Ever caught yourself trapped in your own mind, looking at that mom on the street with her gorgeous child, perfect hair and an in-season outfit to boot?
Well, I think at times that may be me. You see, I rarely leave the house without my hair styled, make-up on and a carefully selected outfit.
But I have a secret I want to share with you. One you may just be hiding yourself. You see, just like thousands of other young moms who suffer from the same illness that has haunted me most of my life, I am the girl on the street who you may see passing by, but fail to notice the OCD shadow that never lingers far behind. The one you may look at and feel guilty for all the bad, negative, weird, yucky, horrible thoughts you may have suffered while learning how to be the world’s best mom. All the while, I’m staring at you and wishing I could have your mind, even just for a day.
My illness is one moms and even dads are silently suffering from all around the world right now, and no, it’s not Postpartum Depression.
It’s Postpartum OCD.
Thoughts or images of bringing harm to your child which you find utterly unbearable, gut-wrenching and deplorable and yet you can’t control them from entering your mind…sound like something you’ve experienced?
Post Natal, or more commonly known as Postpartum OCD, is an anxiety disorder that is associated with disturbing thoughts or images revolving around common OCD obsessions. Harm obsessions and sexual obsessions are especially common in Postpartum OCD ― both of which cause the parent to distress about the baby’s safety or their ability to keep the child safe. Parents suffering from Postpartum OCD often find their intrusive thoughts or images fall into the following three categories:
1. Unwanted violent thoughts or images (about intentionally harming the baby)
2. Unwanted violent thoughts or images (about unintentionally harming the baby)
3. Unwanted sexual thoughts or images (involving the baby)
The saddest part about this illness is that it affects the people least likely to ever present a real threat to their children in any way. The thoughts or images (sometimes both at once) are always unbearably distressing to the sufferer and cause them great guilt, shame, sadness and ― in some cases ― severe depression.
This is because the people who suffer from this form of OCD have been proven to be people who are extremely dedicated to living a wholesome or moral life. They are people who are distressed and disgusted by the exact images, thoughts or impulses that intrude their mental space time and time again and which target the people or things they love most.
Personally, I have suffered from OCD for almost two decades. My earliest memories of having horrible or upsetting thoughts go back to when I was around 10 years old. It’s like my brain one day realized what upset me and decided it would play it for me…over, and over, and over again. (Thanks, brain). That moment you realize your brain has the ability to conjure up whatever it wants in the form of images or thoughts and you don’t have the power to stop it is truly terrifying, and for me, signified the start of a long, difficult, but ultimately empowering journey.
Let me stop here and try to help those who may not suffer from intrusive thoughts understand a little better what I mean. Pretend the image of a pink elephant is a bad image to you. It obviously isn’t, but humor me and pretend the mental image of a pink elephant is disgusting to you; wrong and taboo in every possible way. Now, try actively to not think of a pink elephant. Put all your energy into not thinking of a pink elephant (because if you do, it will prove to yourself that you are a terrible person and you will never be able to unthink it). Now, what image is in your head? I’m guessing a pink elephant.
That’s essentially our issue. And by our, I mean those who have been diagnosed with OCD. We know quite early on the things we agree with and are okay and wholesome and the things that make us uncomfortable and we stand against. Like most healthy people, acts of physical violence or sexual violence are distressing and something that is not actively pondered on.
Some people might see a news report about an act of abuse against a child and find it too distressing and switch it off. Others may read a newspaper article and have a brief moment of involuntary internal questioning: “Could I be capable of doing that?” before quickly dismissing the thought and moving on to the sports section.
For us with obsessive minds, a bad thought or the possibility of a bad thought acts like a mental speed bump. Just like the distressing pink elephant, we realize what upsets us but we can’t switch it off. In fact, we ruminate on it in the attempt to dismiss it and in doing so fall deeper into the web of obsession. Our initial questioning moves very quickly from “Am I capable of that?” to “Oh my, what if I did that?” to “What if I have a thought or image of doing that” to extreme anxiety and especially explicit and distressing thoughts and images that we can’t control.
But I say it is an empowering journey, because although over the years I have struggled through some seriously tough times because of my OCD, it has also forced me to really work hard on maintaining a healthy, happy life. Constantly conscious of keeping myself ‘in the now’ and soaking in every piece of beauty in the world has inadvertently taught me to be a really positive person. Through the darkness, my heart and mind was forced to find the light, and because of that,
I can honestly say ― for the majority of time, and for the majority of my life ― I have lived happily with OCD. Very happily. It would be a lie to say it ever leaves completely, but more often than not I know how to dismiss the upsetting thoughts or images, and for brief periods of time (sometimes up to a few months) I live with absolutely none. I have an incredibly happy, healthy marriage and being a parent to the most beautiful little girl will be forever the highlight of my life.
