What It's Like Being A Mother With OCD

by Rachel Hillestad
Originally Published: 
A mother with OCD trying to perfectly wash her hands

When I was seven I would walk up and down the stairs, over and over again, until things just felt “right.” My best friend would do the same, telling me how cool it was that I danced up and down the stairs. The “feeling right” would last for about 12 seconds and then it would be bedtime and I’d be stuck switching the light switch on and off, on and off, on and off. I cried all of the time. My parents, not knowing what to do with me, took me to a psychologist. Hey. It was 1980, and Frasier Crane was all booked up, trying to psychoanalyze Carla’s inherent need to keep breeding.

I felt anxiety at every turn as a child. Whenever my mother was leaving to shop for groceries for her insatiable hoard of children, I would have very real images of her in a horrible, horrible car accident, head severed. The reason she’d had the accident was always because I’d forgotten to tell her “I love you” exactly three times.

Two would have been negligent; four unimaginable.

It was agony.

The counselor didn’t really know what to do with me, saying to my parents that I was simply a “sensitive child.”

All was moderately OK during the following years (by OK I mean that I spent many moments tolerating my older brother chanting, “If I don’t make this third three-pointer, it means we’re all going to dieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”). BROTHERS. Then, one day during my sophomore year of high school, I experienced a panic attack so intense I started smelling things that weren’t there. There was my poor mother, yelling to the ER nurse over the phone, “She’s smelling cinnamon rolls now, and before it was Chop Suey!! WHAT IS GOING ON?”

I spent the next several months breathing into Hy-Vee bags and having fits of anxiety so severe that the only way to describe them adequately would be to say that I wished someone would just put me out of my misery. Yes. Even that.

Again I was taken to the same counseling service; they grilled me on whether or not I had been abused, beaten, had a traumatic event in my life, etc. I said “no” to all of it and, this being ten years later and the mechanics of the brain more easily understood, they recommended a psychiatrist.

More accurately, the insurance company denied any further payments to the psychologist until I was evaluated by someone who could prescribe medication.

The psychiatrist immediately diagnosed me with OCD and clinical depression. It was the biggest relief I have ever felt to hear someone say,

“This is why you count to three over and over again in your head.”

“This is the reason you are not able to read a sentence without re-reading the word “and” three times every time you come across it.”

“This is the reason you have painful/sad/violent images that enter your head randomly, and you feel powerless to get them out.”

Today, as my two-year-old struggles to put a rotini noodle on a fork and yodels her frustration, as I look at the cottage cheese smashed into the floor and as I try to keep up with the demands of lunch time for a brood of five children, I feel a surge of adrenaline. It’s anxiety, niggling at the back of my mind. It always threatens to overtake me.

Depression and Anxiety are the Mean Girls in your PE class. They help each other through the obstacle course, but when it’s your turn they laugh and point as you slog through water. They’re the quicksand in the Princess Bride, only this time there’s no prince to pull you out.

I remember being that same little girl in the 1980s, visiting my grandmother in the psychiatric ward of our local hospital. She had just had shock treatments and visitors were finally allowed. My grandma was always sunny; she was the lady who would turn on the 80s equivalent to NCIS and spout out of her sweet little mouth, “Well! Doesn’t this just look like a good family show!” She always saw the good in people, and she always had molasses cookies available. They were her offering of love for anyone entering her squeaky clean apartment with the ancient horse picture above the sofa.

It was terrible to see my grandmother, no makeup and sobbing, telling my dad she was just so, so sad. I remember her in still frames during that time, still frames of pain and checking and rechecking windows, locks and doors.

Before those shock treatments she was locked up and unreachable. Now, at 34, I identify with her. I want her to know that. I am desperate for her to know that someone understands, that that little nine year old with braids was going to completely understand her in 25 years. The strand of genetics from her to me was strong.

So, too, was OUR strength.

Today, as my two year old struggles to put a rotini noodle on a fork and yodels her frustration, as I look at the cottage cheese smashed into the floor and as I try to keep up with the demands of lunch time for a brood of three biological and two foster children, I feel a surge of adrenaline, of anxiety, niggling at the back of my mind. It always threatens to overtake me.

