Happy memories spring to mind, recalling the excitement – aged seven – of helping my father rescue lambs from the floodwaters, without feeling I was wholly responsible for their wellbeing. My childhood was so carefree that it is ironic that I would soon develop a heightened sense of responsibility towards those I loved dearly, to keep them safe from harm or even death.
The following year, terrifying thoughts had begun to impact my view of how the world really worked and obsessional thinking would remain with me until the age of thirty-five. This persistent persecution became regular.
The impossible task of trying to understand my unwanted and terrifying thoughts of my baby and children was exhausting.
There were many different obsessional fears about harming my beloved children and others. I could barely cope with existing, let alone living. If only I had had the wisdom of a Health Visitor or Midwife to probe a little further into ‘why’ in their eyes, I was feeling depressed. How I wanted to hear “If you are sad or frightened we are here to help. What you have is an anxiety disorder called OCD and you are not capable of harming your children. Harming loved ones actually goes against the grain of the disorder; fact!” The core thought was always to protect my children.
The adrenalin fuelled rushes of fear gave extra strength to my beliefs. I assumed that because I could conceive them, I must be capable of carrying out such acts – or perhaps really had done.
How far from the truth I had been. I was to discover that sufferers never act on their thoughts. This is what I saw clearly after my treatment began. I shall never forget the constant kindness and respect shown to me by my GP, Health Visitor and Psychiatrist who gave me the assurance (never reassurance) that with the appropriate help I would reclaim my life back.
My life would have been so different had I been diagnosed two decades earlier. If I only knew then, what I know now about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. After twenty-six years of the disorder just five sessions of CBT, homework between sessions and an SSRI was all it took for me to be given back my life. However, most sufferers will require varying hours of treatment but I am not alone in responding well and quickly to therapy.
CBT gave me the techniques to help me to trust myself when feeling under threat. I learnt how to distinguish an obsessional thought from a valid fear. I was able to recognise the ways an obsessional thought would enter and appear in my head.
A therapist can demonstrate that our obsessional themes are not a true representation of who you are as a person. They are in fact the opposite. You can be trained to not react to terrifying thoughts. You can start to make sense of the cruel and chilling ruminations.
A key to recovery is having a therapist who is properly trained. Mine had a good understanding of OCD and was up-to-date with CBT.
How grateful I am not to have had a mental health professional declare “Your OCD is too ingrained” or “You will just have to learn to live with it!” Poorly-informed practitioners are destructive, and I firmly believe that there is no place for such statements when treating this anxiety disorder.
It all begins with you contacting your GP; and remember, the greatest healer of all is yourself. I am living proof that full recovery is possible.
Coping with OCD during motherhood was the most difficult experience of my life, recovering from OCD during motherhood was the most challenging and rewarding.
After the birth of my first child in 2004 I was overwhelmed and in fact crippled with anxiety – this led to extreme OCD. Initially, I was misdiagnosed with Post Natal Depression and inappropriately received talking therapy. Fortunately I was able to self diagnose and eventually access specialist perinatal OCD intensive Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which was the catalyst to recovery.
By the time I was receiving the right care I had developed rituals that were time consuming, exhausting and very unhealthy for me. My obsessions centred around protecting my daughter from any perceived harm. This is a very natural urge for any new mother however I took it to the extreme. I would stand at the sink washing her milk bottles for so long my hands would bleed. I was terrified if any germs were left on the bottles she would become ill – I thought I was being thorough, little did I know I was developing and making worse the OCD symptoms.
During the weaning stages I was petrified I would be poisoning her if I didn’t clean up properly. Hours and days were robbed as I cleaned obsessively. Throughout this time I was pulled in two directions: I wanted to give my precious daughter fresh nutritious food however was desperately trying to protect her from food poisoning so was obsessively careful.
I could write forever about the various rituals I participated in to protect her, however with the right CBT and the support from my family and friends I started to recover. It was tough for a long while and ever so exhausting, I had to face my fears and expose myself to situations I would be uncomfortable with i.e. not being 100% clean and acknowledge that we all love our children but need to give them space to grow and life comes with an element of risk. Some risks you can control some you can’t. I also now have a son, who is allowed to play in the garden and look for worms without having to continually wash his hands – this is a healthy approach to parenting.
For some people the fears may seem trivial, however the experience is as extreme as watching a child playing at the edge of a cliff.
There are times when I may be feeling vulnerable and I am extra kind to myself when life is particularly tough – this is to ensure if any mild OCD symptoms come knocking I am trained to know what to do.
Do I have times where I feel stressed? Yes, as we all do.
Have I recovered from OCD? Yes.
I now go to the park with the children without the intrusive thought of the children getting ill from stepping on dog faeces, without the worry of food poisoning when the children and I make homemade burgers, without the fear of contracting a disease when using public toilets. I can enjoy life without the obsessive fear of any harm accidently coming to my children.
This is the place every mother who is experiencing this anxiety disorder needs to get to. I want to help her arrive and say welcome home.
Hi I’m Ashley Curry a recovered OCD sufferer, and have been free of symptoms for the last 12 years, after 30 years of differential types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. .
Unfortunately like many OCD sufferers it took many years and a crisis point before I was formally diagnosed with OCD.
OCD took a horrid turn for the worse when my children came along as babies, and also during their early years, the overwhelming feeling of protecting them from harm, to the point of where I had feared I had harmed or abused them in the past – that was the point I couldn’t cope anymore
I eventually reached out for help, and was offered Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), the evidence based treatment for OCD. But alas OCD prevented me from attending therapy as I believed they would change the diagnosis and lock me away!
So I decided to study, and look into the way CBT works, along with ERP (Exposure Response Prevention) and applied the tools, worked at changing the way I was responding to the thoughts, both cognitively and then deliberate exposures took place, putting oneself into feared positions, allowing anxiety to increase along with the thoughts, but did nothing to try and eradicate that uncertainty.