But happiness too often comes from heartbreak... and over the years my heart has been broken too often to recall. You see, as sufferers of OCD would attest to, the particular theme or ‘obsession’ caused by OCD changes over time and often ― just when you manage to get rid of one ― another manages to take its place, bringing with it just as much torment as the last. Let me explain this a little more in detail. Unlike the common understanding of what OCD is and how it affects people ― like washing or checking rituals ― mine has always involved obsessive and intrusive thoughts and images that are of a distressing nature to me. To be precise - thoughts and images of a sexual nature.
Over the years I have suffered from most of the common themes when it comes to Sexual OCD (as some now call it) and have managed to ― along with millions just like me ― overcome the torment and return my mind to its former calm, happy self.
From intrusive sexual images involving family members (cue vomit in the mouth); fearing I was a pedophile (even writing this word makes me want to cry ― but of course my mind would choose the thing that is the most deplorable to me to try and bring me to my knees) to images of hurting a disabled person ― my mind threw me the ugliest, most terrifying images and thoughts it could conjure up. It took everything I stood for and every moral bone in my body and shook it to its core using ammunition it knew I would detest, despise and crumble under. And crumble I did.
You see, to overcome a particular theme, you have to be able to desensitize yourself to the images or the thoughts or fear. The uglier the theme is, the harder it is for a loving heart to be able to ignore such darkness.
It wasn’t until I was 15 that I spoke honestly to my mother and we visited a psychologist to diagnose the ‘evil’ in my head (as I had delicately called it). As I cried uncontrollably, the psychologist heard very little before he confidently said the three words which would signify the start of the end of my torture: you have OCD.
It may sound odd, but learning what I had been battling alone and in silence for years was actually a common illness where people had suffered from the exact same fears, thoughts, images, nightmares that I had made me feel - for the first time in a very long time ― not alone. Putting a name to it meant I could research and start to understand why and how my mind worked the way it did and to connect with people who were just like me ― inherently good and determined to live a loving, wholesome life, but torturing themselves uncontrollably with the images and thoughts that upset them the most.
Finally, I was somewhat free.
When I became pregnant ― a decade after my diagnosis ― I knew I was at a greater risk of anxiety and depression, not to mention OCD, due to my illness. My response? I attacked it like a mission and lived every day as if it was a challenge to stay healthy for my baby.
Honestly, I loved my pregnancy. My OCD was almost irrelevant and rarely affected me at all. And so I thought I had won the ultimate battle. But not only did I feel I had conquered the ghastly beast when it mattered to me most, I felt I had done it for the last time, because who has time for OCD when you have a newborn demanding your every thought?
Well, apparently a large amount of new parents not only have time for their pre-newborn illness to pay a visit, but many more who have never before suffered from OCD have the time for the disorder to join the family just as their little one arrives.
Let me repeat that last message for effect: Postpartum OCD can manifest in people who have never suffered from any mental illness. This thing is so aggressive and mean it even picks on people who, before it introduced itself, probably dismissed the same thoughts OCD sufferers have agonized over a million times before.
At this point, I would like to say that I am one of those mothers who will gleefully revisit the story of my daughter’s birth with tears in my eyes because the memory of that moment when her skin first touched mine will forever be the most amazing moment in my life. But OCD has its way of taking over your mind for minutes, hours, even days on end and, unfortunately, that’s exactly what it did.
I had a week or two of bliss before the OCD monster reared its ugly head and threw a storm cloud in front of my blue sky. I had suffered from Mastitis and a terrible fever (let alone an all-over agonizing ache in my body which comes from delivering a baby). Although until this point, I had been blessed with a stable and confident mind filled with love and admiration for my new baby girl, my mental strength crumbled in a single moment in the middle of the night.
I remember I was dreary-eyed and attempting to change my daughter’s diaper. I was thinking about how happy I was and how much perspective she had already brought me. I was thinking about how amazing my pregnancy was and how lucky I was to have had a safe delivery to now have her in world with us. My mind drifted to how well my head had been since I became pregnant and how all those years of stressing about what my mind might throw at me - should I ever have a baby was for nothing.
This unintentionally lead to a sudden and terrifying realization that if I was to have one of the sexual thoughts or images that had tormented me a million times in the past about my beautiful daughter, I would never be able to come back from that. Of course, it opened the floodgate to a horrid image that distressed me to no end. Within a second, my body flooded with anxiety, so much so that I felt like collapsing.
The jerk had just thrown a sucker punch and I failed to avoid it. In fact, it hurt more than childbirth. After all, mental anguish can be the most painful of all.
Knowing the image was a common one that had been forced into my head several times in the past as my OCD’s go-to torture tool, I was quick to understand that it was in fact an offset to my OCD. And so I did my best to move on to ensure I didn’t turn the ‘intrusive thought/image’ into an ‘obsession’ and self-hatred. (Anyone reading this who suffers from intrusive thoughts knows too well I was already doomed at this point).
