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When Postpartum OCD Makes You Obsess Over Ways Your Baby Could Die

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or have experienced child loss, 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.

These days, I live my life carefully monitoring my access to media. I never glance at the headlines of newspapers or magazines while waiting in line at the grocery store. I avoid the newsreel on my phone, always attempting to delete it without seeing anything. But, unless I’m going to live my life isolated from the rest of humanity, it’s impossible to avoid what I do not know is there, so the inevitable occurs. I’ll be sitting next to my napping daughter on the bed, scrolling through Facebook, and my newsfeed informs me that a friend posted a tearful emoji on an article about a father who forgot his baby in a hot car.

… Hit by a car, kidnapped and murdered, fall from a high window, electrocution, allergic reaction …

Suddenly, in my mind, I realize I’ve left my daughter in the car, baking in this 100-degree heat, for two hours. I run outside to see her sitting there, still and not breathing, her rigid face twisted, indicating she had been crying for me before the heat overwhelmed her. I’m screaming in agony. I remove her carefully from her car seat and try to revive her, knowing it will make no difference. There is nothing I can do. My life is destroyed. My daughter is gone forever.

… Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), accidental hanging in the window blinds, drowning in the pool, car accident, new polio …

My daughter sighs in her sleep, and shifts to snuggle up against me on the bed. Face wet with tears, I feel the panic washing over me and start to calm myself down with a breathing exercise. This is not real, I whisper. My baby is just fine. She’s here beside me, calm, safe and cool.

… Carbon monoxide poisoning, overdose from pills they thought were candy, choking on popcorn …

The week after my son was born, my mind became fixated on the image of him going over the edge of Niagara Falls, his sweet, tiny newborn legs kicking as he fell. It would repeat constantly, every waking hour, like a record skipping. I thought I was losing my mind. I thought I was a bad mom. I thought I wanted to hurt my baby, even though I did not feel the impulse. I realized every new terrible news story I read or heard had the same result. A baby died of SIDS? My baby died of SIDS. A baby was found starved to death in a garage? My baby was found starved to death in a garage. It was compulsive, self-inflicted psychological torture.

… Alligator attack, riptide, vaccine complication, vaccine preventable illness, bacterial meningitis

When my son was 18 months old, long after my symptoms had subsided, I trained to become a postpartum doula. During our class on postpartum disorders, I learned the term postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Imagine being chained up in a dark movie theater and forced to watch violent film after violent film, all featuring the most precious person in your world, the person you have sworn to protect and would give your life to save: your innocent, tiny baby. You try to look away, but you are chained there, eyelids propped open, forced to watch your child die in horrible ways, over and over again. You are often the perpetrator in these films. Postpartum OCD is not a well-known disorder. New mothers fear they have postpartum psychosis which causes women to murder their children. Mothers with postpartum OCD often feel ashamed and are terrified to be left alone with their child. But postpartum OCD is not postpartum psychosis. There is no impulse to act on the nightmarish visions. They are just private anguish.

… Insect carried virus, impaled on scissors, carbon monoxide poisoning, strangled by a blanket …

It was a revelation, discovering my postpartum terror was common enough to warrant a name. Although I’d never felt an impulse to hurt my child, it was still a relief to read that these awful visions did not mean I subconsciously wanted to hurt my baby. Having this information prepared me for when the disorder returned, when my daughter turned two months old. Although putting a name with the symptoms is comforting, I found it does not make the experience less traumatizing. When the vision is a creation of your mind, you cannot close your eyes or cover your ears. You are forced to experience the entire emotional landscape of the suggestion: the horror, the grief, the anxiety, the desolate misery of a life without your baby and an existence filled with wondering “if only.”

… Accidental shooting at a friend’s house, food poisoning, plane crash, school shooting, superbugs …

One evening my husband and I were enjoying some rare alone time, and in the middle of a kiss my mind said, “What if your kids die a slow death from cancer?” Instantly my eyes filled with tears. He had no idea what had happened, and I was reluctant to further damage the mood by sharing. Battling my mind in these moments is like trying to swim against the tide. The current of painful suggestions washes over me. I can feel them clawing at my consciousness, shouting their horrible stories. Trying to battle them with anger makes it worse. My only defense is to be completely focused and calm, constantly returning my mind to blank white space. The waves keep crashing, and I relax into them, floating up to an empty clear sky, over and over, as many times as it takes.

… Killed by a future step-parent, terrorist attack, venomous animal bite, crushed by fallen furniture …

“You should write a book: ‘101 Ways to Kill Your Baby,’” my husband suggests. I laugh. It’s funny. There’s a sad satisfaction in knowing I’m an expert in all the ways my babies could die. The nightmare stories are filed away in my mind and replayed regularly, lest I forget. Logically, I know it’s unlikely any of these will ever happen. The world is full of adults. We’re everywhere, so it’s safe to say most people make it through childhood. But you can’t logic-away a mental disorder.

… Suffocation, pneumonia, starvation, exposure to the elements, brain hemorrhage, blood clots …

Ever since his joke, I have been thinking of my husband’s book with growing interest, wondering if listing my fears would be a type of exposure therapy, a treatment so often used to help those with OCD. Would it be therapeutic to allow these visions a voice? Could I carry this book as a totem to ward off the awful, insistent visions? If my husband were to illustrate each one, maybe we then change the endings, drawing me rushing in to save the day, or simply taking precautionary measures. Maybe a physical manifestation of my fears being alleviated would convince my mind it’s OK to finally relax.

If you or a loved one is affected by postpartum depression or other postpartum disorders and need help, you can call Postpartum Support International‘s hotline at 1-800-944-4773.

If you or a loved one is affected by infant loss, you can find grieving resources at The Grief Toolbox.

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Thinkstock photo via monkeybusinessimages

Originally published: May 23, 2017
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