Suicidal After Her Daughter's Birth, This Mom Spent 10 Days in a Psych Ward: 'I Had to Stop Trying to Be Superwoman'
Lisa Abramson is speaking out about her descent into postpartum depression and psychosis, to help break the deafening silence on maternal mental health issues.
This story is part of Health’s #RealLifeStrong series, where we are celebrating women who represent strength, resilience, and grace.
Five years ago, I was overjoyed to become pregnant for the first time. My husband and I had been married for three years and were eager to start a family. I'd always wanted to be a mom.
During those nine months, I enjoyed seeing my bump grow. I went to spinning, jogged, and did yoga. I was also busy starting a business—teaching mindfulness to high-achieving women.
In January 2014, when my daughter, Lucy, was born, I looked into her eyes and instantly fell in love.
Like all moms know, early motherhood is raw, tough, exhausting, and messy. My intense desire to do everything "right" ended up making things more challenging. When I had trouble breastfeeding and Lucy wasn't gaining weight quickly enough, I felt ashamed. How could I screw up something that was supposed to be natural?
Lucy’s pediatrician instructed me to feed her every two hours: first by breastfeeding, then pumping and feeding Lucy the expressed milk in a bottle. (I was never told it was okay to supplement with formula.) That exhausting cycle frequently left me in tears.
Three weeks after giving birth, when my husband returned to work, I went from “bad” to “really bad.” It was challenging for me to fill out a form at the doctor's office. I had trouble recalling words. One day, I couldn't figure out how to put together my breast pump although I’d used it dozens of times before.
I blamed sleep deprivation. I thought (incorrectly) that postpartum depression only affected moms with previous mental illness. I had no clue how a lack of sleep, stress, and hormonal changes can devastate a new mother's well-being.
We hired a night nurse so I could get some rest, but I was too wired to sleep. (I once stayed awake for three days straight.) I started hearing things that weren't being said. I became paranoid. One evening, I was convinced police were coming to wrongly arrest me. I saw snipers on the roof and security cameras all over the house. Looking back, it doesn't make sense, but at the time it felt real—and terrifying.
Still, I was scared to tell anyone what I was going through. I had never heard of a new mom "going crazy" after birth. I thought it was just me.
Then one day, sure I was unfit to be a mother, I asked my mom and husband if I should jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. It felt like my only way out. Luckily, they talked me out of the idea—and immediately sought help.
I spent the next 10 days in a locked psychiatric facility. There, I began medication and therapy to treat what doctors explained was postpartum psychosis—the most severe (and rarest) form of postpartum depression. Lucy was my motivation to recover; I promised her I would not only get well, but be stronger than before.
To do that, I had to stop trying to be Superwoman and accept support from others, such as living with my parents for six weeks after my release from the hospital. But the hardest part of my recovery was believing what happened wasn’t my fault. I felt like I had to hide this experience forever. Then at some point, it dawned on me: I needed to own my story so I could find meaning from it.
Strength is an inner knowing, a sense of groundedness, a voice that whispers, “It’ll be okay.” And the more I listened, the louder that voice became. It didn’t happen overnight, but four months after returning home, I was ready to return to work. By Lucy’s 8-month birthday, I was well enough to discontinue my medications.
In the fall of 2015, I decided that instead of sweeping my experience under the rug, I would give a TEDx Talk about it. It was like the floodgates opened. Friends and acquaintances came forward to tell me that they too had experienced a maternal mental health disorder. I continue sharing my story, hoping that each time I do, I encourage another woman to get help for postpartum depression.
It took over two years for me to feel strong enough to have another child. (And my courage was tested as I faced two miscarriages.) But today, Lucy is 4 and giggly Vivian is 7 months.
I’ve had a chance to do things differently this second time around. I accept help. I practice self-care. I check in with my family when things aren’t working. I continue to stay mindful through a daily meditation practice.
Motherhood takes strength. So does being authentic and showing up to be who you are.