Intrusive Thoughts: A Conversation

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emergency-stop-buttonYesterday, I wrote “Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts.” Today? I’ve intertwined stories from moms (including myself) who have all experienced intrusive thoughts in one form or another during their postpartum experience. For one mom, she didn’t experience them until her son was two and she was off medication, something that made the experience even more difficult.

Again, as with yesterday’s post, if you are in a fragile state, please skip reading, particularly if you find that you are easily influenced by reading the experiences of others. We don’t hold anything back.

I also want to remind our readers that every mother’s experience and subsequent reaction/seeking of help is different; molded to her own life and journey. These mothers did the best they could with what they had available to them at the time – the important thing, though, is that each one of them fought like hell the best way they could to get free of these horrible thoughts holding them captive.

Today’s video is a fun one. Tiny Hamsters Tiny Date. Hamsters. On a DATE. AWWWWW.

 

 

 

 

coffee-791201_640Picture it, 2015, a small coffee shop on Main Street. A group of women sitting, sipping various hot beverages, chatting among themselves. No one thinks anything of it, until they get close enough to hear their conversation.

“I wanted to smother my daughters on the day my brain nearly broke. The thought played over and over in my head. Before THE day, I had obsessive thoughts about knives. I couldn’t use them. I cleaned obsessively. Scrubbed my hands. I exclusively pumped for my second daughter, which only fed my cleaning obsession. The stress. The meds. They broke me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Before the thought grew feet, I curled up in the fetal position in bed, afraid that if I got up, I wouldn’t be able to control my actions. I still remember the way the wind rustled through the giant oak outside the window and the squirrels scurrying along the massive limbs. I had never been so scared in my entire life.” Even though she shared her experience this often, her voice still broke as the memories washed over her.

“I wanted to drive my car into oncoming traffic while my kids were in the car. And don’t get me started about the panic attacks I would have while driving,” one of them said.

The rest nodded slowly, their faces somber yet understanding.

“I wanted to drive off overpasses or bridges. I would think, what if I just let go of the steering wheel? I also thought about not waking up in the morning. Something I later found out was what they call passive suicidal idealizations. I didn’t really want to hurt or kill myself, I just didn’t want to wake up. Oh, and while pregnant with my second? I wanted to throw myself down the stairs.”

As the women nodded, one of them clenched her cup a little tighter, then started to speak, softly.

“I…I…..I bounced back and forth between harm and sexual. Mostly knives and pillows were the focus of the harm ones. But really anything I saw turned into a weapon in my mind that could hurt my son. Then, an incident happened at our church where a mother and her husband were assaulting her daughter. My mind latched right on to it as if it were the edge of a cliff and if I let go, I’d fall. I thought she was “normal”…and I thought I was “normal.” If she could do it, then what was to stop me from doing it? This thought swallowed me whole, it was always there, clinging to me: did I wipe too much…was I looking at “it” …. did I want to do something? Mostly with my child but during the worst of it, even when we were in public…which I started to avoid because I was convinced something in my mind flipped and I WAS my thoughts. It was around his first birthday when the other ones popped up. The news or shows I watched determined my obsessive thoughts for the day. During the worst of it, I would say if I had one every 30 seconds..it was a GREAT day as they were always one after another. …no breaks.”

The others in the group again nodded in solidarity. There wasn’t much they hadn’t heard by this point.

“I didn’t realize I had a problem when my son was an infant. I just couldn’t stop picturing the real dangerous chemicals that do actually “off gas.” At some point, I crossed from knowing that this was an environmental hazard to picturing or imagining the chemicals on our skin, in our hair, in the air we were breathing. They eventually had colors. Each type had a different color. The worst was plastic being heated…” her voice trailed off. This realization has been tough for her.

“I had visions of stabbing my precious new baby over and over.  I couldn’t stop them.  I couldn’t conjure up a happy thought.  I couldn’t distract myself.  I couldn’t relax.  I sure as hell couldn’t zone out watching the Food Channel with knives being brandished left and right.  It was like being stuck in rough surf close to the beach where you just can’t seem to make headway on land before the next wave crashes over you.  I was in a black hole of terror that started a few days after my beloved son was born.  My soul draining each moment as the horror show played over and over in my head.  What kind of a mother would ever think such a thing?”

