Postpartum OCD is a mental illness that I’ve never fully understood and I’m happy that Rachel is here to share her experience with it.
For a while, I thought that intrusive thoughts = postpartum OCD, but that isn’t necessarily the case. What seems to lead to an OCD diagnosis is how a parent reacts to them. I recently came across The International OCD Foundation which has an article that helped me understand it better. I know I didn’t have it after L was born, but I have always wondered if I could have had it after G was.
1) Tell us a bit about yourself:
I live in South Lake Tahoe – aka paradise – with 2 kids, ages 5 and almost 3 and a super awesome husband who doesn’t like public attention ;). I work 3/4 time as a veterinarian. I love where we live and taking advantage of all our mountains have to offer – that’s been a big part of my recovery, too!
2) What was your diagnosis?
I have postpartum OCD. I say “have” because while I consider myself recovered, the intrusive thoughts never really go away entirely – I just know how to handle them.
3) When did you realize something was wrong or that you needed help?
About 3 months after my second was born I started having very scary intrusive thoughts that I couldn’t dismiss. I didn’t even know intrusive thoughts were a thing, I just thought I was losing my mind. I became more and more consumed by the thoughts (why was I having them? was I actually crazy/sick/dangerous to my kids?), and I was basically in a constant state of panic.
I told my husband about it but he was also confused by the whole thing – the thoughts seemed ridiculous to him, so it didn’t make sense that I couldn’t shake it. I knew about postpartum depression (my mom had had it) but didn’t really understand what OCD was so my symptoms didn’t make sense to me either. I finally got to the point where I felt like I was losing my mind and needed help, fast. My husband called my OB (I couldn’t even pick up the phone) who was super supportive and prescribed some short-term anti-anxiety meds while my mom went into overdrive finding a therapist and psychiatrist for me.
4) Were you screened for a PMAD? When?
Yes, at a postpartum home visit by a nurse (who is now my co-leader for Climb Out of the Darkness!), as well as by my OB. Unfortunately, my symptoms were delayed until about 3 months, so it took a while for me to seek help on my own even though I had been screened early on.
5) What did your treatment plan look like?
I started on meds (sertraline) right away after seeing a psychiatrist. I also tried benzodiazepines initially but found they sedated me rather than helped the anxiety itself, so I stopped those pretty quickly. I also began therapy with a psychologist who specialized in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs). I worked super hard at therapy. It was exhausting, terrifying, and it seemed never ending, but bit by bit I learned to retrain my brain, change associations, tolerate the uncomfortable emotions. It’s an ongoing work in progress – the OCD is under control, but I feel like I will always have work to do.
Starting to get consistent aerobic exercise was a big part of my treatment. The first time I went out to exercise while I was in crisis, my husband literally had to push me out the door. But that evening I could feel my body relax – my muscles literally were able to relax in a way they hadn’t in months. I tensed up again by morning, but I knew exercise was going to be key to getting my old self back.
6) Did you face any challenges on your road to recovery? What were they?
I was nervous to go on meds because I was still breastfeeding. But I decided that I would be no use to my kids if I was unable to function! I’m so glad I did go on meds – it helped bring my baseline anxiety level down so that I could begin work on the OCD and retrain my brain. You can’t do the work of therapy if you are in a constant state of panic! I weaned off my meds about 2.5 years after starting them – and at the time I gave myself permission to go back on if needed.
I also had a hard time getting help because I felt worried about being misunderstood, my kids being taken away, small-town gossip, etc. I ended up finding a therapist 3 hours away who could see me over FaceTime! That felt safer to me at the time, and she was a great fit for me so I was fortunate in that. It’s scary to tell my story now, but I think it’s so important to fight the stigma so that others can get the help they need.
7) Did you come across any resources that helped you?
There were a lot of pieces to my recovery. Therapy was the biggest – cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) combined with mindfulness style learning to tolerate emotions! I also found the book When a Family Member Has OCD to be REALLY helpful in understanding the disease, how it works, and why. It also goes through all the common topics and types of OCD, which is very helpful. By its very nature, OCD chooses the topic that is most terrifying to you, and often that topic is not one you have heard of in an OCD context! I really had a very superficial understanding of what OCD was before it hit me like a mac truck. It was a big relief to realize that it was “a thing,” and that I was far from alone.
I also found the Postpartum Support International (PSI) website to be very helpful (and I did call the warm line when I was in crisis), and Postpartum Progress has a great site of stories from other moms.
The Hilarious World of Depression is a really great podcast. I still listen to it – I love its combination of humor and very practical, realist approach to mental health. They don’t mince words, and there are no rose-colored glasses on the show. But it’s very uplifting!
8) What is one thing you try to do each week as self-care?
My biggest thing is exercise. When I’m not getting aerobic, outdoor exercise, I start to see an uptick in my symptoms. They don’t overtake me now, but it’s very consistent that I will be more anxious if I’m not getting out.
9) What advice would you give a parent struggling with a perinatal mental illness?
Reach out. I was so amazed at how many fellow moms were struggling, and I found a lot of support from those moms, my mom, and my sister. I was terrified to talk about it, but once I did, I found so much encouragement out there. Of course there were those who didn’t understand, but for the most part, people were so empathetic and supportive. If they hadn’t struggled themselves, they knew someone who had.
Get into therapy, be honest with your therapist, and fully engage with the process. It is not easy, but you can do this! If there are financial barriers, reach out to PSI for resources. Now that I’m involved with the Climb Out of the Darkness, I’m realizing there were a lot more resources in my small town than I realized.
Realize that some of the things that will help you heal will feel very hard, or like the exact opposite of what will make you feel better in the moment. It’s important to assess not just how you feel about doing something, but if it will help you achieve your end goal. So even though you don’t feel like going out to exercise, if you know it will help you feel a little better, you can decide to do it anyway! The same goes for exposure therapy for OCD – it’s going to feel like the exact opposite of anything you would ever want to do, but if it will help you get better, you can decide to do it anyway.
Rachel is one of the leaders for Climb Out of the Darkness: Team South Lake Tahoe. Their Second Annual Climb Out of the Darkness event is June 24. Check out their fundraising page for more information or to make a donation: https://climb-out-2018.causevox.com/team/SLT
Obsessive, intrusive thoughts happen to about 91% of new moms and 88% of new dads. Some people push through them better than others. If yours are causing you any kind of anxiety or frightening you, I encourage you to reach out to a trusted doctor or therapist as they can also be a symptom of other mood and anxiety disorders.
If you’re interested in sharing your journey through perinatal mental illness, please read this post.