Author Catherine Cho talks to PEOPLE about the rare mental illness that resulted in her waking up in a psychiatric ward, three months after her son's birth

By Sam Gillette
August 05, 2020 05:00 PM
Catherine Cho
Sophia Spring

The months after Catherine Cho welcomed her first baby with husband James Choi were supposed to be a joyful time. Instead, she was in a waking nightmare.

Three months after Cho had son Cato in November 2017, she woke up in a psychiatric ward and couldn't remember how she got there. She was suffering from a rare mental illness, postpartum psychosis.

Now healthy, the literary agent wrote a memoir about the trauma she experienced, Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness, and is pregnant with her second child — knowing that she faces a 50 percent chance of recurrence.

"I feel very secure in myself in being able to recognize if things aren't going well," Cho, 31, says in an exclusive interview in this week's issue of PEOPLE. "And knowing so much of that external noise that had really impacted me the first time, I'll be much better prepared."

Cho and her husband, a 37-year-old bioengineering professor, had no reason to worry when they learned she was pregnant with Cato.

But after his birth in London, the new mom was suffering from more than just sleep deprivation. Cho writes that she didn't feel a "rush of love" for her newborn, like she had expected, and two months after Cato's birth she began to experience hallucinations and mania while they were visiting her in-laws in the U.S.

At one point, Cho watched as her son's eyes morphed into "devils' eyes," she writes in her book, and she insisted that they leave her parents-in-law's place. Cho also started deleting social media apps on her phone because she thought her in-laws were using the technology to spy on her. Choi had his wife admitted after she called their son the Chosen One.

"During that manic phase, I really did not know what was going on. I knew something was wrong and there were very strong signs that something was wrong," Choi explains. "Then there's that one point where she said that Cato was the Chosen One. I love my son and all, but he's not the Chosen One. I was like, okay, I need [to get her] help right away."

At the hospital, Cho was diagnosed with postpartum psychosis. Thought to be brought on by hormonal shifts and sleep deprivation, postpartum psychosis affects 1 to 2 out of 1,000 new moms, and those with a history of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia are at higher risk. Symptoms may include mania, depression, hallucinations and delusions.

"I was terrified. The prenatal class only touched on 'baby blues,'" says Choi of his wife's diagnosis. "We went into this blind."

Cho was in the hospital for 12 days. When she was released, she had a prescription for the antipsychotic haloperidol in hand. But, shockingly, they were given no further instruction.

Back in London, England’s National Health Service assigned her a mental health crisis team. Cho was on medication for a year before her doctors decided she was fine on her own.

For the full interview, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday. 

The author with her family

Now healthy and stable, Cho's memoir recounts her terrifying struggles with mental illness and pulls from journals that she and her husband kept. Both her experience with mental illness and writing the book have taught her an important lesson: she needs to prioritize her health.

"One thing that I have definitely learned from the experience is we were so focused on taking care of Cato and making sure he was fine, that it didn't really occur to me, that actually I should be taking care of myself as well," she says.

Cato, now 2½, is doing well after his mother's frightening health journey.

"Coming out, I was like, 'Oh gosh, it must have been really traumatic for him to have suddenly gone from breastfeeding all the time to just transition to the bottle.' I was with him all the time before we were separated," Cho explains. "In the recovery period afterward, I was a very distant figure. I couldn't touch him for more than a minute or two."

But, since her recovery, Cho has connected with her son.

"I feel lucky now that we have a really strong relationship," she says. "I definitely worked very hard to get to that point. So it's a relationship that I had to build, rather than rediscover."

Now "100 percent back to herself," as Choi puts it, Cho is pregnant with a daughter due in November. While they're excited to welcome their new baby, the couple is also ready for postpartum psychosis if it happens again.

"We’ll do what we can to prevent it," says Choi, "but we’re prepared."

If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

  • With reporting by SANDRA SOBIERAJ WESTFALL