Saturday, March 12, 2011


I've always been a particular person. I like things a certain way. I'm neat and organized. If I do something on one side of my body (like, scratch my arm), I have to do it on the other side to even things out.

You mean not everyone does that?

My eccentricities went from amusing (like a preoccupation with time and door locking) to disturbing after I had Katie. The combination of hormones and normal parental anxiety elevated a fairly harmless quirkiness into an all consuming monster in my brain.

I thought I was losing my mind. I didn't talk about it with anyone. I didn't want anyone to know that sometimes I was so convinced that I had left Katie in her car carrier sitting on top of the car, that I would have to drive back home to make sure she hadn't fallen off. Even after I turned around and saw her in the back seat, multiple times. I didn't want anyone to know that I was terrified to cut up food because I was sure I was going to somehow trip and stab my baby. I didn't want anyone to think there was something wrong with me. Because a fear of accidentally stabbing your infant while she's across the room and you're chopping carrots is completely normal.

I scrubbed counters. It got better. I organized the pantry and swept and mopped and let the careful care of my baby fill the spaces in my brain where paranoia wanted to roost. I discovered that nothing combated obsessive thinking better than mindful doing. When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, I devoted myself to research and reading. It was the only thing I could do, and if I didn't want to think, I needed to do.

By the time Julia was born six years after Katie, my anxiety was at a low level hum - annoying, but manageable. Then, once again, the hormones and stress of a new baby filled me up until I was sure I would explode. I couldn't breathe for the elephant of anxiety that was sitting on my chest. I could not get away from the obsessive thinking, and it started to encompass all areas of my life, not just my children. I remember sitting in church during Mass one Sunday, and the horror I felt as my brain produced the most awful images, using the sacred that surrounded me. I wasn't safe anywhere, if my mind could defile the symbols of my faith while I knelt in prayer.

Sean had been urging me for a long time to see a therapist. I'd resisted because, obviously, there was nothing wrong with me! But misery won out, I admitted I needed help, and finally went after it.

I was maybe 15 minutes into my first appointment, telling all my funny little quirks, making light of the anxiety. As long as I can joke about it, then it's not really a problem! What's a little mentally crippling obsessive thinking when you can scrub it away with a toothbrush and a can of Comet? The therapist reached up on a shelf and pulled down a book, thumbed through it quickly until she reached the page she was looking for, and handed it to me.

The heading was OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER. The subheading was "Postpartum OCD".

Fuck me. Well, I was certain I didn't have OCD, because those people wash their hands like 8 million times a day and check their locks exactly 7 times. I only check my locks THREE times. So there! But I was intrigued, so I read the passage. It was almost without exception exactly what was happening in my head. When I got to the line about violent or pornographic images related to religious icons, I started crying.

Maybe I was crazy, but I wasn't alone.

The more we talked, and in subsequent sessions, the more I came to realize that OCD has been part of my life at least since I was a young teenager. Exacerbated by the hormones of pregnancy and childbirth (and also, I learned, of miscarriage), it went from quirky to debilitating. I was unable to take medication while nursing, and unwilling to stop nursing, so my therapist worked with me using cognitive behavioral therapy. It has been, in my opinion, quite successful. So much so that after Henry was born I only had a brief period of what I would consider elevated anxiety. Nothing that a good vacuuming couldn't cure.

In my case, it waxes and wanes in intensity. Stress makes things worse. Exercise makes things better. I am always, always, always preoccupied with time, and being on time. I lock Sean out of the house all the time, because I check locks without even thinking about it. But I can live with a messy house for awhile, and let my kids go somewhere without me, without being obsessively worried the entire time. Not the entire time. 

This may be the hardest thing to admit - I like it. I don't like the anxiety or the horrible thoughts. But I do like the sharpness that OCD gives me. I like that I am a cleaning machine. I like being organized. I like that I can plan, to the minute details, a party. It was the foundation of my success as a meeting planner. I don't really know if it's the OCD, or if I would be that way without it. I'm unwilling to medicate and find out.

That may not always be the case, and there may come a time when I find the need for medication outweighs the need for an organized life. If that time comes, I feel confident that I will know it and recognize it. I will know that I am not, in fact, crazy.


  1. Oooooh, my. I had completely forgotten about this post. Holy shit, Kelly! I may have to bring this up to my therapist. This is me.

  2. Thank you for pointing this post out, Kelly. I hadn't read it before and I'm SO glad I did.