Postpartum OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is a thing. Did you know that? Because I didn’t. It is perhaps one of the lesser-known postpartum mood disorders, which can make it feel even more frightening for the sufferer. Plus, OCD gets a bad rap as the “trendy” mental illness: a punchline, a BuzzFeed article, just a harmless quirk. That person who’s super organized and washes their hands a lot. But these stereotypes can be very misleading.
I had been diagnosed with OCD over a decade before I had my baby, and through a combination of therapies, it had been well under control for many, many years. It never occurred to me that it could be exacerbated (severely) by the hormone swings of the postpartum period. I wish someone had prepared me for that.
I wish that having a postpartum plan was just as important as having a birth plan.
I wish that care providers asked more questions about mental health and helped to provide the resources mothers need in the critical postpartum weeks and months. (My midwife didn’t even offer the standard postpartum depression screening, which was shocking to me.)
Postpartum mood disorders can look different for different people, but for me, postpartum OCD reared its ugly head in the form of completely uncontrollable intrusive thoughts, irrational fears, and crippling anxiety. Every time I stood at the top of our steep, 100-year-old staircase, an image of dropping the baby down the stairs would flash through my mind. I didn’t carry him down the stairs for weeks after he was born. If I was cooking something on the stove, even if my baby was safely strapped into his swing on the other side of the kitchen, I would be terrified of him being splattered with hot grease. I feared even touching anything potentially dangerous, like scissors or kitchen knives. Each intrusive thought was like the punch to the gut; the fear would literally knock the wind out of me. And of course, I felt so isolated. I was terrified that anyone I told would think I was a horrible mother. So I suffered in silence for months. I would cry into my baby’s downy hair every day, holding him close, so afraid that I was doing a terrible job as the mom of this perfect tiny human.
When I finally got help after failing several postpartum depression screenings, my incredible psychiatrist (who specializes in postpartum mood disorders) was so reassuring. OCD is frequently exacerbated by postpartum hormones, and what I was feeling was so much more common than I had ever imagined. I learned that being repulsed by scary, intrusive thoughts was assurance that I would never, ever act on them. I started medication for the first time in my life, and it was transformative. Within a few months, my intrusive thoughts were almost completely gone. My depression lifted. And my anxiety quieted. I was still me, just minus all the distressing background noise that had played in my mind for so long. Through counseling, medication, and an array of holistic coping mechanisms, I finally feel free. I’m not afraid anymore. And while I’ll always have OCD, it doesn’t have to control my life. Getting help made me the very best mother I can be.
Mama, if this is you, please know that you’re not alone. This is just an illness, like any other illness, and you CAN make a beautiful recovery with treatment. You are not a bad mom. In fact, you are an amazing mom. A warrior mom. Please reach out for help. You are going to be OK.
Here are some resources to get you started:
Smartphone app: PPDGone!
On Twitter: #ppdchat
Kimberly Poovey is a writer, speaker, wife, and over-caffeinated new(ish) mom. She runs a teen pregnancy prevention program for a nonprofit and is a founder of Pearls, an organization that serves women in the sex industry and fights human trafficking. You can find her over on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, her blog, and on Facebook.