The Myth of Wishing Mental Illness Away

One of the most frustrating things about postpartum mood disorders is the lack of comprehension by those around you. I’ve been talking lately to a young woman who is currently suffering postpartum OCD, and she wrote this to me in a recent email:

It’s so hard not being able to talk to anyone about this. My mom doesn’t understand why I’m going to see a psychiatrist. All I told her was that I keep having these thoughts about bad things happening to the baby. I wouldn’t dare tell her what [I’m really thinking], if she knew she would probably disown me. She says you just have to stop thinking that way, just think about the good things.

Of course, I understand why a loved one would say that. The mother is not trying to be dismissive or overly casual about her daughter’s experience. For most people, the belief is that when you’re having a bad day you simply need to try to think good thoughts. Turn that frown upside down, as it were. And they’re right. But bad days and postpartum illnesses are completely different things.

We don’t tell diabetics or cancer patients to “just think good thoughts,” or “imagine you’re not a diabetic” and suddenly they’re cured. These are physical illnesses that must be treated by doctors. Sure, a positive attitude helps, but just try and survive a devastating illness on positive attitude alone, and I think you’d be gambling with your life.

Postpartum mood disorders are also illnesses. Let’s just take the “mental” part out of the phrase “mental illness,” because for some reason, adding that word makes people put such illnesses in a completely different category, as though somehow they could have been avoided or can be wished away. We are NOT deficient because we get these illnesses, just as people with Parkinson’s or kidney disease aren’t deficient human beings. In each situation, it’s a case of some part or system of the body not working the way it should. Period.

I wish that for one day I could physically demonstrate to people that they’re really not in control of their thoughts the way they think they are. It’s not that I want everyone to suffer as I have; I just want them to understand how our minds really work so that they’ll have empathy for people who are depressed or who have intrusive thoughts. Most people are fortunate that their systems work properly. I’ve spoken with dear friends who love and support me 100 percent who simply cannot comprehend having thoughts that they didn’t generate themselves. It’s not that they don’t want to understand—they just can’t. “Well then where are the thoughts coming from?” “How do you have a thought if you don’t mean to?” “Why are these kinds of thoughts so scary and negative?”

The unsupportive, judging people of the world take it much further. “She’s just selfish and doesn’t want to do the work of having a baby.” “She’s so weak. She should just toughen up. Millions of women have babies and don’t have this problem.” “If you’d just try harder everything would be fine. What’s wrong with you?” “She’s just trying to get attention.” “Just take some vitamins and go for a walk and you’ll be fine.”

These things can’t be wished away. They must be treated, and the people who treat them are psychiatrists and therapists. Once treated, the majority of people recover just fine. The world needs to know this.