Finally, the last woman in the group spoke, “My story doesn’t start when my son was an infant. Two years later, and off medication, my anxiety came back, fiercely. I was a very angry person. Was off for three months. Never felt quite like myself. Then we went on vacation. I don’t know if it was the stress of the trip or my brain just not being well, but my anxiety came back just as it was when the baby was born. But worse…I thought I had moved past it all. I was very angry. Couldn’t look at my child. I even had a fleeting intrusive thought of pushing him in front of a moving car while we went for an evening walk. And whenever my son wanted to wrestle around, as boys do, I had urges to actually cause him harm. Thoughts would pop up of pushing him down or being really rough with him.”

Customers in the coffee shop came and went, catching fragments of the conversation as they did so, each of them slightly perplexed at the depth and magnitude of the topic contrasted with the seemingly nonchalant way these women were discussing these dark thoughts in public. But not one of them stopped to comment or join in. There were a few raised eyebrows and strange looks as the snippets delved into their space, but nothing beyond that.

The women continued, sipping coffee and tea as the sun peered through the window of the quiet coffee shop, discussing how they each managed to move past these thoughts intruding on their lives.

“I ended up in the ER, then in a psychiatric ward. My med was changed. I began practicing self-care. I threw myself into advocacy and growing my own support group. I needed to know that my crazy wasn’t going to be permanent, that others had survived. Eventually, I ended up on meds and in therapy. I’m still on meds, for OCD & anxiety, and I am okay with that. I remember hating the pills. But now? They’re part of me and just the way things are. I’m a much stronger woman and mother because of what I have been through. And my self-care skills rock.”

“I would shake my head to banish these thoughts of driving into oncoming traffic from my mind. Eventually, I realized I am not my thoughts. They didn’t hold any power over me. I listened to music, books on tape, called friends and family, used deep breathing techniques from yoga. I pictured these horrible thoughts as bubbles just floating away. The thoughts still crop up from time to time when I am sleep deprived or very stressed. Medication and therapy were key to helping me develop the tools I needed. I needed to change that negative loop in my head and realize that my thoughts were just thoughts.“ She sipped her coffee, legs crossed as she glanced around the cozy shop.

“Medication helped immensely. Therapy helped me find strategies to cope with and shut down the thoughts. When my anxiety is high these days, I still struggle with Intrusive rage-filled thoughts. But I am better armed to recognize them and cope,” she said, firmly.

“I constantly asked my husband if he thought I would xyz. I was told that I had to stop confessing so the thoughts would become less important to me. That was SO hard, because I thought if I just “sat” with them in my mind, it meant I was ok with the thoughts. But eventually, I saw that it did work. It was a hard battle to be ok with them NOT bothering me because I was always told crazy people don’t know they’re crazy…the thoughts don’t bother them. When they started to bother me less, I worried!!! I still have them, but now I can brush them off. If I let myself slip and start confessing, it’s like a drug. It stops the anxiety for just a little bit. It feels so good you want to continue! I have to also watch what I read or see on tv because I find myself comparing: if they did that, maybe I would too. I even remember comparing myself to all those mass shooters. I searched for news stories of Andrea Yates, seeking any tiny trait similar between those folks and me. Now, I always try to bring up intrusive thoughts with my moms. Intrusive thoughts are SO not talked about and really should be.”

“My thoughts would get softer, like music, if I could avoid them. I tried to shop my way out of it, too. Organic cloth diapers with wool covers hand made by other moms. Glass and stainless steel. Only one brand of organic formula. Organic foods for me and the baby. New shower curtain, fabric and then a phthalate-free liner. I cleaned with vinegar or baking soda. Washing clothes. I did so much laundry. I knew all the ingredients in my laundry detergent. I could handle even pajamas with flame retardant chemicals if I just washed them enough….which doesn’t actually do much, but it was not as logical a compulsion as it seemed to be. I also sought out other moms who worried about the same things, or did the same things, so that I could talk about cleaning with essential oils or lanolizing wool without sounding “crazy.” I’m just now starting to talk about what all of this really was. It explains so much about my many behaviours.”

