Shining light on a dark secret

Heather Quinn had no idea there was a name for the feelings she was experiencing soon after the birth of her second son, Shawn, in 2010.

All she knew was that she did not have the same feelings she had after the birth of her first son, Jack, two years earlier. Instead of feeling awash in joy and love, as she had with Jack, all she wanted was to get away from her newborn second son. All she felt for him up to a year after his birth was revulsion and disconnectedness. All she felt for her older son Jack and her husband, Jeff, were numbness and withdrawal. And all she felt for herself was shame and guilt and self-hatred.

“I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew from the moment they placed him in my arms there was something very wrong,” said Heather. “It is the most unnatural and agonizing thing to feel no connection whatsoever to your newborn. I felt isolated and sad. I was having daily impulses to hurt Shawn and myself. These impulses went much further than just thoughts. They were knee-jerk reactions to do something I had to control. Even today, I wonder what stands between an impulse and an action. I was lost somewhere in that space for the first year of his life.”

It would be an agonizing year of harrowing moments between Heather and her new baby, and Heather and her husband, before the family would learn they were experiencing something that affects millions of other families across the country – a postpartum mood disorder.

Heather and Jeff struggled alone. No one was reaching out offering reasoning, support or acknowledgment of what they were experiencing. Heather self-diagnosed what she went through as postpartum psychosis. After she started feeling more like herself, she and Jeff began presenting on their experience at symposiums, grand rounds and colleges to inform and educate caregivers on how real and common postpartum depression and psychosis is. Heather became a member of the Peripartum Mood Disorders Steering Committee at the Institute of Living, and has become the program’s voice of the patient, the mom, the survivor.

Postpartum psychosis is an extreme form of peripartum mood disorder that can be marked by thoughts of suicide, homicide, delusions and hallucinations.

  • “I had no idea what was happening to me, but I knew from the moment they placed him in my arms there was something very wrong”

    - Heather Quinn

Heather and her family are well on the path to recovery now, and the bonds between she and her children, and her and her husband, are stronger than ever. But there were moments over the course of Shawn’s first year where they were not sure they would survive as a family.

Heather could not put into words what she was going through. She could not tell her husband or her physician; she did not want to give any energy to the impulses and deranged thoughts she struggled with. In the weeks after bringing him home from the hospital, Heather was fearful of impulses she was experiencing that could have led her to harm him. Fighting hallucinations and delusions, she withdrew from her family, afraid to share her situation.

“I felt like I was going crazy,” she said.

Jeff Quinn said he was at a loss to understand what was happening to his wife, and he reverted to old habits such as cigarette smoking as he struggled to reconnect with Heather. One day, he said, he came home to find her sitting cross-legged on the kitchen floor, her eyes staring vacantly ahead.

“There was no conversing with her, nothing like that,” he said.

Jeff also found that he was experiencing symptoms of depression and anxiety, and he too sought treatment and counseling.

Heather said she continues to struggle with feelings of guilt connected to Shawn’s birth, but takes pride in her contributions to the Peripartum Mood Disorders Steering Committee. “There is nothing that I can do to change what happened to my family, to make it better,” she said. “We are sharing our story in the hope that we can help the next family find the resources and support that we so desperately needed.”