Motherhood with OCD
This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, which seems like a fitting time for me to share about a new diagnosis that I received a couple weeks ago. I won’t say that it completely blindsided me, but I suppose that I never really put the weight on it that it truly deserved.
From virtually the moment I found out I was pregnant, I was plagued with anxiety. I felt as though something terrible was waiting for me at every pregnancy benchmark. I could easily miscarry in the first trimester. I knew someone who lost their baby at 20 weeks. I knew someone who lost their baby at 24 weeks as he was delivered and his lungs were just a week too early to be functional. I read message boards about infant loss and found it hard to breathe as I held my hand to my stomach in an attempt to make a connection with my unborn child. Excitement that I would experience would quickly be overshadowed with an internal monologue of “yeah, but,” and I would try and right-size any normal level of happiness that typically accompanies pregnancy.
I was an anxious child. I constantly battled intrusive thoughts about terrible things happening to people I cared about. I lay awake some nights imagining what would happen if people broke in while my mother was still awake downstairs. I played out this scenario hundreds of times – some where we all hid and were safe, some where I managed to save my family despite being a child against several adults, and some where her, my brother, and sister were all murdered because I wasn’t able to save them. I asked my mother which pedal was the brake in the car because I needed to know how to stop it in case someone shot her in the head while driving. I made a plan of action for when the car went off the bridge because I knew it inevitably would at some point. (Make sure to roll the electric windows down before we hit the water).
On top of the thoughts were the behaviors. I needed to feel even on both sides. I needed my schoolwork to be perfect and if I made a mistake, I restarted again on a new piece of paper. I had rituals that I had to perform whenever I drove by telephone poles or trees in the car. I couldn’t step on sidewalk cracks too many times with the same foot. When I got older, I needed to repeatedly check my alarm despite knowing that it was set. Over and over again. This all felt like normal behavior because I didn’t know any differently.
When I gave birth to my son and after the disorienting first couple weeks of establishing routine and welcoming visitors in and out, I was overjoyed. It was a stark contrast to the anxieties of early pregnancy and I quickly succumbed to the cliched abundance of love that accompanies motherhood. I had been completely prepared to experience postpartum depression given my history, but I didn’t.
After three or four months, I realized that I had more trouble than usual watching movies depicting sad childhoods. Violent movies that I used to numbly view now brought an almost visceral reaction. As I walked around the city with my son, those same intrusive thoughts started to arise – “What if someone takes him and throws him over into the river as I’m crossing this bridge? Can I jump down and save him in time? Will the impact kill him?” My husband and I took him to the gym with us in the mornings and I started envisioning my barbell bouncing across the floor and smashing his face in.
Familiar behaviors started to creep back in as well – picking at my fingers or breakouts I felt – anything that felt out of the norm and I could absentmindedly attack. Hangnails would rip and my skin would bleed where I nervously worked to gather a sense of control. There came a day when I (foolishly) read about a mother who went into labor at home and waited too long to go to the hospital when there were complications, resulting in the death of her perfectly healthy baby girl in utero. I lay awake, my chest hurting from the thought of anything like that happening to anyone and extrapolating it to somehow fit my situation. It haunted me for days. I seemed to experience these bouts of anxiety at times when I couldn’t seek reassurance from my infant son (which is not his responsibility), namely at night, and I could only watch the shallow rise and fall of his chest as he slept.
Thankfully, these thoughts seemed to burden only me and I had no problem letting other people hold him or even watch him while my husband and I went to see a movie. He was happy and showered with love at every opportunity. Still, thoughts about how he could die continued to pop into my head vividly and unexpectedly.
Worrying about the safety of your child is something that I think every mother experiences. How will you protect them? What will the future bring? These are normal worries. Mapping out all possible scenarios to save your child from a graphic death in any given situation is slightly more extreme. If I’ve learned anything in my nine and a half years of sobriety, it’s that life is uncontrollable. All you can control is yourself and everything else just happens around you. I know all of this and it has helped me tremendously in turning my life around, but it doesn’t always make parenting easier.
I made an appointment with my therapist because I hadn’t checked in with her since he was born. When I explained to her what was happening, she quickly replied “well, yes, that’s your OCD.” I paused and it felt like putting the last piece of the puzzle together. We had never before talked about me having obsessive compulsive disorder, but she knew enough about my life and my behaviors to know exactly what the problem was.
What I have since learned is that OCD exists on a spectrum. Mine weighs heavier on intrusive thoughts and less on physical compulsions, although those are still there as well. Much like I once thought that an addict was a homeless criminal before I realized I was one as well, I thought that those suffering with OCD washed their hands too much and flipped light switches too often. Most days my symptoms are manageable, but I do notice that they appear more often when I’m faced with some type of added stressor – say, a child.
Just like many mental illnesses, there is no specific etiology for OCD. It can’t be linked to any specific childhood event and the biggest biological correlation is if someone else in the family also suffers. Those who suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder understand that these thoughts and compulsions are irrational, which does help some because I can work on repeatedly telling myself that the thought of him hitting a bump in the stroller, falling out, and being run over by a car is only a thought. Only a thought. Only a thought.
As he grows and learns to walk, talk, and run, I can only imagine that my mind will continue to manifest terrifying scenarios as a result of this disease. Becoming a parent is a terrifying journey, but still one that I am immensely glad that I embarked on.
I love my son more than anything. Obsessive compulsive disorder has caused my mind to go into overdrive to protect him, and I assume I will always be working on finding some balance between the two.