“I slowly got better with therapy and medication. The intrusive thoughts ebbed and finally faded.  Only there was still this huge gaping hole in my heart. I swear you could see all the way to infinity and back that hole was so big. I was sure I would never really be happy again or be joyful as mother because this terrible experience haunted me. I put on brave face. I cared for and played with my baby. I worked hard at my job. I prayed, tried to meditate, did yoga, spent time with dear family and friends, and watched chick flicks. I did all my happy things. Only it was still there—that void of fear and sadness over this experience. One day I found a blog full of other mothers’ stories of surviving postpartum mood disorders.  The founder put it out there in a matter-of-fact way about how postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD and psychosis are simply treatable diseases. And she got other women to share their stories on her blog.  Reading these stories let me know I wasn’t alone. It was huge. Apparently, a lot of us moms obsess over just one terrible image. Our brains all go haywire in a similar way!”

Every mother there nodded in agreement, knowing exactly how it felt to be the owner of a brain gone horribly haywire.

“I would have to stop playtime, breathe and regroup my thoughts. Knowing I didn’t WANT to cause him harm, and wouldn’t, but was scared of what might happen if I continued. I’ve come to terms with so much the past six months. The Climb and all my warrior moms have really helped a lot this year. I am a proudly medicated mommy! Things are much better these days. Much better.”

The moms chatted for awhile longer, about more acceptable things, such as childhood milestones, what kind of wines they preferred, and what their weekend plans were for the upcoming holiday. As the conversation navigated in this direction, the reaction of the customers in the coffee shop as they passed by them changed. They smiled, offered suggestions about local events for the upcoming holiday, and one older woman even complimented one of the mothers on her jewelry.

As the mothers stood to leave, each of them grabbing their purses, making sure they had their phones and their keys, they hugged, a little tighter than they would normally, because they had bonded in a way mothers who haven’t been in this type of hell can’t.

They went their separate ways, then, their hearts and minds forever entwined as fierce survivors and warriors.

 

PS. If today’s post has you feeling fragile, please find me on Twitter @unxpctdblessing or email me at mypostpartumvoice(@) gmail.com. I will be happy to talk with you about whatever it is you’re feeling.

 

{photo source, pixabay}

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Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts

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emergency-stop-buttonThis post deals with Intrusive Thoughts. If you are struggling, fragile, or easily influenced by reading the intrusive thoughts and obsessions of others, please avoid reading this post. For those who choose to stop reading now, I want you to know at the very least that you are not alone. The thoughts eventually quiet and fade – becoming less like rambunctious uncontrollable toddlers and more like almost well-behaved teenagers (ie, pushing the limits every so often but mostly listening to you).

In the meantime, if you’re not up for this piece, go watch this – the official video for the 2015 Climb Out – and see the survivors and fighters who aren’t giving up on any mother still fighting.

Intrusive thoughts, y’all. They’re the bane of so many a new mother’s existence. And yet, we do not talk about them. We still whisper about them, afraid that if we say them out loud they might jump out of our heads and become real, like the monsters and creatures in the Goosebumps series. And nobody wants to have a bunch of creepy monsters running free, right?

There are a few hard and fast rules about intrusive thoughts I realized on my own as well as through researching Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. They are:

Most intrusive thoughts are brief and fleeting. They come and then they’re gone. Like a butterfly perching on your finger. Not nearly as beautiful, but they don’t stay long.

You are immediately horrified by the thought perched in your head. This is a healthy response. It doesn’t mean you will follow through with the thought in your head. It’s a sign of being grounded, actually. It’s when you aren’t horrified by the thoughts that you should seek immediate help.

The thoughts fade. For me, the analogy I like to use is that of listening to a song. They start quietly. Then they build to a loud crescendo, eventually cresting, then sliding down into silence. And just as songs are all different lengths, so is the healing process for every woman experiencing intrusive thoughts.

