I knew that the scenes I imagined because of postpartum OCD were irrational. But the impossibility of these scenarios didn't matter.

By Asha Dore
Asha Dore

After my first child, Lise, was born, I was afraid of the knife drawer. Every time I passed it, I imagined horrific scenes: A steak knife slipping from my hand, flying across the kitchen, and landing in my daughter's bassinet. Or with unexpected strength, she could pull away from the sling that wrapped her body to my chest and fall onto my knife.

I knew that the scenes I imagined were irrational. Lise could barely hold her own head up. The impossibility of these scenarios didn't matter. After a few weeks, I couldn't open the knife drawer or walk on that side of the kitchen. I believed that if I avoided knives, I was in control. I could protect my daughter. She would survive.

I didn't know it at the time, but I was experiencing symptoms of O-focused obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Absurd thoughts and ideas, centering around potential dangers for my daughter, stirred in my mind after she was born. The knife drawer was only the beginning. After a small fender bender, I became afraid to drive, then to walk anywhere near a street, then to leave my house. I avoided standing near water, balconies, spider webs, train tracks, and any sharp object in my apartment. 

My OCD didn't look like it does in the movies. I didn't tap or count or turn the light switch on and off seven times before leaving every room. That's why I didn't even know I had it. 

But I still believed I needed help working through my fears and went to see a therapist. I told her, "Freak accidents happen. You can never be too careful." It turns out, you can be "too careful." During our first meeting, the therapist told me, "The dangerous thing isn't the knife drawer. It's the fact that you're avoiding the knife drawer."

In the following sessions, she brought knives. I sat lifting and examining them while my daughter slept in her car seat nearby. My therapist gave me homework: cook at least one meal per day with a sharp knife while your daughter is not in the room. Later, my daughter was in the room, in her bassinet. By the time Lise was walking, I used my sharpest knife to cook while she toddled in and out of the kitchen. The fears hadn't gone away completely, but I no longer felt compelled to avoid them.

The method my therapist used is called exposure training. I used it anytime an irrational thought repeated in my mind. I exposed myself to my fear and slowly, the fear softened. Driving and walking near train tracks and climbing stairs started to feel normal again. 

The obsessive thoughts dissipated over the course of my daughter's first year. When my second daughter and my son were born, they came back, but this time, I knew what to do. It didn't matter what variables surrounded my children, my OCD would find something to worry about. My therapist and I found the safest way I could expose myself to whatever I feared, and slowly, the fears subsisted.

Research shows that stressful situations like pregnancy can trigger OCD or make it worse. A 2013 study of 461 women found 11 percent had OCD symptoms two weeks after delivery. Nearly half of them still had symptoms six months later. Postpartum OCD is challenging, and my experience with it changed my perspective on parenting and living the rest of my life.

Our lives are filled with danger, both small and extreme. Even if we don't have a disorder, we stop ourselves from living in the moment because we believe that if we avoid uncomfortable moments, we are in control of the outcome. If we don't apply to the new job, we will never be rejected. If we avoid a difficult conversation, maybe the problem will disappear. If we never fly in an airplane, there's no chance it will crash.

OCD and exposure therapy taught me to look differently at my fears and the elements of my life that I cannot control. When I notice a fear now, I try to find a way to expose myself to it, gradually, until I can face it. Instead of trying to control the moments of my life, I am working to stay alive inside of them, to greet every minute as it comes.

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