Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder chronicles author Dyane Harwood’s journey with postpartum onset bipolar disorder. The story’s rich, vivid descriptions draw the reader along on the intense roller coaster ride of the author’s illness experience. Many elements of her story will be hauntingly familiar to those whose lives have been touched in some way by bipolar disorder, including mood symptoms whose true nature only became apparent with hindsight and well-meaning attempts to get off medication that result in disaster.
Mental illness was a part of Dyane’s life from the beginning, as her father had bipolar disorder. When she first began to struggle with her own mental health, she was diagnosed with depression. Glimmers of hypomania made occasional brief appearances, but as is so often the case with hypomania the symptoms were only recognizable as such upon later reflection.
Depression is the most recognized postpartum mental health problem, while postpartum hypomania may not raise red flags. As Dyane began to recognize that her thoughts were problematic, she became concerned, as many mentally ill new mothers might, that disclosing the true nature of her thoughts would result in her being designated an unfit mother.
It was after the birth of her second daughter that mania openly reared its head, resulting in a diagnosis of bipolar disorder with the specifier of “postpartum onset”. Dyane described the surreal experience of hypergraphia, an uncommon symptoms involving excessive writing, including the juggling act of franticly writing while at the same time tandem breastfeeding her infant and toddler.
Dyane was hospitalized multiple times for her illness, and she recounted the sorts of challenges that are all too commonly faced by those with mental illness. On one occasion she was handcuffed by police and taken to hospital in the back of a police car. She was reported to Child Protective Services by one hospital psychiatrist, and when she reacted angrily she was placed in a seclusion room. Being on locked wards that prevented from going outside and kept her cut off from internet and cell phone use had a detrimental effect on her recovery, and her hospitalizations worsened her anxiety and raised concerns about post-traumatic stress. Mental health services could certainly benefit from incorporating this type of feedback.
Birth of a New Brain captures the frustration and desperation of treatment-resistant mental illness. Dyane was trialled on numerous medications that triggered horrible side effects rather than a therapeutic benefit. One particularly harrowing experience was with the antidepressant amitriptyline; taking a single dose led to intense suicidal thoughts requiring hospitalization. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) was helpful, but she struggled with the considerable logistical and financial barriers that often go along with outpatient ECT. For therapies like ECT to be at their most effective, it is important that mental health services work to minimize these sorts of barriers.
Over the years Dyane went off medications multiple times. Despite giving it careful thought, consulting books by credible sources, and incorporating alternative strategies, her illness relapsed. Finally she found success with an MAOI antidepressant, an option that has strong evidence of efficacy but is seldom considered due to the need for dietary restrictions. Once she was finally stabilized on an effective medication combination, she accepted that for her the reality was that medication would be an essential part of her wellness. The book also describes a host of holistic strategies that Dyane incorporates as key elements of her treatment plan.
Birth of a New Brain offers hope to those struggling with mood disorders, and raises awareness about the little-known postpartum onset specifier for bipolar disorder. By the end of the book the reader is left feeling as though Dyane is a dear friend who has bravely shared all and held nothing back. While mental illness plays a starring role in the story, as Dyane concludes her final chapter, “I’m so much more than bipolar. And so are you.” Her book reminds us that no matter how hard the illness journey may be, recovery is possible.