out illness, or blessings for that matter, like cucumber sandwiches at a country club luncheon is the result of growing up in a culture built on a theology of capitalism.

    • hjj

      I agree Y. A. W. I heard this, and still do, about God giving out these ” blessings” . My mother had/ has mental illness also and felt/ feels praying to God is enough. She let my father pass because of these feelings.

  • Your Story makes a Difference !! Thanks !!
    “end Human bankruptcy”an idea whose time has come.

  • hjj

    This happened to a woman I went to high school with. Cheerleader, popular ect. 22 years old. It was 1980 and many people I talked to had absolutely no idea what had happened. My wife of the time did know about postpartum depression so I learned but no one I talked to understood or wanted to. Including other women. Thank you for sharing this article so others may learn.

    • Karen Zacharias

      Apparently not many still want to talk about this. Yes, this happened to my girlfriend in the 80s as well.

  • Y. A. Warren

    I am appalled at how few comments there are on this post. We have such a “Virgin Mother” approach to motherhood that is killing both the mothers and their children. Motherhood can be the most isolating experience there is, especially when all women are burdened with babies at the same time.

    Neither “God” nor Jesus walks the floor with a baby that screams 24/7 while the father works two jobs to support a toddler, himself, the mother, and the baby. The whole family becomes psychotic, but only the mother is felt to be “crazy.” How many grandmothers are sitting in places of worship offering to walk the floor with the baby so the parents can get sanity inducing sleep, a shower, and maybe a few moments in each others arms?

    We don’t simply need universal childcare in this country, we need faith-based, committed family care. The churches are failing miserably at providing for the realities of the physical side of ministry.

    • Karen Zacharias

      And exactly what surprises you about how few replies there are here? What is there to say? There’s is no one to bash, no one to criticize, no celebrity to defend or knock to their knees, no theology in mental illness to debate, no way to take this issue and make it into an “us” or “them” argument. And if we know anything about the blogsphere we know that readers travel in herds, foraging for the next ground to trample. It is true that motherhood can be a very isolating experience. But then so can fatherhood. And too many grandparents are finding themselves raising their grandchildren. But this sort of issue, this kind of mental illness I am speaking about is not about any of those things. It is a hormone-induced breakdown, specific to women, granted a small portion but one that needs appropriate help because without it, children are dying.

      • Y. A. Warren

        There is something to bash: The mental health system that continually overlooks the triggers to much mental illness.