By Natalia Aniela
PLEASE NOTE: This blog post includes mention of several topic areas that readers might find troubling or distressing, including intrusive thoughts of suicide, intrusive thoughts of harming one’s children, witnessing a traumatic event, and living through abuse.
If you are in a crisis, or you are ever feeling suicidal or unsafe, please go to your local emergency room, or call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline by dialing “988” (you can also access online at www.988lifeline.org). Hope is available for all members of the OCD community, only a call or a click away.
Natalia Aniela, Natalia@kairoswellnesscollective.com, Natalia is multi-lingual therapist who currently runs one of the largest OCD clinics in Colorado. Natalia is passionate about OCD awareness, accessibility of services, and clinician education. You can learn more about her work at www.kairoswellnesscollective.com.
16 years ago, I was staring at my long-lashed newborn baby boy when it happened for the first time. “You could throw him off the balcony” entered my consciousness. It felt like a fully formed and intentional thought. I felt my hands go cold with dread.
I was a recent graduate from Harvard, enrolled in my first semester at Harvard Law School. At this point in my life, at the tender age of 23, I was wholly passionate about two things: the legal support of political refugees and my newly born son.
I had no idea that I had OCD.
About a year earlier, living in downtown Boston, I had heard a horrid thud while cleaning my apartment. I later learned that this had been a mother and baby, who died by murder-suicide. I had an intrusive thought for weeks about the prior relationship I had had with the mother and her child.
I believe that proximity to this incident was the kernel of trauma that fed the harm OCD that would haunt me for the next decade. I could never shake the terrifying intrusive thoughts of throwing, jumping with, or otherwise harming all of my four children. I felt a compulsive desire to confess these sinful thoughts, and worried that I had a type of postpartum depression that had fundamentally changed my character. I continued to have intrusive thoughts about that mother and baby, including details that went beyond my actual memory of the event.
These intrusive thoughts had very specific impacts on my behavior - I avoided situations that I feared would make these intrusive thoughts come true. I never once stepped foot on the balcony of our condo, in the two years that I lived there. When we moved to the 27th floor of a high rise in Beijing, I sealed all the windows shut with industrial tape. In one of our homes, I never entered the guest bedroom, because you had to pass by the stairs to reach it.
At the time, my only explanation for my intrusive thoughts was that I was secretly a psychopath.
Despite this belief, and maybe to disprove it, I dedicated myself to being a good mother zealously and wholeheartedly. I decided not to return to law school and made my entire life revolve around keeping my children safe and well. I strove for emotional perfectionism. I was the mother who would annoyingly boast: I never yell.
Under this veneer of supermom, however, was a crippling self-doubt. I had been raised by a single mom who showed little qualms with brutal physical abuse. I was convinced that I had inherited some of her mental illness or perhaps some of her evil – otherwise why would these terrible thoughts pop into my head? I feared going insane, and suddenly embodying her out-of-control, emotional parenting.
So what did my OCD do? It developed even more rules defining what it meant to be a controlled, good mom. I obsessively controlled my children’s diets – no processed sugars, all whole foods, every meal home cooked with love. I obsessively researched parenting techniques, and hyper-fixated on, alternatively, their behavior, their reading, their social skills, their hygiene. As they got older, I became terrified about their safety, and would compulsively check helmets, seatbelts, stoves, and internet reviews on products I had bought for them (lead? chemicals that caused cancer? electrical fires?) . I became convinced that the top bunk of their beds would collapse onto the bottom bunk and eventually, I had them dismantled and replaced with the relative safety of a simple mattress on the floor.
I was never satisfied with how well I was raising my children, and how safe they were in this world. I truly believe that it all started with one intrusive harm thought: what if I was a murderer?
During my pregnancy with my fourth baby, I had finally gathered the courage to share my fears with a therapist. Unfortunately, this was the first of three therapists that misdiagnosed me with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I was guided to resources on good parenting (which only served to reinforce my fear that I was a bad parent) and was encouraged to meditate and journal (which for me became anxiety spiraling). Even when I was studying for my Masters in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, which I began when my youngest entered Kindergarten, I was still not introduced to OCD beyond the simplistic hand-washing cliche. It was not until I became a practicing therapist, working with trauma and neurodiversity, that I began to teach myself about my own disorder. Eventually OCD became my professional passion, and through ERP, Ketamine, Medication, and an incredibly supportive group of friends with OCD, I was finally able to confront and shed my fear-based parenting.
Fast forward to today, my four children, some of whom have inherited my OCD, can now joke with me about the time I made them all share one ice cream cone, or how I would control down to the minute our virtual learning schedules during the beginning of COVID. We can look back at their earlier childhood memories with some admiration for the tremendous amount of love, attention, and effort I put into their lives, but also, be eternally grateful that my OCD responded well to treatment.
Earlier this year, I manifested my longtime dream of opening a holistic mental health care clinic, and decided that it absolutely needed to be built around the disorder that had controlled most of my adult life. I am able to support my clients with Exposure Response Prevention, knowing how terrifying it would have been for me to sit with my distress about my children’s health and safety. I know what it is like to compulse until I feel temporarily soothed (still do!), but also, I have the privilege of relative recovery from my own OCD and can now instill hope in others.
Find a clinician with lived experience, if it’s important to you, who knows what it is like to walk in your shoes, through the pain but also into the wondrous stages of healing.
We named our center Kairos, which means divine moment, because I believe that we can only begin recovery when we are truly ready and timing is everything. It means so much to me to be able to share my OCD story (even with my children, who are very supportive!), because for years I was deeply ashamed and secretive about my intrusive thoughts. Now my children tease me about it, and we can even joke about family bonding on the balcony. I once truly believed I was evil. Now that I am honest about my internal struggles I see the true absurdity in it all.