Kept Prisoner: Motherhood and Mental Illness

Before I start, a note.
I’ve been pressed, by many well-meaning people, about my sharing my experiences with mental illness. Raised eyebrows and comments like, “You’re very open about it,” imply that I ought not to be so candid. Some have said that it’s a “little much,” or “embarrassing.”  These few comments have been overwhelmingly surpassed by notes, calls, and shows of support and encouragement. The mountain of messages I get from other mothers who have suffered similarly, or those from women who have been inspired to seek help, are worth any amount of criticism I could possibly encounter. For those that might not understand, however, I owe a tiny bit of explanation:  Truth be told, writing about this is embarrassing for me. Frightfully so. But I feel, with all of my heart, that writing about this is not only the right thing to do but also God’s calling on my life. He has given me a story to tell about His grace, miracles, and the power to overcome. My embarrassment is a small price to pay in service of others. If I stop because of the misunderstanding of few, I tell the mothers it has helped that their story, their suffering, is “too much” or “too embarrassing.” I won’t do it.
Hear this, precious reader: Your story is worthwhile. You are anything but an embarrassment. In the words of my Grandfather, whose pride poured through the phone all the way from Tallahassee, “You keep on going.”
One terrible thought is all it took. I was in the middle of mopping the kitchen, mindlessly listening to a thriller podcast my book club had recommended. I used to love thrillers. That was before. Suddenly, I was pulled into a state of pure panic. “What if?” What if I did something terrible? What if I hurt my own children? I tried to put it out of my mind, to reassure myself I was being silly. “You’re not a psychopath,” I told myself, “Psychopaths don’t stay awake at night fretting over whether their children had eaten enough vegetables at dinner.”
But the thoughts wouldn’t go. I couldn’t shake the feeling, the awful uncertainty, no matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t sleep for days. I knew my worries were unreasonable but I couldn’t rid myself of the awful uncertainty I felt. I didn’t know it then, but all of my reassuring and ruminating was feeding the beast: OCD, which thrives on one’s desperation for safety. OCD demands you be absolutely certain. From that moment on I was stuck, held hostage by my own mind. The brain is a wonderful tool but a terrible master.
It picked the one uncertainty it knew I couldn’t leave alone: the safety and well-being of my children. OCD is really crafty and cunning, I have to give it credit for that. It challenges your values and your personhood because it knows it’s an itch you will scratch. First, it appeared as a friend. “Maybe just check that you’re doing everything just right, wouldn’t want to risk it.” Checking that everything was okay, that I wasn’t dangerous, seemed like common sense. But over time the voice became menacing, threatening. Knowing OCD’s voice helps identify the bully. Sadly, even when you know it’s the disorder talking, it pulls you in. It’s like an addiction. My thirst for certainty, for safety, is relentless. It’s part of my biology. It’s motherhood. We check and double check their seat belts, don’t we? So why not answer OCD? Why not make sure they’re safe?
“Please, God. Please. Keep them safe.” It’s a prayer many mothers pray over their children, but I do it with a desperation that could charge the earth to move. It knows I will do anything to keep them safe, and then makes me the monster to be afraid of. When triple checking their car seats wasn’t enough to terrify me, it made me the adversary. “How do you know you’re not a monster?”  It turns your every normal move into threatening possibilities. It gives your arms the unwanted urge to harm. You constantly feel like you’re on the brink of terror, one step away from travesty. One awful moment away from hurting the people you couldn’t bear to hurt. I couldn’t harm a fly, in reality,  but that doesn’t matter. Reason and common sense have lost their footing and have been replaced by looming, terrifying possibility.
The more you answer the beast, the more uncertainty it delivers. “No! Of course not! I would never hurt anyone.” That’s what I would tell OCD when it challenged me. This is reassurance. It’s an ineffective compulsion people with Harm OCD perform. “I’ve never done anything wrong. I’d never do that.” Maybe, for a minute, you feel relief. Of course you’re not a monster. You’ve never done anything monstrous.
“But, what if?”
