Let’s talk about Postpartum intrusive thoughts.

I’ve spent nearly six years trying to think of absolutely anything else.

Photo by Tim Bish on Unsplash

I’m going to preface by saying that this post can very easily be triggering. I’m afraid to be too detailed with my descriptions because I’m afraid I might somehow manifest them. However, I have to talk about these thoughts. They’ve haunted me for years and I know more parents need to know that they’re not alone.

I don’t remember much about his first few days, weeks, or months. I don’t remember his tiny toes or the joy of his palmer grasp reflex in the hospital. I don’t remember feeding him or feeling the weight of his head on my chest. Mostly, I remember the fear.

Before I even brought him into the word, I was afraid. I lied on the forms. Hoping there was no easily accessible record of my bipolar diagnosis. No record of my mom’s diagnosis, criminal record, or history of kidnapping me. I heard the messages about postpartum depression and how we just needed to reach out for help, but I didn’t buy it.

I knew that anyone and everyone was out to take my baby from me for any minor infraction.

I kept my lips shut tight when the hospital therapist paid me a visit.

I washed my hands until they bled. Surely, if I didn’t wash them enough while mixing formula, they’d take my son away.

At one point, during our hospital stay, I took a lap around the ward with the bassinet by myself. I took one corner a little too wide and sounded an alarm meant to keep people from darting away with children. I darted back to our room where I drug myself onto my bed in the throes of a panic attack. And waited. When would they come and take me?

I lied at my check-up visits. I never told my husband. I tried to manage with excessive control.

No one knew about the images that flooded my brain from the first time I held him.

Trigger warning reminder

I couldn’t hold my son without seeing his beautiful head cracked and bloodied on the floor. I couldn’t carry him past a doorway and not see his face crumpled from hitting the door frame. I couldn’t carry him up or down the stairs. I couldn’t bathe him alone.

I was horrified. Because the implication was always that I’d done these things on purpose.

There was a time or two that I would research these symptoms. I had no name for them. I can’t even tell you what exactly I would google. But the results were grim. Horrifying. I questioned if I should have even had a child. Was I a monster?

Then I would close the browser, delete my history, and hope that I hadn’t kept the tab open long enough to be tracked.

My oldest is six years old. I also have a four-year-old. The thoughts haven’t changed. My fear of them has only slightly lessened.

We don’t keep knives or scissors visible. I avoid movies, shows, and books that trigger the thoughts.

All these years, I’d never told anyone and I still didn’t know what to call them.

In early 2021, my unmedicated Bipolar Disorder demanded attention. I’d been ignoring my 2010 diagnosis since 2012. I’d be spending money, barely sleeping, starting new projects, always on the road. Then my husband would veto an impulsive idea and I would feel myself crash. I couldn’t handle stopping. I needed to go.

I blew up over small things, the thoughts got worse, and I started self-harming for the first time in 8 years. My husband insisted that I get help. I tried to convince him that I could fix myself with self-help workbooks, but he was adamant.

Since then, I’ve therapist shopped and found someone I actually like. She’s taught me coping skills for the thoughts, which I’ll share below. I’ve still not settled on a psychiatrist (almost a year later), but I’ve tried a few medications. One of which actually seems to help a bit.

Some key points about intrusive thoughts.

First off, they don’t mean there is anything wrong with you.

You’re not evil. You’re not a monster. You’re not dangerous. Your fear and repulsion of and by these thoughts is proof that they’re not reflective of you. They’re a manifestation of your anxiety, nothing more.

Pushing them away as quickly as possible doesn’t work.

I don’t know why exactly. But every article you read will tell you this. My therapist tells me this. My psychiatrist has told me this. The strategies below can feel more difficult because you’re focusing more on the distressing thought or image. But have, with medication, helped me.

You can get help without talking specifics about your intrusive thoughts.

I started off just telling my therapist that I have intrusive thoughts, and they are very disturbing. I told my psychiatrist the same thing after several visits. They understand that talking about specifics can be really upsetting.

No one is going to take your kids from you.

Educated mental healthcare professions know what I’ve said above. They know that your thoughts are an extension of anxiety. They aren’t proof that you’re dangerous or inadaquate. Even though we tend to be tight-lipped about intrusive thoughts, specialists want you to get help. I want you to get help.

I’ve lessened the frequency of the thoughts and learned to feel less distressed by them. Part of this comes with being honest with 4 people about them. Therapist, psychiatrist, husband, and a friend who is bipolar as well.

Some strategies from my therapist.

Here are a few strategies we’ve discussed during the many sessions in which we’ve discussed intrusive thoughts.

Label the thought then swipe your hand across your forehead to “remove” the thought.

Acknowledge it for what it is. It’s an intrusive thought. You didn’t want this. You aren’t a reflection of this. It’s INTRUSIVE. It can GTFO. This strategy is probably the easiest as it doesn’t require holding onto the image or thought. I’ve also found it to be particularly reflexive.

Fade the image or thought.

Instead of immediately pushing the thought out of your mind, freeze it. This is something you’ll consistently see recommended blow. Now, fade the image away until you can’t see it anymore. Desaturate it in your mind.

Mentally paint the alternative.

This option possibly takes the longest time but can be extremely powerful. Move aside the frozen intrusive thought and, in your mind, paint a positive image to counteract the negative one. See your kid hurt? Imagine them laughing in the warm spring sunshine. A personal favorite of mine.

Don’t push your kids away to manage the thoughts.

Out of sheer desperation, I’ve pushed my kids away when I’m particularly triggered and they clearly need connection. My psychiatrist recommended telling my kids that I want to see how fast they can run. Use your phone to time them and encourage them to keep going and try and break their own record. This gives you space, and gives them the time and connection they’re craving.

Ultimately, I just want to acknowledge the reality of intrusive thoughts for anyone, but especially parents, who struggle the way I have. Despite the discussions around postpartum depression and anxiety, things like PP psychosis, OCD, and intrusive thoughts seem to be left out.

You’re not alone. And if that’s all you take from this article, that’s enough. Good luck friend.

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