Coping with OCD during motherhood was the most difficult experience of my life, recovering from OCD during motherhood was the most challenging and rewarding.
After the birth of my first child in 2004 I was overwhelmed and in fact crippled with anxiety – this led to extreme OCD. Initially, I was misdiagnosed with Post Natal Depression and inappropriately received talking therapy. Fortunately I was able to self diagnose and access Cognitive Behaviour Therapy.
By the time I was receiving the right care I had developed rituals that were time consuming, exhausting and very unhealthy for me. My obsessions centred around protecting my daughter from any perceived harm. This is a very natural urge for any new mother however I took it to the extreme. I would stand at the sink washing her milk bottles for so long my hands would bleed. I was terrified if any germs were left on the bottles she would become ill – I thought I was being thorough, little did I know I was developing and making worse the OCD symptoms.
During the weaning stages I was petrified I would be poisoning her if I didn’t clean up properly. Hours and days were robbed as I cleaned obsessively. Throughout this time I was pulled in two directions: I wanted to give my precious daughter fresh nutritious food however was desperately trying to protect her from food poisoning so was obsessively careful.
I could write forever about the various rituals I participated in to protect her, however with the right CBT and the support from my family and friends I started to recover. It was tough for a while and ever so exhausting, I had to face my fears and expose myself to situations I would be uncomfortable with i.e. not being 100% clean and acknowledge that we all love our children but need to give them space to grow and life comes with an element of risk. Some risks you can control some you can’t. I have since had a second child, a gorgeous little boy who is allowed to play in the garden and look for worms without having to continually wash his hands – this is a healthy approach to parenting.
For some people the fears may seem trivial, however the experience is as extreme as watching a child playing at the edge of a cliff.
There are times when I may be feeling vulnerable and I am extra kind to myself when life is particularly tough – this is to ensure if any mild OCD symptoms come knocking I am trained to know what to do.
Do I have times where I feel general anxiety and stressed? Yes, as we all do.
Have I recovered from OCD? Yes.
I now go to the park with the children without the intrusive thought of the children getting ill from stepping on dog faeces, without the worry of food poisoning when the children and I make homemade burgers, without the fear of contracting a disease when using public toilets. I can enjoy life without the obsessive fear of any harm accidently coming to my children.
This is the place every mother who is experiencing this anxiety disorder needs to get to. I want to help her arrive and say welcome home.
Happy memories spring to mind, recalling the excitement – aged seven – of helping my father rescue lambs from the floodwaters, without feeling I was wholly responsible for their wellbeing. My childhood was so carefree that it is ironic that I would soon develop a heightened sense of responsibility towards those I loved dearly, to keep them safe from harm or even death.
The following year, terrifying thoughts had begun to impact my view of how the world really worked and obsessional thinking would remain with me until the age of thirty-five. This persistent persecution became regular.
The impossible task of trying to understand my unwanted and terrifying thoughts of my baby and children was exhausting.
There were many different obsessional fears about harming my beloved children and others. I could barely cope with existing, let alone living. If only I had had the wisdom of a Health Visitor or Midwife to probe a little further into ‘why’ in their eyes, I was feeling depressed. How I wanted to hear “If you are sad or frightened we are here to help. What you have is an anxiety disorder called OCD and you are not capable of harming your children. Harming loved ones actually goes against the grain of the disorder; fact!” The core thought was always to protect my children.
The adrenalin fuelled rushes of fear gave extra strength to my beliefs. I assumed that because I could conceive them, I must be capable of carrying out such acts – or perhaps really had done.
How far from the truth I had been. I was to discover that sufferers never act on their thoughts. This is what I saw clearly after my treatment began. I shall never forget the constant kindness and respect shown to me by my GP, Health Visitor and Psychiatrist who gave me the assurance (never reassurance) that I was not psychotic.
My life would have been so different had I had been diagnosed two decades earlier. If I only knew then, what I know now about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. After twenty-six years of the disorder just five sessions of CBT, homework between sessions and an SSRI was all it took for me to be given back my life. However, most sufferers will require varying hours of treatment but I am not alone in responding well and quickly to therapy.
CBT gave me the techniques to help me to trust myself when feeling under threat. I learnt how to distinguish an obsessional thought from a valid fear. I was able to recognise the ways an obsessional thought would enter and appear in my head.
A therapist can demonstrate that our obsessional themes are not a true representation of who you are as a person. They are in fact the opposite. You can be trained to not react to terrifying thoughts. You can start to make sense of the cruel and chilling ruminations.
A key to recovery is having a therapist who is properly trained. Mine had a good understanding of OCD and was up-to-date with CBT.
