[Editor’s Note: It’s turning out to be postpartum OCD/Intrusive Thoughts Week here at Postpartum Progress. This wasn’t planned, it’s just that I’m hearing from so many of you who are going through this illness, so I’m sharing just a few of the stories I have received. This one is from Tina. -Katherine]
I am a horrible person. I don’t deserve to be a mother.
This was the thought I tortured myself with when I starting having fears that I would hurt my daughter early last year. Once I finally gave in and told my doctor about my fears, I learned that this awful experience had a name: intrusive thoughts, or overwhelming fears that I found impossible to ignore.
I was sure I was a danger to my daughter and should be immediately hospitalized. My doctor (and everyone else I told) completely disagreed. They never for a moment worried about the welfare of my daughter; the primary concern was always my suffering and how to help me alleviate it. That made no sense to me. Couldn’t they see that I was a ticking time bomb that could go off any minute?! I did everything I could to avoid being alone with my beautiful new baby, as her safety was my only priority.
I so badly wanted to crawl under my bed and never come out. In those early days, I would have given anything to be a “normal” mother with “normal” concerns like sleep deprivation and not showering for two days. Instead, I had been catapulted into a nightmare that I never saw coming. The shame was a physical presence that I carried with me everywhere I went.
After my medication started working and the overt anxiety decreased, I looked happy and well-adjusted to other people. I felt like I was playing a role: the “perfect” mother who had never had terrible thoughts of harming her daughter. I would shudder when I would think of how horrified other mothers would be if they knew the truth, and how they would hurry to keep their children away from me.
I later learned that this disorder had strong roots in the anxiety I had before I got pregnant. I had always been a “worrier,” battling fears of certain doom hiding in every corner. I didn’t recognize these thoughts as irrational worries fueled by anxiety; I thought I was the “normal” one, and that those people that didn’t obsessively worry about every little thing were the ones taking their life in their hands. It was the terrifying experience of being afraid I might hurt my daughter that forced me to look at my thinking pattern and investigate ways I could change it. That was quite a revelation: I can change the way I think and then I can feel better? You would think that a therapist with ten years of experience treating anxiety in other people would have had this concept down, but it was my strange belief that it applied to everyone but me.
Determined to find a way to out of this nightmare, I stayed on my prescribed medication, and set about reading everything I could about this disorder. I especially craved stories of recovery from postpartum OCD that would give me hope that the nightmare would end one day. Having identified that my fears of hurting my daughter were actually a symptom of a bigger issue, I also started doing self-help work designed to change my reaction to these horrible thoughts. After all, they were just thoughts. I was the one giving them power by assuming that thoughts and actions are the same thing. Coming to understand this reality gave me an amazing insight: I was not a defective mother; I was a person with anxiety that could learn to control it and move on with my life.
I can obsess later.
This is my new way of thinking. Just over a year later, I have gained control over my intrusive thoughts, and they no longer run my life. I still have moments of uncertainty when the old fears creep in, but I give myself permission to put those thoughts away for the time being and get back to what I was doing. I can always go back to obsessing later on if I feel the need. The very act of acknowledging my obsessions puts me back in the driver’s seat of my own mind.
The energy I used to expend being terrified and making sure any time I was alone with my daughter was as limited as possible is now being used to teach her about the world. I marvel at her curiosity and revel in her love of life. Surviving this experience has made me appreciate just how blessed I am to be her mother. The shame that used to plague me has been turned into an inner strength that I have vowed to use to help other women find their way out of the darkness of postpartum OCD and into the light of recovery.