Even As A Specialist, I Could Have Never Predicted How My Postpartum OCD Would Make Motherhood Unbearable
Photo: c/o Jenny C. Yip
How often have you heard someone say, “I’m so OCD?” We all have idiosyncrasies, but organizing your sock drawer or color-coding a schedule is not the same as OCD. Obsessive compulsive disorder involves terrifying thoughts replaying like a nightmare in your mind, so much so that these intrusive thoughts and compulsions severely interfere with daily life.
I faced my own battle with OCD in childhood, beginning at the age of four. I finally triumphed over it in my 20s and later became a specialist treating the most severe cases. When my twin boys were born two years ago, within the first week, I was shocked to find the devastating effects of OCD gripping me once again. It had returned with a vengeance, in the most nebulous way — my intrusive thoughts were even more creative and obscure than before. Even as an OCD specialist, I couldn't recognize it in myself because my symptoms presented themselves so differently than any way I had ever experienced before. Yet once again, my OCD felt like claws against a chalkboard.
My obsessive fear was that I would love one twin more than the other, which would cause emotional damage to their well-being. To appease my intrusive obsession, I drove myself crazy attempting to neutralize the feared consequence with silly compulsions. Everything I did for one of my sons needed to be done exactly the same for the other. I even attempted to come up with strange mathematical formulas, so I could measure and ensure that each baby consumed the exact amount of milk when breastfeeding. How does one measure how much milk a baby gets from breastfeeding? Length of time multiplied by rate of sucking multiplied by milk production multiplied by time of day… The insanity of it all was impossible to cope with.
“My OCD turned my first few months of motherhood from bliss into torment.”
Exhausted as I was from those newborn days, I would lie awake every night ruminating and analyzing on the amount of times I had thought of each twin, while comparing the thoughts to each other. I had to be sure I was treating them equally, so that one twin wouldn’t feel more favored than the other. My OCD turned my first few months of motherhood from bliss into torment.
Photo: c/o Jenny C. Yip
Did I have the common postpartum OCD symptoms of excessively washing my hands, sanitizing, and checking my babies’ safety? Yes, I experienced those, too. My hands were chapped, cracked, and raw from washing and cleaning relentlessly, and I had to keep watch to make sure my helpless infants didn’t die of SIDS while sleeping.
The drastic lifestyle changes and sleepless nights can cause any new mom to feel overwhelmed. However, adding OCD to the mix can make motherhood unbearable. And, unlike postpartum depression, which is often discussed between new mothers and healthcare providers, there is little information on postpartum OCD or the reality that it can occur in both new mothers and fathers alike. In fact, postpartum OCD is often misdiagnosed as postpartum depression, and, sadly, many new parents often suffer alone for fear of disclosing the offensive nature of their symptoms and receiving negative judgment from others. Some women have even been involuntarily hospitalized by doctors who lack awareness of postpartum OCD, misunderstanding that the intrusive thoughts a mother may experience are actually intense fears and not signs of psychosis.
Photo: c/o Jenny C. Yip
Fortunately, as with other types of OCD, postpartum OCD is very treatable with Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP). ERP is exercise for the brain: The more the brain muscles are flexed, the stronger a patient becomes, and with practice, sufferers can break free from OCD.
“I chose to be free from OCD so that I could bond genuinely with my boys without the thoughts and compulsions getting in the way.”
My own experience going through ERP treatment was just as torturous as the ones I prescribe to my patients. I had to visualize and imagine the unbearable possibility of harm befalling my sweet, innocent babies. I had to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what might happen to them one day. I had to accept the reality that they could die before I do. These thoughts would be hard to swallow for any parent, and for those of us undergoing treatment for OCD, we must repeat these exposures until the painful thoughts lose their power.
Although exposing myself to my worst fears was a daunting task, living with the agonizing thoughts of OCD would have been much, much worse. Without going through exposure treatment, this mental disorder can be lifelong, an existence that I would never be willing to tolerate. I chose to be free from OCD so that I could bond genuinely with my boys without the thoughts and compulsions getting in the way. The arduous exposures during treatment have been worth every tear and heartbreak. I can now live free to experience all the bliss that motherhood brings, without the chains of OCD holding me back.