My Own Worst Enemy: Perinatal (and Postpartum) Anxiety, OCD, and Intrusive Thoughts

image (16)

It was dark, the house still, and Tali’s room lies quiet in anticipation of a new child. Tucker was already fast asleep, but I lie awake, my heart racing and my eyes trying to focus in the dark room. The hall nightlight casts a golden hue that reveals the only detail I can focus on, the texture of the carpet by our bedroom door, the white trim, the open bedroom door beyond it, Tali’s room. Suddenly, the light is gone, and back again, dancing. Then, a few seconds later, a man’s tall silhouette. In his hand, a knife… and before I can move, before I think to cry out, before I can do anything, he’s on us. I close my eyes tight, but I see it all. I see every thrust of his hand. I see bright red among the dimly lit gray washed room. I see that we are no more.

The thoughts came in waves, drowning me, suffocating the life from me, paralyzing and constant. Day or night, they didn’t discriminate. I would be awake, walk around a corner, and see such a vivid, violent scene play out in front of me, and I had no choice but to watch, and be helpless. I saw everyone I loved, every day, be killed in horrific, violent ways. I knew it wasn’t happening of course, but my mind was like a projector, projecting my deepest fears into whatever room I was in.

It began a few months into pregnancy after we moved into our own rental to start our family. I thought I was going crazy, honestly. It wasn’t easy to talk about. I was ashamed and embarrassed about it. What if this is me? The new me? What if I must suffer like this forever? I didn’t tell anyone for awhile. I just suffered alone. Often I found myself trying to find the perfect keyword for Google to find me answers, but I couldn’t. When I clicked on search hit after search hit, nothing quite fit. During pregnancy. Never before. Day time too. Not just while asleep. Violent…daydreams? Not hallucinations. Scary thoughts about others harming me, or a loved one. Not just passing thoughts, scenes. Played out. Vividly. Detailed. Graphic. Violent.

These scenes would play out at inconvenient times too. Sometimes mid conversation, other times during work. I would tear up while trying to hold back the flood of emotion… but it would be “normal” because I was pregnant. Pregnant people tear up all the time randomly, right? No big deal.

I hid it.

Finally late one night, I did tell Tucker, the night I had the thought I described above. We decided to pray over it every night before bed, out loud. He would wrap me up in his arms and we would pray. We prayed that the Lord give me peace and rest, that the lies and fear be washed away, that I could rest in His promises, in His love, in His mercy.

I didn’t seek professional help. I should have.

I’ve never felt so much fear in my life. Perhaps I didn’t seek help because I had no term to pinpoint what was going on. I often searched online for answers, and was surprised how difficult it was to find them… perhaps because others, like me, were too ashamed to speak out.

But eventually, they subsided before Tali was born. As quickly as they came, they all left.

So what was it?

It wasn’t until after Tali was born that I finally found something. I wasn’t okay with not knowing so I continued searching. I finally found my keywords. In fact, there were several related terms: Perinatal Intrusive Thoughts, Anxiety, OCD, Postpartum Depression. I was comforted to know I wasn’t alone, and I wasn’t alone in feeling alone. When I found one article, it led to blog after article after testimony, etc.

The Research (A Quick Review):

One of the most interesting articles I found was “The Postpartum Brain” by the Greater Good Science Center based at the University of California, Berkeley. This article reviews research on intrusive thoughts and depression during pregnancy and postpartum. Although I do not relate solidly to the behaviors mentioned in this article, it did shed light on evolutionary ideas of why some mothers suffer, suggesting that “a period of high alert may have helped parents protect their babies from environmental harm in times when this was a treacherous and all-consuming task” and thus by survival of the fittest, the babies of mothers who were more cautious tended to live and passed on the trait. Surprisingly the article reveals that “in the weeks before delivery, 95 percent of mothers and 80 percent of fathers reported OCD-type thoughts,” but although these behaviors could have once been beneficial, a ‘practice’ for likely scenarios years ago, “sometimes certain behaviors persist beyond the point that they’re useful.” Although heightened awareness is still beneficial for new parents, too much may be detrimental and distressing. (Read more here: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/postpartum_brain)

Several articles highlighted that these conditions, such as heightened anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and obsessive thoughts and behaviors in new parents, could be more common than we thought. Catharine McDonald, MS, NCC, LPS states that “Perinatal OCD and intrusive thoughts are much more common than we hear about— some researchers estimate as many as 11% of women experience these disorders (Miller, Chu, Gollan, & Gossett, 2013), and almost all parents have a fleeting intrusive thought at some point in the perinatal period (pregnancy through early postpartum).” (Read more here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/motherwoman/perinatal-ocd-and-intrusi_b_3360501.html) Postpartum Support International suggests that “Approximately 6% of pregnant women and 10% of postpartum women develop anxiety. Sometimes they experience anxiety alone, and sometimes they experience it in addition to depression.” (Read more here: http://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/anxiety-during-pregnancy-postpartum/) More pertinent to me, however, was the Postpartum Support International’s description of Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: “Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed of the perinatal disorders. It is estimated that as many as 3-5% of new mothers and some new fathers will experience these symptoms. The repetitive, intrusive images and thoughts are very frightening and can feel like they come ‘out of the blue.’ Research has shown that these images are anxious in nature, not delusional…” and include such symptoms as “obsessions, also called intrusive thoughts, which are persistent, repetitive thoughts or mental images related to the baby. These thoughts are very upsetting and not something the woman has ever experienced before.” (Read more here: http://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/pregnancy-or-postpartum-ocd/)

The Bottom Line:

 I didn’t get help, and I should have. Although these conditions are often temporary during or after pregnancy, they are NOT a condition to wait out as I did. No one should have to suffer through this without help. Tell someone close to you to hold you accountable for seeking a medical professional’s help. These conditions are treatable.

Resources and Support (in no particular order):

“Perinatal OCD and Intrusive Thoughts: A Troublesome Secret to Many” Catherine McDonald, MS, NCC, LPC http://www.huffingtonpost.com/motherwoman/perinatal-ocd-and-intrusi_b_3360501.html

“Hope For Moms with Postpartum OCD & Intrusive Thoughts” Katherine Stone on Postpartum Progress http://www.postpartumprogress.com/hope-for-moms-with-postpartum-ocd-intrusive-thoughts

“The Postpartum Brain” Anna Abramson and Dawn Rouse, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley  http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/postpartum_brain (Great comprehensive research!)

“What if I’m having Scary Thoughts?” The Postpartum Stress Center http://postpartumstress.com/get-help/are-you-having-scary-thoughts/

“Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts: Breaking the Cycle of Unwanted Thoughts in Motherhood” by Karen Kleiman and Amy Wenzel http://www.amazon.com/Dropping-Baby-Other-Scary-Thoughts/dp/0415877008

(These last two are also great and much simpler! They include a short definition, and a list of symptoms and risks.)

“Anxiety During Pregnancy & Postpartum” Postpartum Support International http://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/anxiety-during-pregnancy-postpartum/

“Pregnancy or Postpartum (OCD)” Postpartum Support International http://www.postpartum.net/learn-more/pregnancy-or-postpartum-ocd/