29-year-old Sumayah Mohammed shares her story on she coped with the challenges of her mental illness during pregnancy.
WORDS CHRISTEL GERALYN GOMES
It’s a real pity that mental illness, even today, remains taboo; something consigned to hushed gossip, existing only in the dark corners of society, away from the optimism and opportunity of everyday functioning life. Once someone is shackled with the title “mentally ill”, it seems that the very words rob them of dignity and cast an irremovable shadow on their worth.
Yet, even if we don’t want to talk about it, the reality is that one in six Singaporeans suffer from some form of mental illness, as reported by Today Online.
Mental Illness and Pregnancy
During pregnancy, mental illnesses can come upon a woman during or as a result of it. A study published in the BC Medical Journal explains that pregnancy and motherhood can increase vulnerability to psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and psychoses for many women.
Women who have previously suffered mental illness fear relapse and struggle with questions on whether they should have a baby at all, how it would affect the child and whether they are fit to become mothers.
One such mother is Sumayah Mohammed who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression in her first semester of university at age 19. She is now mother to five-month-old baby Laila. She tells us her story.
“In the beginning, I wasn't adjusting well to university life. I became really, really obsessed with my essays. Not about what grade I would get, but I just feared my essays were always not good enough. I even went without sleep for a week while working on an essay – I could not sleep even though I tried to. I was too focused on needing to make the essay better. I was living in the hall back then so it was difficult for my parents to monitor me, and also, I never showed signs of mental illness
before then. So this stretched throughout the entire semester until I reached my breaking point after my exams.”
Going through Psychosis
What she went through next, Maya describes as “psychosis”, a mental disorder in which thoughts and emotions are so impaired that contact is lost with external reality. She recalls losing interest in eating, bathing or even visiting the washroom. This was coupled with what she describes as “delusions of grandeur”; “I thought I was Satan and that my father was The Prophet at one point. I thought I had killed my older brother. I was brought to the hospital where I stayed for two months.”
Doctor’s Prescription: Electroconvulsive Therapy
Maya was put through electroconvulsive therapy. “It took that to make me better,” she says, describing how she was put to sleep under general anaesthesia. Small electric currents were then passed through her brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. “ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses,” states Mayo Clinic’s medical health website. Maya had a total of five rounds of treatment. “It works faster than medicine,” she says, “there was significant alleviation in my mood, but I think it was because my condition was quite severe at the time."
Since the ordeal, Maya has consistently been on medication to manage her condition. “In the hospital, I was shown lots and lots and lots of support by my family and friends and today I remember that moment with gratitude of being loved despite being unlovable. When I reflect on that period then, I think about motherhood – how my own mother (and father) must have felt throughout caring for me with my psychotic symptoms. They loved me to recovery. I have not had a relapse since then, thank God!”
Today, Maya still makes routine visits to the doctor and says that her spirituality and simple exercise like walking help her a lot.
“As a mother-to-be with mental illness, I was worried”
As the years went by and after Maya got married, she began to anxiously anticipate pregnancy.
When she finally got a positive pregnancy test reading, she recalls
being overtaken by feelings of excitement and happiness. At the same
time, she worried for her baby and herself.
“The first concern was about my baby’s health and if my illness would somehow pass through to my child. I wondered, should I be taking medication while pregnant? Would it affect my baby?”
“I also wondered if my child would be negatively affected by a mother like me – someone who is occasionally weak, someone who could break into tears easily when stressed, perhaps due to reasons others would not find so overwhelming. It was at this point, my mother advised me – that the well-being of my child is in the hands of Allah. I needed to have faith that Allah blessed me with this pregnancy because I had the strength to give my best to my child,” she continues.
Despite trying to keep positive, bouts of sadness and inadequacy were unavoidable for Maya during her pregnancy. As she held tight to her faith, Maya recalls realising, “I was putting too many expectations on myself – I was trying to be the “perfect” mother-to-be. Over time I learnt to just do what I could, enough to continue through each day such that I don't burn out by doing more than I could handle. I need to remember that when I make mistakes or feel lousy about myself, do not sink into the feelings and dwell on it – I just pray to Allah for repentance and guidance, and move on.”
Maya said that small successes helped best; “I just needed to give myself a small sense of achievement – be it cleaning my house a little or reading just one page of the Quran”.
Interestingly, after giving birth, she began to have “opposite symptoms”. She was hyper and overly-distracted. She explains, “Right before I gave birth, perhaps at week 38, I stopped my medication routine. I thought I was cured after being much happier and better for a long while. I was also afraid that the medication would somehow affect my little one through breastfeeding, although the pharmacist had already reassured me it would be okay. It was not a wise decision to stop the medication just as I was about to enter a really stressful period of being a new mother. I had also not really consulted my doctor and husband to deliberate this decision.”
“I started to be really hyper and distracted and a little delusional – so I was lovingly advised to go back on medicine by my family and friends and I did. Thank God because I feel better and more stable and grounded now. I need to still take medicine to be a stronger mummy and more at peace. I have to accept that I have a mental condition and that it is okay. It does not make me less of a mummy or a person.”
Today, with baby Laila in her arms, what Maya feels most is hope. “Here is… me; someone who was once hospitalised with schizophrenia, who was once in psychosis, who now has grown to develop skills and strategies to manage the illness. Life is a journey, and there may be much to fear, but also so much beauty and joy to experience. Let us not give up on ourselves.”