How grateful I am not to have had a mental health professional declare “Your OCD is too ingrained” or “You will just have to learn to live with it!” Poorly-informed practitioners are destructive, and I firmly believe that there is no place for such statements when treating this anxiety disorder.
It all begins with you contacting your GP; and remember, the greatest healer of all is yourself. I am living proof that full recovery is possible.
Here at Maternal OCD we also welcome mothers who would like to share their stories anonymously, please see below two examples.
Life Story No 1
My earliest memory of any OCD type behaviour was when I was a teenager. Following some bullying at school I developed a safety behaviour of obsessively checking my appearance. Everywhere I went I had to carry a small mirror held in the sleeve of my coat or within easy reach in my bag so that I could repeatedly and obsessively check that nothing was out of place. This behaviour went alongside issues with eating and self-harm but I did not realise until I was much older that this was all about control and was probably the beginning of my OCD.
OCD continued to be part of my life in a small way (doubting, checking doors were locked, straighteners were turned off etc) but not in a way that really affected my day to day life. I also suffered with social anxiety but, again, did not recognise it as being that until I was much older and learned about anxiety. I still lived a ‘normal’ life and went out and had fun but had all of the anxiety going on underneath the surface.
Settled in a relationship, it wasn’t until we started discussing moving house and starting a family that my OCD began to get out of control. It began with subtle things like fearing blood when it had never previously bothered me (I used to donate blood without even batting an eyelid at other people’s blood being taken around me). I began cleaning obsessively and prepared for the move by cleaning items such as books with anti-bacterial wipes, preparing myself for starting a family and not wanting ‘contamination’ to follow us to our new family home.
We started trying for a baby soon after moving into the new house and I was lucky enough to fall pregnant straight away but at some point my OCD blew out of control. By the time I was three months pregnant I realised that my OCD had become a massive problem and went to see my GP, unfortunately it took until after my baby was born for me to obtain the CBT I so badly needed. Confused and frightened by the situation my OCD grew rapidly worse during this time, my compulsions and rituals seemed essential for the survival of our unborn child so how could I possibly stop them? I spent endless hours cleaning everything including walls and doors, even when heavily pregnant, forever fearing a new contaminant and never getting the clean feeling that I so badly sought. I was left with bleeding hands, skin flaking on my face and body and a relationship near breaking point.
Thankfully after some time, an excellent CBT Therapist started me on my road to recovery and, although it took time to recover, I slowly changed from someone who could see real and definite danger in almost literally everything around me to someone who bit by bit gained the confidence to start facing up to my fears. Although it was terrifyingly anxiety provoking, I can still remember the immense feeling of achievement after I managed to open a few windows in my house an inch onto the latch to let in some fresh air, the windows had always stayed firmly closed before that because my fear of contamination would not let me open them. I was starting to take those first steps.
Recovery was a long process because my list of fears was so extensive but I can happily say that I have nearly completely recovered now and I feel confident that I will continue to improve.I have gone from being someone who sometimes felt that maybe suicide was the only way out of the constant torture I was enduring, to being someone who enjoys life and looks forward to what the next day will bring. I can look back now and view most of my compulsions as absurd and unneccesary, but at the time they most certainly felt terrifyingly real.
People that meet me assume that I am a confident, happy, lively person and yet they see no signs of the inner turmoil I may be going through. I think that is the danger sometimes with certain mental health issues, the stigma can cause you to hide what you are going through, but how can you possibly get the help and support you need from others if you are hiding all this anguish away? I was very lucky to have a wonderful family around me that I could be completely honest with but I was still always very aware that when it came down to it, it was only me that could get me better again, no matter how much they wanted to do it for me.
Taking baby steps towards recovery is all you can do, and then once the positive experiences and the sense of achievement begins then at least the wheels are in motion, from there you can continue to propel yourself forward. The crucial point for me was when I stopped punishing myself for having this illness and started to be kinder to myself. The more you look after yourself and pat yourself on the back for even the smallest of achievements, the calmer you feel and therefore the stronger you feel to face the next challenge.
OCD does not have to be faced alone but it is only you in the end that can challenge it. I believe that with the right help and guidance every OCD sufferer can do this. Have hope!
Life Story No. 2
I was diagnosed with OCD during both of my pregnancies. I had never shown symptoms of it before and was expecting to love being pregnant. Instead, OCD occupied every single thought in my head. The onset of symptoms occurred days after discovering I was expecting and they worsened throughout the nine months. I am very fortunate that I became free of extreme OCD the very moment my babies were born.
