Intrusive Thoughts: My Journey With Postpartum Depression
It’s taken me one year, three months, twenty-nine days and 7 hours to finally write about my postpartum experience. I know that every type of funk that comes with postpartum depression is equally as awful due to the anxiety, extreme sadness, fear and rage that accompanies it. The type that showed up for me ultimately shook me to my core and it’s gut-wrenchingly hard and embarrassing to talk about. Hence the reason it’s taken me so long to even be able to type it on paper.
I had UNWANTED, disgusting, intrusive and frequent thoughts about hurting myself or my baby and it scared me half to death.
Now, I feel like I must preface this before I go any further, I am a good mother. I am attentive, I am nurturing and I love my daughter. And the fact that I feel the need to even state that proves my point that this topic is not talked about enough. Trust me, I have scoured the internet looking for articles to set my rapid and unruly mind at ease, and, with dismay, often came up feeling more confused and alone.
The first time I set my eyes on my daughter, I felt like I grew an entirely new heart for her. The connection was instant for me and I felt so honored to be her mother. I would spend hours staring at the intricacies of her face, the wrinkles in her toes and trying to etch into my memory the sound of her coos. I was in mommy heaven. That is, of course, until I wasn’t.
A nurse was sent to my house to do a routine follow-up on me and the baby three days after going home from the hospital. I noticed that her presence made me uneasy. She kept showing me things that did not feel natural to me like how to swaddle my baby and how to breastfeed different ways. This experience made me question if I was doing anything right and when she left, I felt very confused and worried.
A few days later, I noticed that every so often I would get these flashes of the worst case scenario happening to my baby. From falling down the stairs, to hitting her head accidentally on the door as I walked down the hallway, to her suffocating in her sleep, it was as if my mind was hijacked by every terrible tragedy I had read about or seen in my lifetime. Sometimes when they happened, I would experience a visceral response such as feeling sick to my stomach, heart palpitations, sweaty hands or shortness of breath. During those moments, I used a lot of positive self-talk telling myself that my body and mind were stressed and that once I got a little more rest, I would feel okay. Within a few days, these flashes of tragedy subsided significantly and I was back on track to feeling as normal as anyone could feel after giving birth.
Flash-forward to when my maternity leave ended, a mere 12 weeks after it began, and things took a real turn for the worse. My daughter was sleeping about two or three hour stretches and I was exclusively breastfeeding, which meant that I was pumping 4 to 5 times per day to try to keep up with her milk needs. To top it off the demands of my job seemed insurmountable and never ending. This is when I can recall the intrusive and unwanted thoughts ramping up to no avail. I had inappropriate thoughts about homicide, suicide and hurting my baby. And the more I told myself to STOP, that I mustn’t have one more thought because they were wrong, that these thoughts were lying to me and that they must stop, most of all because I hated them, the more they seem to be fueled. Just imagine telling yourself that you can think about anything, anything in the world, but you mustn’t think about a pink elephant. The first thing that probably popped into your mind was a pink elephant, right? Yes, this very common psychology phenomenon is what I felt like was happening to me, except I wasn’t thinking about a cute, fluffy pink elephant.
The thoughts became so bad, that I became scared to hold my daughter. I was afraid that if held her, the thoughts would be prolonged. Therefore, I thought that if I didn’t see her or hold her for awhile, that they would stop and would no longer be triggered. I knew that this seemed irrational and most of all, physically impossible since I was still breastfeeding and I was of course, her mother.
I cried in the shower, experienced awful night sweats and became reclusive with those that I loved. I was ashamed of myself. I was convinced that I was a bad person, and, in my darkest moments, thought about ending it all so I could make these horrible thoughts stop. I felt as if my brain had turned on me and everything I longed for in life, that the vision I had of myself as a mother and a wife was quickly dissipating as quickly as it began. I felt robbed.
I was too embarrassed to tell anyone, even my husband or my mother. I feared that they would look at me like the monster I thought I had become, so I stayed silent. I also wanted to “be strong” and I thought that if I asked for help, I would be viewed as weak. So I stayed silent. Even my background in mental health, the very thing that I studied for nine years and had been practicing for three, didn’t help me.
The thoughts lasted on and off for a few months. I felt paralyzed by them. I still remained silent. As time went on, I began sharing a little bit of what it was like for me with my husband. He too tried to find articles online to help him understand better, but nothing he said, despite his best efforts, made me feel less alone.
I have a semi-large following on social media, and often women and mothers comment on how loving and tender I seem. I am those things. But I think in a world of a particularly manicured online “physique”, the real, raw, and sometimes repulsive, but pretty normal parts of motherhood, go unspoken about. I may have stayed silent for a long time, but I refuse to anymore.
Thankfully after many months of recovery, a 10 week mindfulness class, counseling and finally talking about my experiences, I am doing so much better. I have learned that those thoughts are not me. I have learned to not give them as much weight and notice the more I speak out about my experience, the more I hear “oh me too.”
I found out that nearly 57% of women who are experiencing postpartum depression also experience obsessive thoughts (source). I guess I haven’t been alone this whole time.
In my experience, I was asked once by my doctor at my daughter’s two week check-up if I had thoughts of harming myself or my baby. The question was asked on a survey and it felt so impersonal and unsafe for me to answer, so I circled no. Not once did a professional ask me to my face how I was doing or normalize for me what postpartum is really like for many women. Now I know that there are many pre and postpartum clinics that do a wonderful job at providing such advice, support, information and insight, but as a new mother, I hadn’t known that I needed to advocate for this level of care, nor did I know that I would be one of the 660,000 women in the United States who experience postpartum depression symptoms each year (source).
I close by pleading with you now, to promise to not be silent like I was. We have to continue to talk, to share, to relate to one another so that we can blur and blend our experiences as human beings, so we don’t let one more new mother feel alone. If you have ever had these intrusive thoughts, you are not your thoughts and your are not alone. Your brain was designed to produce thoughts. That is its job. You, however, do not have to listen to them or be defined by them any longer. I wish I had known this sooner.
If you or someone you know is struggling with postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD or any other related symptom, there are some wonderful online support groups. Please visit Postpartum Support International: www.postpartum.net/ or call their Help Line toll-free 1.800.944.4PPD (in English and Spanish).
Photography by Brittany Renee'