You want numbers about Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the disorder on the spectrum most commonly associated with Intrusive Thoughts? (Postpartum Anxiety can also include intrusive thoughts). According to Postpartum Support International’s fact page on Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, 3-5% of new moms will experience this. However, it’s most “misunderstood and misdiagnosed” according to their page as well. I definitely had PP OCD but was diagnosed officially as experiencing a Major Depressive Disorder. Nope. Not what I had, but thanks for playing, doc.

I put on a mask to hide the thoughts swirling about in my own head. It was as if I had my own trippy horror movie marathon running in there. My thoughts centered on knives, as were those of several of the mothers I spoke with. Here’s the thing about these thoughts – when you’re caught inside them, it feels as if you are being swallowed whole, a sentiment echoed by Deborah Rimmler, a member of the Board for Postpartum Progress’ nonprofit.

Deborah QuoteFor Deborah, her thoughts, also centered around knives, started just a few days after she gave birth. She was desperately afraid to be alone with her child and mentioned she was grateful to be fortunate enough to arrange her life so that she didn’t spend a single moment alone with her child until he was at least two. She spent time with him, of course, but made sure that there was always, always someone else with them because she was unable to trust her own brain. Can you imagine? I can – and I will tell you that it is indeed, a special level of hell, particularly when society tells you that maternal instinct will kick in – that it will enable you to love and adore your child. Oh, we love and adore our children. We’re just constantly scared as hell about what our brains are telling us to do to them – or to ourselves. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

Intrusive thoughts, however, according to Deborah, “…are not based in reality – it is a pathological symptom of a disease.” She’s absolutely right. They are symptomatic more than anything else. Being scared like hell of them is a sign of sanity, and one many of us hold onto like hell because in our broken brains, that fear? Is the one thing standing between us and a complete break. It’s so difficult to let go of that fear, which is most certainly a barrier to healing fully.

We talked, Deborah and I, about how healing from intrusive thoughts has two stages. Stage 1 allows you to mute the thoughts, let them fade into the background. Stage 2 is more like PTSD, where we recover from having experienced the thoughts in the first place. It’s a tough recovery, and one we work on for the rest of our lives thanks to the “normal” mom worrying gene – you know, the one that makes you worry about every little thing that can possibly go wrong with your kid or your life. Letting go is key for us once we have healed. We must force ourselves to trust not only ourselves, but those around us as well as society. And that? Is hard.

The dangerous part of intrusive thoughts lies in the shame and stigma still attached to them. Mothers are often frightened to admit they are experiencing them. Why? What happens if your child is harmed? Child services shows up to take them away, right? Our logic is flawed when we are sick, so many of us strongly believe that if we go to someone and tell them we have had thoughts in which we see ourselves harming our children, of course they will take away our child because that’s what needs to happen to keep them safe, right? Truth be told, that’s the last thing we need to happen. Why? Stress makes intrusive thoughts even worse for so many mothers. One of the things I did when I talked with my therapist any time I needed to talk about my intrusive thoughts specifically, was to ask her what she was required to report and what would trigger a report. I would then talk around those – which, yeah, probably not the best thing to do but in my mind? I was protecting my family.

Another dangerous issue at hand with intrusive thoughts is traced to the sensationalism by the media of Postpartum Psychosis. Postpartum OCD feels very similar to the way Psychosis is described. But. When you are fighting OCD? You are grounded. You are horrified by your thoughts. You are not delusional. You’re holding onto sanity with everything you have. With Psychosis, these “thoughts” become your reality and you are moved to act upon them, consequences be damned (or, even scarier – consequences seem to be a relief/escape). Postpartum OCD is not a medical emergency BUT should absolutely be treated by a professional as soon as you feel yourself starting to spiral. Postpartum Psychosis, on the other hand, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS a medical emergency and should be treated as soon as possible.

That’s it for today, ladies. I have a LOT more to say so be sure to come back tomorrow for the second part of this post – when we get into the nitty gritty of the range of Intrusive Thoughts with a few tough mamas and what they’ve done to cope with them. Until then, know that you aren’t alone and that it’s okay to talk to someone about these thoughts.

