Speaking the (Previously) Unspeakable
A mother's journey through the ups and downs of Postnatal OCD
Written by Catherine Benfield
01 Catherine is 37, lives in London with her husband and son, and has had OCD for as long as she can remember. She blogs about her experiences at www.tamingolivia.com
02 Postnatal OCD, also known as Perinatal OCD or Postpartum OCD, is a subtype of OCD that sets in after pregnancy. Intrusive thoughts often center around harming your newborn child or exposing your child to outside danger.
03 Through therapy and mindfulness, Catherine slowly learned to cope with her thoughts and lead a happy, healthy life.
04 If you're a parent experiencing shame over the thoughts in your head, do not blame yourself. You are still a loving, worthy, dedicated parent, and there are ways to cope with your symptoms.
Since very early childhood, my condition has morphed and shape-shifted, seemingly changing obsession as soon as I become skilled at managing my current one — it likes to keep me on my toes! Over the years it has also varied in severity and intensity, with whole segments of my life being totally OCD free, to others in which I’ve really struggled.
Although I usually make my road to recovery the focus of my writing, I’m going to put the emphasis for this piece on my experiences with OCD, especially Postnatal OCD, with a little extra thrown in about harm based intrusive thoughts and urges. This will be the first time I’ve written about some of my experiences and I’ve chosen to do it now because I know there are loads of us out there affected by this, it’s a very isolating part of the condition, and I really want to help people realize that they are not alone, and that recovery is totally possible.
Here we go…
My childhood thoughts were very much focused on keeping my loved ones safe, and my OCD symptoms centered heavily on external compulsions. I counted, checked, recounted and rechecked everything because I believed it would help keep my family safe. I spent whole evenings watching out of the window for my parents to return from work believing this silent vigil would secure their safe return, and at my worst, it took me three to four hours to settle into bed because I was busy walking the well-trodden pathway of my night-time safety checks.
Throughout childhood, my OCD was hugely time-consuming. There were many times where I was heavily reliant on others to do the simplest of tasks. I became an expert at hiding my symptoms and didn't tell a soul. I feared, even back then, that talking about it would get me labelled as ‘weird’ or ‘different’ and bring shame on my family. Occasionally, I’d get busted as my parents heard my wandering or whispered counting. They would sit with me until I was settled, believing me to be upset about something at school or going through a phase. This was the 1980s; mental health awareness was not what it is today.
I had no idea I might have OCD until my mid-twenties. I’d heard murmurings about it for awhile, on TV and radio, and could identify with the symptoms. Around the same time my GP mentioned that I might have OCD, so that’s what these symptoms became for me. Now that it sort-of had a name I broke my silence. I told my future husband, my mum, a couple of close friends and hoped against hope that it would all go away by itself.
As I progressed through my twenties, I developed symptoms associated with generalized anxiety, daily debilitating anxiety attacks and depression as well. These, along with my OCD, came in phases and I experienced long gaps with very few symptoms at all. It was during one of these periods of having my symptoms well managed that I became a qualified teacher, moved in with my boyfriend, got married and adopted a beautiful stray cat named Archer.
Life was busy and productive, I was happy and content. In 2012, we decided to extend our little family and gave birth to a beautiful little boy, William, in September. It was at this point, the point Hollywood tells you should be the happiest time of your life, that I saw my mental health decline to crisis point.
I should point out that throughout the following section I’ll refer to my symptoms as OCD because I know now that’s what it was. At the time, I had no idea.
Very soon after I’d given birth, I became absolutely convinced that something bad was going to happen to my little man — that he’d be harmed or that he would die; he was so small and vulnerable. This worry quickly grew into a fear that someone would hurt him by accident, which in turn grew into a fear that someone would hurt him deliberately.
I can’t tell you the lengths I went to in order to keep my little boy safe. I put household objects that I deemed too toxic for the house, in the front garden. I barricaded us in our bedroom at night in case my beloved Archer sat on Will and suffocated him. I set alarms throughout the night so that I could wake up to check that he was still breathing. As time went by, both my obsessions and their resulting compulsions became increasingly irrational and time consuming. I sat guard over him to protect him from… life. I wanted to keep him safe from everyone and everything.
