Trigger Warning: This 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. [PS: You can now register for Climb Out of the Darkness 2016!]
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?
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 PPOCD. However, it’s most “misunderstood and misdiagnosed” according to their page as well. I definitely had PPOCD 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.
For 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; 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.