by Allison Livingston
It’s Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week! We’re partnering with 2020 Mom and TheBlueDotProject to raise awareness about Perinatal OCD through blog and social posts, a Reddit AMA on Thursday at 2pm ET, and a special town hall on Thursday at 7pm ET. Join us! #MMHWeek2021 #MakingOverMotherhood
TW: Suicidal thoughts
“You’re doing a great job, Mom!” These were the words I needed to hear.
If you’re suffering from Postpartum OCD and reading this, I want you to know that you are a good mom and you are doing a great job. I know from experience that you are on a difficult journey, but there is hope.
I was 30 when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. What joy and excitement for me and my husband! We wanted to wait to find out the gender, and when we were asked why, our answer was, “We can’t return it if it’s a boy/girl!”
However, the excitement didn’t last too long because I quickly began to experience nausea, sleepless nights, and constant trips to the restroom. We also had an early, horrifying miscarriage scare. All of this made me think, “Is this really worth it?” Plus, during my third trimester, I had extreme panic attacks before falling asleep. I’d be exhausted from the day and the pregnancy and have a rush of panic in my body. I’d think, “Am I really growing a human inside of me and will I be able to care for this new life?” I’d struggle to breathe, hold my breath, remind myself I’m okay, and eventually fall asleep. My partner and I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the first sign of postpartum OCD.
I wanted a natural, drug-free birth, but I quickly learned that labor includes a lot of pain. With each contraction, I tried to breathe through the pain and asked for constant words of support. I managed to fulfill my intended natural, drug-free birth plan even though I wanted to give up several times. I brought a new life into the world and abruptly felt I was its sole support and provider, overwhelmed and unprepared for this responsibility.
These fears gradually turned into anxiety; the car ride from the hospital to our townhouse was the scariest ride of my life. Being responsible for a newborn, hurting everywhere, and being sleep deprived for three days finally caused me to crash on the couch. I woke up crying and afraid I had hurt my baby. I was overcome and I yelled, with tears, anger and fear at my husband, “Get away! Get the baby away, I can’t touch her, I can’t be near her, I’m going to hurt her!” He and my mother talked me down. My baby needed me. My sore nipples and wounded body pushed through the pain, but nights like this haunted me. I did not feel like her mother. I desperately needed reassurance, and to hear, “You’re doing a great job!” I sought out advice from any resource I could find and was constantly Googling her every whimper. I wanted to scream.
Instead of seeing this for what it was — postpartum OCD, a condition I had never heard of — I labeled my constant worrying, anger, and fear as “new mom anxiety.” I promised myself to never leave my baby out of my sight. I blamed everything on this anxiety and used it as an excuse to isolate myself, even though I tried to remind myself, “it’s just a phase; it will get better.”
After six weeks, I was disappointed that I was not feeling any better. I was still unable to sleep, and unable to think any other thoughts besides the well-being of my baby and how to fight my fears and worry.
My journal entry from May:
I almost killed her (the baby) and if it actually were to happen — I think I’d take my own life. I fell asleep and woke to a baby next to me in my left arm. She always sleeps on me, and on my chest, but I was in a deep sleep. I don’t trust myself and I can’t imagine life as a murderer. I want to give her away. I can’t do this. I’m not a good mom. He’s (my husband) too tired and I can’t do it all. It’s bad. I cry and cry. I’m so alone.
The next day I wrote, “It’s okay now … I read up on SIDS and some other stories of parents calling their pediatricians and saying, ‘my child rolled off our bed and onto the floor and I think he’s dead!’ I will now mentally think, ‘I love her cry, she’s alive, she’s safe.’”
I continuously told myself “it will get better” as we moved to a new state with a four-month-old baby. My husband started a new job; we didn’t have friends and we both felt lonely.
When my daughter was 10 months old, I read a psychological thriller about a serial killer, which made me actually think I was capable of murder. That feeling, alone, was intense and scary for me. I needed to get help and I needed it now.
I quickly opened up to a therapist and explained how I would be nursing my baby like usual, and would suddenly get very hot and sweaty. A thought would arise about throwing her off of me, yelling, “Get off of me!” and squeezing her neck until her head popped off.
My therapist told me to contact my doctor for an antidepressant for postpartum depression and to mention that I was having thoughts about death. I thought, “I don’t feel depressed, but I do cry a lot and have these scary thoughts.”
I immediately made an appointment. My primary doctor was not available at the time and instead I was seen by a nurse practitioner. This nurse was not familiar with postpartum depression. I cried and cried and shared with her that I was having thoughts of death around my 10 month old. She interrogated me and asked if I was aware that these thoughts are abnormal. I trusted this nurse would know what to do and how to help me. She prescribed Zoloft and sent me on my way.
That evening, two psychiatric emergency response team (PERT) responders came to our door and requested to individually interview my husband and me about our baby. The nurse practitioner believed I had postpartum psychosis and had notified child protective services. For weeks my husband and I were interviewed and visited by social services, child protective services, social workers, doctors, and therapists. This made me feel on edge and overwhelmed.
That week, my therapist requested for me to come and see her and explained that she had misdiagnosed me. She apologized for the many unfortunate events that had occured. She told me she believed I had something called postpartum OCD. “OCD?” I thought, “no way, I don’t excessively clean and count how many times I wash my hands.” She explained to me what postpartum OCD is: a condition where new moms and/or moms-to-be create compulsions around the health and wellness of their newborn. Often, new moms will have intrusive thoughts, extreme anxiety, and engage in behaviors to reduce their anxiety.
In an attempt to get better, I tried exercise, diet, and drinking enough water. However, taking medication, practicing exposure therapy, and finding a support system had been the perfect combination for me to be able to feel better.
Today, I am happy to be putting a name on my “condition” and getting information about postpartum OCD. Doing these things made it less scary and helped me find strategies to cope. I appreciate my husband who is patient and understanding and my mother who reassured me that I’m okay. I have less anxiety, I sleep through the night, and I am able to enjoy being a mom. I am aware of my OCD and my compulsions. Sometimes I still feel overwhelmed, but I know it’s my OCD. I understand my source of intrusive thoughts and I’m able to ask for help when I need it.
My advice to moms is to know that you are not alone and there is support.
Resources that have helped me:
Good Moms Have Scary Thoughts, by Karen Kleiman
What it’s Really Like to Have OCD…
The OCD Stories
Taking Cara Babies
Happy as a mother
Momfluencers: Genna Asher, Kate Buckman, Christina Moore, Julia Lauren, Jess Milakovich, Min Wang