Help me welcome today’s guest, Chelsea Elker! Chelsea’s a fellow Minnesotan, which I just learned a month or so ago—I’d shared this achingly beautiful post she’d written for The Mighty without realizing we both live in the Twin Cities area, and then she found me after I wrote a little somethin’ for The Mighty and mentioned Minneapolis. Lucky for those of us in the Twin Cities, we have a budding advocate right here—and lucky for all of you, you can check out her blog about postpartum OCD and get in touch with her via email.
You’ve been open with your struggles with postpartum OCD. When did you first notice the symptoms, and how long did it take for you to realize it was OCD?
When I was lying in bed one night nursing my three-week-old son (Easton), I thought “what if I smothered him?”…and when I say I had this thought, I mean I could feel it. It felt like I was having an urge to do it, which terrified the life out of me. Once I had that thought, I turned onto my stomach and laid on my hands, I just remember thinking “don’t move, don’t move, don’t touch him.”
I now know that the feeling of the “urge” was my body having a physical reaction against the thought. I now recognize that my anxiety was very high prior to that thought and my overwhelming need to protect Easton caused my body to have a physical reaction against any perceived harm against him. I didn’t know that then, so I spent the next month obsessing about why I would ever think such a thing. Not only was I worried about that thought, but I started having other harm thoughts (all centered on my newborn). I couldn’t forgive myself for the thoughts, I couldn’t let go of the feeling of the urge, and I couldn’t trust myself around him because I felt like I was a threat to him.
Before I reached out to anyone for help, I began researching “scary thought baby” or “weird thought newborn” online to see if anyone else had ever had a weird experience like me. I did end up finding some information about what I was going through and by the time I emailed the therapist that I ended up seeing, I was pretty sure of my diagnosis.
I wish I could say that figuring out my diagnosis made it easier to overcome, but even with the knowledge of what I was dealing with, I still needed therapy and medication to overcome it.
Once you made the connection between what you were going through and OCD, how did you go about treating it? Did a therapist or other doctor make a diagnosis and recommend a treatment plan?
I actually found my therapist by Googling “OCD Specialist MN.” By doing that I found a therapist in my area who not only specialized in postpartum women/OCD, but she had also experienced it herself. I felt like if anyone could understand me it would be her. I began going to her and didn’t take any medication at first (I felt very against medications for some reason) and tried to get through it with therapy alone. There were a couple of times where I tried to reach out to my OB and pediatrician, but each time I got scared off because when I would mention having anxiety they would say “well, not about the baby, right?” I would say no and leave feeling worse.
Eventually I was fortunate enough to enter The Mother Baby Program which was an outpatient program for new mothers in Minnesota (1 of only 4 in the country), there I was able to take part in group and individual therapy and also get stabilized on medications thanks to their psychiatrists on staff. The outpatient program was a huge turning point for me. When I began my journey through OCD, I felt very alone. I slowly reached out to certain people, but only when I would get to the point where I felt like I would die if I didn’t. I felt such a stigma around getting on medication or joining an outpatient program that it hindered me from reaching out sooner.
Can you share some of your obsessions and compulsions with us?
My obsessions all revolved around hurting my children, on purpose. Yes, I said it. I thought I was going to hurt my kids and I was scared to death.
I thought I would smother my baby, so I never had any blankets or towels near us when I was with him.
I thought I would snap his neck, so I was petrified of holding him.
I thought I would molest my older son so I never let him sleep in my bed.
I thought I might touch my kids inappropriately while changing their diapers or while strapping them into car seats, so I always did those things very quickly, almost paralyzed with fear.
The list of these obsessions goes on and on, I could turn almost any thought into an intrusive thought and almost any object into a “weapon.” Most of my compulsions were mental, so when I was at my worst, I was having these thoughts all day (and night). I always felt the need to disagree with the thoughts, for example:
“What if I smothered him?”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“But what if I did?”
“You wouldn’t, it’s wrong.”
“But what if I didn’t think it was wrong anymore?”
This line of thought was endless, obsessive.
What advice can you share with new mothers who are experiencing similar intrusive thoughts?
If something feels wrong or off, please get help. I’m not saying that from a place of fear for your child’s safety, I’m saying it from a place of love and compassion for your mental well-being. If you are having thoughts that scare you or feel weird to you that means you know the difference between right and wrong. Thoughts caused by anxiety are not dangerous, they may feel dangerous, but they come from a place of fear and a mother experiencing them will go to great lengths to keep her children safe. My biggest fear was that I was losing my mind, I felt crazy. I was convinced that the fact that I was having these thoughts meant that I was dangerous and meant that I wanted to hurt my kids, and that was the furthest thing from the truth.
