I thought about hurting my baby every day

Susannah Birch had her throat slashed by her mum when she was a toddler. Now she talks about her own issues with mental health. Pic by Luke Marsden.

“If I tell anyone that I think about hurting my baby, they’ll think I’m a bad mother.” That was my first thought when an intrusive image popped into my head, a graphic mental picture of me hurting my baby girl.

I was shocked by the thoughts, so I’d block them out, ignore them, and try to make them go away. I loved my baby and I knew that I didn’t want to hurt her, so why were these awful images appearing in my head?

The fact that my mother had attacked me with a knife when I was a toddler, leaving me with a tube in my throat for 11 years, didn’t make dealing with the thoughts any easier. The logical part of my brain knew that I was much more self aware and very different from my mother, but that didn’t silence the fear that genetics could make me follow in her footsteps.

Susannah Birch nearly died as a two-year-old when her mother slit her throat during a psychotic episode.Source:Supplied

I knew all about depression and mental health. I knew that my own history of depression put me at higher risk for post-partum depression. I was so busy expecting the down days, I was completely unprepared for the images in my head, which led to hypervigilance, forcing me to put my daughter on the other side of the room or in her cot when using any object I considered dangerous.

Whether it was a hot kettle, a knife or even turning on the stove, I was worried that if my baby was nearby, I might act on my thoughts or even that she would be hurt accidentally. My hypervigilance even extended to other people and I’d be overwhelmed with anxiety any time a friend or relative came near my baby with any object I thought was dangerous.

After what my mother had done to me, I was sure that anyone who knew about these thoughts would think I was going to follow in her footsteps and harm my baby. Although I knew that worry was a normal part of being a new mother, I also recognised that these thoughts were going far beyond normal new mother anxiety. Even now, I can’t articulate those thoughts into words, because I find them so scary and confronting.

Susannah Birch has worked hard to overcome the challenges life has thrown at her. Photo: Erika Fish.Source:Supplied

The only awareness I had of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) was what I’d gathered from movies. I thought of eccentric people skipping over cracks in the sidewalk or washing their hands until they were red and raw. People who suffered from OCD were compelled to repeat actions over and over; I had no idea that my thoughts could be in any way related to OCD.

It wasn’t until my second daughter was a toddler that I discovered I wasn’t alone in having these thoughts and that there was an important line between having these thoughts and acting on them.

Still not ready to admit to anyone what was going on inside my head, I Googled my problem and was amazed to find out that hundreds of other women were talking online. It was such a relief to know that I wasn’t a bad person, that I wasn’t alone and that most importantly, there were ways to get help without being judged. A few months later, I saw an advertisement for an OCD research study at Swinburne University.

The three month online program was based around education and self taught therapy, giving me the skills I needed to both understand and confront what I was experiencing.

While most people are aware of the ‘compulsions’ experienced by people with OCD, they don’t realise that these ‘compulsions’ are only half the problem. The obsessive side of OCD relates to the thoughts that start the compulsive process. With OCD, those intrusive thoughts can be anything from obsessing about yelling obscenities during an important event through to continuously thinking about the germs on every surface.

Mothers who have post-partum OCD are more likely to have intrusive thoughts about their baby being intentionally or accidentally harmed or getting sick. People impacted by OCD use compulsive and repetitive behaviours to try and stop the intrusive thoughts.

There is a key difference between women who suffer from psychosis and women who experience OCD. While women who suffer from psychosis may feel the urge to act on psychotic tendencies to harm their children, mothers who experience OCD thoughts are horrified and repulsed by the vivid and intrusive images that won’t go away.

Unlike post-partum depression, which studies indicate happens to up to 20% of mothers and is therefore better known (although not always understood), post-partum OCD statistically effects a much smaller group of women. The only issue with these statistics is that post-partum OCD is under reported.

While it’s hard to admit that you’re feeling depressed, unmotivated and emotional, it’s even scarier to admit that you have thoughts of harming your own child.

The good news is that understanding what causes these thoughts was a big step in learning how I should deal with them. I learned that repressing the thoughts or performing repetitive actions made the thoughts worse but that there are better ways to deal with them.

If you’re experiencing any type of intrusive thoughts, talk to your GP about a Medicare mental health referral to an understanding and experienced psychologist. There are a range of treatments that can help, most of which don’t involve medication. Call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact the Post & Antenatal Depression Association Helpline on 1300 726 306.

Susannah Birch is a journalist and certified birth doula. She is currently writing her memoirs. For more information about Susannah visit www.susannahbirch.com

Originally published at www.news.com.au on April 24, 2015.

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