It’s well past 8 p.m., and my son should be in bed. It’s one of those rare nights when his father is home, and I’m supposed to be enjoying a night free of toddler bedtime shenanigans now that his baby sister is peacefully asleep. But, as is so often the case on these “get out of bedtime free” nights, for the last 40 minutes my toddler has been screaming and wailing, hitting and kicking, desperately avoiding bedtime while my husband cajoles, begs, warns, redirects, the usual. This is nothing new.
The house finally grows silent, and I’m cheering for my husband’s tentative victory. But then, from the top of the stairs, I hear the swing of the baby gate and my son’s voice: “Mommy?” I hold my breath and wait. Any second now, I should hear the slow and heavy footsteps of my weary husband ushering the little boy in his T-shirt and diaper back into the bedroom. But instead, I hear his voice again, more urgently: “MOMMY?” So I head in his direction.
I see him.
I see him at the top of the stairs, alone, navigating the first one down, and then the second. With his chubby hand on the cool white wall for stability, his body sweaty and shaky from exhaustion and tantrumning, my son lumbers forward. My heart leaps into my throat: He never goes down the stairs without one of us in front of him. I start to panic, scream for my husband, and tell my son, “Baby, stop! Just hold on!”
Then, it is over. My husband swoops in and scoops up our son. The bedroom door closes. He’s safe.
But in my mind, he’s not. Inside my head, intrusive images of my sweet boy falling down the stairs and meeting a horrific end play on an endless loop for the rest of the night. At times, it’s so terrifying that I shake my head to escape the image, but I cannot stop it from coming over and over again. So I hit myself, repeatedly, on my temple in a ritual I’ve had since childhood for times when I’m overcome by a frightening scene that is etched inside my brain and playing like a broken record. I know it doesn’t work, but I do it anyway, trying to reset and relax and then pitching forward with a wave of nausea as the scene returns. Of course, the ritual destroys the peaceful night my husband had planned. On the couch, watching our favorite sitcom, I curse and retch and hit my head over and over, and my husband’s body stiffens as he withdraws his arms from around me and sighs. He doesn’t know what to do.
I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder for most of my life. Before children, my obsessive thoughts were restricted to anxiety surrounding my own untimely demise, because there was nobody else in the world I loved quite as intensely as I now do my children, and my OCD preys on that love. Now, as a mother, I can’t cook without fearing I’ll accidentally poison my children, so I prefer not to cook. And every day when my son leaves with my husband for day care, I have certain silent and spoken rituals I have to repeat, or else the possibility of something very bad happening to them—something I can’t even type out here—feels imminent.
If I put down my daughter while she’s crying, and she self-soothes and quietens herself, I have to rush in and wake her, because I’ve already begun to grieve for her. When I find a clogged duct from nursing and begin to massage it out, I do it so forcefully, assuming it’s malignant cancer, that I tear up my skin as I envision my children’s future without me. Despite the ultrasounds and specialists booked in frantic tears, I am not comforted that this situation is benign and it keeps me up every night, compulsively rubbing on my breast, until the area feels smooth again. Moments of joy are sucked away and replaced by tears as my own voice taunts me, in my head: You’ll be dead soon. You’ll be old, and your children will hate you .I’ve lived with this my whole life but even when I’m at my best, my OCD always finds a way to make me suffer.
My OCD is the part of me that I hate more than anything. I battle with it. I wrestle. But I can’t run away.
Before we had children, I appreciated that there would be a good possibility that I would pass on this mental illness to my children. Now that they are here and I love them so hard, so unconditionally, the reality of this problem hits home: If my son or daughter is afflicted with this poisoned brain, as I have been, how do I love their OCD? Does loving them mean loving their mental illness, trying to make peace with it, to work with it because I know it so well, or can I continue despising, fighting, hating it? And if I hate their OCD, does that mean I cannot, in fact, unconditionally love my kids after all? If I hate a piece of them that causes so much suffering, am I failing? Does the OCD triumph? How can I run away from this awful disorder if it plants itself inside my children, and how do I model for them the “right” way to deal with this when I obviously haven’t found the answer for myself?
I don’t know.
For tonight, I’m grateful that my son didn’t fall down the stairs, and I guess I’ll leave it at that.