As any OCD sufferer could understand, at the start I craved reassurance: “Am I normal?”; “Is this a part of my OCD or did I actually have that horrible image in my head because I am a bad person?”; “Are there other mothers out there who have experienced this?” So I took to Google (not healthy, I know, but in this moment I needed it). It took less than five seconds for the exact answer I needed to pop up: Post Natal OCD. The article ― written by a psychologist might I add ― mentioned my exact scenario. I wasn’t alone.
As you can imagine for any loving parent who wants nothing more than to protect their baby, any thought that involves your child and that is of a distressing or disturbing nature is enough to send you into a deep spiral of negative emotions ― the most dominant of which is guilt.
A logical mind would be able to tell you the thought was odd and not one you would ever mean to muster up, but the obsessive mind tells you the thought was a clue to a deeper monster lying dormant. It’s cruel and it’s incessant.
Often mothers and fathers who suffer from intrusive thoughts suffer from violent thoughts. You know the ones ― where you have a horrible image of drowning your baby (when it is the absolute last thing you would ever do). So, between violent images and sexual images, both of which are equally as detestable to the sufferer, parents with this form of OCD have a particularly tough road to travel. And it’s not one often travelled with company because many people - especially those who, unlike me, potentially are suffering from these horrid images for the first time ― don’t tell people.
Their perfectly wholesome moral compass tells them that what their mind has served them is disgusting, deplorable and therefore should and could never be told to anyone for fear of judgement (after all, they truly do wish only to be the best parents in the world). This means they’re trying to battle this beast with no armour.
I’m fortunate enough to have a husband who is incredible at listening when I need him to; encouraging me to talk in detail when it’s necessary and just holding me when I fall apart. Add to this a mom who has been with me every step of the way since my first “bad thoughts” upset me as a child and I think I am probably one of the lucky sufferers who have people they can turn to. Unfortunately, the nature of this illness means many people walk the treacherous road alone.
For me personally, the idea that my OCD, which had honestly stolen much of my childhood headspace and caused me the deepest heartache and depression, could bring my daughter into its dark and despicable grips tore me in two. The hate and anger I have felt for this illness is indescribable.
It’s truly something you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy and for those who have it, the battle is constant, long and exhausting.
I understand the guilt you may be experiencing, or you partner (if you are reading this to help someone you love) and I know too well the shame. No matter how many times I am told how common this illness is, or how many people “just like me” suffer from the same horrible intrusive thoughts/images day in and day out, it never seems to truly close the door on the dark world that OCD somehow drags its sufferers back into time and time again.
My decision to share a little of my story with the world comes from an understanding of the absolute desire to know that there are people out there who suffer the same way and who are equally as normal, caring, loving and not in the least bit at risk of harming their child as you are.
I need to make this part extremely clear. Motherhood is the best thing that has happened to me. I am a completely ‘normal,’ healthy, happy, social woman. OCD can be hard, but it doesn’t take away who we are. People who know me don’t know I have it. Not because I am ashamed, but because I don’t allow it to define my life.
It’s just an annoying thing I deal with from time to time.
For every parent out there who is suffering, for every mom who desperately wants to be the absolute best mother she can be, for the dad who loves his children more than he could describe and would rather not exist than to hurt a child, to the partner who has had to learn about OCD to help a sufferer come to grips with their burden, to the parents who are dealing with children who are reporting upsetting thoughts, to the friends who serve as the confidant to those who at times suffer, you are suffering, but you won’t always be.
You are not your mind. You are not your thoughts. You are the heart behind them that denies them and fights against them so ferociously that you create an obsession.
You are beautiful. You are the girl on the street that I probably look at, but not once do I consider what goes through your mind. Even if I could look and see your OCD in all its ugly glory sitting atop your shoulders like an unwanted accessory, I would have nothing but admiration for you. After all, you are fighting a tough battle. One that will test you at times, but we both know it won’t win. Because you’re a parent. And parents are tough. Because they’re fighting for the most important thing in the world to them: their children.
Until the day I die I will look at my daughter with intense love and absolute awe, because she is my world. She brings a light to the world that is only possible through a little human being who is still learning the lessons of life. Love your children, enjoy every moment with them and pat yourself on the back for being a damn good parent. For being aware of how much you want to protect them and how you would do anything to keep them safe. For looking your OCD beast directly in the eyes and saying ‘this is bigger than you.’
To all those moms and dads on the street: you are a wonderful parent who is fighting an illness that affects people all over the world. You are strong and incredible and deserve a fist bump to end all fist bumps.
We’re all perfect in our imperfect ways, because our anguish comes from wanting to be the perfect parents. The protectors. The light in our children’s lives. Love your children ferociously and never, ever stop fighting.