There were slip ups along the way for me, that’s quite common in CBT, but with a good support network and family involvement, after 9 months I regained my life back from a horrible debilitating disorder.
One of the key aspects I feel was a diagnosis, as that explained many things. It explained why my brain was poorly, it also enabled me to obtain good knowledge and I cannot vouch enough the importance of that
So yes, success does and can happen. It really does, I am living proof!
In August 2011 I was bathing my son who at the time was nearly 3 years old. It was no different to any other bath time, except I was now in the very early stages of pregnancy with my daughter. For some reason the door was open and I could see my husband’s work tools on the side, I had a horrible fleeting thought of “What if I picked up a hammer and hit my son with it”, this absolutely disgusted me and I brushed it off as quick as the thought arrived.
Several days later my son fell down the stairs, and we ended up in A & E with him, thankfully all was ok, but the doctor’s pre warned me that social services would need to be informed. I think this was my trigger point, because that night I got in to bed, fell asleep as normal, (although slightly anxious about what had happened, and by the doctors words), to be awoken by an anxiety attack; I literally was struggling to control myself, I was in bits, I woke my husband up and he talked to me, reassuring me that the falling down the stairs incident was an accident and our son was ok.
But what I couldn’t tell my husband was that what was really upsetting me was the thought I had had several nights before about the hammer. This had come back into my head and was terrifying me…. My thoughts were “What if I had done it” “What if I did do it” “What if people found out I was having these thoughts” I was terrified that social services were going to come and take my boy away and tell me I couldn’t look after my babies.
The next few months were one of the scariest times of my life; I was so scared of myself, and did not want to be around my son, in case I did hurt him, and constantly had “What if” thoughts…
I remember sitting on the sofa in a ball rocking backwards and forwards scared and ashamed of what was happening to me. This was when my husband confronted me, and demanded I tell him what was going on, as the once semi confident, happy go lucky lady he met and fell in love with, was now a shaking wreck petrified of her own shadow. These were the hardest words I have ever had to say “I had a thought that I was going to hurt Riley” My husband just cuddled me, and said “it was only a thought, you’ve never actually hurt him” It was a relief to have spoken about it, but not enough to make me see that it was just a thought.
I visited the doctor who was amazing, and as soon as I sat in the chair I sobbed and explained everything that was going on, my thoughts, my anxiety, my waking in the night; some nights not even sleeping with worry. I remember the doctor saying to not be alone, and at the time my husband worked during the day and at an evening job, so my mum and dad would come over to be with me. Although I was round people I felt so isolated.
I was offered Prozac, due to being pregnant this would have been the best medication for me, however knowing I wanted my daughter to be born at home, I couldn’t take this as it would have classed me as high risk, and meant I potentially couldn’t have a home birth.
The doctor suggested I attend a CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) course, and have counselling, plus regular visits to the doctors to review my progress. It was also discussed that I may potentially need to be assessed and admitted to hospital.
I was ready for this, I wanted to be away from my son and home, and I wanted help. I expected a call to be called in straight away, but that call never came. I was not a priority; I was assessed for counselling, and started these in the January. I had 4 sessions signed up, which the counsellor extended to 8 weeks, by this time my daughter was only weeks away from being born. The counsellor wanted me to also let him know once she was born so more sessions could be booked.
I completed the CBT course, and found this ok, but struggled to absorb the information, I took my mum with me, so I had someone who could not only be with me to support me, but so could see and understand what was involved and happening.
The counselling sessions; at the time I thought were ok, and the counsellor supportive, but have since learnt that they did over step boundaries. They also never really helped me deal with the intrusive thoughts (I still at 6/7 months after the thoughts started, had no idea what intrusive thoughts were, and believed I was an isolated case with horrible issues)
I knew the doctor and counsellor were restricted with the help they could give me as I was pregnant, I continued to work and live life normally (as much as I could). Apart from the doctor, counsellor, my parents and husband, no body at the time knew what I was going through.
I signed up for pregnancy yoga, and found this really helped me relax, and teach me how to clear my mind of thoughts. I often found I fell asleep in these classes.
In April 2012 my daughter was born, at home, but now I was scared for not only me, but my son, and now my daughter… “What if I hurt them”? I remember nursing my daughter, and sitting on the edge of the rocking chair during the night, and literally shaking, concentrating so hard on her bedroom border, not even acknowledging her, and fighting the intrusive thoughts as much as I could.
Nights were always the worst, I was scared to fall asleep in case I suddenly developed sleep walking, and hurt my children without even being awake. I would wake my husband up to check on the children for me, to check that they were ok.
I couldn’t watch TV programmes with any murders or deaths as it made me so anxious. I couldn’t watch the news, as the negativity all the time played on my mind.
I couldn’t be on my own, as it petrified me, I remember calling my husband home from work several times, as I was so scared of myself, he had literally become my safety net, and I struggled to cope when he wasn’t around. I remember getting paint by numbers, and colouring books, to try and distract my thoughts, and getting so frustrated that they wasn’t helping.
After having my daughter I returned to the doctors, to now look into starting Prozac as the thoughts, and anxiety were not subsiding. I was now met with a new doctor, as the other one had left, and to also be informed that the counsellor had left the surgery as well. My world literally crumbled, I felt like I was taking 10 steps backwards. I had to restart everything again, I had to explain everything again to the doctor, and go through the whole counselling assessment process AGAIN, along with being told to re do the CBT course again. I literally sobbed my heart out, not only was my husband a safety net. The doctor and counsellor were too, and now two of these were gone!!
I had no choice but to go with the change, I couldn’t continue living with these thoughts, and being petrified of myself. I started taking Prozac, and initially they made my thoughts, and anxiety worst. I struggled to interact with people as my nerves were through the roof. I couldn’t tell people what was wrong, as I didn’t want sympathy or rolled eyes, so I just played rude and stayed away. It was easier this way.
