There are a lot of scary things in life that I’m happy to say I’ve never experienced. I’ve never been chased by a bear, for instance. Or fallen off a cruise ship. Or accidentally eaten poisonous mushrooms. I have, however, had postpartum OCD and while postpartum OCD is not something most people walk around fearing, I’d argue it’s at least as scary as the things they do fear, if not more so.
I was never more terrified than when I had intrusive thoughts. Having your brain revolt against you with the most Steven King-like scenarios it can dream up is shocking. Until it happens to you, you can’t believe it’s even possible for your brain to go haywire. I was always sure I was in control of my mind, until the day I learned I wasn’t. I’m grateful to say that all these years later, the trauma those intrusive thoughts caused me has faded away. I don’t feel guilty about them. They were a symptom of an illness, and they don’t haunt me any more than a sore throat would haunt me if I ‘d had a cold.
If you’re going through postpartum OCD right now, I understand how completely paralyzed you are with fear. I know I was. My whole world turned upside down, and I felt I didn’t know myself anymore or what I might be capable of. I have walked in your shoes. I’m here to tell you, though, that you will walk right out of those shoes one day and leave them behind.
Until that day comes, I wanted to share two key things with you that I recently saw on the Beyond OCD website that I think are important for you to know:
1. It’s normal to be overwhelmed with doubt when you have OCD. Fred Penzel, PhD, the author of the article, wrote, “Two of OCD’s main features are doubt and guilt. While it is not understood why this is so, these are considered hallmarks of the disorder. Unless you understand these, you cannot understand OCD. In the 19th century, OCD was known as the ‘doubting disease.’ OCD can make a sufferer doubt even the most basic things about themselves, others, or the world they live in. I have seen patients doubt their sexuality, their sanity, their perceptions, whether or not they are responsible for the safety of total strangers, the likelihood that that they will become murderers, etc. I have even seen patients have doubts about whether they were actually alive or not. Doubt is one of OCD’s more maddening qualities. It can override even the keenest intelligence. It is a doubt that cannot be quenched. It is doubt raised to the highest power.” I just LOVE this paragraph because it describes perfectly how I felt. The fact that you doubt yourself right now doesn’t mean you should be doubted or deserve to be doubted. It just means you have OCD.
2. It’s not your fault if you can’t shut off the intrusive thoughts. Penzel explains: “… you cannot refuse to think an obsessive thought. Obsessions are biochemically generated mental events that seem to resemble one’s own real thoughts, but aren’t. One of my patients used to refer to them as ‘My synthetic thoughts.’ They are as counterfeit bills are to real ones, or as wax fruit is to real fruit. As biochemical events, they cannot simply be shut off at will. Studies in thought suppression have shown that the more you try to not think about something, the more you will end up thinking about it paradoxically.” The thing to do is recognize what they are and accept that they are not real and allow yourself to move through them. You don’t have to run and hide from your life or your fears.
Postpartum OCD is a real illness and it requires real treatment. Don’t try to wish it away or pretend it’s not there. It’s there all right, and it needs attention and professional treatment. If you have it, you are likely miserable enough that you are willing to get professional help even if it means telling another person out loud the awful things that have been going through your mind. Penzel notes that the best treatment for OCD is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and that medication can also help, though he believes it’s best used in combination with CBT.