Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.
I am a woman. A scientist. A wife. A mother. A friend. When most people describe me, it is as a capable and busy woman. Happy. Funny, even. They’d tell you I love my kids. I am a relaxed mother – hell, I’m a relaxed, accepting person. I adapt. I’m effective, efficient. And I am all those things in some measure or another. But there is a Hyde to my relaxed, go with the flow Jekyll. I struggle every day with a disorder that is largely misunderstood as a personality quirk, often minimized, and is routinely the butt of jokes, throwaway comments and dumb internet quizzes. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
I had never been diagnosed or even suspected I had anything other than a “weird brain” I should keep to myself until things got serious in my second pregnancy. I found pregnancy was much more difficult the second time around, and health issues meant I was constantly monitored by both myself and health professionals. At 20 weeks, we were told my son may have a cardiac abnormality, which put me into months of anxious preparation, only to be then (thankfully) told on follow-up scans that nothing was wrong. It was then, I think, I felt a change. After that, I didn’t feel sad anymore — what did I have to feel sad about? But I felt like I was in a hole, looking up at the world as it passed me by. I brushed it off. I had too much to do.
When my son was born, I felt like it was the kids and me against the world. My children were my life, more than ever before. My universe began and ended in their eyes. My love for them was so deep and so intense that sitting and thinking about it would make me feel like I was choking on it.
I can tell you the first news story that piqued the interest of my OCD. A boy, the same age as my daughter, disappeared one day. It was all over the news. He was never found. There were never any leads. He was playing hide-and-seek in his backyard with his family. He ducked to hide around the corner, and when they looked for him, he was gone. I read that story with horror. I scoured every word of every article I could find, the same picture of the lost boy used in every one and imprinting on my brain. I tried to find what happened — how it could have been prevented. “I can’t lose them,” I would think. “I won’t lose them.” Every time my daughter disappeared around a corner, I would break into a cold sweat, and run after her. “I can’t stop watching her. She might disappear.”
Fed by the never-ending stream of the 24-hour news cycle, I consumed every detail of every gruesome article, determined not to have these fates befall my children. I became insatiable, seeking out these stories and researching them to the nth degree, all while knowing how much it was damaging me.
That’s when the thoughts began.
I have always had an extremely vivid, clear memory — it has been my ally all my life — but it turned on me. It started pulling up details of these horrible stories I had internalized. I would get these thoughts, these intrusive thoughts — images so horrible, so revolting I would feel instantly nauseous. Images so clear they were more like memories than musings, more like déjà vu than dreams. Images so intense they were debilitating. Images so real they took over my reality.
My children; my perfect, beautiful, wonderful children. I watched them die at least a hundred different, hideous ways. My fear had manifested in my head. I had to convince myself these things weren’t real. I would often have panic attacks when an image surfaced.
At some point, I decided the only way to avoid these fates was through hyper-vigilance. I began checking. I checked windows, I checked doors, I checked power outlets and stoves. I checked beds. I’d pull beds away from walls in case they fell. I’d check and check and check and check. I checked that chests were rising and falling at night. But once was never enough. My brain had betrayed me, and so I stopped trusting it. And so I’d check again. As I checked, my panic would subside. The images would pale, if but for a minute.
I stopped sleeping. Occasionally, I would pass out from exhaustion, but this lack of control made my brain rage, and coupled with mounting anxiety and lack of sleep, I was struggling to get through life. I remember thinking that if I was dead, I could at least rest, but buried that thought because I couldn’t leave my kids. I would have panic attacks daily. As my return to work date loomed, I felt like screaming. I knew something was wrong, but at the end of the day, I rationalized, I wasn’t sad, and I was so attached to my kids that surely postpartum depression couldn’t be a problem. Stressed? Yeah. Tired? You bet. But sad? Unattached? Not in a million years.
I had hidden my illness well. If you don’t sleep, it’s easy to be organized, to look put-together. But eventually, I admitted I was failing. I went to the doctor.
On the way, I had an internal conversation. I was overreacting, I told myself. I was a bad mum. They were going to take my kids. I was stupid and weak. I was ungrateful for my wonderful life.
I walked into the doctor’s office. I told her my story, nearly hysterical as I verbalized my struggle for the first time. She listened. She asked me to do a test which showed I had very severe anxiety. I had a preliminary diagnosis. The GP suggested I may even have postpartum OCD – a condition I had never heard of. She referred me to a psychologist and told me it was not my fault, and everything was going to be OK. I still left in tears.
The first few sessions with the psychologist were the most mentally draining hours of my life. I kept a diary to isolate triggers, tried techniques, had a plan. Hyde, who had been simmering my whole life and who had decided to finally raise his head in my most vulnerable time, was named – obsessive-compulsive disorder. I began to manage my OCD. My panic attacks lessened. I began to sleep again. I began to live again.
Today, my OCD ebbs and flows — it goes through some periods of being well-managed without assistance; other times, like now, I need more help and need medication to manage it. OCD is a widely misunderstood disorder that causes those who experience it a lot of shame (often because they recognize their own actions are nonsensical). At the time of writing this, I myself had told about 10 people total. My hope is by putting this out there, someone will feel less ashamed, and maybe go and get help. Because truly, help does exist.
Click here to learn more about postpartum OCD.
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.
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Thinkstock photo via Martinan