In 2014, when I was 26 years old, I gave birth to my first child. Like all babies, he was tiny and helpless. He relied on me to survive, and I jumped right in to do my job. I was comfortable with my baby, and we bonded immediately. I knew how to soothe him when he was upset and breastfeeding came easily to me. You could even say I was a natural. I spent my days making organic baby food, going to “baby and me” classes and running with the baby jogger. I didn’t miss my old life, and to anyone looking, I seemed like a well-adjusted, happy new mom.
But I was consumed by the idea that something would happen to him. To calm myself, I did everything in my power to make sure he was safe — and I mean everything. I held him while he slept so I could feel his breathing. I made sure I was his main caretaker so that I could keep an eye on him at all times. I even warmed his DockATot near the heater so that a difference in temperature wouldn’t startle him. I had exhausted all safety measures and had eliminated any external threats in my control, but I still had the gnawing feeling that something bad would happen. I could think of nothing worse than causing harm to my own child, so I turned my focus inward and started to monitor myself, just to make sure it wasn’t me who would hurt him.
At first, I chalked it up to new mom worries. I thought I was being responsible by foreseeing any future tragedies and avoiding them. But in the months that followed, my mental state worsened. Even though it was the last thing I wanted to do, I started imagining all the possible ways that I could hurt him. The images came involuntarily and fast, like a TV screen flashing before my eyes.
I was not depressed or sad. I did not have a hard time bonding with my baby, and I did not want to harm myself or my infant. But something was wrong in my head.
Everything I saw gave my imagination more to run with. The bathtub brought images of me drowning my baby. When I walked past the railing on the second floor of my home, I felt a pang of fear in case I threw him down. If I stood too close to a window, I saw myself opening it and letting him fall to the ground. The balcony, which was once my preferred place to sunbathe, became a danger zone. The hard brick below threatened to be a deadly landing place for my fragile infant. Even my daily walk to Golden Gate Park felt dangerous. If I wanted to, I could just let go of the stroller. The wheels were big enough that nothing would stop its trajectory down the hill and he would eventually roll to his death. It was like a recurring nightmare but my eyes were open. I didn’t want to hurt my child, but I was having violent thoughts of doing so.
I wanted to tell someone — anyone — what I was going through, but I didn’t know who to turn to for help. By the time I was deep into symptoms, my postpartum checkups were a thing of the past. There were mental health questions on the intake form at the pediatrician’s office, but none of them applied to me. I was not depressed or sad. I did not have a hard time bonding with my baby, and I did not want to harm myself or my infant. But something was wrong in my head.
When I mentioned the possibility of a postpartum mood disorder to family, they said it wasn’t possible. They only knew of postpartum depression or psychosis, and they believed that mothers with those disorders were either unable or unwilling to care for their children. I was neither. When I told my husband I was worried about going crazy like some moms do, he reassured me that I wouldn’t and brushed it off. I could have said that I was afraid of killing my own child because I pictured the different ways that could happen all day long, but there is no easy way to say that. And if I explained that I didn’t want to do those things, would he have believed me?
So I lived with the fear and the guilt and the violent thoughts and did what I could to lessen my anxiety. I reminded myself every second that I loved my baby, and that moms who love their babies don’t kill them. I spent most of my time in public places so that in case I went mad, someone out there would notice and hopefully save him from me. When I was alone with my son at home, we spent a lot of time on video calls with my parents and any friends that would entertain us. I felt safer knowing that someone else was with us.
I had no idea that what I was doing were considered compulsions, and that they — along with my unwanted thoughts — were textbook symptoms of a mental illness that affects 1-2% of all women after childbirth.
At night, I prayed for his safety with such vigor that even God wouldn’t be able to tell that I wasn’t a believer. I had no idea that what I was doing were considered compulsions, and that they — along with my unwanted thoughts — were textbook symptoms of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental illness that affects 1-2% of all women after childbirth. The number is estimated to be higher, but due to the high level of shame that comes with having such taboo thoughts, the illness often goes unreported.
When I was in the thick of my obsessive compulsive disorder, the day began and ended with fear. Adrenaline coursed through my veins before I opened my eyes, and intrusive thoughts popped into my head all day long. Most days felt like a never-ending carnival ride, with each spin more disorienting than the last. To get through it, I kept myself scheduled. Every minute was accounted for, leaving no time for my mind to wander or for my hands to be idle because if I stopped to rest, I feared I would go crazy. I figured if I could just keep going, I would go right past whatever was happening here. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore.
Wanting to be free from the violent images in my mind and the fear that I may act on them, I scoured the internet for answers. I found a list of all the postpartum mood disorders, and included in that list was postpartum anxiety/OCD. Having never heard of OCD developing after childbirth, I clicked the link to find a checklist of symptoms. I ticked off every mark. It all started to make sense. I was ill, but I wasn’t a murderer and I wasn’t the only one.
Women were living in shame and guilt because of taboo thoughts that they would never act on, and all the while, there was a name for it.
It turned out that women around the world were having symptoms exactly like mine. They were having scary, intrusive thoughts about harming their babies. They were filled with fear and anxiety, and like me, they were afraid to tell anyone because they didn’t want their babies to be taken away. Women were living in shame and guilt because of taboo thoughts that they would never act on, and all the while, there was a name for it. I was upset, knowing that my suffering could have been minimized if I had known about this.
That night, I found a therapist near me who specialized in postpartum mental health. I emailed her right away and explained my symptoms. Probably sensing my urgency, she agreed to see me that week. I was diagnosed with postpartum OCD, and she explained to me that mothers with this illness do not ever act on their thoughts and that my experience was not uncommon. Hearing her say those words gave me such a rush of relief that I burst into tears, grateful to be in a room with someone who recognized what was happening to me.
The diagnosis gave me enough reassurance that I wasn’t a danger to my child. Shortly after, I decided to stop therapy but my symptoms did not completely go away. The therapist I found knew enough about OCD to get me out of crisis, but while she was very knowledgeable in talk therapy, she was not versed in exposure and response prevention therapy, which is the gold standard treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder.
So in 2017, when my son was 3 1/2 years old, I gave birth to my daughter and developed postpartum OCD once more. This time, I didn’t wait to ask for help. Instead, I found an OCD specialist and started ERP therapy immediately. My therapist and I worked on habituating myself to the thoughts and feelings that caused me so much distress by exposing me to those fears and obsessions in a controlled environment.
I learned that as scary and awful as my thoughts felt, they did not define me. Most importantly, I learned that I am able to tolerate anxiety, fear, guilt and uncertainty, which many people with OCD have a hard time doing. It’s been four years since my diagnosis and I still have intrusive thoughts, but they don’t come as often or as intensely as they did before. I am well into my recovery from OCD and I continue to see my therapist every two weeks because I consider her to be part of my mental health toolbox. Living with a disorder that completely hijacks your sense of self makes it really hard to be present, but it is possible ― I know. I am now the well-adjusted, happy mom that I once pretended to be.
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