My Health visitor would visit regularly, and encouraged me to attend parent/baby classes, I was keen to do baby massage, and after a little wait was able to do this class with my daughter, which I feel helped me and her bond. It was a safe environment and I was able to acknowledge her and not fear that I was going to hurt her.
After now 9 months of feeling awful in myself, low self-esteem, intrusive thoughts, and anxious, I was finally meeting with the new counsellor. She was lovely, and could see how nervous I was to have to talk through it all again, not knowing what it was that was happening to me, she encouraged me to talk, and to keep with the positive images when I was away from the counselling, she also encouraged me to revisit the CBT course, this also helped me with not just positive images, but positive thoughts. It was on the second week that the counsellor turned to me and said “you do know that what you are experiencing is Intrusive thoughts”, I had never heard of them before, and had been too scared to google my problems, in case social services did turn up (which they still hadn’t) and the police were called, and they saw I had googled “why I am I having thoughts of hurting my child”….
I enquired about intrusive thoughts, and the counsellor asked me if I had ever caught the train, to which I said yes, she asked if when the fast train goes through the station had I ever thought “what if I jump in front of the train”, I nodded. She then asked if I’d been to a theatre before and sat up high, I said yes, and she said sitting in the seats looking over the balcony, did you ever think “what if I fall/throw myself over” I nodded…. She was giving me other examples of intrusive thoughts.
That night I googled intrusive thoughts, and this was when I found the Maternal OCD site, it was like a New Year’s Eve celebration going off in my head, like the scene from Clueless, where Cher finally realises she likes the boy, and all the fireworks go off. I wasn’t alone, I wasn’t abnormal, I was going to be ok, I wasn’t going to keep letting this define me!!
I couldn’t believe in the 9 months I had been suffering with these thoughts, and anxiety that Intrusive thoughts hadn’t even been mentioned once to me!
I couldn’t believe and still can’t believe that the mind is such a manipulative tool, and even though it’s within your own body, it can turn against you. You have two sides of the brain fighting over what is real, and what it thinks could happen. You fight with yourself over these thoughts, and naturally your body will stand and fight them or run away from them (fight/flight response) I had spent 9 months running away from these, and believing I was a terrible mum for having these thoughts. I was not running anymore!
I attended the CBT course again, and this time really took on board what was being said, and enjoyed the time I had on the course. At the end I asked how I could go about becoming a counsellor, as I wanted/want to go on and study psychology and counselling, so I can not only gain further understanding of the brain, but so I can help others who suffer with perinatal OCD.
By my last week of counselling my thoughts and anxiety had reduced, not excessively, but I was able to fight them, now rather than backing down to them and running away from them, I stood with them, and challenged them “Go on then” and I would laugh out loud, I knew, and know, even now with the kids being older, and able to push more of my buttons, that I’m never going to hurt them.
The difference and what my husband said to me is “you have a thought, you don’t act on it, and you feel bad for having that thought, that’s ok, it’s different to the people who don’t think, just act, and don’t see it being bad, that’s not ok”.
In September 2012, just over a year from having my first intrusive thought, I signed up for a Counselling Skills course, I passed with a certificate in this by May 2013. This course helped me open up, talk, and listen to others. It has helped me gain confidence in myself, and to trust myself. I now openly talk about perinatal OCD and anxiety, and acknowledge that I had/have it.
As the hours, days, weeks, months and years have passed, the thoughts have subsided, and occasionally I will become anxious, and have a fleeting thought, but I can always pin point the trigger, I will acknowledge it, but I won’t fear it anymore. Sometimes I even use the anxiety to push me forward.
I have continued to practise Yoga, and also mindfulness as I truly feel this helps switch my mind off from the overcrowding of day to day thoughts, and allows me to channel myself, and focus on what’s important. Me!
In May 2015 I had my 3rd child, I was lucky enough to have him at home as well, and got to spend a whole lot of time with him, and the time wasn’t spent in fear. I even did another baby massage course, and enjoyed it so much that I signed up to become a massage instructor, which I can proudly say I have now qualified for and I received my certificate in July 2017.
I hope to take up the counselling courses again soon, and go on to help mums, dads, babies, and children. I am now so proud of who I am, and without going through the intrusive thoughts, and anxiety, I wouldn’t be where I am today, I am taking on a whole new career path, and continue to challenge myself, by pushing my boundaries. I take each day as it comes, and at family meal time reflect on the positives from the day, each family member giving a positive from their day!
“Your mind is a powerful thing, when you fill it with positive thoughts, your life will start to change” author unknown.
OCD isn’t what you think
I have OCD. I’m going to explain what that means, because not enough people understand. It means too many people suffer in silence. Like I did for over 10 years. The media would have you believe that ‘you’re a little OCD’ if you’re over tidy, or that you have quirks about only eating red gummy bears and lining up your cutlery perfectly. Unless you believe your family will die if you don’t line up your knives and forks then no, no you do not have OCD.
OCD is irrational, it’s cruel and it’s so, so frightening.
OBSESSIONS are intrusive and scary thoughts that you become haunted and/or obsessed by i.e the thought of dying from aids, images of murdering your spouse, abusing your child, blasphemous thoughts of God if you are religious. Most people get the odd bizarre and intrusive thought but if you have OCD you just can’t let them go. They trick you, mess with you and are seriously convincing.
COMPULSIONS are anything that challenges the thoughts, rituals, things you must do in order to feel safe. Some sufferers may be terrified they’ll catch aids if they don’t wash their hands 72 times a day, they will look down at their raw scrubbed fingers and know rationally that their hands are clean but not truly believe it in their heart. They will doubt, doubt, doubt everything they know
to be true. Others may be terrified they have murdered someone with out realising it and be constantly checking news articles to see if their fears are confirmed.
