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Trauma, Health OCD, Harm OCD

Pregnancy, Motherhood, and My OCD Journey

By Stephanie M.

In 2017 my life changed indefinitely. That is when Naomi was born. Naomi is my daughter. She was born stillborn. She has permanently left her handprint in my life and on my heart. I had two boys at the time. The impact of this loss was beyond traumatic. Following her death, I endured 3 miscarriages. I then became pregnant with my other daughter and I am now a mom of 3 living children. 

At the time of Naomi’s passing, I began seeing a general talk therapist who reported that they were trauma-informed. I was under the impression that I was experiencing trauma and trauma alone. It made sense. I had just experienced one of the most life-shattering events in my life. At that time I was unaware of the OCD that was lurking in the midst of this. 

In retrospect, I see that I struggled with OCD all of my life. I recall that when I was very young, my sister innocently told me that the pilgrims died from not washing their hands enough. This would create a severe compulsion which led to my hands bleeding.  I also developed an intense fear of falling asleep. I worried that I would die in my sleep. I would wake up nightly and sneak into my parent’s room to ensure that they were still breathing. I needed to know that they were still alive.

I can now see that these behaviors were not normal childhood precautions, but rather something more sinister.

I am a survivor of multiple traumas including sexual assault, child neglect, and church abuse. I was a member of the Orthodox Christian Church, an extremely conservative form of Christianity, from birth through the age of 35. I’ve survived anorexia too. I have no doubts that these experiences played a pivotal role in my mental health. In all of these traumas, my church upbringing told me that it was my fault and the result of my sinfulness, that somehow I was personally responsible or had something to learn. In one prayer for women who suffer the loss of a pregnancy, it says “Here lies your handmaiden in a bed of manslaughter.” I survived my sexual assault while attending seminary and my eating disorder soon followed. I desired to be perfect in how I looked and how I felt about how I looked. Perhaps it was my OCD trying to convince me everything had to be “just right.”

After the three miscarriages and the death of Naomi, it made sense that I became obsessive about the safety of my daughter whom I was pregnant with at the time. I called my midwife every single day for the most benign reasons;  I needed to ensure that my baby was not dead. I would insist on seeing my midwife weekly and she would oblige not knowing the pattern that was quickly taking hold. I wanted to hear her heartbeat. I needed reassurance. Of course, the traumatic passing of Naomi impacted this; it was the perfect storm for OCD to rush in. 

In 2019 I gave birth to my youngest daughter. The health-themed obsessions continued focusing on anything from cancer to strokes. I was diagnosed with OCD and began medication at that time. I was still seeing a general therapist and focusing on trauma treatment. During this time I became obsessed with the idea of having a heart attack. I would envision collapsing over and over. I would end up in urgent care. I had always been healthy. I am a runner and cross-fit athlete. I purchased all kinds of medical equipment for my home use: a 6K lead EKG, pulse oximeter, and a blood pressure cuff became my nightly compulsions.  I would take pictures of the EKG readings and then try to read them. I am not a medical doctor so this was an impossible task. I would contact my doctors to send the pictures of the tests and go over the results. Again, grasping for reassurance. I was checking my body, and my reactions constantly. I checked my heart rate. I began running compulsively in an attempt to neutralize the fears, I would run 10 miles one hour at a time to prove I wouldn’t die.  I was spending hours talking to doctors and in virtual appointments. It began to interfere with my job as I was in teledoc sessions and on phone calls with the doctors. I was spending a lot of money just to get some sense of reassurance. When my daughter was 2 years old I forced myself to stop giving into the compulsions related to health and gradually this fear seemed to fade away. 

What I hadn’t yet realized was that OCD is the master deceptor and was just waiting to switch themes.

I had heard Jenna Overbaugh, an OCD specialist, talk about remembering the day your brain breaks. This really resonated with me. I remember the day that mine seemingly broke; I was driving home from a visit with family just before the anniversary of Naomi’s stillbirth. My emotions were running extremely high. A thought popped into my head, “What if the only way you can be connected again is that you all have to die?” I began to freak out. It was as if my brain knew the most terrifying thing that could hurt me. Of course, I had heard about the famous case of Andrea Yates in which she murdered her children. This absolutely shook me to my core. I wanted to know what it meant that I had that thought while driving:  What did it mean? Immediately I texted my psychiatrist and therapist at that time. 

Looking back, the text was benign, however, my therapist wanted me to go to the mental health hospital for a crisis evaluation. I will never forget the feeling of my stomach dropping when the intake worker said to me that my thoughts were not ‘normal’. What that did to me, at that moment, I cannot describe. It was as if my world was crushed underneath the weight of her words. I had experienced passing intrusive thoughts before and never thought anything of it. Of course, I now know that these thoughts are normal and that this was how OCD manifested in my life at that time. I went inpatient for 1 week and they treated me for depression. The hospitalization reinforced the idea in my mind that I was ‘crazy’. The intrusive harmful thoughts had already made me feel guilty and shameful, but now I wondered if they thought I was a harm as well. 

It was after this traumatic hospitalization that I began to delve into what OCD was and how it was most effectively treated. I found NOCD online. I immediately contacted them and started treatment. I was seen 3 hours per week for ERP and continued in my own therapy. Quickly I learned that I also needed trauma-specific therapy in conjunction with the ERP. This is when I realized that the therapist I had been seeing was not trained in OCD. They were clearly uncomfortable with my thoughts and wanted to get to the root cause of them. I knew that it would end up with a repeat of crisis screening every time I brought up my thoughts. I needed something different. I sought out a trauma practitioner who was also OCD-aware. In this therapy, they used a technique called prolonged exposure and I did this in conjunction with NOCD for a year. 

Six to eight months ago I was discharged from NOCD because I no longer met the criteria for OCD.

I was also discharged successfully from trauma therapy. I know that OCD is chronic and so I am in this for the long haul. I am now doing I-CBT and I feel that this compliments ERP so well and can only add to my recovery. I also switched my psychiatrist to one who knew more about OCD and could better assist in my care.

I still worry. I worry about a flare-up. I worry that maybe I somehow slipped through the cracks and was misdiagnosed. I have thoughts like what if it’s not really OCD and it’s something else? What if it is psychosis? Deep down I know this is just OCD trying to get me to chase certainty. I am thankful for the support from loved ones. In particular, my sister has been an extremely supportive person for me. She is a nurse and a social worker so she understands OCD more than most people. My children are open to what OCD is and have a greater understanding because of my struggle. 

My oldest child is 11 and my youngest is now 4. They understand that mommy worries about their safety a lot. I wanted them to be aware because I know that at times it can interfere with my functioning. My husband has taken more time to educate himself about OCD and what my experiences are. I encourage partners to be present and to take the time to learn more about the mental health struggles of their partners. One of my sons was even diagnosed with OCD, although his knowledge of ERP was noted in his assessment. I believe that there is a role of genetics in OCD.

I am currently a doctoral student and I am a full-time school principal. I am a mom. I am a wife. I am a trauma survivor. I experience OCD. And I am so much more. I know that I have to keep going, in spite of daily challenges and time constraints, stress, and all of the things that come with life. Although I would love to live a life without OCD, I realize that we are unable to choose our suffering. I have developed throughout this process. I now have this amazing ability, an advantage really, to help other people who are struggling and model what living in this moment means. I do this for myself, my family, and my students too. I want to normalize mental health conditions and break through the stigma. I want to help people embrace the “and” in life. We can be struggling and achieve all that we want to experience in this life. There is truly nothing to hold us back.

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