A story of Postpartum OCD, intrusive thoughts, and hope

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I remember each part of my OCD clearly. It began one night as I was nursing my son, Easton. I was home alone with the kids because my husband travels for work. I was looking at him and this random thought popped into my head– “What if I smothered him?” I was instantly crippled by what I now know was intense anxiety, not part of my character.

In the month that followed, my OCD became out of control.

I was constantly on guard, needing to check and recheck my thoughts to make sure that I was not dangerous. It consumed me. I couldn’t eat, I had no appetite. I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts were constantly racing. Then one morning, a new thought came. “What if I hurt both of my boys and no one was around to save them?” This thought scared me so much that I wouldn’t stay at my house alone with them anymore. I stayed on my dad’s couch for two weeks. I stared at the kids all night to make sure they were still safe. I felt like I had to constantly check myself to make sure I didn’t go crazy. I believed I had to stay alert at all times and if I thought I was going to hurt my children, I would go get my dad to save them.

It was all-consuming.

My friends and neighbors noticed something was wrong. I couldn’t go to social gatherings because all I wanted to do was cry. I cried all the time. Every day. I endlessly went through different “what if” scenarios in my head, terrorizing myself to no end. I remembered every Dateline episode I had ever seen and I was scared of becoming each of those evil people.

It is a special kind of hell to not be able to stop racing thoughts that completely contradict who you fundamentally believe yourself to be.

One night, I was putting my son Brayden to bed and thought, “At least I’m not one of those people who is attracted to their kids.” Guess what happened after that thought? That’s right, I was now fearful of becoming a pedophile. That is how quickly my thoughts would terrorize me. It was as if the mere fact that I was capable of having a thought suddenly meant that it could become a reality. This was endless.

By this time I had a therapist, but that wasn’t enough. Because of the grace of neighborhood friends who were able to care for my children, I ended up going to an outpatient program for new mothers with perinatal mood disorders and got on medication.

The medication caused my anxiety to lower, which in turn eased the thoughts. In therapy, I learned that anxiety takes what you care about most and puts it in the worst case scenario. What I care about most in the world is my boys, and them getting hurt in any way is my worst case scenario. This is by far the most crippling thing that has ever happened to me and it is nearly impossible for me to paint an accurate word picture that correctly illustrates how hard this has been.
Once I began to feel better, I began to do crafts and DIY projects, and I started to fully rely on help from my friends. I started by painting a table and chairs. Every new project meant something to me. If I could make it through just one more craft, we would be okay. I’m able to use my mind and creativeness to create beautiful projects instead of using my mind to scare myself. These are skills that came through time, medication and therapy. Today I am able to steer my thoughts from the worst, to gratitude for friends who have come along side me, to support my family. In the darkest moments, I would not have believed I would be working my way through to another side, but I am.

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I’m Chelsea Elker, a stay at home mother of two who has been fighting postpartum OCD for 8 months. I’ve begun documenting my journey through OCD as well as the crafts that keep my mind occupied on my blog delicatechange.blogspot.com. I feel that sharing my story not only helps others who may face the same obstacles, but also loosens the hold that the OCD has on me. I look forward to completely conquering OCD and being able to fully enjoy my family and motherhood.

 

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The Secret Companion of Pregnancy and the Postpartum Period After Loss: Perinatal and Postpartum Anxiety

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Birth trauma, you could call it that.  My first daughter was stillborn at full-term in December of 2012.  I went into labor and delivery that night expecting to soon meet my little girl only to be told by the doctor while sitting in front of a still and silent ultrasound that there was, “No heartbeat”.

Crushed, heartbroken, devastated and numb, I fought for my life when I delivered her, because the infection that killed her, it could have taken my life too. I think it’s safe to say that birth trauma is what happened during the silent entrance of my daughter’s body into the world.

Seven months later I was pregnant again, terrified beyond what doctors and therapists would think was just a normal grief. As my belly grew with my daughter inside, both of us getting closer and closer to her due date, I would panic almost daily.  At night I would wake in up in sweats as nightmares of not being able to feel her move would haunt me.  Then I would spend an hour at three in the morning making sure she would move, making sure she was alive, because there were days when my anxiety convinced me that she had died too.  I would mentally prepare myself to go to yet another ultrasound appointment and once again hear those dreaded words, “I’m sorry.  There is no heartbeat.”

While pregnant after the death of my first daughter, it was almost impossible to get through my job everyday.  I was always worried that she might have stopped moving or that she died while I was engrossed in a work task.  The fear engulfed me. I frequently needed to step out of meetings to splash water on my face and poke at my baby to count her kicks and make sure she was still there, still moving, still alive. I also took extra ‘sick’ days just to manage my anxiety, to try to relax at home and take it easy, which proved challenging.

Close-up of crying womanphoto credit: Johan Larson-Fotolia

Then on the days that I would make it through work I would come home in the evening and break into tears of fear as I lay sobbing on my bed.  My husband held me as I cried, crying with me, and I would scream between my wails, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this anymore!”