DISORDER, well, that’s exactly what it is, a mental health disorder, definitely not normal to feel this way and not conducive to a healthy full life. It must be viewed like any physical illness and be treated properly.
MY S**TTY OCD
The fact that I am in a position to talk about this with anyone let alone publicly blows my mind. I’ve spent so long hiding what I was going through. I hope it will help others open up if they recognise themselves in this. It started when I was about 19. I read something in a book about a young boy being abused (part of a plot line I wasn’t expecting) and became bombarded with intrusive thoughts. I became hyper sensitive to any news reports along that theme and my brain
tormented me with the constant ‘what if’. ‘If they are capable, I am capable’.
It got so bad and so upsetting that I remember being alone in my room one day and screaming ‘JUST STOP’ over and over, whilst tears blurred my vision. It just felt so shameful and I was terrified it meant I was an evil person capable of doing these things. I hunted desperately online for anyone else going through the same and found hundreds of forums about ‘intrusive thoughts’ but few people were talking about it without being anonymous. My ‘Compulsions’ were very quiet, invisible behaviours that I became a master at hiding and didn’t always recognise myself. A big one was avoidance; I’ve had times where I was terrified of being too close to members of my family for fear of doing something awful to them. Another was being overtly aware of my hand placement often sitting on my hands to stop them acting on perceived impulses. I would also argue internally for hours to the point of not being able to concentrate on much else and just generally be filled with a great deal of anxiety.
OCD STEALS WHAT IS DEAR TO YOU
At its most severe my OCD manifested itself as an irrational fear that I might harm my 3 month old daughter. She is now 11 months and I am on a life changing road to recovery (hence being able to talk about this openly!). Any parent can tell you that the thought of threat to their child will make them feel sick to their stomach. The best way I can describe how my OCD developed when I had my daughter was living with this constant sick feeling 24/7. The moment I woke up with her lying in her moses basket next to me, every time I was alone with her, gave her a bath, changed her nappy. Despite knowing I may be hit with my OCD (it peaks and troughs and comes in waves of ‘episodes’) when my daughter was born, my pregnancy was so good that I felt like I had a handle on it. It crept up on me when I was my most sleep deprived and vulnerable. I saw a headline about the abuse of a child on Facebook and that was it, a huge trigger that knocked me into the worst OCD episode I’ve experienced. At first I just bawled my eyes out, it haunted me for days and then suddenly it twisted. It filled me with dread that I
could be capable of harming her. From then I became lost in a battle of compulsions. When my husband left the house I would spend hours crying curled in a ball on the sofa just reading about other people’s OCD experiences over and
over, whilst I could only just about bring myself to do the basics to look after my daughter. Then I had a series of days where I would leave the house with her
straight after my husband did so I wouldn’t be alone with her and the perceived risk I felt towards her. I didn’t realise that all of these behaviours were just fuelling the irrational belief and making me feel worse and worse.
KICKING OCD’S BUTT
After opening up to my husband, and a few close family and friends, I had waves of relief. They responded so compassionately and with such understanding that I couldn’t quite believe it. This was the beginning of my road to recovery. After the initial relief I became overwhelmed with feelings of doubt. It genuinely got so bad I became convinced I should be locked up so my daughter could be safe. I then completely broke down. I called my health visitor in floods of tears and she said she would call the NHS crisis team and have them sent out to me. My husband
came home from work to look after us both. We waited, and waited and no one came. I don’t want the focus of this to be about how under funded the NHS is but when you’re in the system you realise how true it is. I ended up walking myself to our local A&E, numb with fear and spent the night there sobbing uncontrollably. Most of the staff were incredible and so supportive but one Psychiatric Nurse had clearly not come across OCD before and although was compassionate, mentioned social services and I completely clammed up and refused to speak to
her. That moment was so damaging to me and I was petrified they would not let me see my daughter. The next morning my husband and daughter came up to see me, just thinking about this moment is so heartbreaking, I love them both so
much and it must have been difficult for my husband to see me like that. That was the lowest moment in this whole journey.
ON THE MEND
Now for the positive stuff. I’m getting better. Like world of difference, I barely remember the horrific feelings, kind of better. I recognised that I wouldn’t get help from the NHS quickly and even if I did I knew it wouldn’t be specialist enough. Just saying you need ‘CBT’ (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) is like saying
you need ‘surgery’, it’s got to be the right kind of surgery/CBT otherwise you’re treating the absolute wrong thing and potentially making things far worse. Maternal/ Perinatal OCD often gets misdiagnosed as Post Natal Depression and it really isn’t the same. I ended up being officially diagnosed twice. Once on the NHS and once privately at The Priory. They were both the same — Obsessive Compulsive — but I needed it, I needed to hear it from two Psychiatrists.
Diana Wilson from Maternal OCD (an OCD Charity) was a beacon of hope
for me. I called her, as she had her number on her site, and she took time to comfort me (I was in a real state of panic) and share her own experience. She pointed me towards the most amazing CBT Therapist, and I had ten weeks of weekly therapy sessions with her. I was also prescribed Sertraline, an anti-depressant, and it helped lift me out of my OCD episode so I could concentrate on the skills I needed to get better. I did get support from the NHS and met a truly lovely Psychiatric nurse, Debbie, through the process, as well as doing four weeks of Art Therapy which gave me time to breathe in between all the new mum
pressures. Getting better is a process, you have to be dedicated and be brave.