What I learned in therapy is that anxiety/OCD take what you care about most and put them in the worst case scenario. So the face that I was obsessing about my children made complete sense, they are my entire world. It was my job to keep them safe, so the minute that I felt their safety was in danger, at the hands of me no less, I began to drive myself crazy.
I needed therapy to get better. I needed medication to calm down. I needed both of these things, but I never once had anyone question my sanity or threaten to take my kids away. Reaching out for help and taking that first step was terrifying, but I had to do it to get better. I deserved to get better and be happy again.
I don’t have children myself, but this piece you wrote about your own postpartum OCD spoke to me. Every single line was spot-on and perfectly captured the terror a person with harm OCD can feel. How did you get to the point where you felt comfortable sharing your personal experience?
As soon as I realized what was happening to me, I promised myself I would one day help others. It took me almost a year and a half to fully recover, but I did it and I’m making good on my promise to myself to spread awareness. While I was still struggling, I began a blog called Delicate Change, I wrote on and off for about six months, then I kind of didn’t touch it for two years. During those two years I completely healed and had another baby. Though I wasn’t actively updating my blog, people were still finding me online and messaging me either asking for advice or wondering what had happened to me. When my daughter was about six months old, I felt like I should pick my blog back up again, so I did. I’m still working on perfecting it and updating it as much as I’d like, but it’s important for me to show how my life has gone on since experiencing postpartum OCD.
In that essay, you say, “You obsess over having ‘the thoughts.’ You obsess over not having ‘the thoughts.’ You cry when the thoughts upset you. You cry more when they don’t.” In those four lines you nailed the dreaded OCD loop, the damned if you do, damned if you don’t anxiety we so often feel. How did you learn to cope with the fear that if you weren’t bothered by the thoughts you must somehow like them and want them?
Forcing myself to stop disagreeing with the thoughts felt like jumping off a cliff without a harness. It felt dangerous. I literally felt like I was part of a life or death test, unsure of how it would end up. At the end of the day though, I had to do it. You cannot outthink or reason with OCD. I had to release myself from its grasp. The only way to save myself and my sanity was to “risk” letting the thoughts go.
At first it was very hard. It was a very long process. I was annoyed that even though I knew that I had OCD, it didn’t make my journey easier. Being diagnosed didn’t magically make it go away. Knowing others went through the same thing was slightly comforting, but I had to work through the illness day by day on my own. It was the single most excruciating thing I have ever done, I wouldn’t wish those months of anguish on my worst enemy. Today though, I’m here to say that recovery is possible. At my worst I was depressed and felt like OCD would somehow kill me, I now have all of the joy back in my life and am able to be “present” with my children in a way that I wasn’t before.
You stay home with three darling little kids. How are you doing now?
Life is amazing. I promise that of all the people in all of the world, I was the last person who would have believed complete recovery was possible…but it is. I still think weird stuff sometimes, but I’m able to let it go. The obsessiveness over weird thoughts is gone. I had another baby and I’m smitten with her. I’m so in love. Seeing her and her brothers interact is magical and I’m forever grateful that I’m their mommy.
Obviously, every day isn’t cupcakes and roses, but I’m able to handle my anxiety and stress without having intrusive thoughts. I would also like to add that a huge turning point in my recovery came when I noticed myself being able to complain about my children again. I know this sounds weird, but for a solid year and a half, I would never have said parenting was hard or my kids were driving me nuts. Wouldn’t have said it. That is because, at that time, if I said it was hard, I felt like that meant I didn’t want them or that I wished they weren’t here. I couldn’t admit that parenting got overwhelming without assuming it meant I wanted to hurt them or be rid of them. I can now. I can tell my kids that they’re driving me nuts. I can tell my husband I need a break from them. I’m able to make peace with the fact that they can annoy the crap out of me and I love them more than life itself.
If you could share just one piece of advice with someone with OCD, what would it be?
Please remember that intrusive thoughts are not your thoughts. They are thoughts that come from a place of anxiety and fear. Do not look for a deeper meaning in them or punish yourself for thinking them. People with anxiety/OCD have the exact same thoughts as people without it, the difference is that they cannot let those thoughts go. People with OCD are very sensitive to right and wrong, which makes it hard for them to let go of thoughts that they perceive to be “bad” or “dangerous.” Postpartum OCD is (usually) centered around the baby. Mothers feel such an overwhelming need to protect their children that they will drive themselves completely crazy before ever letting an ounce of harm come to their children. If you are having trouble in any way or just feel “off” please reach out and talk to someone. I know women always want to look like they “have it together” but I’m here to say that it is so very important to take great care of yourself, because it is the only way you can take care of the beautiful babies that you care so much about.