“The shame is excruciating.” The postpartum mental health issue we need to start talking about.

Video by MWN

Let’s have an ugly, raw, rough conversation. It’s a conversation about ‘bad thoughts’ and it’s well and truly overdue.

Have you ever had a thought that made you cringe? Like seeing a train approaching and seeing yourself jumping in front of it? Or – worse – pushing the lady in front of you onto the train tracks? What about seeing your baby in the bath and seeing yourself drowning him?

Upsetting? Yes. Anxiety-inducing? Yes. Weird? Nope. A staggering 4 out of 5 people experience these ‘intrusive thoughts’. But, for 1 in 50, these thoughts become harder to dismiss. They take a darker turn and hone in on the subjects we find most disturbing.

For those people who suffer from a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder commonly referred to as Pure OCD (referring to the focus being on obsessions, generally without any noticeable physical compulsions) intrusive thoughts can become all-consuming and target commonly delicate and taboo subjects like sex, violence and blasphemy (see, I told you we were going to get ugly).

It’s a normal human phenomena – thinking about things we don’t want to think about – and the funny and cruel twist is that the more you don’t want to think about something, the more it pops into your head. And, despite it being staggeringly common, people are still suffering in silence all over the world. Some, so much so, they don’t make it out of their darkness. They’re so convinced they’re the only person in the world who has these thoughts and so, they decide the world be better without them.

Just over a year ago I shared a story about my journey with postnatal OCD (also referred to as postpartum OCD or postnatal Anxiety). The illness is a subset of its parent OCD and often mimics that of pure OCD.

READ: “I remember being dreary-eyed and attempting to change my daughter’s nappy. Then the thoughts started.”

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The article titled ‘The perfect mother and her pet monster’ was published by intrusivethoughts.org and then The Huffington Post and resulted in me receiving messages from women and men from all over the world who had dealt with the same gut-wrenching, heart-breaking mental attacks.

Subsequently the story ran on Mamamia which opened the conversation to Australian parents. Here is part of what I wrote:

Let me explain this in a little more in detail. Unlike the common understanding of what OCD is and how it affects people ― like washing or checking rituals ― mine has always involved obsessive and intrusive thoughts and images that are of a distressing nature to me. To be precise – thoughts and images of a sexual nature.

From intrusive sexual images involving family members (cue vomit in the mouth); fearing I was a pedophile (even writing this word makes me want to cry ― but of course my mind would choose the thing that is the most deplorable to me to try and bring me to my knees) to images of hurting a disabled person ― my mind threw me the ugliest, most terrifying images and thoughts it could conjure up. It took everything I stood for and every moral bone in my body and shook it to its core using ammunition it knew I would detest, despise and crumble under. And crumble I did.

"What makes these intrusive thoughts so much more painful for parents is that it attacks the thing they love most." Image via iStock.

Within just hours of Mamamia publishing the story I started receiving messages from Aussies who had experienced the same journey or who had dealt with OCD prior and had become fearful of committing to becoming a parent because they were terrified they wouldn’t be able to do it. They feared the thoughts would win or - at least - steal too much of the precious time with their future children. What makes these intrusive thoughts so much more painful for parents is that it attacks the thing they love most: their baby (in some cases before it’s even born). And, unfortunately, they hadn’t been able to find the help they needed in Australia.

Intrusivethoughts.org is a website dedicated to humanising the symptoms of OCD and has seen a staggering 2.4 million page views in its short life. Of these, 5% is from Australia with 28,000 users accessing the site on a regular basis.

This tells us we are in need of greater awareness. And, I get it, postnatal OCD has a particularly ugly symptom list. It’s not easy to talk about and definitely not a BBQ conversation-starter.

The shame that comes from this is excruciating but - much like a broken leg - while it may be ugly and hurt like hell, parents need to remember it’s not their fault. It should never be ignored and it’s not something to be ashamed of.

Mia Freedman talks about living with anxiety. Post continues below. 

Considering having OCD “is associated with a substantial risk of suicide” and that parents are already dealing with a fresh world of responsibility hanging from their vulnerable shoulders: why are we not speaking about this more? And, why aren’t we diagnosing it earlier? In a survey completed by intrusivethoughts.org, 50% of respondents admitted waiting for more than four years to seek treatment. This is too long to be in the dark. More alarming was that 33% of respondents were misdiagnosed when they did seek treatment.

And while this figure is concerning - for me - it wasn’t a surprise. I was only 12 weeks pregnant when I was asked to list any mental health-related information on a general pregnancy from at my local hospital in South Australia. I didn’t think twice about listing ‘Severe OCD’ having been diagnosed with it at just 16 … but I wasn’t worried about it. Why? Well - by listing it - I figured the medical professionals who were responsible for my baby’s health would let me know if there were any red flags … right?

Wrong.

Not a single follow-up occurred (despite OCD being listed by the World Health Organisation as one of the world’s top 10 debilitating illnesses). So, when my OCD hit me just three weeks post-baby I was floored - but I knew what it was (no thanks to the seemingly useless form I filled out). I was one of the lucky ones having had OCD for two decades, I knew what I needed to do.

My fear is for those parents who don’t know what they’re dealing with - or how common it is. The parents who are losing days, weeks, months, years consumed by the same thoughts that affect 2% of all Australians - but are too scared to speak out. And when they do - years later - I fear there may not be enough understanding for them to be diagnosed and treated accordingly.

Like I warned at the start - conversation is confronting … but we need to be okay about having it because people all around Australia are relying on it.

Let’s talk.

If you’re suffering from depression or anxiety and need help, or just someone to chat to, you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 22 4636. 

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