My daughter was stood right next to me, her cheeks rosey from the cold wind blowing across the pond. Her tiny hands clutch tightly small pieces of bread, ready to throw to the very eagerly awaiting ducks, she’s happy, her giggles fill the air as the ducks quack, getting ever nearer.
But secretly Im shaking, my hands feel numb, my head is full of thoughts I can’t control, I want to reach out and grab her, I shake my head, willing them away, I try to focus on my daughter as I smile down at her.
The thoughts remain, like an old movie, playing in slow motion, in my mind I see her fall, fall into the dark water, gone from sight, Im kneeling by the edge, trying to pull her out, but I can’t quite reach, she is slipping away.
I close my eyes and open them again, the images are gone and take my daughters hand, “come on let’s go look for squirrels” I say, because now fear has gripped me, its icy fingers crawling on my skin and I want to be as far away from the ducks and the pond as I can.
I didn’t know it then but the thoughts I was experiencing were intrusive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are really scary thoughts that push their way into your mind.
Some find that they experience them after the birth of their baby. They can be in the form of thoughts about your baby coming to harm, doubts about your ability to care or keep your baby safe. They can also be impulses to do something to your baby or they can also be about harm coming to you of your partner.
These thoughts can be fleeting or constant, last throughout the day or prevent someone sleeping at night. They are distressing, negative, repetitive and unwanted, they can come at anytime and out of nowhere.
Intrusive thoughts can range from mild to unbearable and can also include images, or play out like a film.
Intrusive thoughts can be indirect, like thinking something bad might happen to her baby or they can be more thoughts or images of her baby coming to harm or evening harming her baby. Although a mother may have these thoughts, she does not wish to act on them and this is what makes them so distressing and hard to understand, because they cause real fear. Intrusive thoughts* can also accompany perinatal obsessive-compulsive disorder. Perinatal PTSD which is what I was suffering with can also cause intrusive thoughts and can combine with flashbacks.
For a mother with intrusive thoughts she may feel like a bad mother, like she is going crazy or mad.Why else would she be experiencing such things? She will often feel terrible guilt and shame about what she is experiencing and will often try to hide it and put on a brave face. She will feel alone, isolated, and scared. She will be fearful to tell anyone about the thoughts or images worried that if she does, what will happen to her, what will people think, will she face having her baby took away.
Intrusive thoughts can be absolutely terrifying to the person who is experiencing them and cause great distress and anxiety. They can also lead to compulsive behaviour such as disinfecting kitchen counters, or constant checking her baby’s nappy.
For me while I never had thoughts about me harming my baby, I did suffer with intrusive thoughts about her coming to harm in someway or dying. Due to my PTSD and her being premature, I was hyper-vigilant, I would worry about germs, illness and worried constantly about her health, and mine. Sometimes the thoughts would be a split second and I could send them away with the blink of an eye. Sometimes they would last longer like playing out the whole scene in my head and I felt almost paralysed by them.
What can help someone suffering with intrusive thoughts?
- Do not allow the fear of them to stop you from reaching out for help, it will be hard, but it is important that you find support.
- Remember, you are not a bad mother. Intrusive thoughts are more common than we realise.
- Talk to someone you trust and tell them about what you are experiencing. This maybe your partner, family member, friend, GP, or health visitor.
- Intrusive thoughts are symptoms of being mentally unwell and that you need a little help and support, they are not about you as a person or your abilities as a mother.
- Try not to focus on them, but try to distract yourself, try an activity such as counting backwards from a 100 or naming all the colours you can see in the room your in. Go for a walk or put on some music, whatever works for you and brings you back to the present.
- Tell yourself that you and your baby are okay, the thoughts you are having are not actually going to happen, they are your mind playing tricks. Having these thoughts or images will not make them more likely to happen.
- Remind yourself that you and your baby are loved and safe, and that you will get better, these thoughts are symptoms of being unwell but they are treatable. (Sometimes medication may be suggested or other forms of therapy, it is so important to ask for help).
Do not suffer alone, because you are not alone. The battle of the mind sometimes hold us in the grips of fear, they make us believe that we are unworthy, going mad or worse, that those we love, are better off without us. They can strip us of our joy, of happy times with our little ones and cause us to live in terror. Remember that there is help, and you can in time overcome the thoughts with support.
My intrusive thoughts eventually faded, like a worn out picture and instead were replaced by happy times and wonderful memories. Some days were dark, pitch black in fact, but slowly it lifts and the light returns. Never give up, never stop fighting, win the battle of your mind, your much stronger than you think.
By sharing our stories we can help others stop feeling alone, we can make reaching out for help easier and we can make more families aware that while they may be experiencing intrusive thoughts there is hope.
(*Sometimes intrusive thoughts can be a symptom of Postpartum Psychosis which is a serious illness and requires immediate help and support.)