Today is #TimeToTalk day, a day all about increasing mental health awareness by talking about it and perhaps reaching out to someone with mental health issues to make sure they’re doing okay. Here I have a guest post from a close friend of mine who had her daughter 7 weeks before I gave birth to Autumn and has unfortunately been suffering from OCD since during pregnancy. I’ll be posting about mental health quite a lot on my blog, so I thought it would be interesting to ask her to write a post for me about her experiences so I could find out more about what she’s been going through but also to spread awareness of perinatal and postnatal OCD.
Please be aware that as with lots of things regarding mental health, this may be triggering.
(Hello. I am also Laura, but I am not Autumn’s Mummy. I have been a friend of Autumn’s Mummy for nearly fourteen years now and am the Mummy of a gorgeous almost-six-month-old baby girl)
I wanted to talk about something that I don’t feel is talked about too much and that’s perinatal/postnatal OCD. In recent times there has been a gradually increasing awareness of postnatal depression, which is fantastic, but less time given to anxiety issues and, in particular, OCD.
I’ve found that, upon hearing the term ‘OCD’, most people seem to assume I spend my time washing my hands repeatedly and checking I’ve not left my straighteners plugged in and, yes, I do do both of these (although it’s my phone charger that worries me). But there is so much more to it and I wish I had known about it earlier in my pregnancy. Perhaps then I wouldn’t have worried that I was going mad.
My pregnancy started off like everyone else’s. I got those two lines on that white stick and was immediately filled with a sense of wonder, disbelief and absolute terror. I’m afraid to say that, as the days passed and the reality set in, there was distinctly more terror than anything else. Suddenly I had someone to protect. I’d never seen this person, nor heard their heart nor felt them move, but I knew they were there and it was my job to ensure their survival and a greater pressure I’ve never known. I remember being told my original due date (which, oddly enough, turned out to be my daughter’s birth day) and thinking, oh God, that’s ages away, so much time for something to go wrong!
As anyone who has been pregnant knows, those first twelve weeks are incredibly lonely. You don’t get a midwife until you are about nine weeks gone and then it’s another three or four until your scan. Any concerns you have are delivered to a GP who, honestly, just sees you as a hormonal pregnant lady and not to be taken seriously. At six weeks pregnant I had cramps and slight bleeding, so I went to visit my GP who told me I was ‘probably fine and should be thankful I was pregnant at all, as the patient before me had been having fertility problems for three years’. It was only my bursting into tears that got me referred for an early scan.
Needless to say, this scan silenced my fears for about five minutes. For the remaining six weeks until my first official scan, I spent every waking moment waiting to bleed or fretting that I would suffer a missed miscarriage. Scratch that, I was convinced I’d suffer a MMC. I couldn’t enjoy my early pregnancy. I spent every day miserable, sure I’d lost her.
And so my pregnancy continued in this thread. After the 12 week scan, I worried that the midwife wouldn’t find a heartbeat at 16 weeks. Then I worried that I’d lose her before the all-important “safe” 24 weeks. And then I spent the remainder of my pregnancy in fear of stillbirth.
But so what, I hear you say. All pregnant women do that. Fear of miscarriage and stillbirth is incredibly common. Every mother I’ve spoken to has told of their days (and nights) spent checking their baby was breathing (which I still do and will continue to do so). It’s almost “normal” to worry so about your children. But not, I believe, to the extent I was worrying.
In April I moved home and it was then that my problems really began to escalate. At the time I was about six months pregnant. It started off at work. I became convinced that through my actions, namely not washing my hands enough, a customer or colleague would get ill/die and I would be arrested and my baby taken from me. Needless to say, this idea was so terrifying that I did everything I could to ensure the highest level of hygiene and safety. It got to a point where I could no longer do my job properly and had started delegating tasks to my colleagues because I knew that if I did them, I’d worry myself silly later. This was going on at work but home life was no easier. I started scrutinising all of my cups, plates and cutlery. What if they were dirty and I got ill and the baby got ill and she died? Better not risk it, wash it again. But what if the sponge was also dirty? The whole lot needs to be washed again. And what of the tea-towel? What if my husband had touched it with the bin bag when he was doing the bins? All my cups would be covered in bin bacteria! So they’d all be re-washed. And if any touched an ‘unclean’ surface, back they went again. I can’t tell you how many times my cups and cutlery got rewashed during those tense months.
And it wasn’t just a case of re-washing. I was the same with many things. What if my husband had touched the hand towel with a dirty hand? Get a clean one. What if a fly had landed on my toothbrush? It needs boiling. What if an insect had crawled over my new baby clothes? They all need rewashing. What if one of my clothes fell onto the floor? Into the laundry bin. What if the mosquitoes have Zika virus? Sleep with the windows closed (oh, my poor husband during those heatwave nights) and make sure I’m covered from head to foot. What if the person who picked my strawberries had dirty hands? Throw them out. What if that cat has toxoplasmosis? WASH WASH WASH. What if that four cheese pizza has a cheese I can’t eat on it? Don’t eat it. What if something has fallen into my drink? Can’t drink it. What if my hand has touched something ‘dirty’ and I touch my face and make myself ill? Wash again. Wash again.
It all spiralled back to the same problem; I was petrified of something happening to my baby. Losing her was the absolute worst thing that could possibly happen and I had to ensure I kept her safe AT ALL TIMES. Even if it meant I did have to wash and rewash and avoid and panic.
