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The Gift of Postpartum OCD

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One afternoon in January 2013, I gave birth to a beautiful daughter. My husband and I were overjoyed, blissful as we marveled at her every move.

That night, as we tried to rest, I had a peculiar thought: what if I were to throw my daughter down the spiral staircase in our home? Ashamed, I told a nurse. She kindly suggested that I was exhausted from labor and should get some sleep. She would take care of our baby for the night. The next day, a social worker visited us and became the first of many professionals to help me understand what I came to know as postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, or PPOCD.

These intrusive thoughts continued. In the kitchen, I imagined stabbing my baby with a knife. In the bathroom, I pictured myself drowning her. In a parking lot, I imagined leaving her on the ground and driving away. I also feared taking deliberate action to hurt myself.

Though I could never carry out these monstrous acts, because I pictured myself doing them, I began to wonder if I was a monster. Terrified, I tried to counter them with repetitive behaviors, phrases, images, and positive thoughts—coping mechanisms common of PPOCD.

I bonded deeply with my daughter despite my anxiety. I came to learn that the unsettling thoughts are not a sign of bad parenting. Rather, they emerge from the overzealous care that sometimes accompanies new parenthood, from a mind constantly scanning for danger.

lorettaUnlike postpartum depression, PPOCD is not widely known. Mothers who experience it often have no reference for their suffering and believe that if they tell someone, their baby will be taken away. Thus, many women do not seek treatment. I was lucky to receive excellent care, including medication, therapy, and a support group at the Healthy Expectations Center at Children’s Hospital Colorado.

Around my daughter’s first birthday, the intrusive thoughts and anxiety began to subside, finally fading almost completely.

After my recovery, I processed my experience by composing a piece of music for Denver’s Playground Ensemble, called String Quartet OCD. With music as my language, I traced the arc of my journey from PPOCD’s first manifestations through recovery, and the lingering memories from that time.

Before I got OCD, I thought of it almost as a joke, as in, “You’re so OCD about organizing your socks.” But the heart of OCD is not about desiring order or cleanliness; it is fear. When OCD has you in its grip, “what if” thoughts become overwhelming, and the body responds with panic. It’s like experiencing the onrush of terror from a nightmare—incessantly.

We all go through life changed by our suffering. PPOCD changed me for the better by giving me a greater understanding of fear and compassion for all who are afraid. With String Quartet OCD, I made peace with my fear.

momI hope my music and my story can provide comfort to other mothers suffering from crippling postpartum anxiety. You are not alone; you are not to blame; and with help, you, too, will find peace.

Composer Loretta Notareschi an associate professor of music at Regis University and a faculty member of The Walden School, residing in Denver with her husband and daughter. Notareschi writes for individuals and ensembles across the country, and has recently been commissioned by Denver-based groups The Playground Ensemble, the First Universalist Singers, the Mountain Music Duo, and the Colorado State Music Teachers Association. In October 2016, she will be a TedX Mile High speaker. 

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