Those are OCD’s three favorite words. You can’t argue with “maybe.” Any sentence that starts with “Maybe…” is inherently true – anything is possible, after all. Because there is no certainty in anything, not even your love for your children I’ve discovered, that can’t be shaken by a “what if.” You may be reading this and think, “No way, I’m certain I would never (insert terrible act here).” But certainty is a feeling. A nice one, but a feeling nonetheless.
So, I tried harder. I would perform more safety compulsions. I would avoid being alone with my children, and kept constant recall of my actions every second of the day, knowing OCD was waiting to challenge my every move. I’ve even contemplated installing cameras in every room of our house, so I can check them to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong. (Crazy? I know. You’re allowed to laugh, if you want.)
It’s often called the “Doubting Disease,” and for good reason. It can instill doubt in the most reasonable of people. Most people live with the false comfort of certainty, but OCD pulls back the curtain. It offers you a .000001% chance that your worst fears are true. That sliver of “maybe” is unbearable for someone with the disorder. It’s unbearable for me. I need to know. I need to be absolutely certain.
What’s the worst thing in the world you can imagine doing? Think hard. Imagine the details, the outcomes, the consequences. Imagine discovering you are not who you thought you were. You say you’re sure, but how can you be sure? How can you be certain? The most normal people sometimes end up on the evening news for atrocities against humanity. How do you know with 100% certainty that one day you won’t become a headline?
That’s OCD. It’s the cruel voice that made a normal mother, in the middle of mopping the kitchen, a threat to her precious, beloved children in her own mind. A hell of my brain’s own creation.
It even questions me during my conversations with God. It slivers in to my most sacred spaces, the places that are meant to be my refuge. “Are you being genuine? Maybe you’re faking your faith, too. Maybe this is just a cover for your evil conscience.” It tells me I may go straight to hell, that hell is where people like me belong. It’s exhausting. It’s the devil’s work. The devil loves insecurity and fear.
At some point, OCD compulsions take you away from your values. They turn you into a person who lives in fear, in a small box where OCD is king. You start avoiding those you love, because you’re possibly dangerous, and you can’t bear to lose them. But by performing the compulsions, you lose them anyway. You lose the genuine way your children sink into you when tired, the sleepy way they melt into your arms. You’re quivering in fear during moments that were once your happy place. Eventually, you’ve lost it all. OCD owns all of your moments, your day, your life. You’re left in a prison, deprived of all the things you once loved. You did everything you could, but it wasn’t enough. You’ll never feel safe. You discover that fear and comfort are both liars.
At my very worst, OCD had me so convinced that I was dangerous, I felt my children were safer without me. Me, their mother, who has since birth rocked them to sleep with lullabies and played peek-a-boo for hours. Who nursed them in the middle of the night, tended to their every whim, and spent every minute of the day devoted to their happiness. I didn’t want to die, to miss a single minute of their glorious childhood, but I was adamant about their safety. If I couldn’t keep them safe from me, then I deserved to die. The devil tempted me with the promise of their well-being, told me they’d be okay if I just disappeared.  And I nearly gave in. Nearly. Instead, I called my husband to come home and begged for real help. I mustered up enough courage to tell our family what I’d been enduring for months, and they sprinted to my side. I went away for six weeks – six terrible, treacherous weeks away from my babies – to work on getting better. Every single second I would think about them, about how I’d failed them by getting so sick. I made a promise to myself that I would fight like hell to fight the beast. To get my life, my unremarkable but perfect life, back. And that’s what I did.
