While most expecting mamas worry over which cheeses are safe to consume, many who suffer from mental illness have to navigate the muddy waters of whether to keep taking their needed medications during conception and pregnancy. In today’s Mom Talk, Morgan Hutchinson openly shares her struggles with bipolar disorder and her difficult decision to go off meds during her pregnancies. A mom of two (with number three on the way), Morgan is the founder of BURU, an online shop of high-style pieces curated with moms in mind, and the creator of the Vive la Mère collection—a straw hat, t-shirt, button down and pin emblazoned with her signature stitching—that raises funds for Bring Change to Mind, a non-profit on a mission to end the stigma of mental illness.
I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 27. After years of failed attempts to “fix me”—this label, though often perceived as scary and stigmatizing, actually came as quite a relief to me.
I came home from that life-changing doctor’s appointment with an odd new sense of self and a giant handful of pill bottles. The dry, powdery taste of swallowing my first Lamictal (mood stabilizer) chased by a heavy dose of Zoloft remains vivid in my mind. At first gulp, the optimistic innocence of that 27 girl had me believe that I was now healed. Boy was she wrong.
You don’t heal mental illness, you treat it. And for five solid years post diagnosis, I did just that. Minus a few hiccups and a bit of time spent in a mental institution, my cocktail of meds, plus bi-monthly shrink appointments kept me going. I remember believing that I could go on like this forever—no biggie.
Then, my biological clock stopped ticking and went to full blown alarm. I wanted a baby, and I wanted that baby now. My husband did, too. We entered “let’s have a baby land”—where everything was rainbows and unicorns and no one harped on the fact that the mother thrived on a serious dose of drugs (some potentially too risky for pregnancy) to keep her functioning as a normal human.
We chatted with both my shrink and therapist about our decision to procreate. Inundated with all the risks and the unknowns, of which there we many, we made the informed decision (well mostly me, with an incredibly supportive husband) that I would try life without pills in order for us to become parents.
It was actually a very easy decision to make, because you see, when your pills are working, you start to believe that you don’t actually need them. I assure you that this is often not the case.
Cold turkey is highly frowned upon in this scenario, so my doctors devised a plan to gradually wean me off the drugs, aligning my last pill pop with a three-week trip that my husband and I had planned to South Africa. The thought process being: Vacation mode is as good as it’s going to get, plus it secured 24-hour spouse surveillance to make sure the bottom didn’t fall out on me. It was a solid, safari plan.
Thankfully, the plan worked. We returned from an amazing trip, relatively unscathed by my lack of meds, and I got knocked up on our first try. Blissfully distracted by the new life growing inside me and abundantly full of new hormones, I hardly noticed a difference between life pre and post pills. Suddenly, all the time spent worrying about “what was to come” during my weaning process seemed pointless. I could do this, and I could do it like any other “normal” woman. Then, the bottom did fall out.
Just shy of 11 weeks, I started spotting. A visit to my OB and an ultrasound confirmed what my heart already knew, the baby was gone.
In what felt like the longest and shortest day of my life, all was lost. My heart was broken, my body was broken, and I could already feel my sanity taking a turn for the worse.
Over the next few weeks, as my body began to heal and the surge of hormones disappeared, so did my sense of peace. Vacation mode was long gone, the adrenaline rush of trying to get pregnant had vanished, and all that was left was a heap of a non-medicated bipolar woman, desperate for a medical professional to tell her what her next move should be.
“Wait two months and try again,” seemed to be the standard answer from the OB department.
My mental health doctors weren’t as straight forward. The reality of many mood stabilizers, specifically Lamictal, is that onboarding the drug takes even longer than weaning off of it. They felt strongly that I needed the drugs now more than ever, but they also warned me of the harsh side effects of an on-and-off again scenario. They did their best to convince me, with very few studies on the subject, that my baby would most likely be “fine” if I decided to stay on the pills while trying to conceive. They filled me with data, but ultimately, the decision was up to me—a stressed-out mess of a woman who felt her broken body was incapable of producing anything good. I had to gauge myself. To medicate or not to medicate?
Somewhere along the way, I prepared myself that getting pregnant would take many months—6 seemed to be the random number my brain settled on after the 3 months of weaning. Add on 9 months of carrying the baby and another 6 (minimum) for breastfeeding, and it totals 24. For me, 2 years of going med-free equaled an easy trade for a precious baby. But now, just shy of what should have been 6 months into my outlined plan, I was 2 months in the hole of my starting point—an 8-month med deficit.
I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to make a child with this wonderful man who loved me, not in spite of my struggles, but because of them. With what felt like a stacked deck against me, I decided that I wanted to keep trying without any risk of side effects from prescription drugs. It would take more self-care. It would take being kinder to myself and to my body than I had ever been before, but I believed I could do it. I stayed off the medicines and let my body rest for the recommended two months. On the third month, we tried again.
14 days later, I held my breath and peed on an “early detection” pregnancy test stick. Two magical lines appeared. Thank you, Jesus.
Once the hormones fully kicked in, I felt myself find balance again—a level of balance, in fact, that paralleled my medications. This steadiness stayed with me for the entire pregnancy and through almost 12-months of nursing. Somehow, my body and my mind made it through, safe and sound, and produced a perfect baby girl.
Is there a chance that my body could have produced a perfectly healthy baby while staying on the drugs? Of course there is. It just wasn’t a risk I wanted to take at that time in my life. It’s a personal decision that every woman must make for herself.
I’m currently pregnant with baby number three, and I chose to wean off the drugs yet again, just as I did for babies number one and number two. If at any point I felt my life was in true danger or that I could only survive with the aid of medicine, I would NOT hesitate to get help—prescription drug or otherwise.
As mothers, we immediately become advocates for our children. Through the long and ongoing process of my mental health treatment, I have learned that I must also be an advocate for myself, for my body, and for my own well-being. Seeking professional help is a crucial part of treatment, but realizing that you know your body, when you can trust it, and perhaps when you cannot, better than anyone else is a vital step to living—and even thriving with mental illness.
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