My postpartum OCD story appeared in Newsweek on June 7, 2004. That essay, my first public admission of having postpartum OCD, started me on the road to creating Postpartum Progress in July 2004. They’ve since taken it off the site, so I’m reprinting it here below. It was entitled “My Turn: I was Scared That I Might Hurt My Baby” by me, Katherine Stone:
Those first few weeks after I brought my son home, I should have known something was wrong. I remembered reading about the “baby blues” in all the pregnancy books, but they made it seem like no big deal, so I paid little attention. Still, I was extremely sad and anxious. I worried that I didn’t have the capacity to be a good mother and that I couldn’t properly care for him. I didn’t sleep because I was obsessed with constantly washing bottles, folding clothes and rearranging supplies. I had no appetite, but I didn’t notice. I cried a lot but thought it was normal.
When my son was between 5 and 7 weeks old, it really hit me. One night while burping him with a burp cloth I wondered what would happen if I smothered him with it. (Writing that down is absolutely mortifying.) I remember being stunned by the thought. I began to have even more such thoughts, and I became extremely frightened. I thought about dropping him down the stairs. Or accidentally drowning him in the bathtub. I’d shake my head and think, I know I’d never hurt him. What’s wrong with me?
I told no one what was happening. How could I expect anyone to understand? While the other new mothers I knew were off taking long, sunny stroller walks, I shared none of the serenity they seemed to enjoy. I was sure I had lost my mind and would be locked up forever. I became convinced that my son would never love me. I barely ate or slept, and I cried more and more. I became afraid to be alone with him, and begged my bewildered husband to come home every day for lunch.
I’ll never forget one day, after Halloween, seeing little pieces of plastic confetti in the shape of skeletons scattered across my front lawn. Part of my brain recognized exactly what they were — remnants from trick-or-treaters’ bags. But the other part of my brain wondered whether they were poisonous discs that had been placed there to hurt me and my family. Another time I woke up in the middle of the night with words flying into my brain like giant billboards: PUS. PLUNGER. PEANUT BUTTER. To this day I have no idea what the significance of words that started with P was.
At the same time I was having these crazy thoughts, the me I had been for 32 years was wondering what the heck was going on. Here I was, a college graduate with a very successful career, a wonderful husband, a fabulous life and no history of mental illness, and I had suddenly gone completely mad. I made a pact with myself that if I made even one motion toward harming a single hair on my son’s head, I would either run out into the street screaming for help or find my husband’s gun and kill myself in the guest bedroom.
Fortunately, I got help before I had to choose between those options. I took advantage of my company’s employee-assistance program and called the help line. God blessed me that day. They put me in touch with a wonderful therapist who saw me immediately and recognized what was wrong. I was sure when I told her about the thoughts of harming my son that she’d immediately call the police. To my utter relief, she didn’t. As it turns out, I had postpartum OCD. According to Deborah Sichel and Jeanne Watson Driscoll, authors of the book “Women’s Moods: What Every Woman Must Know About Hormones, the Brain, and Emotional Health,” it’s a condition in which new mothers characteristically are consumed with thoughts of hurting their newborns but recognize that these thoughts make no sense.
It’s not pleasant to share this story. Unless you’ve personally experienced some sort of mental illness, you can’t begin to understand what it’s like. My empathy for people with depression, schizophrenia and other ailments has gone through the roof. But I tell the story so that women who are now going through what I did will know there is help.
I also tell it to ask for even more help for those who suffer. We need informed physicians and psychiatrists. We need health insurance companies that will cover medication and treatment (in my case, that meant taking an antidepressant and going for weekly therapy sessions). We need more support groups. We need more research, which is why I’ve written my congressman and senators and asked them to pass the Melanie Blocker-Stokes Act, which would set aside money for that purpose.
For a while I was convinced that I’d never be the same person again. But I did everything my doctor told me to do, and I’m now back to the old me. My son is a smart, healthy and fabulous kid. Becoming his mother was the best thing I’ve ever done. Thanks to medication, therapy, time and love, I’m a blissfully happy mother whose 2-year-old loves her very much.