[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.
We often talk about the intrusive thoughts of postpartum anxiety and postpartum OCD here on Postpartum Progress, things like envisioning dropping your baby down the stairs, or much worse. I recently heard from a reader who asked why we don’t discuss the unwanted sexual thoughts that can sometimes be a part of intrusive thoughts. It was a great question, because it happens. So I invited Beth to share her story with us. -Katherine]
I was the expectant mother who read everything she could get her hands on about her unborn child. Before she was born, I had dutifully checked off each item that I would need for my new baby. My pregnancy was a breeze, and I felt proud of delivering a healthy 8-pound, 13-ounce baby girl “J.”
The first couple of months went as well as you could expect with a new infant. I was enjoying being a new mother and breastfeeding was going well, but J had a lot of gas and she wouldn’t nap due to acid reflux. I was having a hard time, but it was nothing out of the ordinary.
However, other things outside of my daughter started affecting my anxiety levels. My grandmother was very ill and had been hospitalized, information I didn’t learn until after my daughter was born because my mother didn’t want to upset me. One month later my grandmother died.
The other thing that made me more anxious was my husband’s new job required him to work more hours than we had originally planned, leaving me to do more by myself. We also didn’t have a lot of family and friends to help out on a regular basis. Emotionally I was already teetering, and then I had my first intrusive thought three months after my daughter was born. My world fell apart.
I was changing her diaper and a horrible thought of molesting my daughter flashed through my mind. I spent the next few days trying to understand why I would think such a thing. A normal mother would never think something like that. I thought that something was terribly wrong with me because only a terrible person who belonged behind bars would ever think of something that horrible.
The more I worried about the thought, the more unsettled and anxious I got. The thoughts got worse and came at me more frequently. I remember praying frantically, thinking that some sort of evil spirit had taken me over. I withered in silence for a month or so before telling my husband. He tried to help me, but I couldn’t listen. I couldn’t even admit to him how bad it was. All the while, the thoughts got worse and more frequent.
In the meanwhile, I quit my job to stay at home with J. I joined playgroups and a local church, anything to stay busy, but being around other “normal” moms made me feel worse. What would they think if they knew the kind of thoughts I had? They wouldn’t want me to be around their children. They would think I was a horrible person.
Calling to make an appointment with a therapist was difficult. I was afraid that if I told her what I had thought that someone would take my baby away. Somehow I made the appointment and very slowly my story unfolded.
I told her about my best friend’s family that I had become very close to at a young age. My single mom appreciated me having a friend whose family welcomed me into their home after school and during the summers. They were a good family who adopted and fostered children. They were active participants in their church. They had a large family and they welcomed me into it with open arms. When I was a teenager, my mother married someone that I didn’t get along with and I went to live with this family.
Shortly after I moved in, one of the girls told me that her father had sexually abused her. I confronted the parents, only to find out that it was true, and that it had not only happened to her, but many of the children. Then they asked me to keep this secret. So I kept it.
To my detriment, I kept their secret. I was never abused myself and the abuse was not happening while I lived there, but it had happened. Knowing what had happened and not being able to talk about it, and on some level accepting it by keeping the secret, created a lot of fear and anger in my heart, but I couldn’t deal with it then. So I tucked it away.
All of this fear surfaced when I had J. I was so afraid that something like this could happen to her somehow. The fears didn’t make sense. I was not at risk to be an abuser myself, but none of that mattered. All that mattered to me was that I had had these terrible, unthinkable thoughts and that was enough damnation in my mind. I felt that because I had these terrible thoughts that I would forever be scarred and never the same again. I wanted so badly to take it back or get a do-over. I felt I would never be the mother that I could have been because of these unwanted, intrusive thoughts.
I was hesitant to take antidepressants because I was breastfeeding. But one day I had had enough. The thoughts were bad and I felt like it would never end. I was walking around the house crying and I picked up the phone and called my lactation consultant about going on meds. She supported my decision and I made an appointment with a doctor at my OB office. Luckily, he was very helpful and supportive. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay on that particular antidepressant because I felt out of it and thought it was too strong and didn’t want to pass it on to my daughter, so I went off and tried herbs and tinctures instead. They didn’t work.
Finally, after my daughter’s first birthday and encouragement from my therapist, I got put on an antidepressant that worked for me. I started to notice a difference about a month later, and it got me over the hump. I felt like I could deal with this. Yoga and meditation practice have also been helpful in my recovery.
I am doing much better now. I am still having productive therapy sessions and the intrusive thoughts are much less frequent and bothersome. It’s the memory of my postpartum anxiety experience that is the most vivid in my mind. Now, I mostly obsess over how I’m doing and am constantly evaluating myself. I have had a few setbacks that, at the time, were devastating, but each time it was easier to get back up than the time before.
I’ve learned to be more compassionate with myself, and I realize that it takes time to get completely better, but the difference now is that I truly believe that I will get there. Through this whole ordeal I can say that I have learned a lot about myself, and all of the work that I have done on myself is making me a better mother and a better person, and for that I am grateful.
[Editor’s Note: Thank you so much for sharing your story Beth. It is possible for women to have unwanted thoughts of a sexual nature as part of their illness. These thoughts can happen regardless of whether you have a history of sexual abuse. It is important to know you are not alone, and you can get help.]