Intrusive Thoughts: What It's Like to Be a Mom with OCD
My first therapy appointment went well. Almost too well, actually. The therapist's office sits in a newly-renovated building right on my way to work. There’s plenty of parking, free coffee and a little antique shop next door.
The themes of Monday’s appointment seemed to be:
- Temper tantrums
- Intrusive thoughts
The counselor assured me that my son’s behavior sounded normal. We decided that keeping a tantrum journal would be a good way to identify what sparks his meltdowns.
The intrusive thoughts were tougher.
Intrusive thoughts are a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder that causes distressing thoughts to come out of nowhere. Think of them as brain allergies: an overreaction to common environmental dangers. Thousands of years ago, these intrusive thoughts might have saved an ancestor of mine from a saber-toothed tiger. But for me, they’re illogical, uncomfortable and nearly impossible to control.
Here’s an example: I’ll be strapping the kids into their car seats, and I’ll suddenly see them underneath the tires. Or left behind, trapped inside the car on a hot summer’s day. The scene blooms in my mind before I even know what’s happening. I hear their cries, see their faces redden, see the sweat glisten on their furrowed brows. My heart shatters.
Or I’ll be changing the baby’s diaper, and all the newspaper articles I’ve ever read about child abusers flood my mind. I'll spare you the graphic details. I wish those articles would have spared me the graphic details, which torment me every time I see my son staring up at me from the changing table. I feel terrified that these people exist, repulsed that I’m thinking of them at all.
“What kind of person has thoughts like these?” I asked the therapist in disgust.
“Moms with OCD,” she replied.
I've actually wanted to write about intrusive thoughts for a long time, but I couldn't bring myself to do it.
As a writer, I'm drawn to darkness. I want to probe it so that I can better understand why horrible things happen and what they have to teach me. But there is no deeper logic in my intrusive thoughts, no meaningful narrative. Their only purpose is to hurt.
That's probably why you won't find many first-hand accounts of intrusive thoughts online. I've looked. The few I've found mentioned "mental horror shows" and "scary impulses," but were inscrutably vague on the details.
I understand why. I don't want any other graphic image lodged in my brain. Nor do I want someone to misunderstand this strange illness of mine and call Child Protective Services. But I also want to make sure that I'm not alone. That their "mental horror shows" and "scary impulses" are just as violent and objectionable as mine, and that I'm not actually a homicidal maniac.
The therapist encouraged me to stop fighting against the anxiety these thoughts create, and just sit with it. Exposure therapy, in other words.
I know exposure therapy is proven effective, but it seems paradoxical. Isn’t exposure my problem? This constant, unwanted exposure to horrific scenes starring the people I want to protect most?
Yes. But I know from experience that fighting against these intrusive thoughts can strengthen their intensity, and increases the likelihood that they’ll return.
It’s easy to forget that these horrible scenes have no basis in reality. So maybe it’s not exposure to more intrusive thoughts I need, but exposure to the present moment in which they appear. My heart rate quickens. My mind lurches from fear to shame and back again. It’s uncomfortable. But my children are fine, and I am fine, and the earth is still spinning.
Can I approach these intrusive thoughts with curious detachment? Am I even capable of that, or have my neural circuits hardened into a constant state of emergency?
I can try. Whether or not it works, I guess I’ll find out.
I'll keep you posted either way.