by Manou Hicks
Trigger warning: this piece gives details of Manou’s experience of maternal OCD. Please take care when reading it. This article is for general information purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you need support, please speak to your GP and refer to our Urgent Warning.
The baby isn’t breathing. That’s what my brain says. The baby isn’t breathing. You must check on him. I get up and crawl to the cot at the foot of the bed. He is fast asleep and breathing deeply. I lie back down and try to sleep. The baby isn’t breathing. You must check on him. I get up, I check, I lie back down. The baby isn’t breathing. You must check on him. I eventually decide to lie the wrong way up on our bed, feet on my pillow, watching the baby. I stay awake all night in case he stops breathing.
I gave birth to my eldest son four years ago. Our plan of a natural birth turned into a few days of labour followed by an emergency C-section, which left me both physically and mentally broken. I was unable to care for myself, let alone this tiny human who now depended on me. In the days following the birth I began to suffer PTSD symptoms, as well as extreme anxiety, postnatal depression and OCD. Three of these illnesses are relatively easy to notice, but I honestly believe I would never have realised that I was suffering from Maternal OCD if I hadn’t already known so much about the disorder.
I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember, but when I became a mother, it took over my life. My anxiety manifests as intrusive thoughts and giving into my compulsions causes me to become depressed. Add a traumatic birth, a baby who wouldn’t feed, and a general feeling that I was a terrible mother and you have some idea of how I felt. Not exactly the start to motherhood I’d hoped for, to say the least!
Mental illness can be a really difficult thing to talk about. When the midwife visited us after we left the hospital I told her everything was fine. When the health visitor came I filled in the questionnaires with the answers I thought they wanted me to give. I’m happy, the baby is easy, and we’re all fine. How could I tell them that I had constant thoughts about accidentally harming my son?
That I was convinced he would die in his sleep. That if I left him even to shower he would stop breathing and it would all be my fault. That I often dressed and re-dressed him several times as I was so worried he would overheat or freeze to death if I put him in the wrong clothes. These are not the things you say out loud when asked how you are. You smile and say, “I’m exhausted but everything is fine”.
You don’t tell the truth because you believe they will take your baby away. You don’t tell them you have to touch the door handle every time you walk past it. You don’t tell them you check the gas hob several times before you leave the house. You don’t tell them you stay up all night watching your baby. You don’t tell the truth because you think you sound crazy and believe they will take your baby away.
OCD is a demon in your head and it focuses on what’s important to you. It can be difficult to realise that you, or someone close to you, is suffering from Maternal OCD because the intrusive thoughts and related compulsions are often what is considered ‘normal’ parental behaviour. It’s normal for parents to experience intrusive thoughts about harm coming to their baby (and to worry about things like SIDS), and to have a heightened sense of responsibility to protect the child from any perceived harm. The difference with OCD is that you’re unable to shrug off the intrusive thoughts and equally unable to fight the overwhelming urge to check the baby constantly for signs of harm.
For me, it feels like intrusive thoughts enter my head out of nowhere and they can’t find their way out until I perform my compulsions. My OCD often reveals itself in checking compulsions that are easily noticeable to others; though I also experience magical thinking and mental compulsions, which are not observable. (Magical thinking is the idea that thinking something can make it more likely to happen.) My OCD is not what most people believe OCD is. I don’t compulsively wash my hands; I can touch a bin; I have no worries about catching a disease from a public toilet. Other OCD sufferers do live with these issues and I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for them, but my OCD isn’t like that. We aren’t all the same. What is the same is that we suffer unwanted thoughts and feel compelled to perform certain behaviours in order to give ourselves some temporary relief from the anxiety we are suffering. OCD is not a quirk. It is a disorder.
My eldest was eight months old when my mum took me to the GP to get help. I decided against his offer of medication, instead opting for hypnotherapy. This taught me how to relax, sleep better, and keep calm in stressful situations. It also gave me more confidence and self-belief.
But three years later, pregnant with my younger son, I started feeling everything creeping back. I immediately called my midwife, explained how I was feeling and was referred to the perinatal mental health team for assessment. I was already under consultant-led care but was now also closely monitored by the mental health team at the hospital. Being honest about my mental health meant I was given the treatment I needed at the time I needed it most. I was incredibly lucky to wait only six weeks to start Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT); I was even luckier that we could afford to pay for private talking therapy alongside this. Second time around, I also decided to accept the antidepressants offered by my GP, which I started taking after I gave birth. My medication has given me the space in my head I needed to be able to deal with my illness.
Medication, CBT, hypnotherapy – I was thirty when I finally found my ammunition.
The first time I spoke an intrusive thought out loud was in a CBT session. The first time I admitted I needed medication I felt a combination of defeat and determination. The first time I went to a counselling session I realised just how much I had already overcome. My family and friends now know the signs that I’m struggling and they’re not afraid to tell me when they think I need some extra support. Living with mental illness is nothing compared to how difficult is it to speak up about it. It took an overwhelming amount of strength and courage but now I am talking I am determined not to stop. I am not ashamed to tell my story.
These are the websites I’ve found most helpful for info about OCD: