Read First: Let’s Talk About Intrusive Thoughts.
I’ve intertwined stories from moms (including myself) who have all experienced intrusive thoughts in one form or another during their postpartum experience. For one mom, she didn’t experience them until her son was two and she was off medication, something that made the experience even more difficult.
Again, as with yesterday’s post, if you are in a fragile state, please skip reading, particularly if you find that you are easily influenced by reading the experiences of others. We don’t hold anything back.
I also want to remind our readers that every mother’s experience and subsequent reaction and/or seeking of help is different, molded to her own life and journey. These mothers did the best they could with what they had available to them at the time. The important thing, though, is that each one of them fought like hell the best way they could to get free of these horrible thoughts holding them captive.
Today’s video is a fun one. Tiny Hamsters Tiny Date. Hamsters. On a DATE. AWWWWW.
Intrusive Thoughts: A Conversation
Picture it. The present year, a small coffee shop on Main Street. A group of women sitting, sipping various hot beverages, chatting among themselves. No one thinks anything of it, until they get close enough to hear their conversation.
“I wanted to smother my daughters on the day my brain nearly broke. The thought played over and over in my head. Before THE day, I had obsessive thoughts about knives. I couldn’t use them. I cleaned obsessively. Scrubbed my hands. I exclusively pumped for my second daughter, which only fed my cleaning obsession. The stress. The meds. They broke me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. Before the thought grew feet, I curled up in the fetal position in bed, afraid that if I got up, I wouldn’t be able to control my actions. I still remember the way the wind rustled through the giant oak outside the window and the squirrels scurrying along the massive limbs. I had never been so scared in my entire life.” Even though she shared her experience this often, her voice still broke as the memories washed over her.
“I wanted to drive my car into oncoming traffic while my kids were in the car. And don’t get me started about the panic attacks I would have while driving,” one of them said.
The rest nodded slowly, their faces somber yet understanding.
“I wanted to drive off overpasses or bridges. I would think, what if I just let go of the steering wheel? I also thought about not waking up in the morning. Something I later found out was what they call passive suicidal idealizations. I didn’t really want to hurt or kill myself, I just didn’t want to wake up. Oh, and while pregnant with my second? I wanted to throw myself down the stairs.”
As the women nodded, one of them clenched her cup a little tighter, then started to speak, softly.
“I…I… I bounced back and forth between harm and sexual. Mostly knives and pillows were the focus of the harm ones. But really anything I saw turned into a weapon in my mind that could hurt my son. Then, an incident happened at our church where a mother and her husband were assaulting her daughter. My mind latched right on to it as if it were the edge of a cliff and if I let go, I’d fall. I thought she was “normal” …and I thought I was “normal.” If she could do it, then what was to stop me from doing it? This thought swallowed me whole, it was always there, clinging to me: Did I wipe too much… was I looking at “it” …did I want to do something? Mostly with my child but during the worst of it, even when we were in public… which I started to avoid because I was convinced something in my mind flipped and I WAS my thoughts. It was around his first birthday when the other ones popped up. The news or shows I watched determined my obsessive thoughts for the day. During the worst of it, I would say if I had one every 30 seconds, it was a GREAT day as they were always one after another. No breaks.”
The others in the group again nodded in solidarity. There wasn’t much they hadn’t heard by this point.
“I didn’t realize I had a problem when my son was an infant. I just couldn’t stop picturing the real dangerous chemicals that do actually “off gas.” At some point, I crossed from knowing that this was an environmental hazard to picturing or imagining the chemicals on our skin, in our hair, in the air we were breathing. They eventually had colors. Each type had a different color. The worst was plastic being heated…” her voice trailed off. This realization has been tough for her.
“I had visions of stabbing my precious new baby over and over. I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t conjure up a happy thought. I couldn’t distract myself. I couldn’t relax. I sure as hell couldn’t zone out watching the Food Channel with knives being brandished left and right. It was like being stuck in rough surf close to the beach where you just can’t seem to make headway on land before the next wave crashes over you. I was in a black hole of terror that started a few days after my beloved son was born. My soul draining each moment as the horror show played over and over in my head. What kind of a mother would ever think such a thing?”
Finally, the last woman in the group spoke. “My story doesn’t start when my son was an infant. Two years later, and off medication, my anxiety came back, fiercely. I was a very angry person. Was off for three months. Never felt quite like myself. Then we went on vacation. I don’t know if it was the stress of the trip or my brain just not being well, but my anxiety came back just as it was when the baby was born. But worse. I thought I had moved past it all. I was very angry. Couldn’t look at my child. I even had a fleeting intrusive thought of pushing him in front of a moving car while we went for an evening walk. And whenever my son wanted to wrestle around, as boys do, I had urges to actually cause him harm. Thoughts would pop up of pushing him down or being really rough with him.”
Customers in the coffee shop came and went, catching fragments of the conversation as they did so, each of them slightly perplexed at the depth and magnitude of the topic contrasted with the seemingly nonchalant way these women were discussing these dark thoughts in public. But not one of them stopped to comment or join in. There were a few raised eyebrows and strange looks as the snippets delved into their space, but nothing beyond that.
