Kim Gamble and her daughter. (Photo: Kim Gamble)
Until recently, I thought I was a fairly calm person. I’m not sure how I’d react if I were to be held at gunpoint, but I can manage situations like airplane turbulence or moving across the country. At a 38-week ob-gyn checkup, I learned that I had to have a C-section that night because my baby was breach and had low amniotic fluid. I took the news like a champ. I ripped up my super-organized and detail-oriented birth plan, my husband grabbed a pillow and some magazines, and we took the subway to the hospital. The mood in the operating room was so chill, I remember the surgeon and I gossiping about Beyoncé as she sliced through my stomach. So it came as a surprise on the weekend my daughter turned 3 months old when all emotional hell broke loose.
I’d taken her to Pittsburgh for a family wedding, and somewhere between removing my shoes at security and sneaking into Boarding Zone One, I started having dizzy spells. By the time we landed, I was experiencing the kind of brain fog that usually follows a half-dozen shots of tequila.
That evening, I came across a Facebook post about a friend of a friend who had died of brain cancer. She was in her 30s, the mother of three small children. A mother. My age. Brain cancer. I clutched my daughter on the dance floor at the wedding and whispered into her soft hair, “I don’t want to die.” But I could feel the mass in my own head being nourished by each horrific thought.
“I think I have a brain tumor,” I announced at breakfast the next morning. I waited for my husband to fall to his knees and weep for my misfortune. Instead, he said, “No, you don’t,” and took another bite of his eggs. I excused myself to examine my pupils.
During the following week, I started performing spontaneous balance and reflex tests on myself. Each day was becoming an emotional torrent, and I had no idea what was going on. In the span of an hour, I went from conceding I was being irrational, to thinking I was losing my mind, to being utterly convinced I was dying.
For a few days, my husband ignored me or gently took away my phone every time I looked up from the screen and cited statistics or survival rates, but after waking up in the middle of the night to find me on the sofa, face lit by my computer, reading medical journals and sobbing, he made an appointment with our GP.
“You don’t have a brain tumor,” the doctor said after a comprehensive exam. And I believed him — for a few days. Then I came across an article about a group of women who were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis after giving birth. Within an hour, I was researching construction companies that specialize in putting ramps on homes. Seriously.
In an effort to keep my escalating paranoia private, I started canceling plans with friends and avoiding phone calls. I held it together enough to properly care for my daughter, but when she was sleeping, I’d search mom blogs for stories that were similar to what I was feeling, telling myself that reading about strangers was a fine substitute for talking with friends or a professional.
Meanwhile, each day brought a new ailment: shoulder pain, finger twitching, nausea, numbness in my leg, headaches, hip spasms, and abdominal tenderness. I had so many complaints, I couldn’t keep track.
My husband started referring to “The Symptoms” as if they were a clan of loud, obnoxious neighbors whose presence was ruining our quality of life. Desperate for answers, I scheduled blood tests, ultrasounds, scans, EKGs and chest X-rays. I had my urine, thyroid, hormone, and vitamin levels analyzed by a gynecologist, an internist, and three GPs. I also saw two dermatologists, a neurologist, a gastroenterologist, an ENT, and an eye doctor — some of them with my husband’s knowledge, some in secret. All of it, with ironic disappointment, resulted in the same diagnosis: Nothing is wrong.
Feeling rejected by science, I searched for a spiritual explanation. Various teachings suggest there are only two fundamental emotions: love and fear. Google that, and you’ll find the relationship between the two is well documented; from the King James Bible to Jim Carrey, everyone has weighed in. In my case, I thought I was so in love with my new daughter that I’d scared myself sick.
I finally met with a psychotherapist who presented a much more logical theory. “One of the things we know about postpartum anything,” she said, “is that it’s pre-existing in the mother. Sounds like for you, pregnancy triggered a bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder that had been in check until you had a baby. It’s quite common.”
As she spoke, the puzzle pieces of my quirks came into focus – my organized closet, my fixation on home security, the way I count the passing lampposts when I’m a passenger in a car. She described the obsessive part as having distressing, unreasonable, and intrusive thoughts. Check. Check. Check. The compulsive part, she explained, is the time I spend trying to reassure myself. It’s true – I’ve read so much about sarcomas, adhesions, and aneurysms that I could be a contestant on a medical game show. She also warned that the more I satisfy my brain with searching and checking, the worse it will get.
While I haven’t been officially diagnosed with OCD, I believe that the disorder has been dormant. So, with the help of the therapist, I’ve taken steps to keep my compulsive thoughts in check, swearing off doctor’s appointments and Internet searches. It hasn’t been easy, but I am feeling better. Just last week I had too much wine and got an upset stomach. Sounds normal, but as the night went on, I started entertaining the belief it could be bowel cancer. Instead of scheduling a colonoscopy, I pried myself away from the computer and patiently reminded myself — about a hundred times — to calm down. If nothing else, it’s good practice for being a parent.