My experience with pre and postnatal OCD

OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is a debilitating disorder where the sufferer has obsessive thoughts or fears which lead them to do repetitive behaviours (compulsions). Did you know that OCD can also present in pregnancy and during the postnatal period? Here is my story...

When I became pregnant with my son, I felt like all my dreams had come true. This was a truly longed for baby. After a diagnosis of PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), a few rounds of fertility treatment and a heart wrenching miscarriage at 11 weeks prior to this pregnancy, it had felt like perhaps it would never be my turn. 

Despite the joy I felt at being pregnant again and as much as I wanted to throw myself into the pregnancy experience; shopping for maternity clothes, browsing baby items, planning a baby shower for example, the reality was that I just didn't feel able to relax or let my guard down long enough for this to happen. In short, I struggled to believe that this pregnancy would result in a live baby. 

pregnancy OCD

With the benefit of hindsight, I can clearly see why the next year turned out the way it did for me. My previous miscarriage had left me broken-hearted. With the loss of this pregnancy, came the loss of the hopes and dreams we had for our life with this baby; the first smiles, the first steps, the first days at school etc. I felt robbed of my baby and I was utterly bereft. During the days and weeks that followed the miscarriage, worries and anxieties began to plague me. Had I somehow caused this miscarriage? Had I eaten the wrong foods? Had I been too stressed? Had my baths and showers been too hot? The questions were endless. Of course, I know now that it wasn't anything I did wrong and that miscarriage is sadly, very common (affecting 1 in 4 pregnancies), but at the time I didn't realise this. I was desperate to keep this baby and not make any of the same 'mistakes' again. 

The worrying thoughts that I had about causing another miscarriage, manifested themselves into compulsions. In particular, this centred around my fears of contamination. I would worry that touching particular surfaces would mean I would come into contact with harmful germs that would then transfer to the baby. I washed my hands constantly after touching anything and this made them red and sore and they would also crack and bleed. At the time I was working as a nurse and my fears of touching a dirty surface or coming into contact with a poorly patient made it near impossible to carry out my day to day duties. 

Coping with pregnancy OCD

Eating also became an issue as I became extremely anxious that eating certain foods would harm the baby. I remember once throwing a whole pizza in the bin because I discovered it had a tiny pinch of a particular herb in that I believed would cause me to have a miscarriage. 

It's clear to see how debilitating my condition had become but I didn't see it at the time, or at least I didn't see the extent of it. I just believed that this was what I had to do to keep my baby safe. 

When my baby boy arrived, the compulsions continued. Again, much of my fears were contamination concerns- I remember throwing away the syringes of expressed breast milk I had managed to produce because I worried they had been left out too long and I didn't want to make him poorly. I would wash my hands constantly in an effort to protect him from germs and would even beg my husband to wash his hands too on occasions. I would also wash the baby's bottles over and over, sterilising them and then re-sterilising them in an effort to quell my fears.

I also worried that he would become harmed from my negligence, for example that something I had placed on a shelf or wardrobe would slide off and fall on him or that I would leave the straighteners or the oven on. I would check these things over and over again, not believing my first, second or third check. I would also worry that he would vomit and choke in his sleep or that his blanket would slide over his head causing him to suffocate. I would check every little sound or snuffle he made and barely slept at night due to these fears.

It was beyond exhausting. I wasn't coping. Day to day tasks were either becoming, or were already impossible.

As I didn't recognise the severity of what I was experiencing, I didn't seek help but I truly wish I had done. I often think back to those early days of parenthood with sadness- things were so hard and I was struggling so much. 

Eventually, things did become easier. This is largely due to previous CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) sessions I had had for anxiety when I was younger. CBT helps you to change established thought patterns and to recognise negative or unhelpful thoughts. I had been taught a word during these sessions; 'catastrophising'. This is where someone will assume that the the worst case scenario will occur. I realised that a lot of my thoughts were just this, anxiety of the worst happening. Each time I had an urge to wash my hands, or to check on the baby for the 50th time that evening, I reminded myself of this word and eventually I started to let things go. It wasn't overnight, it was a gradual process, but eventually day to day life became considerably easier and I started to function a little better. Whilst sometimes I feel the thoughts, worries and fears bubbling away (my contamination fears were of particular prevalence with the emergence of COVID-19), I now find it a little easier to recognise them for what they are and have made a promise to myself to seek help should things ever return to how they were during this particular period of my life.  

Reaching out and seeking help

It can be hard to reach out and talk about the OCD symptoms that you are experiencing but it's so important to know that there is absolutely no shame in the condition. If you are experiencing any signs of OCD, contacting your GP is a great first step and they will advise on the options for treatment. This can include talking therapies such as CBT and sometimes medication. You may also consider contacting a psychiatrist. Private psychiatry is an effective tool in helping to assess your needs, provide a diagnosis and tailor a holistic treatment plan for you. 

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