As time has marched forward, I’ve found myself posting less and less about my mental health, namely the OCD and anxiety that I suffer. What started as one of the primary motivations for this little online space has become less of a focus. And while that’s a good thing in that it reflects how far I’ve come, it doesn’t mean that mental health, in particular postnatal mental health, isn’t still something that I’m hugely passionate about.
I’ve written before about how conditions like OCD and anxiety can sometimes fall by the wayside when it comes to diagnosing and understanding mental health. There has been some amazing work done that sheds so much light on PND, extinguishing much of the stigma and starting conversations around the ‘how’ and ‘why’. As someone who has suffered what I know, the thing was mild PND, I think this is wonderful. The more focus put on supporting women in the critical post-birth period, the better.
Unfortunately, the other conditions that are prevalent in the postnatal period aren’t always given as much focus. We’ve all probably heard stories about postnatal psychosis as it’s terrifying and awful and often flagged up while we’re in the hospital post-birth. OCD and anxiety however aren’t always mentioned, indeed many women, with and without kids, would have no clue as to what these conditions entail and the kind of symptoms that usually accompany them.
When I was first diagnosed with OCD (before having a baby), I was a bit stunned. To me, OCD was all about the compulsions, washing your hands a million times a day or flicking light switches umpteen times before leaving a room. I had no idea about the ‘O’ in OCD.
The ‘O’ stands for ‘Obsession’, and that’s the particular part of the condition that I’ve experienced. I’m talking random, obsessive thoughts that you’d otherwise dismiss as fleeting and crazy. I struggle to dismiss those thoughts. When I sought treatment, I was convinced that I was somehow capable of physically injuring both myself and other people. I didn’t WANT to injure anyone but a seed had been planted at some stage that, due to stress and by genetic predisposition), began to flower.
Being at home alone was terrifying. Driving alone or with others was horrifying. I never got to a point where I asked my partner to hide things like knives and scissors (a common reaction to this kind of thought pattern) but my mind was in a constant state of battle.
The irrational, obsessive side vs the ‘normal’ me. I believe most of us have both of these sides in our personality but for some of us, there come times when the obsessive side begins to overpower the rational side and makes us incapable of dismissing that which upsets and disturbs us, no matter how ‘crazy’ or bizarre it seems.
While I’ve now realized that I have some compulsive behaviors (generally mental ‘rituals’ as opposed to anything physical) it was the obsessions that led me to seek treatment and get my diagnosis. I thought I must have been depressed as I felt so mucked up in the head but after 15 minutes with the psychologist who’d end up being my absolute savior, I had a new diagnosis. Twenty minutes after that, I knew more about OCD than I’d ever known before, and ten minutes after that, I was in no doubt that I’d suffered it for a very long time (to varying degrees).
I managed my OCD, post-diagnosis through intensive therapy and medication and I got better. I was able to come off medication and keep myself grounded using the strategies I was taught during my time seeing my psychologist. After Ollie was born, in Jan 2012, I entered a precarious environment. I didn’t realize it at the time but the combination of sleep deprivation, stress, the relinquishing of all my usual routines, and the complete annihilation of my perfectionist tendencies put me in a position that could lead to another occurrence of the type of OCD I’d experienced once before; uncontrolled, all-consuming obsessions.
I think that if a few things had been different, I may have been able to stay on track. As it happened, I didn’t. I entered into what I now reckon was the hardest 8 or so months of my life. The act I managed to put on, for the outside world, seemed to fool most people. I’d lost my baby weight, managed to leave the house in clean clothes, was sociable, and made a bunch of new ‘mummy’ friends easily. Inside, however, I was dying.
My obsessive thinking patterns had returned with full force. It’s still not the easiest thing to write BUT it’s got to a point where I feel I need to share what was going on in my head, both for myself and for any other mother who may be experiencing what I did and who feels like the worst person on earth. The thought of other women suffering through the symptoms of PPOCD and not knowing what’s happening to them is heartbreaking. I knew I had OCD and knew enough about it to have some idea that what I was experiencing was indeed the same condition but I still was unable to get on top of it.
So these thoughts. They first cropped up late in the night (or possibly early in the morning), while I attempted to feed a screaming newborn who didn’t want a thing to do with my boobs. The pain from the blisters I already had from feeding was excruciating and I very clearly remember thinking; ‘I could throw this baby out of the window now.’ I’m sure I’m not the first mother to think that but instead of dismissing this as just a random reaction to exhaustion, stress, and pain, I became obsessed with the idea. What happened if I DID do that? Or worse yet, did I WANT to do it? It was clear to me that I was a complete monster, the worst mother in the world.
The ‘out the window’ scenario soon morphed into the ‘down the stairs’ scenario. We lived up three flights of stairs and I was convinced that I would trip and drop the baby OR worse, purposely hurl my precious bundle down the steps. I used to hold my breath as I climbed up and down, silently congratulating myself on making it without flipping out (as I was sure I must be capable of) and doing something horrendous. Just another piece of evidence to add to the growing ‘I’m a monster’ file.
Then came the bath time stuff. Drowning the baby is not an uncommon thought for new mums and I know of quite a few who’ve feared the same thing, for me, however, it was more of a, ‘I’m going to drown the baby ON PURPOSE’ kind of thing. I don’t think there has ever been a mother who bathed her child as carefully as I did. Generally, I’d try and pass the job off to my husband, my mother, friends who were visiting, anyone really who I felt was more trustworthy than I was.
