You’re going to have to bear with me lovely readers cos i’m going to get a bit deep and meaningful tonight. I often wax lyrical about the benefits of BB cream and the best way to perfect an orange lip, all the sparkly stuff. And that’s an important part of me. I’m a sunshine-y kind of person. I’m also an a-type perfectionist with obsessive compulsive tendencies and a penchant for anxiety. It’s a commonly held thought that you can’t be both; the fancy free, life of the party sprite and the harried worrier. The general consensus is that two such distinct sides cannot co-exist together. I have a massive problem with this idea, largely because it suggests or attempts to generate a picture of what certain personalities and character traits ‘look’ like and that, my friends, is a muddy ol’ path to wade down.
I’ve written briefly about my OCD and the impact it’s played on my motherhood experience here and here (and plan to write much, much more on this topic, till every last stigma is obliterated) and have spoken around the idea that, to the rest of the world, I didn’t appear to have a care in the world. I guess you could say that I kind of looked like I had the whole motherhood thing sorted. I was always showered, shampoo’d and perfumed, trotting along with my spiffy stroller and celeb inspired nappy bag. Forget the typical images that we often see of women suffering mental health concerns after birth; the red rimmed eyes, staring off into the distance at something only they can see (most likely a full 12 hours sleep). This may be representative of some women absolutely, but for me personally, the rims around my eyes were from a liquid liner and the only red on my face was from my lippie. I don’t say this to sound arrogant or to give the impression that i’m some sort of super human mother who can somehow juggle a screaming baby in one hand and an eyeshadow quad in the other, because I absolutely am not.
In the early stages of motherhood, when I was really (and there is no other word for it) struggling to keep my head above water, I used my appearance to project to the world that I was a freakin’ awesome mother. That I was holding it together. That I could be the mum with the bronzer nestled next to the baby wipes. I achieved the desired effect. To look at me, you never would have known that everything was anything less than perfect. Rainbows and unicorns and gorgeous newborn snuggles. ‘Motherhood suits you’ was a regular compliment I received, and it did (and does) but that didn’t mean I wasn’t finding it excruciatingly hard and fighting a losing battle, fuelled by intense fatigue, breastfeeding issues and a baby with bowel issues, against the white noise in my head that was oh so good at pointing out my flaws which then began to multiply and expand to the point where I started to doubt anything about myself and the person that I was.
I’ve spoken about intrusive thoughts (or scary thoughts) before. These guys are the calling cards of OCD. Many people often think of OCD as a condition of compulsions; the hand washing, switch flicking, number counting. There is that side to it but I am not a compulsive person. My particular bag is the ‘O’ part of the acronym; obsessions. Imagine it like this; you’re walking along the street, on your way to catch the bus/train/flying automobile and you see a small child approaching. A random thought (possibly borne of media exposure or perhaps just a totally random firing of neurones) flicks into your head; ‘could you imagine if that kid got kidnapped right now?! OMG could you imagine if I kidnapped that kid?’ You shake your head at yourself and keep walking. ‘How bizarre,’ you think before being distratced by the approaching bus. For someone with obsessional based OCD, there’s a good chance that that completely random thought won’t be forgotten, banished to some rarely explored space. No, no, no. It will take on depth and meaning. It will literally become ‘stuck’ in your head. Following you around, unable to be blocked or pushed out of the way. The ‘OMG could you imagine if i kidnapped that kid?’ becomes; ‘What if I do kidnap a child?’ ‘What if i am some kind of child predator?’ ‘What if i’m a danger to all children?’ ‘I’ll be put in jail. I should be put in jail, i’m a dangerous individual.’ Of course, you’re no more of a child kidnapper than your husband, brother, mother or father, but by this stage, you are completely at the mercy of your mind. These thought spiral around and around, bringing with them intense anxiety, fear and guilt. You reassure yourself that they aren’t real, that they are just your mind being silly but then a little voice whispers, so quietly that you barely hear it, ‘but what if?’ That stupid ‘what if’. For many people, compulsions develop to try and alleviate this intense fear. You could say that I do have compulsions but they tend to be verbal; reassurance from others that what i’m thinking isn’t true and internal monologues with myself where I try and debate, then bargain then beg then start all over again to try and rid myself of all that noise. To put it frankly (and I don’t like to swear, ok that’s a lie, I have a pirate mouth but not when i’m writing), it is an absolute shit of a situation.
While kidnapping wasn’t the focal point of my obsessions, the end point is always the same, regardless of what might be terrifying you. I was terrified of somehow hurting my tiny, precious baby, and let me tell you, there is nothing in this world more horrifically terrifying than deciding, regardless of all evidence to the contrary, that the primary threat to your son’s safety is yourself. The mental abuse you heap on yourself is epic, all underscored by an almost constant chant of ‘you’re a bad mother.’It is an ugly process.
The thing was, while my brain was playing back-to-back horror movies, outwardly, I looked pretty good. And that’s what made things harder to explain and process, I didn’t ‘look’ like anything was wrong. I was greeted with suprise when I sat down with my doctor and confided in close friends, who, while aware of my past run in’s with anxiety, hadn’t really picked up on it this time around. I was a master of disguise. I was lucky in that i understood the condition, had a wonderful GP, a supportive partner and family, lovely friends who cared and who i wasn’t afraid to share with. What concerns me is other people, just like me, who might ‘look’ the part of the perfectly happy, treading water mama, but who is internally shadow boxing a fear that she cannot see nor understand. Which is why i’m not all that cool with the idea of stereotyping (for want of a better word) what certain personality types ‘look’ like. Depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, the baby blues don’t ‘look’ like anything. They don’t come with a badge or a funky headband to alert those around you to the fact that you could use a hand.
I’m well and truly back on my feet now. I am not ‘cured’ nor am I ‘better’; I will always have OCD but I can continue to learn how best to manage it so that it impacts positively on my life, rather than negatively (there’s always a silver lining, sometimes it just takes a little while to find it). When people tell me know that I was made for motherhood, I smile and thank them but let them know that it hadn’t always been a perfect fit and it’s taken awhile. Now, ‘making up outside the square’ and perfecting the perfect spring mani is something I do to enhance and to nurture, not to mask or hide the turbulent swirls beneath the surface. So, despite what popular theory says, you can be the sunshine and the rain. Happiness and anxiety can and do co-exist peacefully, i’m living, breathing, pirate-mouthing evidence of that.
** If you’re a mum who has perhaps stumbled across the site and is reading this for the first time, the thoughts and pictures going through your head aren’t synced with reality.You are not the first and you won’t be the last person to have the thought’s you are having, no matter how upset they make you. You are not a bad mother, you’re a badly hurting mother who needs to be nurtured and given support to get sorted. And you can get sorted. Speak to your GP, give PANDA, visit the BeyondBlue or Post Partum progress (American resource but awesome and very helpful) websites, or contact me an e-mail and I can absolutely put you in touch with someone who can help you get your groove back.