Because I experienced this disorder, I feel an obligation to share it. I’ve never in my life been so terrified and lost as I was when this happened to me – and if speaking out helps just one new mother, I will be happy. Here is my story.
As a teenager I suffered from depression, but I seemed to outgrow it and after the birth of my oldest son when I was 22, it disappeared completely. I did have a mild case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder prior to this. It developed when I was 19. I started checking things 5 times. Before I went to bed, I’d check the oven 5 times to make sure it was off. The door 5 times to make sure it was locked. My alarm 5 times to make sure it was set. Over time I was able to stop these behaviors and all was well until I turned 25 and developed anxiety.
My anxiety presented itself in small panic attacks. I tried a couple of medications but ultimately decided to try to deal with it on my own and with counseling because I didn’t like the side effects of the medication I was taking. As time went on I managed my anxiety fairly well. It, and my OCD which had returned, were an annoyance but I was functioning pretty normally aside from certain things. I didn’t want medication because of my previous experiences with it, but also because I had a (stupid) sense of pride and wanted to “beat it” myself without the medication. I still saw a counselor from time to time to help me deal with it and felt that all was fine.
At 36 I had my son, Maxwell. He was an angel and I loved him more than anything. We were home about a week or so when the strangest thing happened. Someone stopped by to deliver flowers. The flowers had a balloon on them. I took a pair of scissors out of the drawer and cut the string of the balloon and then, suddenly, was paralyzed with fear. The following thought slammed into my mind: Hide the scissors. Someone could come in and find them and stab the baby. At first I was confused. Why in the name of God would I ever think such a thing? But in that moment it was like a floodgate opened and thoughts like that came pouring in. Plastic bag from the grocery store? Throw it away, someone could suffocate the baby. A knife I used to make dinner? Hide it, someone could stab the baby. I was so overwhelmed and horrified that I began crying hysterically. I was so wrapped in fear that I could barely breathe. I called my husband at work and begged him to come home. I told him that something was wrong with me and I didn’t understand what was happening and that I was terrified of being alone. He advised me to call my counselor. She spoke with me over the phone and helped me calm down and we made an appointment.
Leading up to that appointment, things only got worse. I remember sitting at the top of my stairs, petting my cat, and thinking What if you pick him up and throw him down the stairs? I quickly got to a point where I was not functioning. Because I was afraid that I was going to kill my baby. I couldn’t bathe him alone because I was afraid I would drown him.
At first I thought that perhaps I had Postpartum Depression. I searched online and found that the symptoms of PPD didn’t match what was happening to me. But then I found an article about Postpartum Anxiety and OCD. And I had those symptoms. It turns out, most women who have this are afraid someone is going to kill the baby. And sometimes, that someone is you. Imagine the horror that overcomes you when you are having these thoughts. I was a new mom. I was supposed to be wrapped in the bliss of bonding with my baby. But I couldn’t even pick him up because I was terrified of hurting him. But then, reading the article, I found the exact words I needed to hear, and I will share them with you. Women with this disorder DO NOT hurt their babies. You will not hurt your baby. I wept with relief. What was happening to me was real. It wasn’t in my head. I wasn’t insane. It had a name. I wasn’t alone. And it wouldn’t make me hurt my baby.