After leaving treatment and returning to my “normal” life, I reached out to OCD Treated, who claimed OCD could be treated to a point where one could live in complete freedom. I’d never heard that before. My therapists would delicately and sympathetically break the news to me that OCD was chronic – that I could manage it and suffer a bit less, but the thoughts and fear would probably linger. The best I could do was prepare to take it along with me for life, and to live as best I could anyway.  His philosophy was also more brutal and painful than I had learned elsewhere. But it was also genius and employed simple logic. He thoughtfully explained to me that my attachment to “perfect motherhood” and a perfect childhood for my children was manifesting itself into fear – it attached to what it knew I wouldn’t accept and made it bigger and scarier so I would keep feeding the compulsion monster. To overcome the beast, you’d have to accept yourself unconditionally, even if you are a terrible monster. You’ll have to harbor sympathy for even the worst of humanity. You’ll have to give up the illusion that you can keep your loved ones safe. He challenged me to put myself in risky situations – exposures, in therapy speak – and to do everything I could to bring on discomfort. When people hear about exposure therapy for OCD they’re usually mortified. “That sounds like torture.” Well, it is. Effective torture. I was all too willing. At the end of my rope, I would endure just about anything. “You’ve never met a more agreeable patient,” I told him earnestly. “I will do anything.”
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So I did. Day after day I’d put myself in uncomfortable situations. I’d watch movies about going to jail; he picked ones that were especially brutal, right down to gang violence and solitary confinement. I would be asked to imagine being there, in prison, knowing that I’d committed a horrible crime. Being kept away from my children. Being held in contempt and hatred by those I love the most. Alone, abandoned. To come to terms with the possibility. To find understanding and empathize with the criminal in her cell. I’d sob and sob through exposures but I refused to stop. I was determined. If this is the way out, I will see it through.
I was also ordered to do “risky” things around my children. As I’d do what was asked of me, OCD would hover. “What did you just do? Did you hurt them just now? Do you want to?” My brain would scream at me to perform a compulsion, to respond to the menacing threats, but Rob (the therapist and expert behind OCD Treated) had implicitly explained that I was not to answer. I was ordered to shrug. “Maybe. Maybe I did. Moving on.” It is painful and terrifying but it is the only way out of OCD’s prison. Slowly, I gained more and more freedom, more psychological endurance. He was onto something.
I’m not cured, exactly. Maybe I’ll always live with some fear. But, I’ve stopped feeding the monster. I’ve stopped meeting its relentless demands. It pushes, but I push harder.  I do everything I can to make myself uncomfortable. To hug and kiss them as I did before, to spend more and more time in their presence, to ignore OCD’s relentless warnings and follow my values. Psalm 16 lingers in my head: I will not be shaken. OCD will not take me away from them. After months of brutal exposure work, I can finally spend hours, days, weeks alone with my children and – best of all – I actually enjoy life most of the time. I still have heaps of anxiety, but I’ve learned to push through and live my life anyway. I now keep my kids home from school just for fun adventures and no longer avoid things that make me anxious.
It’s been nearly a year since my battle with OCD began, and I’m in awe of how much I’ve conquered. How much of my life I’ve taken back. I can finally look to the future, with hope and optimism, and think of all the things that are to come. Recently, Mike and I began talking about a third baby in the future. One day, as we were out shopping, he insisted I buy this darling white onesie, a nod to our hope to fill our home with another miracle. I may have a mental illness, but motherhood is still my biggest joy and calling. I often take it out of it’s box and think of the teeny, perfect blessing that will one day (God willing) fill it. I imagine rocking a baby to sleep, undisturbed by OCD. Babies are hope personified. I think of how it will feel to know that darkness was shut out by light, goodness prevailing over evil, all embodied by a bundle of God’s amazing grace.
OCD is a powerful adversary. But here’s the thing: It cannot be more powerful than my love for my family. It has met its match, my motherhood, my desperation for my freedom and my children. It will not wear down the willingness to do anything for them. I’m not a brave person by nature. I prefer meakness and comfort and nonconfrontation. But I’ll be brave. Every day I will get braver and tougher and closer to owning my own life. OCD is no match for my blind, stupid courage.
If, by grace, I one day get to heaven I imagine I’ll get my answers. The reason for all my suffering. I hope more than anything it goes something like this:
“You kept going. You would not let the devil win. Well done, good and faithful servant.” And then there will be peace. Overwhelming peace. At last.
At last.

“In Jesus, now you know this: After everything that happened, this is not the end. Though you have been pushed out to the margins and at times it felt like everything would fall apart, He picked up the pieces and said, I know you. I know everything that has happened, and I will still hold you together. I will still love you forever.”

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