It’s Mental Health week. As a psychologist, I am honoured to hear the most sacred of stories – but the only one I have permission to share here is mine. So to raise awareness, here it is.
I remember the moment I learned I had a Mental Illness. Sitting midway back in an auditorium full of colleauges, arms resting on my pregnant belly, there was a moment when the floor fell away. A moment when my ears buzzed, my peripheral vision became black, and there was nothing in the room except me and the man up the front. At the podium stood a renowned psychiatrist, and my heart pounded, as the story he was telling was my story. The anecdotes he was sharing were my lived experiences. I had never met him; I had never voiced those words to anyone, barely even to myself – and there he was, speaking them to everyone.
But of course, he was actually talking about someone else – and this meant I was not the only woman with this story. It still seems bizarre to me now, but this was the first time I realised I was not alone; and there was a name for what was happening to me.
This was the moment I knew I had Perinatal Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
First time around caught me completely by surprise. In the hospital, shortly after giving birth, bizarre and frightening thoughts appeared in my head. They shouted loudly “take us seriously!”, accompanied by terrifying images. I drew the obvious conclusion – there was a completely crazy part of me, and the best thing I could do was ignore it and hope it would go away. Oh, and definitely not tell anyone about it. Nine months later, they disappeared as mysteriously as they had come. Gone. As if they’d never been there. I thought no more about it… until 10 weeks prior to the birth of Toothless, suddenly there they were again, as if they’d never left.
But NOW it had a Name – and with a Name comes a Map to plot a course out.
Now that I had something I could Google and research and find evidence of successful treatment for – I could finally find words to tell Stoick what was happening to me. It’s hard to find a way to say “I will never intentionally hurt our children, but my mind is constantly plagued by intrusive thoughts and images that I will.”
Anytime I’d played that scenario in my head, it had always ended with Stoick leaving and taking Hiccup; waiting for the birth of Toothless and taking him too. My mind was super skilled at presenting the scariest scenarios possible and telling me they were all true, horrifically true.
What actually happened? It was the first piece of evidence for taking my mind less seriously. Stoick held me as I cried; he read the pages I’d bookmarked on the internet; and he reminded me he loved me, he knew our children were safe with me; and we would find a way through this together.
I knew the tools and skills I taught my own clients were the same ones I needed right now – but my mind was so frightening, I needed to find a guide to help me through. Where on earth does a Clinical Psychologist working in Perinatal Mental Health go for treatment of her own Perinatal Mental Health issue? Everyone is a colleague, a peer, a friend. I chose a private clinic that specialises in perinatal mental health; and elected to see the psychiatrist. Partly because that meant she was a little outside of my discipline. Partly because it would make it easier if it turned out medication was part of my treatment plan.
I saw that psychiatrist, initially weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, for eight months. Obviously it was a very painful time in my life – but it was also a time that was, to borrow from Russ Harris, exceedingly “rich, full, and meaningful”. With the lessons I learned, and the things I discovered, I would not trade out of that experience. It’s how I learned to be human – and I really, really love being comfortable in my own skin.
Despite professionally advocating to reduce mental health stigma, I still felt a powerful level of self-stigma. After confiding in Stoick, it took me a further three months to name the diagnosis to my parents, and six months before I could tell my closest friends. Me, there, then would never have imagined that me, here, now would write this article.
Here are some of the lessons I learned through PN-OCD:
- I discovered what it’s like to sit on the opposite couch in the therapy room. On the way out the door once, my psychiatrist said “next time, we’re going to talk about why you have such an issue with seeing a psychiatrist.” “Oh, that’s easy,” I replied, “it’s BECAUSE YOU’RE A PSYCHIATRIST!” I bet she really loved me that day 😉
- I learned how to hold my thoughts far more lightly, and take them a whole heap less seriously.
- I observed that when painful emotions like intense anxiety show up, it’s generally because I’m doing something that really matters to me deep in my heart. That’s always going to be scary.
- I learned how useful it was to have a “box” to label my “condition” with – and that there was a time to let that box go.
- I began to see my OCD-mind more like a misguided friend – like X-Men’s Magneto, desperately trying to protect me, just not in the way I desired. “Come, old friend, let’s play chess.”
- I risked being more vulnerable with people, and experienced how that vulnerablity opens relationships up to a whole deeper level. As I got more comfortable with saying “I’m NOT okay,” I noticed how often it freed others up to say “I’m not okay either,” and we could sit there, being not okay together and neither of us being alone anymore.
- I like me better when I accept that I’m not perfect. I can celebrate being flawed – beautifully, humanly flawed, and all of us in this together.
I don’t claim that my experience of PN-OCD was typical, a majority experience, or a minority experience. It is simply MY story, and if it has touched you today, please consider sharing it with others and help me in raising awareness.
For more information on PN-OCD and helpful resources, see here.