I remember the first time it happened. In the middle of a late night nursing, I was rocking my 1-month old daughter in the dimmed light of her room. In my mind, as vivid as any movie, I saw two robbers burst into the room, wielding huge butcher knives and plunging them into my baby.
Shocked and horrified, I shook my head to clear the image but the harder I tried not to think about it, the more persistently the scene flashed over and over through my mind. I remember getting up and praying hard, “Lord, please don’t let me hurt my baby . . . ”
A few days later, as I was driving down I-35, the thought pushed into my mind, “It would be so easy to just drive off into this overpass . . .” I was sickened and shaking with fear as I looked at my daughter in her infant car seat, and drove cautiously and deliberately home.
What kind of mother was I?
What kind of awful mother was I to have such terrible thoughts about harming my sweet little baby? Was I losing my mind? Fortunately, I had an inkling that this was related to post-partum depression, and at our next well-baby checkup, I asked my pediatrician about it. He smiled and paused with understanding, and explained what was known then, twenty years ago, about what are called intrusive thoughts. Today, more is known about this disorder, but it is not widely talked about.
Intrusive thoughts are one manifestation of an anxiety disorder or OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder.) They are extremely distressing for the sufferer, in that they often focus on reprehensible behaviors that are the exact opposite of that person’s values. The thoughts also tend to be directed toward those who are dearest to the sufferer. Naturally, the person experiencing intrusive thoughts also begins to feel more anxiety because of them, and can get stuck in a loop of thinking that is difficult to overcome.
Linked to changes in neurochemicals
According to Andrea Schneider, LCSW, in her article, “Help! My Brain is Betraying Me!: Intrusive Thoughts in Motherhood,” the condition is not the mother’s fault and is linked to changing neurochemicals in her body during and after pregnancy. Up to 20% of women of child-bearing age are affected by depression, anxiety, or mood disorders during pregnancy and the first year after their baby is born.
The clinical term is perinatal mood/anxiety disorders (PMAD). It may be a combination of both physical and emotional symptoms. The first step in treating PMAD is talking to a doctor, and a trained perinatal specialist or psychotherapist may be consulted to begin assessment/treatment as soon as possible. A strong support system for the mother is also beneficial.
When I was having intrusive thoughts after the birth of my first child, I did not seek help beyond the visit with my pediatrician, but perhaps I should have. It had helped so much just to know that I was not going crazy, and not alone in my experience. Time passed, I was busy with the new baby, and my hormone levels settled down after weaning the baby at 3-months old. Eventually the intrusive thoughts began to decrease.
Taking Control of Intrusive Thoughts
I did not experience the intrusive thoughts again with the birth of my second child and had mostly forgotten about them. Until recently, when I read about a new fiction book, Turtles All the Way Down, by John Green, that focuses on the condition in a young woman. The author himself suffers from OCD and compares the intrusive thoughts he has to ” . . . an invasive weed that just spreads out of control.”
In the same way, the new mother who finds herself experiencing intrusive thoughts may feel that her own mind has become her tormentor. One thing that will help is surrounding herself with a strong support system, such as family, friends, church members, and other colleagues. By seeking professional help with a trained perinatal specialist, she will learn techniques to interrupt the loop of intrusive thoughts and get a healthier perspective on them. She can then continue on her journey as a parent, with the peace of mind that she deserves.