“‘Read it again,’ my brain said. I was sitting in my fifth-grade history class. I had already read the assigned paragraph in my textbook multiple times, but my brain insisted. ‘Read it again,’ it said, ‘Or else your fear will come true.’ An image of my mom flashed into my mind. She was drenched in blood, lying on a stretcher in an ambulance. She had been in a car accident. ‘READ IT AGAIN!’ my brain commanded. I pressed my hands against my head, frustrated. I knew my classmates were nearly done reading. Meanwhile, I couldn’t get past this one section. I read it repeatedly. Logically, I knew reading the paragraph again had nothing to do with protecting my mom, but what if I was wrong? I couldn’t risk it, nor could I douse the anxiety that burned behind my eyes. My mind was on fire! I felt I had no choice but to keep reading the paragraph. ‘It’s the only way to keep Mom alive.’
Around that time, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I learned OCD wasn’t merely about extreme hand-washing and cleanliness like many people believed. Instead, it’s a mentally painful disorder characterized by ‘intrusive thoughts’ and ‘compulsions.’ Intrusive thoughts are unwanted feelings, images, or sensations that intrude the mind of the person with OCD. They often (but not always) start with a ‘what-if feeling’ that fills the person with anxiety and distress. Compulsions, on the other hand, are behaviors that serve to decrease the person’s anxiety caused by intrusive thoughts. Compulsions bring temporary relief. In my story from fifth grade, the image of my mother’s car accident was my intrusive thought, and my repetitive reading was my compulsion.
My parents first noticed my symptoms when I was just four years old. My mom walked me across the street, holding my hand, when suddenly I let go and ran back to where we had just left. Then I made my way back to her, explaining I had to do it ‘right.’ This story is only one example from my childhood. In fact, my childhood consisted of many intrusive thoughts. The ‘themes’ started off with fears of contamination, then they morphed into concerns about God and hell, unwelcome sexual thoughts, extreme doubt about my family’s safety, hyper-responsibility, and more. OCD wreaked havoc with my imagination.
It also took a toll on my physical health. The contamination fears told me I needed to thoroughly inspect my food before eating it. I spat out more food than I swallowed (much to my classmates’ disgust, I’m sure). I eventually started eating lunch in the school office to avoid people’s stares. I was twelve then, and I became severely underweight because of my fear around food. I wasn’t afraid of gaining weight; I was afraid of being poisoned.
I also had a hard time swallowing my own saliva. I remember walking through the halls at school with my cheeks full of spit, fearful it contained bacteria. I couldn’t talk without drooling. Sometimes I didn’t have a private place to spit, so I spat into my sweatshirt to avoid attention. I was embarrassed, wearing a wet (and likely smelly) sweatshirt around school, but not enough to earn my OCD’s mercy. Its voice was too convincing, its grasp too strong. One day I woke up and told my mom, ‘I feel like I’m in a nightmare, and I can’t wake up.’
OCD affected my schooling and my family. The intrusive thoughts tormented me. The compulsions exhausted me. I begged my mom to let me stay home from school nearly every day. My teachers told her I wasn’t learning. Eventually, my mom decided to homeschool me. OCD followed me through childhood into adulthood and even motherhood. As a little girl, I knew I wanted to get married and be a mom. My sister and I would wear overalls and stuff them with dolls, pretending to be pregnant. I couldn’t wait to have my own real baby someday. Naturally, my husband and I were thrilled when we found out we were pregnant. And perhaps just as naturally, OCD emerged from the dark, prepared to dim the light.
Soon after becoming pregnant, I developed intense fears of postpartum depression. To be clear, I didn’t actually get depressed, but I was terrified I would. You see, people with OCD commonly become fearful of developing an additional mental health disorder. It’s another ‘what-if’ feeling, a thought rooted in uncertainty. Everyone gets intrusive thoughts. However, while people without OCD can dismiss the thoughts, people with OCD like me get ‘stuck’ thoughts. OCD causes the thoughts to replay and loop.
In addition to my fears of depression, my pregnancy itself was physically difficult. I vomited several times a day, and the nausea rarely relented. My doctor diagnosed me with a low-lying placenta, which is a fairly uncommon condition. My instructions were to avoid most physical activities, including lifting anything heavier than a frying pan. But despite these challenges, my husband and I welcomed our healthy baby girl into the world in January 2021.
But with this new journey of motherhood came anxiety…oh, the anxiety! Health anxiety, to be specific. My blood pressure was too high for weeks postpartum. I had anxiety about my daughter: Was she breathing? Why was she making that noise? Was she too cold? Too hot? The sleepless nights. My pounding heart. I was terrified she would stop breathing. I jolted awake multiple times throughout the night just to check her – and recheck her – and recheck her again.