There is so much to it but here are a few things I’ve learnt;
Just recognising it is not enough. I did that. 7 years ago I went to a mental health clinic when I was living out in Canada, they said I had OCD but it was almost like I wasn’t really listening I felt that I’d done my part by acknowledging that there was something wrong and the moment I started to feel a bit better (it comes and goes in waves for me) I just carried on without truly addressing it. Don’t push the thoughts away, in fact, let them in, flood your mind with them, accept them and let them be there. Eventually they will subside naturally. Stop your compulsions. This sounds near impossible and it will fill you with fear and anxiety but you must stop or delay them as long as possible as they are fuelling your fears and making you believe they are true. I now feel like I am able to be the mum I want to be, a strong one. If I can make it through this then I can take on anything else life
has to throw at me. My daughter is the most important part of my life and I want her to grow up understanding the importance of looking after her mental health. We now focus on keeping life simple and enjoying being together as a family. Even being back at work and dealing with teething and nights of very little sleep feels like a doddle compared to battling my OCD!
Hi everyone! My name’s Catherine, I’m thirty-seven, I live in London with my husband and my son, and I’ve lived with OCD for as long as I can remember.
Since very early childhood, my condition has often morphed and shape-shifted, seemingly changing obsession as soon as I become skilled at managing my current one – it likes to keep me on my toes! Over the years it has also varied in severity and intensity with whole segments of my life being totally OCD free, to others where I’ve really struggled.
Although I usually make my road to recovery the focus of my writing, I’m going to put the emphasis for this piece on my experiences with OCD – especially postnatal OCD -with a little extra thrown in about harm based intrusive thoughts and urges. This’ll be the first time I’ve written about some of my experiences and I’ve chosen to do it now because I know there are loads of us out there affected by this – it’s a very isolating part of the condition, and I really want to help people to realise that they are not alone, and that recovery is totally possible.
Right, here we go…
My childhood was very much focussed on keeping my loved ones safe and my OCD symptoms centred heavily on external compulsions. I counted, checked… recounted and rechecked everything because I believed it would help keep my family safe. I spent whole evenings watching out of the window for my parents to return from work believing this silent vigil would secure their safe return, and at my worst, it took me three to four hours to settle into bed because I was busy walking the well-trodden pathway of my night-time safety checks.
Throughout my childhood, my OCD was hugely time-consuming, and there were many times where I was heavily reliant on others to do the simplest of tasks. I became an expert at hiding my symptoms and didn’t tell a soul. I feared, even back then, that talking about it would get me labelled as ‘weird’ or ‘different’ and bring shame on my family. Occasionally, I’d get busted as my parents heard my wandering or whispered counting. They would sit with me until I was settled, believing me to be upset about something at school or going through a phase. This was the eighties; mental health awareness was not what it is today. Argh, I feel old saying that!
I had no idea I might have OCD until my mid-twenties; I’d heard murmurings about it for a while, on tv etc, and could identify with the symptoms. Around the same time my gp mentioned he thought I might have OCD so that’s what these symptoms became for me. Now that it sort-of had a name I broke my silence – I told my future husband, my mum, a couple of close friends and hoped against hope that it would all go away by itself.
I’m summarising a lot of information in few words here, but I should also mention, that as I progressed through my twenties, I also developed the symptoms associated with generalised anxiety, daily debilitating anxiety attacks and depression. These, along with my OCD, came in phases and I experienced big gaps with very few symptoms at all. It was during one of these periods of having my symptoms well managed that I became a qualified teacher, I began living with my boyfriend, we got married and adopted a beautiful stray cat, my lovely boy Archer. Life was busy and productive, I was happy and content. In 2012, we decided to extend our little family and I gave birth to a beautiful little boy, William, in September. It was at this point; the point Hollywood tells you should be the happiest time of your life, that I saw my mental health decline to crisis point.
I should just point out that throughout the following section I’ll refer to my symptoms as OCD because I know now that’s what it was – I had no idea at the time!
Very soon after I’d given birth, I became absolutely convinced that something bad was going to happen to my little man – that he’d be harmed or that he would die – he was so small and vulnerable. This worry quickly grew into a fear that someone would hurt him by accident, which in turn grew into a fear that someone would hurt him deliberately. I can’t tell you the lengths I went to, to keep my little boy safe. I put household objects that I deemed too toxic for the house, in the front garden. I barricaded us into our bedroom at night in case my beloved Archer sat on Will and suffocated him. I set alarms throughout the night so that I could wake up to check he was still breathing. As time went by both my obsessions, and their resulting compulsions, became increasingly irrational and time consuming. I sat guard over him to protect him from… life – I can’t think of a better word to put here, I wanted to protect him from everything and everyone.
As the weeks passed, my mental wellbeing continued to decline, and I was hit with my worse obsessions yet – I became convinced that it would be me who would deliberately hurt William. I was tortured with images and thoughts about this twenty-four hours a day. The worse part of it, was that I began experiencing harm urges too. It was as if the OCD wasn’t happy with just making me think these thoughts and see these images all day, there was one level of torture beyond that it wanted to introduce me to and it did. I could just about live with my previous OCD symptoms, but the harm urges saw me hit crisis point. I could no longer be in the same room as my little one. I made an appointment to see my GP in which I told him I was a risk to my son and needed to be ‘taken away from him for his own safety’. I remember saying those words as clearly as if it happened yesterday.
Thankfully he recognised my symptoms as anxiety and prescribed anti-depressants. The medication helped to lower my anxiety but didn’t do much for my OCD symptoms and it was only after hitting rock bottom again and doing a little online research, that I self-diagnosed with postnatal OCD and self-referred to CBT. I had no idea up until that point that these thoughts and feelings were anything to do with OCD – I honestly thought I was a monster for having these obsessions. I didn’t know that compulsions could take place internally as a kind of mental ritual or review, and I had no idea that urges were in fact a very common type of obsession in OCD. Sadly, this was also the case for the medical professionals I met. My midwives, health visitors and doctors were supportive, and clearly wanted to help me, but they were minus the training needed to help recognise the multitude of ways OCD can present itself, and as a result I slipped through the net for a while.
