[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post from Warrior Mom Sarah Barnett might feel a little triggering for some as she discusses the intrusive thoughts that accompanied her postpartum onset OCD. Please only read if you feel you’re in a safe space. -Jenna]
A year ago today I was diagnosed with OCD.
I am messy, disorganized, and not a clean freak by any means, so to get this diagnosis came as a shock. Yet, I later learnt that OCD comes in many forms and mine happened to be postpartum OCD, something I had never known existed.
I can pinpoint the start of my OCD to the exact day. Friday, August 9, 2013. My baby was in the local neonatal unit recovering from an infection he had developed during labor. I was at home with a bottle of bleach in one hand and a cloth in the other, frantically trying to prepare for his return home. My partner was so worried about my behavior, he wanted to call the maternity unit.
18 months later, my postpartum OCD had really taken hold. At the time I still believed I was just suffering from some harmless new mum nerves and sleep deprivation. To the outside world, I was doing well. I had started running my own weekly parent/baby group. I had gone back to work part time and was pretty much continuing as before.
My Facebook posts from that time show happy faces of mum and baby at the park, mum and baby having cuddles, mum and baby sightseeing. The reality was very different. It is true that much time was spent at the park, having cuddles and sightseeing, but what these pictures did not show was the reason we were spending so much time outside.
Being outside at that time was the only way for me to feel safe. Over a period of several months, I had developed a fear of knives. I had also developed a fear of hot drinks. I had developed a fear that knives and hot drinks would hurt my baby. Not only had I started to fear that my baby would get hurt, I had developed the most shameful, upsetting thought that a mother could ever have. I feared that one day I, his doting, loving mother was going to lose control and harm the most precious, adorable little boy in the world.
Mathew was about six months old when I first started to fear knives, but I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was in the kitchen washing up and he was sat in his high chair. He was getting irritable for some reason and was demanding my attention. I turned around with soapy bubbles dripping from my hands and envisioned a knife that wasn’t really there. I told nobody and put it down to lack of sleep.
These images started occurring more and more often. Some were ridiculous and silly; others were the most graphic, blood filled, violent scenes one could every imagine. For a person who has never been able to watch a horror film from start to end, I had no idea where these images and ideas were coming from. I saw lots of very triggering things that included myself, my baby, and even strangers.
There were times when I analysed these thoughts. Was I having these violent thoughts because I was about to do something terrible? I felt physically sick. I reminded myself that I was an extremely tired mother, living a long way from friends and family.
I had no idea that I was unwell. I was in the dark and fully believed that I just needed to ride it out. I rode it out for another year before I finally found myself walking through the doors of my local hospital unable to take any more. That was the start of my recovery from OCD.
I have discussed in great length with my psychiatrist why I fell ill in this way. Did I look after myself properly after giving birth? Did I fall ill because I felt so sleep deprived for such a long time? Was it because I am so far from loved ones? Feeling isolated? Home alone too much? Is it because there are mental health issues in my family? Is it hormonal? Is it chemical? He is unable to give me a satisfactory answer. He does not know. There are probably many contributing factors.
Over the past year, I have learnt that EVERYBODY has unwanted thoughts at times. What is important is our reaction to them. I have learnt that I am *not* my thoughts, and more importantly, the chances of me acting on my thoughts is very small.
People suffering from OCD are generally loving, extremely conscientious people who go to great lengths to avoid their intrusive thoughts becoming reality. I am a Mother whose head was full of irrational, upsetting nonsense but whose heart is so very much full of love.
My experience of OCD has been one of fear, guilt, shame, and loneliness. I look back at the first three years of my son’s life and I feel such a range of emotions. I am angry that no health professional ever asked me how I was. I am sad that my family suffered. I feel relieved that I found help before OCD completely tore me and my family apart.
I feel empowered today to be sharing my story. With medication, therapy, love and support, I can finally say that I am feeling better.