14 October 2013
'Day Six: when Motherhood and Madness Collide' is Jen S Wight's personal story of Post Partum Psychosis. Has early motherhood ever been so harrowing? Nicole Fordham Hodges reviews this taboo-busting, searingly honest, assertively political book.
At the start of 'Day Six' Wight describes the deep strangeness of early parenthood. She puts it beautifully: the oddness, ambivalence and love new parents can feel. She sets up the affectionate, humourous relationship with her partner 'The Norwegian'. 'The Boy' is born by caesarian section:' It's like I'm a handbag and they are reaching around for their lost keys.' She feels a 'spangle-bright spark of fear-love' for her new baby.
'Surviving the sixth day of my baby's life,' she goes on to say 'was the third most difficult thing I have done.' For on the sixth day she has a foretaste of what is later diagnosed as Post Partum Psychosis. Wight treats us to a painstakingly detailed account of her thoughts as they tip over from recognisable strangeness into acute paranoia and exquisite anxiety. Time is slowed down to chilling effect.
As the PPP develops, Wight gives us a jawdropping insider-view of her accelerating delusions, with 'madness harrying me like a terrier.' She believes she is Cameron Diaz, that she will cure cerebral palsy with dental floss, that she is working with Obama to hunt down paedophiles.
There is an awful beauty alongside the horror. Wight believes she can control dogs with her mind, as they make a 'beautiful pattern over the grass that only I can see.'
The back story is equally compelling: the story of Wight's sister's development of schizophrenia at the age of eighteen. Wight honours and understands afresh her sister's horrific experiences as her own nightmare unfolds.
Yes, this is a horror story, but also a love story. There's the love of a little sister for the big sister to whom the book is dedicated. Then there's the love between Wight and 'The Norwegian' and their love for 'The Boy'. The depiction of the terrible strain the PPP placed on 'The Norwegian' is desperately moving. Wight describes feeling states with honesty and humility:' grief, annoyance and concern' are 'layered through his face.... 'It's just so hard,' he says.'
Wight is not afraid to interrupt the narrative with awareness-raising information: about the hormonal causes and drug treatments of PPP, about patients' rights, about issues of early motherhood: constipation, breastfeeding, painful feelings of ambivalence. I came to respect the taboo-busting directness of these short didactic sections. For this is a self-help book as well as an awareness-raising book and a very compelling read.
As voluntary inpatient at a perinatal mental health unit Wight felt: 'treated as mentally ill first, and a person second.' Her food-poisoning was dismissed as a symptom of her psychosis. The nurses 'cannot accept that I might have legitimate reasons to complain.' As Wight says: 'People with mental health problems need to speak up and be heard.' She does this assertively, and without bitterness.
Wight goes on to describe the severe Post Natal Depression which followed as her psychosis came to an end. It's a stark come-down from the horror- excitement of the delusions. She admits that it's a struggle to find words for the depression which she calls 'by far the worst' experience.
'If I could I would instruct the words to fly off the page and lodge themselves in your heart, your gut and your throat... scoop out your stomach and nestle inside, leaving you hollow, numb and scared.'
I sense the depression still dogging Wight, harder to separate herself from than the psychosis. Yet Wight describes her ongoing recovery too, and the return to ordinary pleasures of motherhood: pushing her son on a swing. This section is so immediate that it reads like a journal. Wight is barely recovered from her illness yet describes it with such clarity and insight.
'Six Days' is not a depressing book, but intelligent, loving and humane: a story of strength and recovery. Yet this is certainly not a simplistic tale of 'triumph over tragedy'. As Wight says of her sister's ongoing struggle with schizophrenia: 'It's a hard lesson to learn that things can go so wrong and stay wrong.'