INTERVIEW WITH TERESA M. TWOMEY
THE AUTHOR OF
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? I’m a mother of three. I’ve been a litigation attorney, a professional mediator, a business consultant, and a college instructor. I’ve participated with our PTA, spent several years on a MOPS steering committee, and lead a “Mothers and Others” spirituality group at a local church. My hobbies range from fishing and writing, to making stained-glass windows and my own jewelry. Basically I’m a fairly typical mom.
How did you first learn about postpartum psychosis? From a chat-room on BabyCenter on the internet. When I was on bed-rest with my second pregnancy, there was a discussion where a woman asked if you could have hallucinations with postpartum depression. By then I’d figured out the depression part so I said that I had. Another woman wrote to me and said she was a nurse following the discussion and that what I described was postpartum psychosis, not postpartum depression. That was the early days of the widespread use of the internet. When I typed postpartum psychosis into the search bar I got no hits! At the time I actually believed that when I got to the library to do research I’d find out a lot more information. Boy was I wrong!
What was your goal in writing the book Understanding Postpartum Psychosis? First, of course, is to raise awareness so society will be better at preventing, catching and adequately treating women with this illness. Quite literally, to save lives and lessen suffering. Second is for the families and the women who have or had this so they know they are not alone – that this happens to other normal women – that they are not to blame, and they will be themselves again; to give hope and to aid in their healing. Third is to provide information so people in non-medical professions that interact with or have an impact on women with Postpartum Psychosis (PPP) can have a better understanding of it – hence the chapters on media, history and law.
What do you find the most challenging in reaching your goal? That people who have not been touched by this illness (yet) think it is not relevant to them – which, of course, limits the prevention opportunities.
In your book, you write about the legal views of postpartum psychosis. From your personal view as well as your view as an attorney, what do you say to the person, who says the use of a defense of postpartum depression/postpartum psychosis in the case of infanticide is a cop out? I guess I’d want to know why they think it is a cop-out. Do they think it is a cop-out because a) they deny that the illness exists; b) they have never experienced this so it can’t be real c) they deny that this illness could cause a “good” or “loving” mother to harm her children; d) that if someone harms a child things like state-of-mind, intent, and malice have nothing to do with it, the person simply must be punished; e) that a really loving mother would want to spend the rest of her life behind bars if she harmed her child; or f) that mental illness is not an excuse because you are to blame for being mentally ill in the first place?
Each of those are based on comments I’ve heard or read. So what gives rise to each of these? (I cannot answer these fully in this format, but I do go into this further in my book) So, some very brief answers: For a), b), and c) the person is expressing a degree of ignorance, perhaps willful ignorance, about this illness, or perhaps all mental illness. With a) some may still believe that mental illness is simply a lack of willpower or the equivalent, or b) they don’t understand that postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis are not the same thing, or c) they do not understand the extent to which mental illness can distort a person’s thinking. In addition, c) illustrates that some people do not understand that the illness can cause a woman to do bad things BECAUSE she loves her child(ren), in the distorted belief that it is somehow the best for them (such as saving them from Satan). Reason d) shows a lack of comprehension about the workings, and intentions, of our legal system. Although e) and f) are similar in that they both indicate a blaming of the mother simply for having an illness, e) shows a desire that the mother blame herself so we get off the hook regarding judgment, whereas f) is rooted in the old belief that mental illness is God’s punishment and therefore the mental illness itself indicates the person is deserving of punishment and scorn.
I still haven’t said what I would say to that person. It is difficult to address these underlying deficits or beliefs, particularly because we are often not fully conscious of them. So I’d probably side-step the expected response and say something like: “The real cop-out is ours as a society. We fail to properly care for the mentally ill (heck lots of people don’t even seem to think their suffering deserves relief through medication) and then, when something bad happens, we turn around and blame those who are ill, those least likely to be able to prevent this harm, for the predictable results of their illness. It is completely illogical. But of course that gets you and me off the hook – we don’t have to do anything about treatment or prevention and then we get to heap all the blame on those who are ill.”
In your opinion, how do you think the media handles reporting on the rare cases of infanticide? I think it varies from reporter to reporter. Overall, I think it seems that reporters are becoming more educated about this illness, but most articles I read indicate an extremely shallow understanding. And every now and again I read an article and cringe that some are still using postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression as if they were interchangeable, or even calling it the baby blues. I don’t think they have any comprehension of the harm that results from such inaccurate reporting.
What do you think is the best way of educating others about postpartum psychosis and mental illness related to childbearing? First, having it as a standard part of any curriculum that covers motherhood, childbirth or postpartum. Women MUST be told. Learning about it in the throes of it is extremely disadvantageous. Postpartum mood disorders are hugely treatable and sometimes preventable. It’s like we are putting women out there on a dodge-ball court blindfolded. Sure, they might not get hit at all, but, by not informing them and preparing them, we are taking away their chance to duck – or at least not get smacked full in the face!
Second, but simply including it in our conversations – when people realize the vast numbers of women who are and have been affected by these illnesses they will feel more comfortable coming forward themselves. I’ve seen a huge shift in this in just the 10+ years I’ve been involved in this movement.
What have you been doing since writing the book? Resting on my laurels! I wish!
I’ve been speaking wherever they’ll have me – be it a library, school, hospital, radio, TV, community health organization, conference, bookstore, church or mothers’ group. I’m also a Postpartum Support International Coordinator for Connecticut and Legal Resources Coordinator. I have a Facebook page called Understanding Postpartum Psychosis. And I get calls and emails from all over from people who have been touched by this illness and have somehow found my book.
I’ve also been doing other writing, consulting, teaching – things that I actually get paid to do!
What message would you like to share with the mothers and families facing postpartum psychosis? First, if it is current, take it seriously – it is very dangerous. Second, you have every reason to have hope that life WILL return to normal (well, normal plus a baby.) And if you have suffered this in the past, I hope you find healing and comfort in my book and, I pie-in-the-sky-hope you are moved to become active in some way to help others.
Is there any additional information you would like to share? There is a wonderful organization in England called “Action for Postpartum Psychosis.” I would LOVE to see something like that here in the U.S. If you are someone who would like to work on making that happen, or you are someone who would like to donate money to that type of cause, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is there anything you’d like to add? Yes, when I first went looking for information on postpartum psychosis it was extremely difficult to find anything. And although this is really a seminal book on the illness and the experience of postpartum psychosis – there really is nothing else like it on the market – it was not easy to find a publisher. So I have to thank Praeger Publishers for taking a chance on this book. I don’t really know if it was just a market decision for them or if it they were inspired at all by the desire to help others with this book – but I’m grateful that it is now available to help others that need it.
Also, I’d like to thank YOU, Jennifer, for helping to bring this illness to the attention of so many. You are doing great work and I want to honor you for that.
The interview questions are prepared by Jennifer Moyer for her website/blog and are published on her website with permission from Teresa M. Twomey.