There’s a lyric from a Mumford and Sons song that I adore: “If only I had an enemy bigger than my apathy I could have won.”

I feel this daily in my parenting. I feel there’s always something I’m leaving undone; a box left unchecked or a door hanging open. I fear the judgement of my children when they are grown:

“Remember when mom would get sad and depressed and just send us outside? Remember when she’d read “The Bell Jar” and then listen to that Oldies band called the Cranberries? Why couldn’t she have spent all of that time making Pinterest crafts out of root beer bottles and hemp or taking pictures of us every year at the exact time of our birth instead?”

And, let’s be honest. The one we all fear: “REMEMBER HOW UTTERLY CRAPPY OUR CHILDHOOD WAS? OUR MOM SUCKED!”

These thoughts lead to more self-hate, and then the self-hate leads to me turning more inward. Friends wonder why I haven’t called for weeks and then when I write on my blog that I’m lonely, they ask me why I didn’t reach out.

I don’t know. Is that an acceptable answer?

When I was pregnant with my second child, a son, I decided to forego all anxiety medication. Our first child was born with her liver hanging out and no anus, so I figured (as all guilty mothers do) that my choosing to take the antidepressants was the reason our child was born so sick.

To say that this next pregnancy was hell would be to say that Oprah is bathing in hundred dollar bills at the time of this writing. I was so miserable. I was anxious. I fixated for hours each day upon the numerous ways he would die in utero, sometimes spending 4 – 5 hours on the computer “researching” other stories of parents who had given birth to stillborn babies. I would contact them and ask them for their stories, sure I could keep a stillbirth at bay if I only did the right things. The “right things” usually involved lots of checking and rechecking.

Pregnancy was my prison.

When I was 37 weeks pregnant I was mopping our kitchen floor, something that hadn’t been done for about two months. My 23-month-old daughter was standing next to the mop bucket, looking up at me with these huge brown eyes and all I could do was collapse next to her, gather her in my arms, and, sobbing, call the doctor.

I told her of my symptoms, spluttering, “I just know he’s going to die. I just know it! There are so many rituals I have to perform and I can’t sleep and I don’t eat and my mind is so tired. I know I’m supposed to be brave and strong and deliver him naturally and let him come on his own and all that but I just can’t do this any more. I can’t.”

She delivered our son the next day. I’m telling you: as soon as that umbilicus was cut, my mind was clear again.

I’ve learned over the years that there are just going to be days where the OCD is worse than on others. There are days (especially when I’m tired) where I can’t look at any amount of writing without re-reading every inch of what is written over three times.

The only way I can describe dealing with OCD to someone who doesn’t deal with it is that it is an itch that begs to be scratched. The more you ignore it, the louder it gets.

There are times when the anxiety is so bad some mornings that I have to take three deep breaths and snuggle into the crook of my husband’s warmth, imagining his body taking away some of my pain.

I’ve learned that, in mothering as in anything else, some mothers have a harder time than others doing certain things. Getting from point “A” to “B” is harder for me than it is for others. I’ve learned to stop comparing myself to the mom who packs her kids organic lunches, never raises her voice, and reads “Little House on the Prairie” aloud while I’m on the other side of town, thankful my kids are in their rooms, fighting over Red Dye 40.

Victory is in the little battles, and I have no idea what someone else’s struggle may be. I’ve always known that.

The freedom, though, has been in learning to be awake to my own depression and anxiety and move them from the shadows into the light. It’s OK some days for me to be feeling anxious, to feel that I just “went through the motions” in caring for my children instead of beating myself up about it in sequences of threes.

Do you know this, dear fellow mother-friend, whoever you are? Do you know what else I know? My fingers shake as I type these words and my mind releases a flood of fear as I think of the judgement I may receive in admitting these things.

I know something else. I know something else that holds a far greater and beautiful truth:

There is such freedom in the telling.

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