My counselor explained it to me like this. She said that your maternal instincts kick in when you have a baby, and one of those is your protection instinct. But in women with PPA & OCD, it doesn’t hit the normal threshold. It keeps going. It extends so far that it enters an area of irrationality, believing that anything and everything is a threat to your child – even you. So you are trying to protect your baby so much that you don’t even trust yourself. Here are some of the symptoms of Postpartum Anxiety and OCD:
Symptoms of Perinatal / Postpartum OCD
Symptoms of Perinatal / Postpartum OCD vary widely from mother to mother. Some examples of common obsessions seen in Perinatal / Postpartum OCD are:
- Horrifying, intrusive thoughts of stabbing or suffocating a newborn child
- Unwanted images of throwing or dropping a baby
- Disturbing thoughts of sexually abusing a child
- Fear of accidentally harming a child through carelessness
- Intrusive thoughts of accidentally harming the fetus or child by exposure to medications, environmental toxins, germs, chemicals, or certain foods
- Fear of being responsible for giving a child a serious disease
- Fear of making a wrong decision (i.e., getting inoculations, feeding certain foods, taking antidepressants) leading to a serious or fatal outcome
Some common examples of compulsions seen in Perinatal / Postpartum OCD include:
- Hiding or throwing out knives, scissors, and other sharp objects
- Avoiding changing soiled diapers for fear of sexually abusing a child
- Avoiding feeding a child for fear of accidental poisoning
- Repeatedly asking family members for reassurance that no harm or abuse has been committed
- Avoidance of certain foods, medications, or normal, everyday activities for fear of harming the fetus
- Monitoring self for perceived inappropriate sexual arousal
- Avoiding news articles and TV shows related to child abuse or infanticide
- Repeatedly and excessively checking in on a baby as he/she sleeps
- Mentally reviewing daily tasks and events in an attempt to get reassurance that one has not harmed a child or been responsible for harm to a child
I copied this list from the following site if you would like more information from there:
You may not have all of these symptoms, I didn’t. But if you recognize any of them in yourself, breathe a sigh of relief honey. You are going to be OK again, and you are not alone.
Now, at that time I started going back to my counselor regularly and working through it. I still refused medication because I thought I could handle it on my own. And I did, but not as well as I was convincing myself that I was. Fast forward 2 years to the birth of my now 2-year-old son, Bennett. The same thoughts came flooding back. Now what I didn’t want to admit to myself at the time is that they had never really left. I’d have good days and bad days, but I wasn’t healed. And after I had Bennett, it escalated again. This time was much easier to deal with because I knew what was happening. It’s like my husband says – it’s not as scary when the monster has a name.
I went through life and went to counseling for about 6 months. What I didn’t know was that an avalanche was forming. As I dealt with my PPA & OCD in my own way, I was also not dealing with it completely and it was escalating in new ways. My anxiety got so bad that I was having problems sleeping. It snowballed to the point that I went to my doctor for help. I remember sitting in his office, crying, feeling embarrassed and afraid. He handled it so well. I’ll never forget what he said. Megan, you’re one of the most self aware patients I have. If you say something is wrong, I believe you. I will help you. It will be OK. At this point I was so desperate that I said I wanted medication. He prescribed some for me. Zoloft for the anxiety and a sleeping pill to help me sleep for the first week until the Zoloft took effect.
Now, this transition had it’s own difficulties. For me, I was very – very – sensitive to the medication. It made my anxiety so much worse at first. But with my counselor and my doctor and lots of online chatrooms full of people going through the same thing, I came out the other side.
It’s been a year since I started taking Zoloft. In that time I’ve adjusted my dose up a couple of times. It’s been at it’s current dose for about 6 months now and I’m pretty comfortable with it. I still sometimes have anxiety, but the PPA & OCD symptoms are gone. I sleep well at night (well, as well as a mother of 4 – with 3 under 4 – can) and my normal OCD symptoms are gone as well. For example, my best friend and I got food the other day at a drive thru and she opened my straw and put it in my drink. Immediately she apologized because, before, I couldn’t have handled her touching my straw. But now, I don’t care. I drank from it, no issue. My anxiety is still there. I still have moments where I am anxious. In these moments I consider upping my medication. But then they pass and I keep moving forward.
I can tell you this. I am happier and more relaxed than I have been in years. So my advice to you as someone who has been through it is this: Don’t be afraid to get help. Because this IS treatable. And there are counselors and therapists and doctors and support groups who can help you. So if you find that you are going through this, don’t be afraid – but get help. You can’t do it alone, and you shouldn’t feel the need to. There is no shame in the game, baby. You get what you need to move forward and be the best Mommy you can be. You’re a good mother, and everything will be alright.