Being pregnant again after a loss is like living inside your trauma, which, unfortunately, is your own body that you cannot escape from for nine months. It’s torture, trying not to let your fears and anxiety control you.  However, now you know; you know all that can go wrong. You know you are not guaranteed this baby, just like you weren’t guaranteed the one who died

Some might think that once the baby arrives safe and healthy relief would settle in, and the anxiety and worry would disappear.  However, this did not happen for me. The anxiety increased daily a few months after my living baby was born.

In the hospital, two days after she was born, I had a mental break down.  I was obsessed with my health, afraid that if I breastfed her I would somehow give her a new infection, and that my body would cause her to die too.  Irrational fears like this one flooded me, and only proceeded to get worse when we went home.  Yes, I was relieved and happy that my daughter was here, that I finally got to bring home a baby after 18 months of being pregnant.  But the irrational thoughts kept creeping in.  I would stay up late at night, unable to fall asleep because I was convinced the world was going to end due to the eruption of the super volcano in Yellowstone. I would seek reassurance from all my family members around this issue, and most of them looked at me like I was crazy.

In the days and weeks after my irrational thoughts had taken over, I visited the doctor and talked to my therapist about my postpartum anxiety.  I learned that I was at a higher risk for postpartum mood and anxiety disorders because of the birth trauma from my first daughter’s stillbirth.

Slowly, over time with the help of my doctor and therapist, I learned that breastfeeding my baby would not kill her, as I thought it would. When done with breastfeeding, we discussed medication to address the anxiety, which ultimately was the right choice of treatment for me, along with continuing talk therapy that utilized dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques.

My daughter is now 11 months old.  Each day that passes I seem to have less and less anxiety.  I’m still going to therapy, and I’m still taking medications, and thanks to these treatments I get to enjoy more moments with my daughter and use this second chance at motherhood as a time to heal.  Even if anxiety continues to be my companion I now know how to keep her at bay.

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Lindsey Henke is the founder and editor of Pregnancy After Loss Support, writer, clinical social worker, wife, and most importantly a mother to two beautiful daughters. Tragically, her oldest daughter, Nora was stillborn after a healthy full-term pregnancy in December of 2012. Since then, she has turned to writing on her blog, Stillborn and Still Breathing, to soothe her sorrow and has found healing in giving voice to her grief. Lindsey is also a monthly contributor to Still Standing Magazine and was featured as Pregnancy and Newborn Magazine’s Knocked Up Blogger during her pregnancy with her second daughter, Zoe who was born healthy and alive in March of 2014.

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What is postpartum depression, anxiety and OCD teaching me?

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{The following is a guest post from Natalie}

crying baby

{photo credit – fotolia}

The other day a friend told me that the Universe gives you the baby you need. She’d heard that from a friend who has a very fussy baby, who felt that he teaches her patience and understanding. I thought, “What could I need that Eleanor is giving me? She’s an easy baby – not hard to soothe or too fussy. Maybe that’s what I need right now, to help me get through?” And this may be partially true. When I hear about what some other parents have to deal with, with difficult or colicky babies, I don’t know how I could handle it.

But the thought stayed in my head. What could I need that Eleanor is giving me? Love? No, I have that. Responsibility? Nope, I’ve got that too.

As I thought about it, I began to think that maybe it wasn’t what Eleanor is giving me but in a backwards way, it’s my experience with Postpartum Depression that is giving me what I needed (although I really do wish I could have gotten it another way).

She must not have had it as bad as I do, if she can say that, you might be thinking. But please believe me, I’ve been steamrolled by my OCD. I’ve sobbed as I held my baby and she smiled at me, while I said “Why does she have to have a mother like me? Why can’t this be easier?” I’ve cried to my husband for hours saying, “You’d be better off without me, but please please don’t leave me.” Or, “I’m no longer the woman you married. This is the new me, and you deserve better than her.” I’ve cried when I realized that I don’t remember the first few weeks of my daughter’s life–time I’ll never get back–because I was so out of it that I would only realize after a few days that I hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth.

All that being said, what could I possibly need from this experience, you may ask. Wouldn’t it be better to have a normal birth with no PPD? Yes, of course. I’ve wished that more times than you can imagine. But before my daughter was born I thought, What will I do with all my anxiety and OCD when she’s my child? Will I freak out over every bump? Will she not be able to have a normal childhood because of me?

As I’ve been dealing with some of the worst OCD of my life, and working every day to get back to myself again–a state that used to be so easy I didn’t even need to think about it– I’ve had to work harder than I ever have to get my OCD under control, and I’ve had more at stake than ever. And I realized, in an awful twisted way, maybe this is what I needed (but again, never wanted) to get the strength and techniques I need to control my OCD in the future, for my daughter, my husband and myself.