While these sound fairly horrendous, there was the fourth school of thoughts that, to my mind, trumped the rest. It’s the school that eventually caused me to go back into intensive therapy and that prompted me to start taking medication again. These particular thoughts are the ones that caused a depth of despair I never thought I could experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been ‘properly’ suicidal, but these thoughts pushed me in that general direction, so horrified was I by them.
It’s hard for me to write down what was going through my head, and while I now know what caused me to think all of the above, I’m still, for lack of a better word, scared. You see, the thought popped into my head while changing my son one morning that I might be touching him inappropriately, during his change. Perhaps I was a child molester who would be capable of molesting my son. My psychologist and I have identified that that particular crime, for me, is the most horrendous and heinous of anything capable of adult human beings.
It seems, subconsciously, I rank it worse than murder. As is the way with OCD, the condition somehow seized on what it knew of my moral code and exploited it completely.
To say I was paralyzed is an understatement. I spent months feeling waves of nausea, most days I was consumed with the horror stories in my head. As with all the thought patterns, I ‘could’ be, soon morphed into ‘I must WANT to be.’ I just want to do these awful things to my son. I must be a child molester, a pedophile who should be in jail. I asked my husband several times if he thought I should be taken to the police. I thought jail would be the best place for me.
He gently explained that as I hadn’t DONE anything, having me arrested would be difficult. I couldn’t be arrested for thoughts. I wanted to be though. There were days when I wanted to go to sleep and just not wake up until I felt better. There were days when I thought both my son and husband would be much better off If I just left. ‘He’d be so much safer with me gone.
It wasn’t a great time. I managed to keep things going on the outside though. There was NO WAY IN HELL I would share anything that I was experiencing with anyone, apart from my husband. It must have been agonizing for him, seeing the contempt I had for myself. Amazingly, during this time, I somehow managed to give Ollie everything I had. I persisted with breastfeeding, I spent hours reading and cuddling him. We went to libraries and mothers groups and the pool. He was fed, cuddled, and loved to within an inch of his life.
Some women are incapable of doing this when they are suffering from what I was. They can’t be close to their children due to the fear they are experiencing. Many can’t bring themselves to change a nappy or bathe their baby as they fear what might happen.
Somehow, I still managed to keep on keeping on. I don’t know how but I did. When I think back to that time, I worry that my baby might have somehow realized what was happening, I feared he could see the pain in my face. It seems however that he couldn’t and that all he felt was the good stuff I tried to give him.
So what happened?
It took three psychologists, three different medications, and a hell of a lot of reading to get me back on track. I finally hit the jackpot with my current psychologist. My first visit reconfirmed my OCD diagnosis and, as hard as it was, I shared my thoughts with her, all of them.
The fact that she was not horrified, did not threaten to call DOCS or the police, or run screaming from her office yelling ‘demon mother’, was reassuring. The look of understanding she gave me and her soft ‘you poor thing. That sounds tough,’ put me at ease.
I learned in the weeks that followed, through my sessions and my reading that what I was experiencing wasn’t abnormal. It was in fact, a textbook PPOCD symptom. I also learned that mothers who suffer from PPOCD and have these thoughts are the LEAST likely to act on them. I can’t tell you how that statistic made me feel. My psychologist used a variety of techniques and strategies with me and reassured me that the way I was feeling was something I should take solace in. ‘Mothers who want to murder/drown/molest their babies don’t agonize over it,’ she said, ‘they just kind of do it.’
The fact that I was experiencing the levels of disgust, horror and physical repulsion towards my thoughts was an indication of just how far from my moral code they were.
It’s taken a hell of a lot of time but I’m in a place now where I can (just) talk about it. I had to relearn a lot about myself. The thing with thoughts is that they have an attached emotional response which our bodies and minds remember. I found, for a long time, even when I was feeling calm, a certain place or even a certain smell could trigger off a feeling of uncomfortableness.
It’s taken a ton of self-discovery but I’m now fairly convinced that the root of much of what I experienced stemmed from my inability to trust myself. It sounds like a very basic thing to have caused so much trauma but when it boils down, not being able to trust in my mothering abilities led me down a path that reinforced that I was indeed incapable. ‘Good mothers don’t think like this,’ I used to tell myself. ‘Good mothers don’t experience XYZ.’ Turns out, that’s a lot of crap, and plenty of really sensational mothers experience a whole gauntlet of shit. It doesn’t detract from their ability to be the number one person in their child’s life.
Do I trust myself now? I’m getting there. It’s a slow process and there is a fair bit of scar tissue still hanging around. But I’m at a point where I would say that 85% of me thinks I’m trustworthy (and pretty rad). The other 15% sits on the fence a little and a small bit of it is still too tender to declare itself each way. I’m happy with this though and know with a bit more work, I’ll be close to 90% before I know it.
For any mothers out there who may be experiencing what I’ve described, please know that you’re not alone. You are not the worst mother to have walked the earth. You are experiencing a medical condition that can be treated and managed effectively. You don’t have to suffer. Speak to your GP, early childhood nurse, or someone you trust about what you are feeling, I promise you’ll feel better.