When Your Thoughts Terrify You

by Elena Heglund
A teenage girl sitting on the bed, terrified of her thoughts
JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty

Long before I ever had a child, I was educated in postpartum depression. Due to a friend’s advocacy, I became a supporter of the Post Partum Resource Center of New York. I made donations, and attended the yearly gala event held by the fundraising arm of the organization, The Sounds of Silence, Friends of the Postpartum Resource Center. When I became pregnant, I reminded my husband to keep PPD in mind, and if things seemed awry to speak up. After all, I was informally educated in the disorder and knew all about it.

My husband and I were over the moon to meet our daughter. She was a “good” baby, happy, smiling, and snuggly. She slept through the night as early as ten weeks. It was summer, and we were able to enjoy the nice weather, going on walks and enjoying the longer days. But at night, the worry would set in.

I became obsessed with the stairs in our home. We live in a two story home, not quite a colonial, but very similar with the four bedrooms on the second floor. The front door opens to a foyer and a sweeping grand staircase with a landing that is 10 feet off the ground, with curved banisters on either side of the stairs.

I used to lie in bed, sweating, not sleeping, thinking the same thoughts over and over again; that my newborn daughter would somehow be dropped over the railing and her head would be smashed. I googled stair safety. I asked my husband if we could move. He thought I was kidding, I was serious. I wanted to put cushioned flooring in the foyer. He thought I was kidding, I was serious.

I Googled again: how do people live in two story homes with a baby? I wished desperately that we had bought a ranch. I lectured everyone on how to properly use the stairs. In talking to a college girlfriend about my lengthy instructions on how to use stairs while holding a baby, she mentioned that I might be experiencing anxiety. No, no, well maybe, I replied, though now I recognize that micromanaging stair use, whether holding a baby or not, is certainly a sign of anxiety. I didn’t tell my husband or my friend how often the scenario replayed itself in my mind, or about the other thoughts that were invading my peace.

I would be sitting in the armchair, nursing my daughter and I would think, “Well, don’t put the baby in the dryer.”

For our daughter’s monthly photo, I knew it had to be taken on the actual date of the month, because what if she didn’t make it to the next month?

I thought about death all the time. I knew we needed to set a routine, but routines made me worry about dying.

I read to our sweet baby girl, and Sandra Boynton soon became a favorite, with her cute little cartoon animals and easy, sweet stories. I would read the story Little Pookie, and What’s Wrong Little Pookie, and hate the mother pig. I hated her because she never had to worry. She was trapped between the pages of a board book, and her little baby pig would always and forever be safe. She did not have to worry, like I did about her child dying in a gruesome way.

Two friends had their babies within weeks of my own daughter. I remember reading their texts about sleeping and postpartum bodies and I remember feeling jealous, jealous that their concerns were so, so, so…. normal, while I was trapped in the prison of my own worry.

I filled out the PPD questionnaire at the pediatrician’s office, checking through boxes and knowing how to fill them out so that I seemed fine. After all, I know how to answer a multiple-choice question, I teach the strategies and I write them myself. I knew the answers they wanted.

After all, I was fine. I knew exactly what PPD was. I had even been to the gala fundraising event.

I did not, at all, have postpartum depression. After all, I was happy, I was seeing friends and family, I was in love with my new daughter. I could get out of bed, and I did not want to hurt myself or anyone else.

However, one night, my husband and I watched Saving Mr. Banks, the movie about Walt Disney and Mary Poppins. As the overwhelmed mother in the movie attempted to drown herself, I thought to myself, “I get it.”

Meanwhile the movies in my head reeled on. I didn’t tell anyone about them, because it was just too weird to say out loud. Also, if I mentioned it out loud, then these thoughts would become true. This (common) superstition was the worst of all.

But it got to a point where I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t take the movie in my mind anymore. I stopped nursing, thinking maybe it was the hormones. I turned back to my good friend Google, trying every combination until I hit the right one, and turned up the information that I was having what are known as “scary thoughts,” which are defined as:

“an expression used to encompass any and all categories of upsetting thinking that can interfere with the well-being of a new mother. Scary thoughts refer to negative, repetitive, unwanted and/or intrusive thoughts or images that can bombard you at any time scary thoughts are anxiety-driven, they are extremely common, and most new mothers admit that have, at some time, imagined or worried about harm coming to their babies. The shame of having these thoughts can prevent women from speaking about them.”

I sobbed with relief, knowing that I was not alone. I used the book list on the Postpartum Resource Center’s website and found the book Dropping the Baby and Other Scary Thoughts and read it from cover to electronic cover. I soon learned that I was not educated in all parts of postpartum mental health, and realized that I was suffering from deep anxiety. I started to speak my fears out loud, and other mothers started to recognize themselves, with one friend saying that I had diagnosed her without meaning to, she had her own set of scary thoughts, and another who knew all about how you would have thoughts about your “baby dying all the time.” Every time I shared and a mother said, “me too,” I felt further relief that I was not alone.

Acknowledging the scary thoughts, discussing them, learning to understand that they “are negative, repetitive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts that can bombard you at any time” helped me to break the cycle of anxiety.

When I saw Jessica Porten’s story about how she had been treated when she spoke up and asked for help, it made me want to share my story and speak the secret.

Pregnancy, giving birth, and new motherhood are the most extraordinary of our ordinary experiences. It is the responsibility of healthcare professionals everywhere to understand postpartum mental health and to avoid situations such as Jessica Porten’s who spoke the secret and asked for help. New mothers need love, help, care and understanding, and they need to know that as their bodies and minds heal that there is no need to be ashamed and that it is of the utmost importance to ask for help when it is needed.