PS. If today’s post has you feeling fragile, please find me on Twitter @unxpctdblessing or email me at mypostpartumvoice(@) gmail.com. I will be happy to talk with you about whatever it is you’re feeling.

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Toxic Expectations for Birth

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What if every expectant mother could rely on her community to celebrate and protect her?  [Photo Credit: Rachel Wilder]

What if every expectant mother could rely on her community to celebrate and protect her?
[Photo Credit: Rachel Wilder]

We build our expectations for birth and pregnancy from childhood; birth stories pervade our culture, from TV and movies to baby dolls. My own life always included lovely retellings of my birth, at home, peaceful and perfect. The trouble is that fear pervades our birth culture, and more often than not, the only stories we hear and the only images we see depict dramatic “success” and dramatic “failure.” The media’s close attention to how celebrity mothers look while pregnant and just after giving birth places enormous pressure on all moms to seem as though pregnancy is effortless and birth leaves us unchanged, physically, emotionally, and mentally. Glossy magazines give the impression that bringing new life into the world is as simple as adopting a kitten. At the same time, this culture that fails to celebrate the enormous strength a mother displays, no matter what her story holds, exaggerates the risks and pain of pregnancy and birth. Even the most conservative of studies shows that there are too many interventions during birth, with no apparent medical reason. A woman’s care provider is likely to question her ability to carry and birth her baby safely, even when she shows no signs of any risk for any complication. What a powerful message!

We are afraid–the stakes are too high. Failure is everywhere in medical language around birth and infancy. How can we begin our journey as mothers with any confidence, when culture and medical authority combine to express their anxieties that we will fail? It’s everywhere: “failure to progress” is an official medical diagnosis during labor, and a baby who does not fit on a growth chart may be diagnosed with “failure to thrive.” We might find comfort and faith in the everyday, commonplace, health most moms and babies clearly display, but even the doctors who know better warn us about every risk and danger. Friends, family, the media, our own care providers, all nervously question a mother’s ability to safely carry, birth, and nurture her baby. We have to fight much too hard to avoid internalizing their doubts as proof our of our inadequacy.

We must work hard, if we want to find positive birth stories and images, while terrifying scenes assault us without our permission. The images of birth that are most common actually depict extremes or pure fiction. Strangers seem somehow compelled to share the most horrifying birth story they have ever heard. Meanwhile, photographs that manage to capture a birthing mother’s inner strength are removed from social media for depicting nudity, even when “the rules” claim that nude photographs are taken down only to protect us from pornography. This applies to images of the postpartum body, as well, unless it reveals no trace of a pregnancy. The perfect mother does not exist, but to know that and to feel it, deeply, are very different things. Effortless perfection is a toxic standard, even when our armor is up and strong. The vulnerability of pregnancy and new motherhood deserve our protection. We could make a shield out of our collective experience, offer reminders to each other, “I know that you are strong, even when you don’t feel strong.” Why doesn’t every mother heard that message loudly and clearly?

“Fear can only be overcome only by Faith” — this is my favorite quote. It comes from an extraordinary doctor and veteran of World War I, who dared to write about “the dignity of motherhood” in his book, Childbirth Without Fear, published in the first part of the twentieth century, as fears about birth rose exponentially every year, and faith in mothers plummeted.others who cherish their memories of birth, like me, work against the same culture of silence around the realities of birth and new motherhood that threatens to overwhelm mothers who feel that they failed, somehow. That culture does not hear any mention of the real and difficult work that a mother does during pregnancy and birth, and that silence breeds fear. My own life seems defined by silence and fear, since my first anxiety attack, around age eight. During my pregnancy and birth preparation, I desperately sought an escape for me, my baby, and my husband. We found it, in the tools provided by HypnoBirthing, a movement partly inspired by Childbirth Without Fear. After a lifetime of feeling that my anxiety could to invade every moment, I moved into pure faith, during my birth, and experienced precious hours with no fear. What a gift I gave myself! A childbirth class did not instill a lifetime of faith in myself as a mother or just in me, but those hours of freedom from fear remain a potent reminder of my own strength, even in my darkest moments. I teach HypnoBirthing now, because the tools I learned from my teacher, while I was pregnant, helped me and my partner overcome our fears, until we were both filled with faith in me. I hope to help other moms have that same confident beginning.