As the weeks passed, my mental wellbeing continued to decline, and I was hit with my worse obsessions yet. I became convinced that it would be me who would deliberately hurt William. I was tortured with images and thoughts about this 24 hours a day. The worse part of it, was that I began experiencing harm urges too. It was as if the OCD wasn’t happy enough with making me think these thoughts and see these images, there was another level of torture that it wanted to introduce me to, and it did. I could just about live with my previous OCD symptoms, but the harm urges saw me hit crisis point. I could no longer be in the same room as my little one. I made an appointment to see my GP in which I told him I was a risk to my son and needed to be "taken away from him for his own safety." I remember saying those words as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
Thankfully, he recognized my symptoms as anxiety and prescribed anti-depressants.
The medication helped lower my anxiety but didn’t do much for my OCD symptoms. It was only after hitting rock bottom again and doing a little online research, that I self-diagnosed with Postnatal OCD and self-referred to CBT. I had no idea up until that point that these thoughts and feelings had anything to do with OCD. I honestly thought I was a monster for having these obsessions. I didn’t know that compulsions could take place internally as a kind of mental ritual or review, and I had no idea that urges were in fact, a very common type of obsession in OCD.
Sadly, this was also the case for the medical professionals I met. My midwives, health visitors and doctors were supportive, and clearly wanted to help me, but they were without the training needed to recognize the multitude of ways OCD can present itself, and as a result, I slipped through the net for a while.
Onto recovery. In March 2014, I was introduced to the most amazing psychotherapist and my experiences of motherhood turned a corner. I had two sets of CBT, each twenty weeks long. I had to work extremely hard. After 32 years, my thought patterns were rigid and took awhile to shift.
The road to recovery was not all smooth sailing for me. I lost my parents and my beautiful cat during this time. I’ve had setbacks surrounding grief and my original OCD, anxiety and depression symptoms. I’ve continued to experience anxiety attacks. But what did come out of that adversity was an absolute desperation to get better, which in turn, propelled me into action despite still being in a tough spot. From that moment on, my well-being and health became the center of everything.
I could talk about this forever, but what follows is a summary of some of the things I did, and still do, to help with my recovery. I’ve written about it a lot in my previous posts so please check them out if you would like more information.
One of the most helpful things I did was learn everything I could about OCD. And I’m still learning loads all the time. I came across mindfulness in my therapy sessions and found it very helpful, so I started incorporating into my daily life. I made sure that I completed my CBT homework and carried out my ERP exercises, which at one time, saw me going up and down the higher-level escalators in an M&S with my son in my arms – such fun! This was to help address my harm based intrusive thoughts and urges, both of which were very strong in this area of this specific shop. How I didn’t end up with security guards following me around I’ll never know!
Self-care became key. I decided to stay on my medication because it helped me access my therapy and feel well enough to carry out self-care activities. I started exercising, not running – which gave me too long alone with my thoughts – but Zumba and fun dance classes. I ensured I got a decent amount of sleep. I saw my friends more, I got out more. I spent time in the sun. I started to take supplements. I tried to eat well and drink enough water. I read everything and anything I could about self-care but mostly I made sure I did it - if I felt I was getting lost in reading about self-care and not actually practicing it, I tried to adjust my behavior.
Thanks to social media I was introduced to the online OCD community. A community made up of some of the strongest, kindest, most compassionate people you could meet. It helped me to know that I wasn’t alone and that I could get better. Checking out groups, pages and profiles of people who had OCD, and had similar stories to my own, was life changing! Again, if I noticed that this became triggering, or a compulsion, I backed off a bit.
I did a huge amount of self-esteem building. The nature of my obsessions meant that my view of myself was at rock-bottom and I found this work central to my recovery.
I needed to care about myself and my experiences. I needed to feel that I deserved to get better and that I could begin to accept what I’d been through. I needed to get my head around the fact that all brains produce random thoughts and images and urges. How many times do people get the urge to press that red “don’t press” button, to jump in front of that train, or to knock that tray of drinks out of someone’s hands? I’d just had a baby, it kind of makes sense that my intrusive thoughts would involve the most important things to me. I wasn’t alone in experiencing them, they weren’t the problem — it was my interpretation that was.
Listing everything out like this makes it sound quick and easy – it really wasn’t.
It’s been five years since the onset of my Postnatal OCD and I have spent at least three years actively walking the higgledy-piggledy road of recovery. I still use prompts to remind me to carry out certain self-care activities, and I don’t always do them even when I can see them written down. I’m human. And I mess up. Often.
While it’s not been easy, every step I took along the way was totally worth it. I still deal with OCD daily, but it is far more manageable now and it very rarely stops me from doing anything. So, if you are struggling with OCD, please have hope. It really does get better, and despite what your troublesome brain tells you, you are not a monster and you, most definitely, are not alone!
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