Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a mental health disorder marked by two primary characteristics: obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts that trigger anxiety and distress. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors that a person employs in an attempt to cope with obsessions. It's a vicious cycle that affects the person's ability to function day-to-day. Given the prevalence of postpartum depression and anxiety, it's no surprise that moms in particular suffer from OCD. With the stigma around mental illness, there are things moms with OCD won't tell you. As a mother with OCD, I'd like to smash that stigma.
I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder at the age of 22, and after the birth of my daughter I realized I was suffering from postpartum anxiety. But I've been dealing with OCD for as long as I can remember, even if I didn't know what it was called. As a child, I always liked things to be "just so," organizing my barrettes into a more aesthetically pleasing order. It was probably the worst in junior high, when I wouldn't use the school toilet for fear of getting herpes or thought I'd get ringworm from contact with the wrestling mats (I used to wash the bottom of my shoes when I got home).
As a mom, my OCD manifests itself in different ways. Strangely, I'm not a germaphobe anymore. I do torture myself with thoughts of horrible things happening to me, my husband, or my child. My habits are my way of dispatching those disturbing images, so I spend an inordinate amount of time putting books in size order, looking for literal missing puzzle pieces, and cleaning the top of my refrigerator. Perhaps the worst part is knowing that what I'm doing is unreasonable and the guilt that comes from wasting time I could be spending with my daughter.
Before I go into the details of OCD, it's important to note that it's not the same for everyone. It varies in both severity and its manifestations. Some moms with OCD will wash their hands incessantly. Others will double and triple-check that the oven is off. Still others need their towels folded exactly the same way. Some compulsions are more common than others, but our behaviors are as unique as we are.
Due to our individuality, treatment for OCD will also be different. The first line of treatment is usually cognitive behavioral therapy, although I've also found mindfulness practice to be incredibly beneficial. Some people with OCD will be prescribed medication. I already take a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) for my depression, which also helps my OCD symptoms.
I'd like to pretend that I keep my daughter on a schedule because it's good for her (which it is), but honestly, it's my OCD that requires a rigid routine. I have a different chore that I do each weekday, and it really upsets me when I can't stick to it. I don't like for my daughter to miss pre-school (even though it's not like she's going to miss important content, because she's 2 and she'll have other opportunities to learn about walruses), and I'll cut vacations short so she doesn't have an absence.
Many moms with OCD, like me, will keep a planner or calendar (color-coding is a dead giveaway). In some ways, my iPhone calendar and Wunderlist app have saved me because they allow me to make changes without having to get upset over whiting something out. I used to spend a lot of time rewriting lists after too many things had been crossed out because I didn't like how it looked. But I still obsess over my calendar, concerned I might forget an appointment or play date.
As someone with OCD, punctuality is super important to me. Ironically, it also makes it really hard to get out the door. For example, I can't leave the house if a toy is missing. I will drive myself crazy until I find the little red stacking cup or the saucer from the tea set.
All my worries hit me as I'm punching in the alarm code. Is the stove off? Did I unplug the blow dryer? Is it too hot or too cold for the cat? Does the dog have water? I always have to put my daughter in the car first, then close my eyes and say, "Front door, back door, dog, cat." I have to verbally reassure myself that everything's OK before I head out, and infuriatingly, that can make me late.
The worst part of my daydreams is that I feel the emotions as if they had really happened. When I'm on an airplane, I imagine a crash, clutching my baby to my chest. I have a deployed husband, so I don't just worry about something bad happening to him. Instead, I picture it. I can see the chaplain on my doorstep coming to bring me the news. The worst is imagining that I go to get my baby up in the morning and find her dead. I've even gone so far as considering what I would do to myself in that situation.
It's a terrifying head-space to be in. For moms, a common theme is harm coming to their child and being responsible for that harm. I think if the general public knew what was going on in the mind of an OCD mom, they'd be a lot more understanding of what appear to be nonsensical behaviors.
Rituals are a common symptom of OCD. They are an attempt to temporarily neutralize OCD-related distress. Some people's rituals involve food, like they have to eat the same sized bites or can only use plastic utensils. Mine revolve around bedtime. When I read in bed, I have to finish an odd number of chapters. Before I go to sleep, I have to look at the digital alarm clock and blink. Bonus if the hour is a factor of the minutes (e.g. 7:56 or 9:54).
I also tend toward mental rituals. Even though I've written down my lists, I will go over and over in my head what I'm going to do in the next few days. Also in my repertoire is repeating, in my head, bad choices that I've made.
I have a desperate need for symmetry. I prefer arrangements of odd numbers of objects. If you help me out with laundry, I will probably go back and re-fold it. I like things categorized by size, color, or function. Everything in my closet hangs the same way on the same color hanger. My spice rack is alphabetized. One time, I redid my daughter's baby book because I hadn't written all of it in first person, as indicated by the prompts.
All of this takes tremendous energy and time out of my day, but please keep in mind that it's how I deal with my obsessions.
I've seen the OCD memes, and I admit that I chuckle when I recognize myself. However, I worry that by making fun of OCD, we're simply fueling stereotypes about mental illness. I'm guilty of this as well, as I have posted a photo of the crayons my students had organized by color and dubbed them my "OCD minions." However, I now know that a mother's mental health affects her bond with her child, and that's nothing to joke about.
Believe me, if I could stop I would. I'd probably be a whole hell of a lot more productive, not to mention relaxed. Intrusive thoughts are biochemical events that can't simply be turned off, though. I'm not getting any pleasure from my compulsions, but they do provide a welcome (if brief) respite from what's going on in my head.
OCD is not my fault. According to Psychology Today, there are biological factors at play. OCD is often accompanied by depression and anxiety, both of which I have. Perfectionism is one of my personality traits. All these make me more susceptible to OCD.
All that weird sh*t I do? I know perfectly well it's not logical. Many people with OCD, but not all, can recognize what they're doing. I'll be in the middle of a compulsive behavior, like rearranging my grocery list so that it's in order based on the aisles, and I know it's not the best use of my time. I know that the likelihood that I'll drive off the road into a body of water and have to get my baby out before the car is submerged is very, very small. I know all this, but I can't stop it.
I'm sure I've had OCD my entire life. One of my first compulsions was a constant need for reassurance. I would always ask my mom if she still loved me. I still have those insecurities, too. Just ask my husband. ("Do you love me?" "I married you." "Yeah, but do you love me?")
Like asthma or diabetes, I consider my OCD to be something I manage. It may not seem like it from the examples I've given, but I am better. I am functioning on a daily basis. One of my therapists suggested that I approach my intrusive thoughts by focusing less on what is possible and more on what is probable. It's made a huge impact.
When you've lived with OCD for as long as I have, you learn to accept it as part of who you are. You deal with it. I'm a caring, thoughtful, and hard-working mother. I just have a few quirks.