I read something about PPD a few weeks back–testimonials from women on how they knew they were getting better. For them it was when they enjoyed looking at pictures of the baby, or smiled for the first time in a while, things like that. For me, I know I’m getting better now that I can see the positive aspect of the roughest time of my life, because I can see a future now. For those of you reading this wondering if it will ever get better…it does. Please remember there is nothing wrong with needing help. It will get better and better every day, especially with help. I’m getting there, and you will too.

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Women of Color and Maternal Mental Health: Why Are We So Underserved?

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women of color maternal mental healthOver the past year, I’ve made it a point in my advocacy efforts to focus more on women of color, talking with them about their mental health experiences during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Based on those conversations and my own personal experience, I’ve become especially interested in how perinatal mood disorders and their symptoms impact and manifest in our lives, what culturally specific barriers to support and treatment we encounter, and what mental health advocacy efforts are being made to remove those barriers for us. Here’s what I’ve learned from research, Postpartum Progress’ current survey on mothers of color and their experience with perinatal mental health, conversations I’ve had with fellow mothers of color, and from what I’ve seen in the mental health advocacy space.

 

  • We are woefully underserved by mental health professionals and social services that reside in our communities-for a variety of reasons. Many of the women I spoke to were dismissed, rebuffed, or had their mental health concerns during pregnancy and the postpartum period downplayed by their doctor, pediatrician, pastor, and/or social worker.
  • Women of color are either without health insurance, or have insurance plans that do not cover mental health services, especially during pregnancy. Medicaid, for example, often lapses in many states six weeks after pregnancy, leaving many without continued coverage and access to mental health care.
  • We are not informed or aware of what places us at a particular risk for developing one of these illnesses compared to Whites.
  • We simply aren’t aware of the symptoms of perinatal mood disorders.
  • Stigma around mental illness is prevalent in our cultures but this is especially true when it comes to motherhood. Our cultures place a significant emphasis on us being silent about our struggles, taking care of everyone else before ourselves, turning to religion in an effort to overcome, and on being strong in the face of adversity-particularly in the face of oppression, racism and other socioeconomic stressors. Seeking the help of a professional, and disclosing our symptoms is seen as a sign of weakness so much so that we ignore the need to make our mental health a priority. Health advocacy efforts focus solely on physical illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, infant mortality, and cultural disparities in breastfeeding rates. The latest statistics show that women of color and those living at or below the poverty line have a higher rate of occurrence, yet none of the national organizations dedicated to empowering and serving minorities discuss maternal mental health and the disparities that exist in regards to diagnosis, support, and treatment. This is preposterous and negligent considering our rate of occurrence is 1 in 4.
  • Our reasons for not discussing it publicly are a significant barrier to raising awareness and seeking treatment. We face racial and gender discrimination in our places of employment so as you can imagine, disclosure of a postpartum mood disorder can increase the risk of losing our jobs significantly. Many of the women I’ve spoken with have expressed this fear, with several stating it was the sole reason they didn’t seek treatment either during pregnancy or when their symptoms peaked during their child’s first year. Support from family and friends is often minimal due to culture specific stigma and ignorance surrounding mental illness. Many of us living at the poverty line or who are in the lower-income bracket utilize the help of social services such as SNAP, WIC, and TANF; speaking from personal experience, I can say being under scrutiny from social workers and the state triggers fears of losing your children for being seen as unfit to care for them.
  • Lack of research. I’ve grown incredibly frustrated in my efforts to find consistent research on this issue because, quite frankly, it’s pretty scant. Most of the research that focuses solely on women of color and perinatal mental health is also out of date, with data from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
  • Lack of targeted advocacy. We do not see women who look like us in literature doctor’s offices, or on websites that talk about perinatal mental health. There are very few if any advocacy campaigns or outreach targeted specifically towards us, like there are for other health issues and breastfeeding. Advocacy organizations often focus on minority mental health only during designated months once or twice a year, instead of on a consistent basis. Many organizations simply focus on all pregnant and new mothers, which is fine, but such a general scope ignores our unique experiences with mental health. Our disparities in support and treatment due to socioeconomic stressors, our particular needs, the risk factors we face, as well as the role culturally specific stigma plays as a barrier are not taken into consideration when calls to action are given. They are mentioned as an afterthought, a sentence or two in a post or article. The results of such inattentiveness are programs and initiatives that are not inclusive of our unique needs. Finally, we lack support groups in our own communities as well as safe spaces online to talk with other women like us who understand our unique struggles as mothers, which for many of us creates a very isolated existence.

This has to change. It’s unacceptable and as a woman of color and survivor of postpartum depression and anxiety, it hurts my heart to know our maternal mental health isn’t being actively prioritized, much less thought of.  While I fully understand that postpartum mood disorders don’t discriminate in terms of who they impact, and that the need to help pregnant and new moms is great all across the board, I also know that efforts are seriously lagging behind when it comes to the maternal mental health of women of color. We MUST do better. Later this week, I will talk about how we can but for now, I’m interested to hear your thoughts. Mothers of color, what has your experience been, and what kinds of supports and programs do you think would serve us better? What kind of improvements would YOU like to see?

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