My OCD means I’ve been plagued with dark thoughts since I had my first child

mother and baby
One reader (not pictured) is struggling with dark thoughts after the birth of her child - Getty
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Bryony Gordon is a bestselling author, columnist, podcast host, mental health campaigner and now the Telegraph’s Anxiety Aunt. Bryony is also the founder of peer support group Mental Health Mates. 

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Dear Bryony,

I had my first child 10 months ago and what should be the happiest time of my life has become a nightmare.

I have never had any mental health issues before, but from the moment my daughter was born, I have been plagued with dark and dangerous thoughts that have tormented me non-stop. I am terrified that I am going to harm her, even though I love her so much and the very thought of doing anything to hurt her fills me with utter revulsion.

My brain keeps flashing me the most disturbing thoughts: that I might drown or poison her and other things I can’t even put in writing. Changing her nappy is hideous due to the horrible things that come into my head. Putting her to bed is awful because I am terrified that she will stop breathing.

I have heard you talk about intrusive thoughts and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and wonder if this might be what is happening to me, but I always think of OCD as being tidy and organised and I don’t understand how that can in any way relate to what I am experiencing.

Please can you advise me what to do? I am so scared of telling my husband or the doctor in case they call the police or try and take me away from my precious baby who I love so much.

– Anna

Dear Anna,

I am so happy you wrote this letter. I’m not happy that you are going through this, you understand, more that you have had the brilliant bravery to put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard) and share what you are going through, because it gives me an opportunity to bust some very unhelpful myths about OCD, while also providing some comfort to any other parent out there going through the same thing (believe me, Anna: there are many).

First, let me explain what OCD is, because the misunderstanding of this terrible condition means that it seems to have become code for having a neat sock drawer. There are many people who still think OCD describes a highly-organised personality type, and that it exists on a spectrum.

“I’m a bit OCD” is a phrase I hear all the time, but this is like saying you’re a bit pregnant. OCD is a serious and debilitating mental health condition that affects about 1 per cent of the population. I describe it as your brain refusing to acknowledge what your eye can see – that the oven is off, or your hands are clean, or that the thing you’ve just driven over in the road is a speed bump and not a child.

Sufferers engage in compulsions to try and reassure themselves (when I was a little girl, I had phrases I would repeat in the hope it would keep my family alive).

Some people with OCD experience a type that has come to be known as “Pure O”, which centres on intrusive thoughts. It sounds as if it might be what you are experiencing right now.

bryony gordon
Gordon: 'You need to know that we all have intrusive thoughts such as the ones you describe in your letter' - Clara Molden

You need to know that we all have intrusive thoughts such as the ones you describe in your letter – what marks out someone with OCD is the importance attached to them. Most people are able to dismiss intrusive thoughts – the “dark and dangerous” ones you speak of – because they know they don’t mean anything. They get on with their lives, in the knowledge they are not evil. But someone with OCD will become so distressed by the thoughts that they will ruminate on them endlessly in an attempt to reassure themselves they are not bad. The irony is that giving them attention only makes everything worse.

Let me tell you now: you are not your thoughts, you are just the person who happens to hear them. You are no more dark and dangerous than I am the president of the United States of America. And though you may feel terrible, I need you to know that post birth is a prime time for OCD to strike, especially in people who have never experienced it before. The combination of hormones, exhaustion and caring for a tiny, much-loved human who is entirely reliant on you is catnip for OCD.

Think of it as a relentless version of the normal stress that comes in early parenthood, when you are naturally concerned with a baby’s safety. You are not a bad mother, or a failing one – quite the opposite, actually. If anything, you are experiencing an extreme evolutionary response.

But you need help, because it is miserable living like this (I know – I’ve had OCD since I was 12).

You don’t need to be worried about speaking to your doctor, but I also know that asking someone who is worried not to be is largely pointless. You can self refer online for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which is the standard treatment for OCD. Antidepressants can also be used to help you get back on an even keel.

I want to recommend an incredible organisation called Maternal OCD. They helped me when I was pregnant and the condition kept telling me that maybe the baby wasn’t my husband’s. Oh, that was a fun bit of pregnancy! Their website contains an array of really useful resources for mothers, including details of specialist services for mums experiencing OCD. The charity OCD Action runs a twice monthly online peer support group for parents, and has a helpline you can call from Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 5pm (0300 636 5478). They also run groups for the partners of people with OCD, so this might be a helpful resource for your husband.

I know this is hard with a baby but please try and prioritise rest and recovery. Your body has been through a lot and being physically exhausted makes a huge difference to OCD. Small steps, like cutting down on caffeine, getting out for fresh air, and eating a nourishing diet, can make a big difference when it comes to your ability to deal with intrusive thoughts. Remember: you deserve to enjoy time with your baby. If you reach out for help, the sooner this dark period you speak off will give way to the light

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