I expected the birth of my first child to be a glorious occasion, filled with joy and love and a room filled with flowers. As someone who had limited personal experience with mental health issues, I had no reason to suspect that lurking in the background was a demon that would torture me within a few hours after giving birth, would follow me home and would haunt me 24/7. The demon had a name: Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
I knew by the second day after welcoming my child into the world that something was very wrong. Awful visions of my baby’s broken limbs, bleeding skull, sliced skin…the worst images you can imagine right there…eyes open or shut…day and night. It was as if a switch was turned on when she came out and the harder I tried to find it (or hide it) the worse the visions became. I was living a silent nightmare, being careful to hide my secret because of April Yates. Yes, you remember her. The mother who drowned her 5 children in the bathtub just 6 months before I became a mom. I was sure speaking up would lead to a visit from social services and the removal of my baby. I didn’t even tell my husband for fear he would leave me and take the baby with him.
It was around week three that I became so severely sleep deprived, so terrified, so miserable that I collapsed under the weight postpartum OCD. My husband left me for an hour to get a haircut and when he returned I said, “I have to tell you something, and I don’t know how to tell you.” He looked confused, but held my hand and sat down with me, our beautiful baby sleeping peacefully in the next room. I trembled with the thought of what would happen next.
Explaining what was happening in my mind was among the most terrifying things I have ever had to do, especially because I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I knew I would never do anything that would or could possibly hurt my child, but the visions were taking over. The images gruesome and relentless. My beautiful husband squeezed my hands, smiled and said, “I’m not leaving, you’re not leaving, we’re finding help.” And, help we found.
For some, mental illness is a lifelong challenge. For others, it appears like a lightening bolt on a beautiful spring day. In either case, it is real and it must be shared. For the moment I found the courage to open up and reach out, that was then the light of hope found me. The professionals I surrounded myself with in those coming weeks carefully explained the brain and hormonal chemistry behind postpartum OCD and strategies to manage the symptoms. Knowledge became power, and power became hope. And, the more I read about my diagnosis the more I realized I was not alone, far from it. I was one of the millions of women who struggled in silence because of stigma, fear and lack of information.
Today, I am happy to report that Mommy and baby are doing fine. She turned 16 in January. 16 years old, that is. Many years ago, I had to make a choice not to look back on her first 6 months of life with sadness (yes, the visions finally dissipated about 6 months later), but instead awe and appreciation. Awe that I had married a really smart, supportive and loving man who became my rock. Awe that we found the right professionals quickly. And, awe that I had the inner strength to endure that type of mental torture and still fulfill my very personal goal of exclusive breastfeeding for 13 months. I have found that mental health crises can often lead to stronger, more empathetic selves – and for that I am grateful.