It got to a point where my life was a misery. Leaving work alleviated it a little but only highlighted how little I could do with my life. By June I couldn’t even make myself meals. Every time I tried, I’d convince myself I’d contaminated it somehow and my husband would come home to yet another sandwich for him and me, in a mess on the floor. He and my mother started taking it in turns to ‘look after me’ per se. My husband made all of my meals when he was home, he re-washed everything I asked him to, he followed my strict rules for washing-up and laundry, he kept all the windows closed and killed every insect that set me off, he’d lay his head on me and tell me again and again, I can hear her, she’s still alive, she’s fine. On the days when my husband was at work, my mother would take me to hers and banish me from her kitchen while she made lunches so I couldn’t upset myself with how she was doing things. More than once I refused to eat because I’d convince myself she hadn’t washed her hands after touching the dog or whatever. I remember one time, when we went out to the coast for a day, we bought fish and chips for lunch and my mother had packed a plate, some cutlery wrapped in a clean tea towel and a juice so I couldn’t get upset by anything. If any day my laundry had offended me (and this happened more often than you think), she’d cart the whole lot to hers, wash it, dry it and present it back to me all clean and ready to go into its drawers just to save extra stress.
You must think, what a nightmare you were! Didn’t you realise how overdramatic you were? And the answer is, yes, yes I did. I knew I was being irrational, over-the-top but the louder voice in my head told me that if I didn’t do all of these things, my baby would die. And that, for any parent I believe, will always be the louder voice. Any risk to your baby is always taken very seriously even if, like in the case of my tea towels, there is only minimal or indeed no risk.
But though I knew full well that something was very wrong for about two months, between April and June, I kept schtum. I was sure that if I told my midwife, she’d chalk me up as losing the plot and my baby would be taken from me. I kept watching Baby Mine from Dumbo, seeing that little elephant twining his trunk around his mother’s in her ‘mad elephant’ cage and would sit there, in tears, thinking that’d be me. It was only at the end of May that I got to a point where I couldn’t go on, I needed help and I told my midwife. She referred me to a consultant at the hospital who tried to give me pills. I was all for taking the pills until I read that they could cause breathing difficulties in newborns. Now imagine…my greatest fear is something happening to my baby. The only resolution I had been offered was to take a pill…which could cause something to happen to my baby. That was a very dark day, me sobbing that I would never get help, I couldn’t cope, they would take my baby because I couldn’t take the pills, my baby deserved better than me. My mother and my husband tried to assure me that we’d manage, we’d have to get on with it between us and so we did. I did, in the meantime, refer myself for therapy which, due to delays and assessments, only began one week before my daughter was born.
I hoped that upon my daughter’s birth, I might improve and in some aspects I did. I no longer worried about my cups or cutlery contaminating me for what did it matter if I was contaminated? She was her own being now. But the problem began to manifest in different ways. Suddenly I was frightened of something unclean touching my breasts or my breast pads and contaminating my new baby. I was frightened that anything she spat on would instantly go off and poison her. I was terrified of people coughing on her/touching her hands or her face/transmitting some awful infection to her that she was too young to fight. I was forever changing cot sheets and rewashing clothes that had touched something ‘dirty’ and fretting whenever someone had the nerve to touch her hands or face. I was also worried that, one day, the health visitor would realise that, actually, I wasn’t a very good mother and would take her away from me and so I’d try to be TOP MOTHER! only to read something or hear something and then feel like TERRIBLE MOTHER! for not thinking of it myself. For example, on the day I brought my daughter home from the hospital, she had a feed and then she fell asleep against my chest. This was really lovely and cuddly and a wonderful half hour and I was pleased – here we were, skin-to-skin, bonding! Good parenting. Then I read somewhere online that babies who fall asleep on their fronts (as she was, albeit upright) had a higher chance of dying and suddenly I was petrified. What had I done? What if I’d encouraged bacteria growth in her little chest and she suddenly died on me? What sort of bloody awful parent was I? I spent the rest of that night in fits of terror, watching her breathe until my husband got up and sent me to bed under the promise that he would watch her instead.
I’m sad to say that the first few months of my daughter’s life were spent like this; me, in a state of near panic, convinced that she would get ill from the dog sniffing her/her touching something and then sucking her thumb/my choice of clothing for her/me using somewhere with parabens in it. The dressing issue was a real problem during the heatwave, where I’d spend nights wailing “she’s supposed to be sleeping in a room that’s 16C-20C and ours is 24C, she’s gonna diiiiie!” and to this day, I still only wear products that I’ve checked (and re-checked again) to ensure they’re paraben free.
I’d like to be able to say that this story has a happy ending. That all of my months of therapy have paid off and I am now a perfectly happy, OCD-free person. And while my CBT has greatly helped, I still find myself abiding by the rules of life that OCD has set me. My hands are still drier and more cracked than the average person’s. I still wetwipe all toys/buggy handles/high chair trays more regularly than I should and I certainly do more laundry than I need to. But when I remember the summer, those days where I couldn’t even make a sandwich, I know I have come very far indeed. There are days when I still live in fear that something will happen to her but there are other days when I’m pushed to tell whether or not my fears are OCD or just general parenting worries. But I wanted to share my experience just in case there is anybody else out there who can relate or, like me, worries that they are “going mad” when in fact they’re not. I wish I had gotten help earlier, a lot earlier, so perhaps I could have enjoyed my pregnancy and if/when I get pregnant again, I will be on the phone for CBT as soon as if I feel I’m going backwards. And I hope that, one day, perinatal/postnatal OCD will be better known and women like me will be able to get help a lot faster and won’t have to spend months of their pregnancy living with fear.