We’re back with another round of “Mom Talk”, where we invite some incredible mothers, from all walks of life, to share their personal experiences and journeys through motherhood, whether it be struggles, triumphs, or anything in-between—nothing’s off limits when it comes to topics. This week, Tatiana Mikhailovna opens up about her struggles as a parent living with a mental health disorder. -JKM
Second semester of my freshman year of college my OCD got so bad that I started missing afternoon classes because I was buried under my covers mentally preparing myself for death. I was convinced I had contracted HIV from a dirty doorknob and that this was it. All my excessive hand-washing and Houdini-like escapes out of public bathrooms had failed to protect me. My fear of dating had failed to protect me. My isolation had failed to protect me. A moody and foreboding piano was constantly playing in my mind.
After missing my third consecutive human anthropology class, my best friend barged into my room through the shared bathroom that I forgot to lock. My blinds were shut. I hadn’t washed my hair in over a week and there were discarded bags of microwave popcorn—my daily sustenance—littering the floor. She didn’t say much, but instead cleaned up my room, helped me fix my hair, and gently told me that she was taking me to the resident therapist on campus.
That was thirteen years ago. My friend’s incredibly kind and caring act changed my life. I threw myself into therapy and got to work. Somewhere in the labyrinth of my healthcare paperwork, there is a line that states that in the spring of 2005 I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder as well as depression. I have been in therapy on and off these last thirteen years, though more recently, I’ve been off. I felt like I was doing well on my own. I was newly married, busy, and happy. Then, I got pregnant.
I had desperately wanted to be pregnant for years, and having a large family to love and care for was something I had dreamed of since I was a little girl. I loved being pregnant and attacked “nesting” with the gusto of someone training for a triathlon. By the time my due date rolled around, I had read all the books, installed all the apps, taken all the classes, and every single item down to the brand new pair of fuzzy slippers tucked away in my hospital bag was neatly in its place. I was prepared. I was going to rock this parenting thing!
When I finally pulled my screaming newborn to my chest, I could practically feel my eyes widening in slow motion. It was incredible, surreal, unearthly, and utterly terrifying. Feeling her warm and slippery skin on my chest, I inhaled sharply, and I’m not sure I ever properly exhaled after that. She needed me. Every single ounce of me, and it felt so, so good.
The first year was a blur. The inevitable changing, swaddling, shushing, nursing, and googling. I spent so much time googling. Our daughter was a terrible sleeper, and I was determined to fix it no matter what. I would finally get her down to sleep around 11 p.m. and stay up reading sleep-training message boards until well past 1 a.m. Then, I would wake every forty-five minutes to make sure she was breathing. With each of my children, I repeated this absurdity until their third birthday when I was sure that SIDS was no longer a factor. My husband liked to say that in those first years if I wasn’t googling, I was worrying, or the other way around. Perhaps I was a little more anxious than most moms, but it felt justified. I was simply taking care of my children, keeping them safe. It felt normal. And, so it continued.
There wasn’t one sniffle or fever that I ignored. Instead, I would make a beeline for nearest emergency room or urgent care. With so many children sick or worse, I reasoned, I couldn’t take any chances. Every time one of the children got a clean bill of health from their pediatrician I looked at the doctor with suspicion. Had they missed something? Were they really paying attention? Did they get enough sleep last night? I cancelled play dates and missed family outings. I hated taking them to parks or playgrounds. And, once potty trained, taking them to public restrooms could upend my entire day, as I would spend the remainder of it obsessing over what possible disease they could have contracted there. I hoarded bottles of hand sanitizer and washed my children’s hands with the same zeal I once applied to myself. I stayed awake worrying (and googling) rashes, bruises, and just about anything out of the ordinary that would pop up from time to time. Often, I’d look at the clock in the middle or the night and realize that I had spent the last three hours imagining “worst case scenarios” for my kids. Yet, it still seemed normal.
My first therapist once likened OCD to living entirely in your own head and not in the real world with your actual body. You could explore “what if” situations in the comfortable cocoon of your mind for hours, or worse, days. You end up missing so much. When I was in high school, girls and boys were going on dates and getting kissed awkwardly. I was scanning WebMD for a fitting diagnosis for imaginary symptoms. Now as a mother, I realize I had spent those precious few years in the caverns of my mind exploring fictitious scenarios involving my small children. I had missed so much and neglected my wellbeing in the process.
After a month-long stretch of living in the same pair of pajamas and self-medicating with alcohol every night, everything came crumbling down one Thursday morning. My mind had said, “Enough!” Enough ignoring me. Enough pretending. Enough trying. Because that’s the ironic thing about OCD: the more you ignore it, the louder it gets, until it eventually drowns out everything else to the point of complete mental exhaustion.
What ensued were weeks and weeks of tear-soaked days, more self-medicating, and fumbling through the mess towards the light. A therapist was found and booked, and I began the work anew. It felt like starting from scratch because I wasn’t the same 18-year-old girl anymore; I was a 32-year-old mother. So, I began to take baby steps towards healing. Sometimes, that meant just standing by the door to the kids’ room at night repeating, “They are fine, don’t go in. They are fine, don’t go in.” Other times, it meant spending three hours convincing myself to go to the play date and maybe even leave the hand sanitizer at home. But, so much of it was also about reclaiming myself. In my frenzied efforts to be the perfect mom, I had neglected everything about myself, including the fact that motherhood had triggered my OCD and eventually landed me back in a state of depression. I was too busy, too busy to see how far down the OCD rabbit hole I had fallen.
I look back on it now, and in an effort to give my kids everything, I erased myself. I ceased to exist as someone other than a caretaker. But, I’m so much more than that. When I breathe life into myself, I become more than my diagnosis, more than my title, more than my actions. I become me. I become someone who deserves good things. Someone who deserves to take that extra half-hour to get ready in the morning—“Mommy I’m hungry!” be damned!—and someone who deserves to leave the dirty dishes in the sink and read The New Yorker. I’m someone who deserves to exist, to have needs and wants, and even more so, someone who deserves to have them fulfilled. I’m a complicated woman and I’m slowly re-learning how to love myself, one kind affirmation at a time.
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