Before becoming a mother, I was a clinical social worker. Despite my training in the mental health field, my knowledge of perinatal mental health was based on simply knowing that a handful of new moms developed Postpartum Depression. It was something that occasionally came up when gathering background information at the start of treatment, but that was it. Not much understanding. Not much knowledge. Not much training. That. Was. It.
And so that social worker became a mom as I welcomed a beautiful baby into the world. I cried tears of joy (and relief) when I first heard her cry. My heart swelled with love as I held her for the first time. She was so small and fragile. She was mine to love and protect.
I’m not quiet sure when those first images came to me. It may have been in the kitchen walking by the knives. It may have been at the top of the stairs. It may have been when I was pushing her in the stroller as a car flew by. I’m not quite sure when I experienced that very first horrifying image, but I soon realized that these vivid images of me doing these horrible, unthinkable things to my child were here to stay.
If you have never experienced thoughts such as these, you are probably reading this going, “What? This mother sounds crazy!” Well let me tell you, it felt that way. These images freaked me out. I had no control over them. They just came. Every. Single. Day. It was like a horror scene on repeat and I was the bad guy. I was the killer.
These unthinkable thoughts had me question my sanity. They had me question myself as a mother. They had me question myself as a human being. I loved my baby more than anything. I cried looking at her because I loved her so much. So why was I having these disturbing images in my head? What kind of person thinks these horrible things, and towards her own child none the less? And the most difficult and shameful question: If I’m having these thoughts does that mean I will act on them?
The therapist in me tried to figure it out. I remember trying to assess my own mental status. My clinical expertise told me that typically if a person was having thoughts of hurting someone or themselves they 1) may be contemplating doing it, 2) could be unstable and unsafe 3) may be having hallucinations. I went through each of these options. None of them were me. I told no one. It was just me, myself and my intrusive thoughts. It was my dirty little secret.
As my daughter grew the thoughts subsided. They became less and less and then mostly disappeared. Still, I kept the thoughts to myself. I couldn’t bring myself to say what happened in my head out loud. I was ashamed and I didn’t want people to think I would harm my child.
When I had my son the thoughts came back. The same exact thoughts. This time I felt less scared by them. I knew in time they would fade and that we had gotten through it. So just as before, when the thoughts came I let them go. I kept doing what I needed to do. Sometimes I would kiss my baby’s head. I’m not exactly sure why, but on some level it made me feel better. In moments of seeing horrible images I needed love. I needed them to know they were loved. I needed them to know they were safe despite my thoughts. Because I loved them and because I was not my thoughts.
I remember the day I broke my silence. My son was four months old. I had just had a thought I typically had while in the kitchen with him. I took a deep breath and asked my husband:
“Do you ever have random thoughts of you hurting someone? Not that you want to do it or anything, but just really random thoughts of you doing something to someone?”
He thought for a second and replied, “No. But sometimes when I’m in the city and waiting to cross the street, I worry about someone pushing me into the street. So I guess that’s more about someone doing something to me”.
Another deep breath. I looked down. I couldn’t look him in the eye.
“Sometimes I have thoughts,” (pause) “Thoughts of me hurting the baby. Like images and I don’t know why. (I look at my husband) They are bad, like really bad. It sounds horrible and crazy and I don’t know why I’m having them.”
I’m not sure what his response was, I just know that he didn’t question my ability to parent or worry about our children’s safety. His nonchalant reaction gave me the courage I needed to pull out my phone and look for answers. Before that moment, I couldn’t do it. Because typing it in would be admitting it.
Standing in that kitchen I was given an answer. Those horrible images in my head were called “intrusive thoughts” or “obsessions”— upsetting and persistent thoughts or mental images related to the baby. Thoughts that were part of Postpartum Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). As I read article after article my body pumped with adrenaline. What I had was a thing and it was something that up to 9% of new mothers experienced. I felt a huge weight lift from my shoulders because I wasn’t the only one. I felt relieved. I felt empowered. It was right then and there that I decided to become trained in treating perinatal mental health issues.
Sharing my story is both liberating and terrifying. But it must be told. Because I am the 1 in 7. I am a mom who experienced the most common complication of child birth: a mental health disorder. Just me, myself and my intrusive thoughts? Oh, no more! My dirty little secret is out. I share to bring awareness. I share to break the stigma. I share so other professionals can learn about this very common, but not talked about, mental health crisis. So, I share for the mother who is suffering in silence. I share for the 1 in 7.