I will never forget this time. When I think back to how poorly I was then, I realise how far I have come now, and that if I can get through that phase of my illness, I can get through anything.
So, onto recovery… In March 2014, I was introduced to the most amazing psychotherapist and my experiences of motherhood turned a corner.
I had two sets of twenty weeks of CBT. I had to work hard, after 32 years my thought patterns were rigid and took a while to shift.
The road to recovery was not all plain sailing for me. I lost my parents and my beautiful cat during this time. I’ve had setbacks surrounding grief and my original OCD, anxiety and depression symptoms, and I’ve continued to experience anxiety attacks. But what did come out of that adversity was an absolute desperation to get better which, in turn, propelled me into action despite still being very poorly. From that moment on, my well-being and health became the centre of everything.
I could talk about this forever but what follows is a summary of some of the things I did, and still do, to help with my recovery. I’ve written about it a lot in my previous posts so please check them out if you would like more information.
One of the most helpful things I did was to learn everything I could about OCD – I’m still learning loads all the time. I came across mindfulness in my therapy sessions and found it very helpful, so started incorporating into my daily life. I made sure that I completed my CBT homework and carried out my ERP exercises – which at one time saw me going up and down the higher-level escalators in an M&S with my son in my arms – such fun! This was to help address my harm based intrusive thoughts and urges, both of which were very strong in this area of this specific shop. How I didn’t end up with security guards following me around I’ll never know!
Self-care became key. I decided to stay on my medication because it helped me to access my therapy and feel well enough to carry out self-care activities. I started exercising, not running – which gave me too long alone with my thoughts – but Zumba and fun dance classes. I ensured I got a decent amount of sleep. I saw my friends more, I got out more. I spent time in the sun. I started to take supplements. I tried to eat well and drink enough water. I read everything and anything I could about self-care but mostly I made sure I did it – if I felt I was getting lost in reading about self-care and not actually practising it, I tried to adjust my behaviour.
Thanks to social media I was introduced to the online OCD community. A community made up of some of the strongest, kindest, most compassionate people you could meet. It helped me to know that I wasn’t alone and that I could get better. Checking out groups, pages and profiles of people who had OCD, and had similar stories to my own, was life changing! Again, if I noticed that this became triggering, or a compulsion, I backed off a bit.
I did a huge amount of self-esteem building. The nature of my obsessions meant that my view of myself was at rock-bottom and I found this work central to my recovery. I needed to really care about me and my experiences. I needed to feel I deserved to get better and that I could begin to accept what I’d been through. I needed to get my head around the fact that all brains produce random thoughts, and images, and urges. All brains produce weird urges. How many times do people get the urge to press that red “don’t press” button, to jump in front of that train, or to knock that tray of drinks out of someone’s hands. I’d just had a baby, it kind of makes sense that my intrusive thoughts and random weird urges would involve the most important things to me. I wasn’t alone in experiencing them, they weren’t the problem- it was my interpretation that was.
Listing everything like this makes it sound quick and easy – it really wasn’t (she says with a grimace). It’s been five years since the onset of my postnatal OCD and I have spent at least three years actively walking the higgledy-piggledy road of recovery. I still use prompts to remind me to carry out certain self-care activities, and I don’t always do them even when I can see them written down, because I’m human. And I mess up. Often. While it’s not been easy, every step I took along the way was totally worth it. I still deal with OCD daily, but it is far more manageable now and it very rarely stops me doing anything. So, if you are struggling with OCD please have hope. It really does get better and, despite what that troublesome brain tells you, you are not a monster and you, most definitely, are not alone! 😊
Here at Maternal OCD we also welcome mothers who would like to share their stories anonymously, please see below some examples.
Life Story No 1
My earliest memory of any OCD type behaviour was when I was a teenager. Following some bullying at school I developed a safety behaviour of obsessively checking my appearance. Everywhere I went I had to carry a small mirror held in the sleeve of my coat or within easy reach in my bag so that I could repeatedly and obsessively check that nothing was out of place. This behaviour went alongside issues with eating and self-harm but I did not realise until I was much older that this was all about control and was probably the beginning of my OCD.
OCD continued to be part of my life in a small way (doubting, checking doors were locked, straighteners were turned off etc) but not in a way that really affected my day to day life. I also suffered with social anxiety but, again, did not recognise it as being that until I was much older and learned about anxiety. I still lived a ‘normal’ life and went out and had fun but had all of the anxiety going on underneath the surface.
Settled in a relationship, it wasn’t until we started discussing moving house and starting a family that my OCD began to get out of control. It began with subtle things like fearing blood when it had never previously bothered me (I used to donate blood without even batting an eyelid at other people’s blood being taken around me). I began cleaning obsessively and prepared for the move by cleaning items such as books with anti-bacterial wipes, preparing myself for starting a family and not wanting ‘contamination’ to follow us to our new family home.
We started trying for a baby soon after moving into the new house and I was lucky enough to fall pregnant straight away but at some point my OCD blew out of control. By the time I was three months pregnant I realised that my OCD had become a massive problem and went to see my GP, unfortunately it took until after my baby was born for me to obtain the CBT I so badly needed. Confused and frightened by the situation my OCD grew rapidly worse during this time, my compulsions and rituals seemed essential for the survival of our unborn child so how could I possibly stop them? I spent endless hours cleaning everything including walls and doors, even when heavily pregnant, forever fearing a new contaminant and never getting the clean feeling that I so badly sought. I was left with bleeding hands, skin flaking on my face and body and a relationship near breaking point.
Thankfully after some time, an excellent CBT Therapist started me on my road to recovery and, although it took time to recover, I slowly changed from someone who could see real and definite danger in almost literally everything around me to someone who bit by bit gained the confidence to start facing up to my fears. Although it was terrifyingly anxiety provoking, I can still remember the immense feeling of achievement after I managed to open a few windows in my house an inch onto the latch to let in some fresh air, the windows had always stayed firmly closed before that because my fear of contamination would not let me open them. I was starting to take those first steps.
Recovery was a long process because my list of fears was so extensive but I can happily say that I have nearly completely recovered now and I feel confident that I will continue to improve. I have gone from being someone who sometimes felt that maybe suicide was the only way out of the constant torture I was enduring, to being someone who enjoys life and looks forward to what the next day will bring. I can look back now and view most of my compulsions as absurd and unnecessary, but at the time they most certainly felt terrifyingly real.
People that meet me assume that I am a confident, happy, lively person and yet they see no signs of the inner turmoil I may be going through. I think that is the danger sometimes with certain mental health issues, the stigma can cause you to hide what you are going through, but how can you possibly get the help and support you need from others if you are hiding all this anguish away? I was very lucky to have a wonderful family around me that I could be completely honest with but I was still always very aware that when it came down to it, it was only me that could get me better again, no matter how much they wanted to do it for me.
Taking baby steps towards recovery is all you can do, and then once the positive experiences and the sense of achievement begins then at least the wheels are in motion, from there you can continue to propel yourself forward. The crucial point for me was when I stopped punishing myself for having this disorder and started to be kinder to myself. The more you look after yourself and pat yourself on the back for even the smallest of achievements, the calmer you feel and therefore the stronger you feel to face the next challenge.
OCD does not have to be faced alone but it is only you in the end that can challenge it. I believe that with the right help and guidance every OCD sufferer can do this. Have hope!
Life Story no 2
I fell pregnant at the age of twenty-three and my partner and I were shocked but so excited. I had always imagined becoming a mother and looked forward to it as the love and bond I had created with my niece was priceless. I suffered really badly with sickness as my pregnancy progressed. I expected these things and it was so worth having these ‘not so nice things’ because there is no better feeling in the world than feeling your baby move around and give you butterflies. I loved being pregnant just placing my hand on my stomach practically all of the time so I could be as close to my baby as I possibly could. I loved him so so much already.
At six months pregnant this is when all of my happiness, excitement and joy was stolen. My partner and I were having a disagreement where to put the kitchen knife set in our new kitchen. I said, “in the cupboard” as I didn’t like them on show but he wanted them out so he got his way. That night I went to bed and had the most awful nightmare that I had sleep walked and got one of those knives out and really hurt my partner with it. I woke up shaking, crying and feeling very guilty. I then started worrying and thinking ‘what if I did sleep walk and did something like that, oh my God what if this happens when I have my baby’. Then sure enough I had the same nightmare but about my precious baby boy who I longed for and this broke my heart. It was all I could think about. How could I 100% avoid these nightmares from happening. It was because I had paid so much attention to this nightmare and thought of a million ways to avoid any harm happening that all my thoughts were just this awful intrusive image of me harming my beautiful unborn baby with a knife.
I spoke to my partner after a week of crying constantly. I was unable to listen to anyone who was talking to me because I was trying to push these thoughts away. I felt constantly sick and drained. I couldn’t eat anything and I could no longer sleep at night. I went to the doctors three times before one doctor said I must have psychosis and he rang for a crisis team. I was just glad something was being done. I felt a weight was lifted off me and that they would come section me and keep me away from people which I believed was for the best. However, they didn’t and instead they comforted me and reassured me and I was given sertraline and promethazine which took the edge off.
I started CBT one week before my baby was born. It was to be induced as I had diabetes. One of the first things my therapist said was “don’t think of a pink elephant” and what did I do, I thought of one! This showed me the more you try not to think about something, the more you will. She also recommended the ‘Happiness Trap’ book by Russ Harris and it is fab! In between my CBT sessions it kept me educated on how to not let my thoughts take up all of my energy and time. It constantly let me know that thoughts are just thoughts and they can’t do anything. My therapist also made me do exposure. I had to see the knives every day and start using them. It was awful, the disgusting thoughts got worse but over time they decreased.
I had my baby boy after a thirty-eight hour labour. Wow, how beautiful and perfect his was and that skin to skin contact was incredible. We were so happy. The next day, I started thinking oh no I haven’t totally got rid of my thoughts and I will be taking my vulnerable little baby home. This made my intrusive thoughts rocket back up after being on cloud nine. We got home and the love was just incredible. I was breast feeding too which I really felt helped me totally bond. There was and is no question of my love for my boy but I was obsessed about keeping him safe from others and myself. My therapist helped me to just let the thoughts pass. Don’t label them as this gives them importance and your mind will latch onto them, and this definitely works as does mindfulness. It helps you disconnect and relax and there are lots of fab apps to download. Even if you are in a really bad place, mindfulness can give you that ten minutes peace which is like treasure to ocd sufferers. Never feel you are alone as I felt so alone for weeks and these weeks felt like years to me. I just wanted to enjoy my pregnancy and having my newborn. More awareness needs to be raised and I really feel for anyone who is suffering but talking really, really does help. I had the worries of getting my baby taken off me but the psychiatrist said “someone who does not have these thoughts is more likely to do something harmful to a loved one because having these thoughts upset us”. This means we want to do everything possible to avoid these awful things and we take so much care of our actions and choices.
My baby boy is nearly six months old now and he is so, so happy and healthy he makes me so proud. Whenever you feel like giving up just look at your beautiful baby and give them a cuddle and say out loud to them how much you truly love them. I am still doing CBT and have had my medication changed as sertraline didn’t work for me. I am doing so well and have come such a long way. At one point, I couldn’t even look myself in the mirror. Now I stand and smile with my baby at the mirror hearing his gorgeous giggling and just keep reminding myself how much of a gentle kind caring person I have always been. We have a personality and nature and a name. You are not your illness. You will always be you.
