Four-week-old Adelaide Banginson slept soundly while her parents’ happy world shattered like the glass her mom threw against the kitchen floor.
While Adelaide dreamed, Melissa Bangs stepped on the shards again and again, intent on showing her husband how “everything becomes light.”
By day’s end, Eric Ellingson found himself abruptly alone with his precious and fragile newborn daughter, who he had never even fed, while Bangs, a successful consultant and human rights activist, was institutionalized.
“I was more needed than I’ve ever been in my whole life and I absolutely wasn’t there,” Bangs said.
September 2012 had been a happy time for the couple; Bangs had just given birth, at the age of 40, to Adelaide. But the joy would soon be overshadowed by Bangs’ hospitalization and later diagnosis as bipolar.
Thus began a long battle to regain her sense of self-knowledge and a crusade to educate others about postpartum psychosis and perinatal mood disorders.
Bangs always knew she wanted to be a mother.
“It just felt perfect,” Bangs said. She was unfazed, in fact, by the normal discomforts of pregnancy while she carried Adelaide.
After a relatively easy home birth, Bangs was instantly all Adelaide’s.
“I was utterly in love and in awe,” she said.
She was also hyper-vigilant and up every two hours to breastfeed.
“But I didn’t realize the toll that it was taking,” she said.
After the first few weeks of Adelaide’s life, the combination of sleep deprivation, unbalanced hormones and hyper-vigilance began to show. In her sleep-deprived mystical realm, Bangs could see vibrations and hear tones of objects. Quantum physics suddenly made sense and she spent time jotting down her thoughts on scraps of paper. At one point, she released the family’s rabbits because she felt they should be free to roam where they liked.
“I felt in love with everything and everyone,” she said.
But the day she broke the glass and stomped on it, her family took her to the emergency room as their lives were sent into turmoil.
Suddenly, Ellingson was responsible for all of Adelaide’s care, starting with a bottle and formula. “I just kissed the bottle and held it up to the sky and said, please, please take this,” he said.
Luckily she did, as it would be more than three weeks before Bangs returned home and then was unable to breastfeed because of medications.
Her reaction to being separated from Adelaide while institutionalized was physical and emotional, Bangs said. “It felt like she had been ripped out of me.”
Bangs spent the time struggling to figure out how to get back to who she knew herself to be – and home – while having what she refers to as “the peculiar experience.”
At times she was like a child, inviting other residents to her imagined surprise party. Other times, she was analytical and trying to figure out goals and a plan to meet them so she could go home.
Knowing she was under constant observation, Bangs pondered the best way to appear normal. If she was too sad or happy, she might appear unstable, she said.
Eventually, she was diagnosed as bipolar and faced with a decision: breastfeed and bond with her daughter who she had already missed interacting with for more than three weeks, but risk a reoccurrence and being institutionalized again, or take her psychotropic drugs and be well but unable to breastfeed.
Bangs accepted what the doctors told her about the risks of not taking her medication and returned home on lithium.
At the time, she was experiencing insomnia, anxiety, depression and detachment. Because sleep was paramount to her health, Bangs couldn’t sleep with Adelaide as she had before she was institutionalized. Ellingson was traveling for a new job and couldn’t be home every night, so family and friends came to make sure Adelaide had what she needed through the night – and so that Bangs could stay healthy.
After a while of feeling detached from her daughter and husband, though, Bangs set about finding answers that would allow her to get off her medication and back to her normal personality.
“I had to get home to you,” Bangs said, smiling and pointing at Adelaide during a recent interview.
Conversations with her aunt, who was a nurse in a psychiatric ward, also helped Bangs brave questioning what she had been told about being bipolar. Her aunt, with the input from a psychiatrist, told her that she could have experienced postpartum psychosis, which impacts 1 to 2 of every 1,000 births. Once women are stabilized, they return to normal instead of dealing with a lifelong mental illness.
The onset is sudden, usually within a month after giving birth, and symptoms include delusions, hallucinations, feeling irritated, decreased need for sleep and significant mood changes with poor decision making. Along with the symptoms, there is a 5 percent infanticide/suicide rate.
Many people associate postpartum depression with postpartum psychosis when they are actually separate forms of perinatal mood disorders. Postpartum depression is a much more common disorder and affects 15 percent of women. Bipolar also often presents itself after women give birth.
Despite what the doctors said, Ellingson supported his wife’s decision and said that while he felt he should believe the doctors, he wasn’t keen on a lifetime with her detached and on drugs.
Bangs sought out a naturopathic physician and was told it would take three years to be weaned off her medications. “And I thought, ‘We won’t survive that,’ ” she said.
Next, Bangs met with Christine White, who owns Black Bear Naturopathic Clinic.
“She was in crisis,” White said, but not exhibiting signs that she would hurt herself or others.
Taking into account information from Bangs’ midwife, White decided Bangs was sincere and not trying to pull others into delusions. White accepted Bangs as a patient and ordered a full hormone panel to get a better picture of what was causing the behavior.
“Postpartum is a phase of life that’s no different than puberty or menopause,” White said.
“You do not have to put up with feeling miserable and really off-kilter just because you’re a mom or a second- or third- or fourth-time mom and it just feels different,” she added.
Before getting the panel results, White put Bangs on a regimen of supplements to help her sleep. When the results came back, it became clear that Bangs had all the hormones to recognize the tiger in the jungle and the danger, but none of the hormones to help her cope with the situation. That she could function at all was remarkable, White said.
The results showed Bangs that even though she felt weak, she was actually strong.
“I needed that at that point, because I had never felt weaker,” she said.
White began unraveling who Bangs had been before her hospitalization compared with who she was at that point, looking for the root issues. Within a month, therapy to return Bangs’ hormone levels to normal had worked.
“It’s pretty exceptional,” White said.
During the process, Bangs took herself off the psychotropic drugs even though it was frightening to risk having another episode and ending up institutionalized again.
Now, more than a year off psychotropic drugs, Bangs said she feels better than ever and has bonded with Adelaide as she stays home and pursues her artwork.
In retrospect, being in a psychiatric ward may not have been the worst thing, Bangs admits, although she added she wishes she had been given a hormone panel sooner.
“I needed to come back to reality. I needed to get some sleep. I needed to be somewhere safe,” she said.
She and Ellingson have a closer bond and feel a heightened sense of gratitude for the family and friends who got them through the ordeal.
“I will look at Eric and think, ‘I am so grateful I picked you,’ ” Bangs said.
Instead of allowing herself to be embarrassed Bangs is sharing her story in the hope that other women experiencing perinatal mood disorders won’t feel alone and will seek help.
“And let women know that they’re not crazy and they’re not failing,” she said.
Already other friends have shared their experiences with her, Bangs said, adding only one friend sought help while others endured things such as envisioning themselves hanging from rafters every day in silence.
Ellingson said he’s glad Bangs is sharing her story to help other women.
“That’s (Melissa) tried and true. That’s how you know she’s back,” he said.
Whether she will have another manic episode remains unknown, Bangs said, but she and Ellingson are comfortable taking the chance, considering how well she is and has been for more than a year.
For 20 days out of the five years he’s known her, Bangs wasn’t normal, Ellingson said. “And it was a significant event that happened that triggered that 20 days.”
“Really, my heart and gut says I’m not crazy,” Bangs said, maintaining she experienced a manic episode because of postpartum psychosis.
If another episode occurs, they’ll deal with it, Bangs said. “Time will tell.”
For now, the couple is focused on being a family with Adelaide.
“We’ve picked up in the best chapter of our lives,” Bangs said.