The women continued, sipping coffee and tea as the sun peered through the window of the quiet coffee shop, discussing how they each managed to move past these thoughts intruding on their lives.
“I ended up in the ER, then in a psychiatric ward. My med was changed. I began practicing self-care. I threw myself into advocacy and growing my own support group. I needed to know that my crazy wasn’t going to be permanent, that others had survived. Eventually, I ended up on meds and in therapy. I’m still on meds, for OCD and anxiety, and I am okay with that. I remember hating the pills. But now? They’re part of me and just the way things are. I’m a much stronger woman and mother because of what I have been through. And my self-care skills rock.”
“I would shake my head to banish these thoughts of driving into oncoming traffic from my mind. Eventually, I realized I am not my thoughts. They didn’t hold any power over me. I listened to music, books on tape, called friends and family, used deep breathing techniques from yoga. I pictured these horrible thoughts as bubbles just floating away. The thoughts still crop up from time to time when I am sleep deprived or very stressed. Medication and therapy were key to helping me develop the tools I needed. I needed to change that negative loop in my head and realize that my thoughts were just thoughts.“ She sipped her coffee, legs crossed as she glanced around the cozy shop.
“Medication helped immensely. Therapy helped me find strategies to cope with and shut down the thoughts. When my anxiety is high these days, I still struggle with intrusive, rage-filled thoughts. But I am better armed to recognize them and cope,” she said, firmly.
“I constantly asked my husband if he thought I would XYZ. I was told that I had to stop confessing so the thoughts would become less important to me. That was SO hard, because I thought if I just “sat” with them in my mind, it meant I was okay with the thoughts. But eventually, I saw that it did work. It was a hard battle to be okay with them NOT bothering me because I was always told crazy people don’t know they’re crazy; the thoughts don’t bother them. When they started to bother me less, I worried! I still have them, but now I can brush them off. If I let myself slip and start confessing, it’s like a drug. It stops the anxiety for just a little bit. It feels so good you want to continue! I have to also watch what I read or see on TV because I find myself comparing: If they did that, maybe I would too. I even remember comparing myself to all those mass shooters. I searched for news stories of Andrea Yates, seeking any tiny trait similar between those folks and me. Now, I always try to bring up intrusive thoughts with my moms. Intrusive thoughts are SO not talked about and really should be.”
“My thoughts would get softer, like music, if I could avoid them. I tried to shop my way out of it, too. Organic cloth diapers with wool covers hand made by other moms. Glass and stainless steel. Only one brand of organic formula. Organic foods for me and the baby. New shower curtain, fabric and then a phthalate-free liner. I cleaned with vinegar or baking soda. Washing clothes. I did so much laundry. I knew all the ingredients in my laundry detergent. I could handle even pajamas with flame retardant chemicals if I just washed them enough… which doesn’t actually do much, but it was not as logical a compulsion as it seemed to be. I also sought out other moms who worried about the same things, or did the same things, so that I could talk about cleaning with essential oils or lanolizing wool without sounding “crazy.” I’m just now starting to talk about what all of this really was. It explains so much about my many behaviors.”
“I slowly got better with therapy and medication. The intrusive thoughts ebbed and finally faded. Only there was still this huge gaping hole in my heart. I swear you could see all the way to infinity and back that hole was so big. I was sure I would never really be happy again or be joyful as mother because this terrible experience haunted me. I put on brave face. I cared for and played with my baby. I worked hard at my job. I prayed, tried to meditate, did yoga, spent time with dear family and friends, and watched chick flicks. I did all my happy things. Only it was still there—that void of fear and sadness over this experience. One day I found a blog by a non-profit full of other mothers’ stories of surviving postpartum mood disorders. The founder put it out there in a matter-of-fact way about how postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, and psychosis are simply treatable diseases. And she got other women to share their stories on her blog. Reading these stories let me know I wasn’t alone. It was huge. Apparently, a lot of us moms obsess over just one terrible image. Our brains all go haywire in a similar way!”
Every mother there nodded in agreement, knowing exactly how it felt to be the owner of a brain gone horribly haywire.
“I would have to stop playtime, breathe, and regroup my thoughts. Knowing I didn’t WANT to cause him harm, and wouldn’t, but was scared of what might happen if I continued. I’ve come to terms with so much the past six months. The Climb and all my warrior moms have really helped a lot this year. I am a proudly medicated mommy! Things are much better these days. Much better.”
The moms chatted for awhile longer, about more acceptable things, such as childhood milestones, what kind of wines they preferred, and what their weekend plans were for the upcoming holiday. As the conversation navigated in this direction, the reaction of the customers in the coffee shop as they passed by them changed. They smiled, offered suggestions about local events for the upcoming holiday, and one older woman even complimented one of the mothers on her jewelry.
As the mothers stood to leave, each of them grabbing their purses, making sure they had their phones and their keys, they hugged, a little tighter than they would normally, because they had bonded in a way mothers who haven’t been in this type of hell can’t.
They went their separate ways, then, their hearts and minds forever entwined as fierce survivors and warriors.