My Recovery from Mental Illness and Post-Viral Fatigue (Part 2 of 2)
Updated: Apr 21
Part 2 of 2; Read first part HERE
Trigger warning: this blog post discusses acute post natal mental health illness and miscarriage
Burnout, post-viral fatigue and fibromyalgia
By my early 30s I was overworking, frenetically finishing my degree in nutritional medicine, planning my wedding and buying our first property all at the same time (as you do) with absolute bundles of energy to withstand this. But you don’t always have the insight you are not entirely well. Eventually chronic stress and the undiagnosed hypomania (from bipolar) led me to total crippling burnout.
My PMDD symptoms went up a notch and I would also feel a crazy rage for 10 days before my period. I didn’t want to feel angry, much of the time I had no reason to be, but my biochemistry would mean I had such a horrible irritable feeling it was actually visceral. And then after the mist and despair cleared, I would get 2 weeks of feeling great, and looking back I was hypomanic. Super chatty, super confident, and then I would retreat back into my shell.
I ended up succumbing to the flu for the first time in my life in 2007. I didn’t rest sufficiently - by then I was a nutritionist in a health company doing a trial on a supplement protocol for men with prostate cancer and I didn’t want to let anyone down. That period left me broken, spending 6 weeks bedridden with post-viral fatigue and eventually a diagnosis of fibromyalgia when I started to feel pain all over my body. My brain’s alarm bells were shot.
Fibromyalgia is a condition whose symptoms include chronic pain, fatigue and cognitive issues. And it's believed in part to be due to imbalances in the brain and nervous system. Signally in neural pathways that transmit and receive pain have been shown to be altered in brain imaging studies and it can occur due to a result of trauma, stress or a physical insult like a car accident or a virus, but genetics are also involved.
Read more here in this external article.
Back then, I was utterly terrified I would never recover and the anxiety was ratcheting out of control. It’s a vicious circle when you are broken and become anxious you won’t get better, which then makes recovery so much harder and I developed health anxiety, which is common in my patients. It took a lot of work on my health to get back some of the equilibrium.
But worse was yet to come.
Chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia, long covid
If you have chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia or long covid (all involve debilitating fatigue and cognitive dysfunction, fibromyalgia also entails chronic widespread pain) you will know there is little help the NHS can offer and you may be treated like you are just malingering (although I do hope it’s getting better now).
Eventually with self-care and a host of supplements and measures to calm me down, my energy returned so I could return to work, which I was so very, very relieved about. (I will write about the treatment and underlying causes for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue in a future blog). But what I didn’t know then was that I was sliding ever closer to a severe mental illness. I would never have guessed in a million years that having my first child would be the catalyst.
Acute post-natal mental health illness
My pregnancy had been tough, preceded by distressing miscarriages. We also moved house just before giving birth and my husband was made redundant in the midst of all that.
But when I finally gave birth (a traumatic one) to my precious, much-longed for son, I felt absolutely elated. This was despite the 2 nights of lost sleep in the early stages of labour at home, then 4 nights on a maternity ward due to my son having jaundice. Noisy and chaotic, with bright lights and alarms going off at all hours, plus screeching babies and over-wrought looking mothers, it wasn’t exactly peaceful.
But I had my cherished first baby. Life felt good. Sadly, within days of returning home once we were eventually discharged, my mood started oscillating between mania and crippling anxiety and I didn’t sleep for days and days. I was totally besotted with my baby but I wasn’t well.
I knew something was desperately wrong with me but my brain just couldn’t compute what it was. Eventually I experienced psychosis and truly lost it. Postpartum psychosis is a rarer, extremely serious postnatal mental illness - much more common in those with bipolar.
I remember howling that I was stuck between heaven and hell and wrongly believing that all my family had died in a car crash. It was terrifying.
Eventually I was admitted to Lewisham psychiatric ward and separated from my 10-day-old baby. I felt so distressed and trapped in a small room like a cell with a tiny barred window, in a tower block with thin corridors and had constant panic attacks. It was hell.
I then spent 3 very unhappy months in a mother and baby unit. Not helped by my surroundings and being separated from my family and loved ones, I developed extremely dark suicidal thoughts and deep postnatal depression. And because if you have bipolar you know too well, what goes up, must come down.
I discovered at that time that The Bethlem Hospital (the mother and baby unit I was in), was the same hospital where my dad’s mentally ill sister (my aunt) has been in and out most of her adult life. I thought I was destined to be ill forever.
But recover I did. I owe a lot of gratitude to this brilliant charity and their one-to-one peer support - Action on postpartum psychosis. Reach out to them here if you are or a loved one have been ill with post-partum psychosis.