This is the entry that isn’t easy to write. It’s a story I could hide and no one would ever know. But it’s a story that I have to tell; a story that I want to tell because if someone had told it to me six years ago it would have made a world of difference. Postpartum depression is talked about; it’s understood to a degree. But there is another type of postpartum mood disorder; a type that I never knew existed until several months ago. This is a story, my story, of postpartum OCD. (I know I get the occasional male reader who stumbles across my blog. I encourage you not to just check out at this point thinking ‘oh, it’s a woman post’. If you have a wife, sister, daughter, or close female friend you need to know this too. Doctors don’t always ask the right questions of new mothers, sometimes it’s up to you.)
Six years. Where has the time gone? It seems like such a short time ago that I held Gates in my arms for the first time and yet it is so hard to remember how small he was, how helpless. And soon he’ll be turning six and I am remembering. Remembering, and finally healing.
There is a common saying, turned into a commercial for baby products, which tells us “Having a baby changes everything.” And it does. The sleepless nights, endless loads of tiny laundry, the inability to just head out the door with ease whenever you want, the worry over every cough, the endless debate over every decision because now it affects a third person in your life, the first real smile that melts your heart, the celebration of every milestone, big or small, the pride that fills your heart that this is YOUR child. Having a baby changes everything.
I was ready for change, ready for the responsibility, ready to be a mother to another little being. I held him in my arms and I loved him. The first week wasn’t easy. There was recovery from a traumatic birth experience, the struggle to nurse him, the fear that he might have to go back to the hospital, the suspicion that I might be sliding into postpartum depression.
But I could handle it. I was tough. Having a baby changes everything, I just needed to adjust.
I don’t remember when it first happened, but I remember where I was. I was sitting on our couch by the window. Blue couch, reclining ends, middle that folded down into a table so that I could sit there for hours just holding Gates with everything I needed right at hand. I was holding him, looking at him, marveling at his perfection, loving him. And then the thought hit. “What if I put him in the oven?” What?? Where did that come from? I’m not that kind of parent. I love this child; I would DIE for this child. “What if I put him in the oven?”
And so it began. The endless parade of thoughts that I couldn’t stop, thoughts that horrified me, thoughts that made me feel unclean. Oven, microwave, knives. In my mind I pictured myself hurting my child in a multitude of ways. I stopped watching any show that involved victimization of children, it just added to the list of horrible things I might imagine myself doing to Gates. It made no sense. How could I be holding my child and loving him and at the same time be thinking these things? I begged God to take the thoughts away. I cried and I begged and the thoughts didn’t stop. Had I failed God in some way? Had God turned his back on me? Was I really as evil as I felt?
Having a baby changed everything. If I was evil, I had to work doubly hard to hide it. When people asked how it was going I smiled and proclaimed how great motherhood was. I couldn’t let them see the cracks, the doubts, the uncertainties because they might see though them to the part of me that was evil. I couldn’t tell anyone about the thoughts; they’d declare me unfit and take away my baby. I couldn’t tell my husband, what would he think of me? Would he reject me? I deserved to be rejected, or so I thought.
As Gates grew the thoughts slowly subsided, only manifesting themselves rarely and in other bizarre ways; but the effect remained. No matter how well I parented, I was a failure. I doubted everything about my parenting. Having a baby changed everything.
Fast forward to this year. Major life changes, major stress. I was sinking back into deeper depression and there at the center, waiting to confront me was the part of me that was evil. And I had had enough; I couldn’t continue living with the fear that the shell would crack open and what was inside would lash out and hurt the boys. So I finally gave up. I couldn’t do it all on my own, I couldn’t fix it and I needed help.
At my second counseling appointment I finally spoke the words I had been holding inside for nearly six years. I told of the thoughts that wouldn’t leave me alone. I told of how evil I felt. And then came the words that changed everything. “It sounds like obsessive thought patterns to me.” I came home and started Googling.
Postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder is part of the spectrum of postpartum mood disorders and is estimated to affect 2-3% of new mothers. It is most likely under-reported, however, because of the shame it produces and the fear that our children will be taken away from us. Postpartum OCD is NOT the same thing as postpartum psychosis. Women suffering from postpartum psychosis often cannot see their thoughts as irrational; women suffering from postpartum OCD know that their thoughts are not normal but are unable to get rid of them. Mothers with postpartum OCD rarely act on those thoughts, instead they typically develop any number of rituals in order to avoid them or avoid the possibility of acting on them. (Not always though, in my case I didn’t develop any obvious compulsions.) It can affect women with a previous history of mild OCD as well as women who have never had it before.
More information on what it is: Postpartum OCD
Lots of great resources, support and links about all postpartum mood disorders can be found at Postpartum Progress.
Article from the Washington Post on postpartum OCD.
Those are some of the facts. You can Google all you like and find many more stories out there. The common thread in so many of them is “I wish someone had told me about this before I suffered for so long.”
Do you want to know what grace feels like? Grace is taking your deepest, darkest secret, exposing it to the light of day and having it washed away with just a few words. Grace is finding out that even in those dark moments, when I didn’t understand why he wasn’t taking the thoughts away, God hadn’t turned his back on me.
I don’t know the answer to ‘why me?’ Why did I get this disorder that changed the course of my early parenting years? Maybe I’ll never know. I know that it has taught me that secrets held too long leave their mark. I know that in some ways it did make me a better mother because fear gave me the desire to seek out parenting solutions that were gentle. I know it reaffirms the depths of love that my husband has for me, that when I finally told him he didn’t turn away, he didn’t reject me. I don’t know all the answers, but I know the peace that comes from being finally set free.