Updated: Sep 3, 2018
I didn't know... It's Just OCD.
Living with OCD isn't even something I knew I was doing for most of my life. It wasn't until an eating disorder took hold of my world amid my twenties that I became privy to this information. You see, I'd always had an idea of what OCD was; the person who wants everything absolutely perfectly aligned, who is tortured by the idea of germs, who washes and scrubs throughout the day to achieve an unattainable level of clean. That definitely was not me. My experience was Intrusive, frightening thoughts that repeated like broken records... over and over, out of my control. Of course, these thoughts lead to terrible anxiety and I later learned is often linked to eating disorders; disordered eating being the outward "compulsive" behavior of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I have learned a lot since then and am able to help others like me who may have no idea what might be wrong with them, who fear they may be insane and likely in need of "locking up". I can let them know what I wish I'd known many years ago. The thoughts are not our fault and we don't wish for terrible things to happen. It's just OCD.
I took medication periodically, making the choice eventually not to and learned ways to interrupt the thoughts enough to feel capable of managing them. It was difficult at times and, in hindsight, perhaps more overwhelming than I was aware. Anxiety had always been a part of my life (OCD being an anxiety disorder), so, in a way, I had simply become used to living with a constant undercurrent of discomfort. And perhaps, for many years, I didn't realize how much discomfort... until I had a baby.
I had never heard of Postpartum OCD so when I took my tiny 7 pound baby home from the hospital it was definitely not on my radar. Yet, even in the hospital, just hours after her birth, I recall being in the depths of sleep and suddenly waking in a state of terror looking frantically over to my baby expecting to find her dead. My heart was thumping hard in my chest, a loud rushing current in my ears as I reached for her. When she awoke to my jarring hand I felt only a trickle of relief wash over me. In my perception it seemed like I'd evaded a disaster and, next time, I would not be so lucky.
Caring for my baby as a tiny infant was a complex mass of love, joy, anxiety and terror. The little sleep I was able to get was interrupted constantly by moments of sheer panic, every time I woke up to my baby, well and alive, my brain told me next time you won't be so lucky. My brain began to produce horrific images of things that could happen to her or, even worse, questioning myself, what if I lost control and hurt her. Such terrifying inclinations caused me to be more cautious, more vigilant, more overwhelmed and exhausted.
At this time I was a practicing psychotherapist and in therapy myself. Most of my own practice up until that point had been with children and families, what I was going through was simply nothing I had ever come across or researched. Of course I had studied the well known postpartum depression, but this, to me, was very different. I felt enthralled by my baby; I wanted to be with her and care for her, I felt a wondrous and deep love for her, I did not feel depressed or detached. In my own therapy I talked about it a sparingly, downplaying its reality, horrified by my own thoughts and could not imagine what someone else might think.
Being educated in the field of psychotherapy seems like it would lend itself to empathy not only for others, but ourselves. It seems it would instill an understanding that the challenges that we personally go through need no shame, but will benefit from the same attention we give to our clients. Yet, the disgust I held around my own thoughts forbade me to disclose them completely. Lost in a sea of self judgement, I did not draw on therapeutic wisdom, rather, I wielded it against myself demanding why can't you figure this out!
A misconception about postpartum illnesses is that they pass as hormones level out and as mothers' adjust to the realities of caring for an infant. My daughter was nearly 18 months old and nothing had changed... I thought it would and it hadn't. I had hoped that when she passed through the high risk months for SIDS it would be an extraordinary relief, but I wasn't. It only seemed like a bullet dodged and another threat lay in wait around the corner.
I had been deeply stuck in believing that I, as a therapist, should be able to direct my skills toward myself and conjure relief without help. However, finally, after waiting far too long, I began a search for answers, scouring the internet for some inkling of hope... and I found it; Postpartum OCD. Its description was an exact match to my everyday experience. Reading the information I found and the experiences of other women like me was profound, I wasn't a terrible human being, I wasn't insane, I didn't need locking up... it was just OCD.
During this time my family and I had moved and I had not yet found a new therapist. I had procrastinated, unwilling to share my inner experience. However, after finding the answers that I had yearned for, I felt less shame and more empowered to find help, which I did. The first time I walked into my new therapist's office I melted into a pool of prolonged tears having fought this battle too long on my own. Tired and overwhelmed, I allowed the horror of my mind to spill out for her to see. Of course, she reacted in a way that I was sure no one would, with understanding and empathy. No judgement, no disgust. She knew what I had not until only a short time before... it's just OCD.
I have been on a path of recovery since then, making the personal decision to try medication, which has been life changing for me. I was desperate for relief and, thank God, I found it. The thoughts began to subside becoming only a shadow of what that had once been. Thinking more clearly, no longer overwhelmed by my own brain, I began to feel a freedom I hadn't experienced since my daughter's birth. However, medication is not a silver bullet. There is so much more I have to do to manage this illness; yoga & exerting exercise, mindfulness practice, therapy, and journaling to name a few.
Today in my professional role, I have a far deeper understanding of postpartum illnesses. I currently work with adults and have come across women who have been afflicted with them. Now I get it, whether it's postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, or psychosis. I have done my research, am well informed, and can provide the same empathy and kindness that my own therapist exhibited to me. The challenges I've faced make me a far more effective psychotherapist and for that I am very grateful.