When I got pregnant, my whole life turned around. I was feeling as healthy as I’d ever been, despite a diagnosis of gestational diabetes halfway through my pregnancy. Mentally, I was feeling on top of the world — not euphoric or manic, but mentally healthy.
I had suffered from mental illness since my teens, and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I reached adulthood. It was for this reason that I was put under the perinatal mental health team, because I was told I was high-risk for postnatal depression. But at the time, I felt far from that.
I’d always struggled the most with obsessive-compulsive disorder, to the point I had been admitted under the Crisis team three times over the space of six months at one point. But carrying my baby, the thoughts were almost non-existent. After doing some research, I found that this wasn’t uncommon — all of the new hormones can overshadow OCD. It was a relief, because the intrusive thoughts I had been experiencing before pregnancy had been taking over my life.
But it all came back once I’d given birth.
At first, I thought it was just the baby blues. It had been a traumatic experience giving birth during the Covid-19 pandemic. My baby didn’t cry for ten minutes after being delivered via c-section, and was born with medication withdrawals and intermittent grunting; meaning we had to stay on the ward for four days after his birth, while I recovered from my C-section. Due to having contracted MRSA before the birth, I was kept in a side room. Nurses barely came in due to having to put on fresh PPE every time they did, and my partner was only allowed to visit for one hour per day. It was a really lonely time and, in pain from the operation, it was hard to get around by myself, as well as taking care of a newborn baby alone.
Photo by Julien Pouplard on Unsplash
It wasn’t the birth I’d imagined, at all. I knew I’d need to stay in the hospital but, not for four days — four days that went on forever. And so it wasn’t a surprise when the baby blues hit pretty hard when I finally got home.
I was crying over absolutely everything and anything — happy, sad, bored, you name it; I would cry. Sometimes it would take just one look at my new baby and I was blubbering. But I was told this was normal, and that things would only be a concern if it lasted longer than two weeks. It did. Six months after my son was born, I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. But it wasn’t just PND I had been living with — it was postpartum OCD, too.
According to the charity Maternal OCD, until recently, OCD in pregnancy and after having a baby has received very little research attention. However, recent studies suggest that OCD is more common at this time than other times in life; with some people developing it for the first time either during pregnancy or afterwards, while others find that pre-existing symptoms worsen.
All of the symptoms I hadn’t experienced for nine months came flooding back, as if they had never left. I was a constant ball of anxiety, with the intrusive thoughts affecting every part of becoming a new mother.
According to Maternal OCD, the increase in the incidence of OCD is likely to be related to the fact that pregnancy and early parenthood is a time when mums are naturally focused on the safety of their developing child, and feel particularly responsible for them. The normal stress and uncertainties of becoming a parent can also play a role.
While I don’t want to go into the details of my thoughts, postpartum OCD usually revolves around significant fear of harm coming to the infant, with worries focused on accidentally or deliberately harming the child or of the child becoming ill.
The charity adds: “It is important to note that the occasional experience of all of these worries is absolutely normal and indeed very common in mums and mums to be. However, some people find themselves so distressed that they will take measures to manage their anxiety or prevent their fears from coming true.
“Depending on the worries, this could involve compulsive behaviours such as cleaning, praying, rumination or avoidance of activities or even of spending time with the baby. In this way, the thoughts and behaviours can interfere significantly with their wellbeing and their experiences of pregnancy and parenting. It is the extent of and response to the worries, rather than just having them that becomes the problem.”
Photo by Fé Ngô on Unsplash
It’s impossible for me to open up about my postpartum OCD without having a panic attack. So I’ll just say this: mixed with postnatal depression, the journey of becoming a new mum, and the huge amount of responsibility that I now had, postpartum OCD made the first few months of motherhood incredibly hard for me. It was hell. And I didn’t feel like I could talk to or open up to anyone for fear of what they would think. While the statistics show it’s common, to me it didn’t feel like it; it felt like I was the only one, and that it made me a bad mother.
But it didn’t.
Postpartum OCD is a seriously stigmatised and lonely illness to live with. You’re in a place where you’re constantly weighed down by anxiety and fear of people thinking you are your thoughts. Fear that your thoughts are real or that they are going to come true. Fear that people are going to take your baby away from you.
The last point is why many mothers don’t talk about their experiences with postpartum OCD. Because they’re worried people will think they are a risk and take their babies from them.
But the truth is, that OCD attacks the things that are most precious to you. The things that you love the most. It attacks the things you want to protect the most and makes you think you are a monster.
But you aren’t.
If you’re living with postpartum OCD, know that you’re absolutely not alone. And that there are people out there to talk to who will understand and who will be able to help you.
If you’re under your perinatal mental health team, talk to them; but ask to speak to someone who specialises in OCD. You can also seek help from a qualified cognitive behavioural therapist if you have the means to. What you shouldn’t do is carry on suffering in silence. OCD Action has a great helpline that is really helpful, and if you need to talk at any hour of the day, Samaritans is there, too.
If you can, try to open up to someone you trust, who can support you. They may not be able to completely understand, but talking helps.
Most importantly, know that you are not alone, and that your thoughts are in no way a reflection of your character. In fact, they go to show how much you love your baby and how much you want to keep them safe and protected.
OCD is hell to live with, so know that just for doing so, you are so incredibly strong. But you don’t need to suffer alone anymore — reach out to someone you trust, and talk to your doctor about what is happening. You don’t need to go into the specifics, but it helps. If all you can do is talk about how badly your anxiety is affecting you, that’s okay, too. Take it one step at a time. Each step closer to recovery shows the strength and determination you have, and will continue to have as you fight this.