My OCD centred around the fear of contracting one disease in particular - Toxoplasmosis. It is an extremely rare condition, which a pregnant mother can pass on to her foetus, potentially causing birth defects in the baby. Other risks, such as having a baby with Downs syndrome, or Listeria, I had a normal response to. I read the advice, the statistics, and behaved in a way most pregnant women would. They caused me no distress. Toxoplasmosis, however, I believed to be an almost certainty. Despite knowing that, statistically, I was at much higher risk of having a baby with Downs syndrome, this had no impact on my thoughts and behaviour. I understand now that this was probably linked to the huge sense of responsibility that OCD sufferers feel. If my baby caught Toxoplasmosis, it would be because I had exposed myself to it. I felt an overwhelming responsibility to eliminate all possible risks.
Almost immediately after celebrating positive pregnancy tests, my brain went into overdrive. I would spend hours recollecting events that may have put me at risk, and concluding that I must have caught this disease and passed it on to my baby.
As the weeks passed, the OCD spiralled, until most everyday activities became a threat to me and my unborn baby – food in the fridge that may have touched the wrapped sausages in my shopping trolley at the supermarket, clothes that had touched a sofa where a friend’s cat had been laying, a cup of tea made by a friend who had been gardening the previous day. I would spend every waking minute thinking about toxoplasmosis, and creating chains of events that would have led to me catching it. I couldn’t stop the thoughts; it was torture and utterly draining.
It was my husband who first suggested OCD and sent me to the GP. I was referred to the Mental Health Peri-natal team at my hospital where they confirmed the diagnosis. As I wasn’t showing signs of clinical depression, I was told that they couldn’t offer me any treatment. I had little understanding of OCD and I’m ashamed to say now, that I felt embarrassed. I didn’t know how to tell friends or family, so I mentioned it briefly, but glossed over the details. It was a very lonely time, I felt imprisoned by my thoughts and couldn’t see a way out. Once my daughter was born, I was free of OCD. My head was clear and my thoughts calm. It felt amazing.
A year later, and I was delighted to be pregnant again. However, OCD is persistent, and searches hard for a way in. Within hours, my symptoms had returned. We had been at a farm, and that evening, my husband set the table for dinner. I found myself secretly re-washing my plate and cutlery that he had touched – despite knowing he had already washed his hands. My OCD told me that he may have touched bacteria at the farm, not washed his hands properly and it was now on my plate, which would most definitely lead to me and the baby catching toxoplasmosis. I avoided drinking out of my glass, because when he poured my drink, his fingers touched the rim. For the duration of my pregnancy, I then re-washed all my plates, cups and cutlery. If someone else emptied the dishwasher, I would re-wash everything. I avoided eating at friends’ houses, and when I did, I watched their every move. My hands bled from being washed so often. I stopped kissing my eldest daughter. I remember smearing anti bacterial gel all over my mouth, because she had put her fingers near it. Everyone and everything was a risk. I would watch cookery programmes and even seeing a chef handle raw meat would create a strong physical reaction in me – my heart would race, and I’d experience a feeling in the pit of my stomach that something terrible could happen.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t talk about it. My husband was very supportive, but I found it impossible to explain the entirety of what was going on inside my head to another person.
This time, I was offered CBT. Unfortunately, I stopped the treatment before I saw any progress. I was very fortunate in that I knew that once I had the baby, it would most likely be gone. I struggled through the nine months, counting down the weeks until my daughter was born. And as predicted, the second she arrived I was free from this extreme OCD. I do regret not persevering with the CBT. I have since heard of so many success stories as a result of it.
I am aware of mild OCD symptoms now; I still can’t walk down the road without looking down for dog poo and will actively avoid routes where it’s likely to be. It also takes me a good half hour to check the house before leaving on holiday and I probably do still wash my hands unnecessarily. However, these are manageable symptoms and don’t cause me distress or interfere with my daily life. I don’t think I could go through another pregnancy though. I have two little girls to think about now and the impact of OCD on those around you is huge.
Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to OCD. I was ashamed and embarrassed to tell close friends and family about it. I have since met other women who also suffer from Perinatal OCD and have found this to be hugely reassuring, allowing me to open up about my own experiences.
I am determined to fight all traces of OCD that I have been left with, however mild. I will endeavour to talk about it with poise and self-assurance, and definitely hope to try CBT again.
The health professionals involved in my pregnancy, whilst being hugely compassionate and supportive, were severely lacking in their knowledge of this mental health condition. Awareness needs to be raised amongst professionals and mothers-to-be, so that effective support and treatment can be offered to all that need it.
Having a baby is one of life’s most precious times, full of sheer delight, wonder and moments to be treasured. Every woman has the right to experience it in this way.