Trigger warning: If you are currently suffering from intrusive thoughts this story may trigger additional upsetting thoughts and it may be better to skip it. ~ Katherine

Following is a story on intrusive thoughts and postpartum OCD from a mom I met as a fellow finalist for iVillage iVoices. I’m so glad I got to know her as a fellow survivor. She shares her experience here today, and it is one I identify with 10000000000%. Introducing the fabulous Stephanie Stearns Dulli from Dial M for Minky Moo:

Sitting in the doctor’s office I read the pamphlet she handed me about postpartum depression. Bleak thoughts, intrusive thoughts towards yourself or the baby. Oh good, I thought. I don’t have any of those, I’m safe.

I was on the lookout for postpartum depression. My grandmother had suffered a great depression as had my mother, and while my struggle had been with an eating disorder and not depression I knew that statistically I was at a higher risk. The depression I was expecting never came, I was madly in love with my son and as happy as could be.

I mean, except for the non-stop panicking. No one told me that postpartum anxiety and intrusive thoughts could be a facet of any postpartum struggle. I had no idea that what I was experiencing was out of the norm, which now seems positively absurd. I can remember very clearly the first vision that took over my thoughts. I say vision because I could see it, eyes open or closed it didn’t matter. It wasn’t just a thought. It was a scene from a movie that might happen, playing on a loop, a never ending loop. Every time it played my body reacted physically. Viscerally. It was this: carrying the baby down the three stories of cement stairs that led from our apartment to the street, he slips from my arms and his head explodes – pops – like a tiny cantaloupe. I became vigilant going up and down the stairs. We never left without a nearly hysterical admonition to be extremely careful with the baby.

I had been told repeatedly before he was born to sleep when the baby sleeps. This was an utter impossibility. It wasn’t that I just couldn’t sleep, I was holding a vigil. What if this was the time he stopped breathing? What if he opened his eyes, didn’t see me and then died? What if he needed me and I wasn’t there? What if, what if, what if. I resolved to never leave his side. At least that way if he died I would know I had done everything right.

We lived near a lake and we would take long lovely strolls with him safely tucked in his stroller. He would coo and doze while I panicked. What if the stroller rolled into the lake? This panic would stay with me for days causing to repeat to myself over and over again: “He is safe in his stroller.” Or if he was sleeping: “He is safe in his bed. He is not in the lake.” It didn’t help. Nothing helped. And soon it wasn’t just the lake, it was a car jumping the curb and hitting the stroller, it was him wandering off and being hit by a car. The visions became more complex and terrifying and I was powerless to stop them. I tried.

Then watching the “Today Show” they showed footage of a young mother letting go of her stroller for a split second, helpless as her baby rolls right off the platform and under the oncoming train. They played that video over and over….but I had already seen it in my mind’s eye for months. I didn’t sleep for nearly 7 days, my postpartum anxiety leading to panic attacks every night. My son was almost a year old at this point and I was trapped in panic. It was robbing me of my life. We had made two moves since my son had been born and not really knowing anyone in the new area allowed me to rarely leave the house. I’d venture out to the store, sure. But that was an all day event. One thing a day; that was all I could do.

I’m not sure what caused me to blurt out that I was terrified when the doctor asked me how I was. I was there for a yearly check-up and had my son with me. He charmed the nurses while I burst into tears at the question “how are you?” Things moved pretty fast then. I am grateful that I have a good doctor who immediately saw I had postpartum anxiety and reassured me that intrusive thoughts were not normal but that he could help. I left there with a prescription for Zoloft and a referral for a counselor.

I thank God every day for whoever invented Zoloft. I still panic, but now it’s reasonable. I can talk myself off the ledge, so to speak. My son is two now, and I can’t see myself getting off the medication any time soon. I lost it on a trip and after three days of no Zoloft I experienced a large increase in my anxiety level. Whether that was psychosomatic or real doesn’t matter; I am not ready. With medication and centering tricks learned in therapy I can enjoy my son now, I can let him dip his toes in the ocean without a complete panic attack that he will be swept away, or eaten by a shark. I am careful with him, of course, but I am able to let him be a rambunctious two-year-old.

It’s been a long journey, and I’m not done with it. Every day I have to breathe, I have to remind myself of reality versus my view of things. I get better every day, but I do wish I had known that there were more postpartum issues than just depression.

And if you think someone is struggling, take their hand, look right in their eyes and ask “How are you?”