Life Story no. 3
I was diagnosed with post natal OCD following the birth of my second child, a daughter. Up until this point I had never experienced any mental illness and naively thought I wasn’t the ‘type’ of person to suffer with mental ill health. I had also never heard of postnatal OCD.
For the first couple of months of my daughter’s life I can honestly say I was happy and coping well with the challenges that come along with raising two children under 3. However, as the months went on the relentlessness of caring for two young children, the sleep deprivation, never having a minute to yourself, not being able to complete basic tasks around the house, the struggle of getting out of the house and taking them out anywhere on your own began to feel overwhelming. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact point when I began struggling to cope but a couple of key moments from around the time my daughter was 3 months old stick out. Everything felt impossible, I couldn’t spend time with my eldest child, a son, or properly attend to his needs because I was always breastfeeding or otherwise occupied with seeing to the baby. I felt like I couldn’t keep an eye on them both at once which developed into a fear of some kind of harm coming to them due to my lack of ability to keep them safe. I remember feeling anxious about putting my baby in her moses basket underneath anything that could potentially fall on her, a partially reasonable fear but one I became obsessed with. I also developed a high anxiety around hot drinks around my children, I can vividly remember sitting having a cup of tea and then a thought came into my mind of boiling hot water being thrown over my husband and baby daughter who were playing together on the carpet. This stopped me in my tracks, my mind was reeling, what is wrong with me? Why would I think that? Does this mean I was going to throw water over them?
From that point on I constantly experienced obsessive intrusive thoughts about harm coming to those around me, particularly my children. I’m reluctant to list too many of the scenarios my brain dreamt up here because I worry that anyone going through OCD reading this will potentially find that this fuels their intrusive thoughts but I also know that it helps to hear someone say they have experienced them too. My intrusive thoughts ranged from lawnmowers going over my childrens’ heads, my mum coming in to the house to find we had all been murdered, my children falling out of windows/off cliffs/bridges/buildings, punching strangers in the face, stabbing people, my children being led away by the hand by murderers, me killing my children by accident or deliberately. Particularly distressing to me was the thought that I could ever hurt anyone. I obsessively checked the internet for stories about mothers who hurt their children to check for comparisons with my own life to make sure I wasn’t somehow the same and at risk of doing the same thing. I also hated to hear anything about mental illness because I was so ashamed of what I was going through and I genuinely thought I was losing my mind and was about to be locked up. I developed a kind of mental health hypochondria and feared I would start to hear voices or experience psychosis. Also, when I felt stressed and anxious I saw people as having ‘devil eyes’ which was a very frightening experience.
I knew something was very wrong when I collapsed in tears on the floor at home, telling my husband and my Mum what I was experiencing and that I wished I was dead. They finally understood that I needed some professional help. The first step was speaking to the health visitor who luckily was absolutely amazing, she had been through something similar following the birth of her fourth child so completely knew what I was going through. She reassured me that I was not going to hurt my children which I was so relieved to hear, that I would get better and that there was help available. My experiences with healthcare professionals from then on ranged from great to abysmal which is partly why I wanted to contribute something to the work of organisations like Maternal OCD who educate professionals about this illness, because how you are treated when you seek help has massive implications for your whole future.
I was offered medication but chose not to take it. I wanted to try counselling first. I was very fortunate that around 6 weeks after seeking help I managed to get some CBT therapy. I know that not everyone gets help that quickly. I think early intervention in my case was a crucial part in a quick recovery. I related well to my therapist who used to work for a Post natal depression charity so understood what I needed really well. She taught me all about intrusive thoughts and the biggest thing to always remember is that intrusive thoughts are completely normal, it is only the mind of the person with OCD ascribing meaning to them and the resultant stress and anxiety which makes them problematic. When you have OCD and suffer with intrusive thoughts it is just your brain conjuring up the most awful thing it can and then proceeding to torture you with it. Understanding this helped me beyond belief. They really weren’t concerned that I was a danger to anyone and thought I would only need a few sessions of counselling. I had a total of six sessions in the end. Their compassionate but relaxed attitude to mental health and not making a big deal of what I was going through really helped because to me my whole world had collapsed but they gave me faith that I would be fine.
At the time I was going though OCD I wished for a magic pill to make me feel back to normal. I wasn’t sure that CBT was working because it doesn’t make you feel better immediately, but when I started using the strategies I learned at home and when things slowly eased as I began to get more sleep and brief periods away from the children for some time to myself I started to feel better. It was a gradual process of getting support from the counselling, my family and being kind to myself but around 7 months after I first sought help I was well again.
I truly believe my brain just misfired and had a sort of meltdown because it could not cope with the amount of tasks, information and emotions it had to deal with. There was absolutely no respite from the responsibilities of looking after two small children. That combined with hormone levels changing, sleep deprivation and the huge adaptation to now being responsible for two children was the perfect storm for developing a mental health problem.
To anyone reading this who is going through this, I know that it is hell, but know this – you WILL get better. It is not easy and going through what I went through was one of the worst things that’s ever happened to me but I have learned so much and I am now so much more empathetic to other people who are struggling. It truly gave me a new outlook and opened my mind up to learning more about mental health and a new way of looking at the world. I have a fantastic relationship with my children, husband and family and appreciate how lucky I am to have them now more than ever. In terms of practical things to help me cope I found yoga and mindfulness and meditation, along with eating well and getting outside to be so useful. Also if it is of comfort to anyone who is ill at present I have been recovered for 3 years now and as I sat down to write this I had to really try hard to remember exactly what I felt like when I had OCD and to relate to how I was feeling back then. It seems like a lifetime ago. I remember feeling like I would never get better but I am living proof that you can.
I know that at some point in my life I might experience mental illness again but if I do I know that I will be able to deal with it. I felt so ashamed of what was happening to me so I truly hope that in future, thanks to the work of organisations like Maternal OCD, no one will feel ashamed of experiencing mental health problems.