Every grunt awoke panic. When I finally did sleep an hour or two, I would wake up, scared she was missing or strangling in our sheets (despite her sleeping in a bassinet). I worried she would be kidnapped. I worried she would get COVID, RSV, the flu – you name it. My mind played a nonstop reel of what-ifs, each bringing a plague of anxiety and dread. ‘Sleep when the baby sleeps’ was common advice. I would try, really try, but I think many new parents can attest sleeping midday is difficult, if not impossible. To say the least, the adjustment was hard.
Despite the fears and anxieties that come with motherhood, being a mama is by far the most amazing thing I have experienced. Motherhood is hard, but it is so worth it for me. I would do it all over again a thousand times. (My husband has agreed to it at least one more time.) Having a tiny little human depend on me for her most basic needs is both overwhelming and empowering. Being a mama feels so paradoxical. One moment, I’m crying because I’m exhausted and overwhelmed, and the next I’m crying because, when I look into her eyes, I remember she is what I have prayed for my entire life; I am overcome with gratitude for God’s goodness and graciousness.
Motherhood also brings many firsts: Our daughter’s first fever, first steps, and first falls as she stumbles over her chubby little legs and face plants onto the floor. She’s just learning how to navigate this world. I’m learning how to practice acceptance on a whole new level. Acceptance of the unknown, of the ‘what ifs,’ of the scary thoughts OCD loves to throw at me. But with acceptance of the unknown and uncertainty comes immense joy: the laughter, the cuddles, the first time she said ‘mama.’ Watching a new little person learn how to exist in such a big world is a gift.
As a psychotherapist myself, I understand the importance of prioritizing my mental health as I navigate this new journey of motherhood. I continued meeting with my therapist throughout pregnancy and postpartum. I have an amazing support system who is familiar with my struggles and can hold me accountable as needed. I have friends who gently remind me to use my skills of allowing myself to feel what I am feeling and to embrace fear rather than run away from it. I have a husband who brings humor to my days and never fails to make me laugh. (By the way, learning how to laugh at the ridiculous things my brain comes up with has been a fantastic coping skill for me.) I also have my personal relationship with Jesus, my ultimate rock.
OCD is a challenge, but I face my fears for my daughter. I do it so I can be the best mama for her. I do it because, if she ends up having anxiety or OCD like me, she will see me modeling acceptance of thoughts and walking toward fear rather than running away from it. I want her to honor her feelings, even the uncomfortable ones. I want her to know she can cry; she can be scared; fear isn’t a bad thing; and she can do big, difficult, and scary things. I want her to know bravery doesn’t have to mean she’s fearless; instead, it can mean she’s simply willing to show up and exist in this big world. Bravery means facing our fears, and it’s okay to be scared while doing so.
But I also want to speak to the other parents or caregivers out there who may also be struggling with a mental health disorder. I want you to know you are not alone. I want you to know taking care of your mental health is a priority. Please seek professional help if you are struggling. There is absolutely no shame in getting the help you deserve. In fact, I would argue taking the step to get help is incredibly brave and selfless. I want you to know I see you and I am in the thick of parenthood with you. I want you to know showing up for your little ones every day is one of the bravest, most selfless things you can do. I want you to know you’re doing a good job.
Being a parent is a wild, beautiful journey. Being a mama with OCD is also a wild, beautiful journey. You see, years ago, I promised myself I was not going to look at my OCD as a burden. Instead, I am choosing to let God make something beautiful from it. My struggle with OCD was the very reason I chose to become a therapist who specializes in treating OCD. So, this is me embracing the ‘what ifs’ and practicing acceptance of fear. Let’s think of anxiety like a wave. If you fight the wave, you usually end up getting knocked down and thrown into the sand. However, if you ride the wave and let it carry you, you make it back to shore. Everyone sees my daughter growing, but what they don’t realize is they’re also watching me grow, too.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Nathalie Maragoni, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist #123200. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.
Read more stories like this here:
‘I can’t do this another day!’ My hands were rotten, my skin so red and thin I could see my bone through it.’: Teen OCD survivor becomes mental health advocate, ‘There’s light at the end of the tunnel’
‘You are on the highest dose I can legally prescribe.’ I sat in the doctor’s office, ashamed of who I’d turned into.’: Young woman with OCD/anxiety gets off medication, finally finds she ‘has the tools to power through any obstacles’
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