I often wonder what would happen to perinatal mental health, if our culture asked for and listened to our birth stories. What if birth stories were as commonly shared as our newborns babies’ statistics? What if we combed birth stories for a mother’s strength, instead of asking about pain and complications? What if we told a new mother, “Look how you acted as advocate for your health, and your baby’s best interests, even when you thought you were too exhausted!” What if we congratulated new parents on the way they partnered during birth to welcome their newest family member, together? We can always find moments that highlight beauty, strength, advocacy, power, because giving birth requires all of these things! What a gift we could offer new mothers, if we refused fear and chose faith, instead! What a start we could provide, if we truly listened to every mom?

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I Am A Warrior Mom

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Warrior Mom ConferenceHere at Postpartum Progress, we choose our words with intention.  “Warrior Mom” is no exception.

Every mom’s journey through PPD is different and we all see our experiences in a way that helps and heals us.  In my six years advocating for mothers with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, I’ve met moms who call themselves “survivors,” and others who identify themselves simply as “having experienced PPD.”  And while there is no right or wrong way to think about your time struggling with depression or anxiety, for the mamas who join us here at Postpartum Progress, “Warrior Mom” resonates and empowers in a way other language falls short.

In 9 short weeks, over 100 of these amazing women will come together in Boston for the inaugural  Warrior Mom™ Conference, the first patient-centered conference on perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.  A few of the attendees recently shared why the phrase “Warrior Mom” resonates with them:

The phrase “Warrior Mom” makes me feels strong, like I have some control.  I’m not a victim.  I’m not “suffering” from PMADs.  I’m fighting and surviving.  When things get crazy and out of control, I can at least give myself a positive label that gives me the confidence to push on, even if only a minute at a time.  I’m not a solo warrior.  I’m part of a band of warriors in a tribe of motherhood, and that… feels a lot less lonely and hopeless than being a victim.

– Amber Swinford Dunn

 

I felt so weak after having my baby and falling apart.  I felt like there was a war for my life and my soul that I couldn’t win.  The war went on for so long and I stumbled and fell so many times.  Finally, the smoke started to clear and I could see the battlefield.  I could see fears and pain that I had slain.  I could see friends and family standing beside me, some wounded in their own ways.  I could see legions of other mamas, each fighting their own wars.  The field stretched out seemingly forever.  And that is when I finally realized who I am.  I am a warrior.  I fight for myself, for my babies, for my family.  I also fight beside every other mama out there.  I fight against stigma and for funding.  I fight for treatment and for education.  I am a warrior, forged in battle and ready to lead.

– Gra Sea

 

The phrase to me means I’ve made it through my own personal war and survived.  Although I have scars, they have healed and keep fading as time goes on.  I’m stronger for the battle I fought and I am a Warrior Mom.  I now am there for other moms going through this war, to stop the stigma and help them get past the battle.

– Tara Stafford DeTore

 

The term Warrior Mom resonates with me because in my darkest moments I would visualize myself in an empty stadium facing my nemesis.  Then slowly the stands surrounding me filled with everybody I knew was supporting me.  Each seat was occupied with someone who wanted what was best for me, was encouraging me, was helping in my recovery, or reminding me that they had been there and had come out the other side.  As a Warrior Mom™ in recovery, I had to do the work on my own, but that didn’t mean I was alone.  During a time when I felt mostly powerless to the thoughts in my head, this moment of meditation would bring me peace and awareness that I (with my army of supporters) was powerful beyond measure.

– Kersten Larson

We had so many responses to our post that we’ll be sharing the rest next week, in Part Two!  Be sure to come back for more from our amazing advocates and Warrior Moms.

For the latest in Warrior Mom™ Conference news and information (and to take part in the conference from home), be sure you’re following us over on Facebook!

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