Isn’t it wonderful that an entire month is dedicated to maternal mental health? Read the following excerpt from the end of my memoir to really understand why such awareness is crucial.
The brain is a delicate and easily influenced organ. During the postpartum period, I was insecure and second-guessing every instinct I had. I worried about everything and anything one could possibly worry about, and when I began imagining John drowning or being in a fire, I didn’t understand what was wrong with my mind. I knew my level of anxiety wasn’t normal or healthy so I went to the hospital for help. But I didn’t get any help. Instead, I heard someone say I couldn’t be near my son without supervision. I was kept under surveillance by an armed police officer. I was strongly persuaded to go to a psychiatric hospital where I was promised sleep and help, but in actuality, I was locked on a floor with individuals suffering from mental impairments and mental illnesses that were much different from my condition. Moreover, there was very little therapeutic treatment available at this facility. Most of my belongings were confiscated and my privacy was invaded. Since I was already questioning my sanity and ability to mother, these harsh circumstances merely confirmed my deepest fears: I was in fact utterly crazy and I was incapable of mothering.
When I returned home from Brookview [psychiatric hospital], I was not only recovering from a postpartum mood disorder, but I was also healing from the trauma of being sent to Brookview. And unless someone has experienced a situation similar to mine, I don’t think one can fully appreciate the notion that erring on the side of caution can actually lead to more harm than good.
I tried to contact the staff at the local ER to better understand why they sent me to Brookview, but no one returned my phone calls or emails. Because I wasn’t finding any answers locally, I began doing research to better understand postpartum depression, other postpartum mood disorders and the treatments available. I had read Women’s Moods by Deborah Sichel and Jeanne Watson Driscoll when John was three weeks old. At the time, I had learned that these authors recognized and treated a variety of perinatal mood disorders. However, I didn’t read the section titled The Living Nightmare of Postpartum OCD because I didn’t think I had any type of obsessive compulsive disorder. I wasn’t washing my hands, checking on the baby compulsively or doing any of the things I imaged mothers with postpartum OCD would do.
Nevertheless, when I began researching postpartum mood disorders more carefully, I reread Women’s Moods and realized I had suffered from the obsessive thoughts related to postpartum OCD. For months I had never fully understood those frightening images of John underwater or trapped behind flames. I had read about postpartum depression and knew that I had some PPD symptoms, but something else had been going on as well. I had also feared that I had been suffering from postpartum psychosis, a severe illness that does require hospitalization. I had carefully read about this condition, but I didn’t feel that the symptoms fit my experience. When I started reading about postpartum OCD and postpartum panic disorder, I immediately identified with the descriptions of these disorders. All of the concern I had about my condition diminished once I realized there was a name for what had happened to me. Many other women had also experienced those terrifying thoughts, known as intrusive thoughts.
Sichel and Driscoll write about patients who would call them and say, “I’m afraid to be alone with my baby.” After meeting with these patients, Sichel and Driscoll learned that although these women were having “violent thoughts,” the “obsessions were alien and abhorrent to them.” The authors write:
“We realized that these women did not fit the usual picture of postpartum depressive or psychotic disorder…We called the newly defined syndrome postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder…The new mothers we studied experienced a heightened vigilance about the possibility of harm to their baby. They worried, for instance, how easily their infant could slip into the bathwater and drown. But rather than mobilizing them to exercise more caution in performing this task, the worry persisted, much like a phonograph needle becoming stuck in a grove of an old, scratched record, causing their thoughts to become locked in a biochemical groove.
In the case of postpartum OCD, this ‘groove’ happens as follows: The women move from the identification of a potential dangerous situation (normal occurrence) to the active thought of the event’s actually happening, with the mother imagining herself as the instrument of harm…They fear their thoughts might become actions: ‘If I think it, I might do it.’”
Mothers with postpartum OCD, however, do not hurt their babies or themselves. According to Postpartum Support International’s Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders Fact Sheet, the obsessions or intrusive thoughts are “persistent thoughts or mental images related to the baby…These mothers know their thoughts are bizarre and are very unlikely to ever act on them.” Consequently, the fact sheet also states that postpartum OCD “is the most misunderstood and misdiagnosed of the perinatal mood disorders.”
After doing more reading and meeting with Jeanne Watson Driscoll personally, I learned that most mothers who experience obsessive thoughts similar to my own live in shame and avoid anything that might trigger a scary thought. The compulsive behaviors develop in some women as they attempt to relieve their fears and obsessions. These mothers sometimes suffer in silence for months, terrified to discuss their intrusive thoughts with anyone.
I was unlike the mothers who kept these horrifying thoughts to themselves. I truly believed that discussing these thoughts immediately and openly would help me. However, no one at the local ER seemed aware of postpartum anxiety, panic and intrusive thoughts. Moreover, the program and staff at Brookview was not equipped to treat perinatal mood disorders. If the staff at the ER and at Brookview had had more training and knowledge of perinatal mood disorders, I might not have felt so isolated and frustrated. However, the response people had to my condition was so far from helpful that I feared asking for help in the early stages of my recovery. I feared discussing my intrusive thoughts, certain someone would once again separate me from my son. Thus, it is imperative to raise awareness around perinatal mood disorders so that our support systems are actually providing assistance rather than perpetuating fear and silence.
Sometimes I think about that scared and insecure mother who visited the local ER looking for help. I wish I could hold her and tell her everything I now know. I would say, “You’re having these thoughts because of postpartum anxiety and panic. It’s not your fault. They are called intrusive thoughts, and other people have had them. I know they are scary, but having the thought doesn’t mean you will act on it. You’re going to be okay.”
It took time, research and healing at my own pace to be able to come to the above conclusion. When I was going through it, I wasn’t strong enough or informed enough to be this voice, but I feel that much stronger now knowing that I found my way out of the darkness.