Mum’s OCD made her terrified she would harm her baby
When Catherine Benfield, 39, gave birth to her son back in 2012, she was terrified she would harm her baby.
The school teacher from East London suffered from maternal OCD, the development or worsening of symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder following welcoming a child.
‘I got to the point I couldn’t eat, sleep, look after myself or function,’ she said.
‘It started with a fear he would die in his sleep naturally so I didn’t sleep to watch him breathe.
‘Then I feared someone or something would accidently hurt him. I only let certain people near him. removed anything even remotely chemical or which I thought posed a risk from the house – which was impossible!
‘I then began to fear a stranger would break in and hurt him on purpose – so I barricaded the door and slept in with my baby. I didn’t take him out.
‘After two weeks of the OCD growing, I started to get intrusive thoughts about harming him deliberately myself – it’s the worst thing OCD could have done to me.’
Catherine had experienced OCD since childhood, but found it shifting into perinatal OCD – a type of obsessive compulsive disorder characterised by intrusive thoughts about the safety of a child.
A lack of knowledge and discussion of OCD, and maternal OCD specifically, meant Catherine suffered alone for months.
‘It took 18 months for me to find out that’s what it was, mainly because of the lack of understanding and knowledge around OCD at the time – including from postnatal medical teams,’ says Catherine.
‘I had been through numerous medical staff before I found out myself what I was going through, using Google to search “OCD and the fear of harming my son”.
‘It was a desperate grasping of straws that I didn’t think would amount to anything, because I didn’t know OCD could affect you like that.’
Catherine had no idea that what she was going through was perinatal OCD, as her OCD had never manifested in this way before.
Her OCD had always centred on keeping her loved ones safe and having intrusive thoughts about them being hurt – but she coped with this through external compulsions such as checking and counting.
She said: ‘My childhood was very much focused on keeping my loved ones safe and my OCD symptoms centred heavily on external compulsions.
‘I counted, checked, recounted and rechecked everything because I believed it would help keep my family safe.
‘I spent whole evenings watching out of the window for my parents to return from work believing this silent vigil would secure their safe return, and at my worst, it took me three to four hours to settle into bed because I was busy walking the well-trodden pathway of my night-time safety checks.
‘Throughout my childhood, my OCD was hugely time-consuming, and there were many times where I was heavily reliant on others to do the simplest of tasks. I became an expert at hiding my symptoms and didn’t tell a soul.
‘I feared, even back then, that talking about it would get me labelled as ‘weird’ or ‘different’ and bring shame on my family. So I kept quiet.’
After taking to the internet to research her symptoms, Catherine was surprised to find that what she was experiencing was maternal OCD.
‘After I had my son, it was similar but had another layer of self-doubt and as well as the outward physical compulsions I ruminated and had mental rituals I spoke about previously,’ the mum explains.
‘I didn’t know the fear of and intrusive thoughts about harming others was another manifestation of OCD.
‘I hadn’t known the role of intrusive thoughts in OCD until that point. I also didn’t realise it was OCD because my compulsions were internal and involved ruminating.
‘It was just an intrusive thought – studies show that 95% of new mums get intrusive thoughts about deliberately harming their child.
‘It doesn’t mean they want to do it, it’s the opposite, its’ the brain focussing on harm which is an excellent way of securing your child’s safety.
‘People without OCD can brush these off, but people with OCD attach too much meaning to them and find them devastating and start compulsions.
‘Mine were searching the internet for stories like mine, collecting memories and evidence about whether I was a good person or capable of harm, keeping my distance from my son, which grew to only being near him when my husband was between us. I constantly questioned myself.’
Catherine describes the months after her son’s birth as being ‘locked in an OCD cycle’.
Shame around her thoughts kept her from speaking openly about what was going on, telling her husband, Pete, 42, that she was anxious but feeling unable to go into the reality of what she was experiencing, because she didn’t want to ‘ruin parenthood for him’.
‘It was very tough for him because he also had to deal with a newborn almost single-handedly and try to keep me functioning,’ she said.
‘I wouldn’t have been able to get through the OCD without him – I owe him big time.’
Catherine’s OCD made her feel lonely, isolated and afraid, which resulted in her struggling to be around her baby. It took away things she enjoyed and she says she’s ‘grieved for lost years’ and dealt with the trauma of what she’s been through – which she says is an ongoing process.
After not receiving much help from the perinatal mental health team, she spoke to her GP, who recognised her illness and gave her medication.
She then sought help through CBT and and Exposure Response Prevention therapy.
This didn’t erase her intrusive thoughts, but better equipped Catherine to cope with them.
She explains: ‘I got much better when my son was three – we were back to doing normal things but recovery work is ongoing.
‘The thoughts don’t disappear because they’re completely normal – they’re normal thoughts everyone gets them, but they happen far less because they are no longer impacted by OCD.
‘When you have OCD you misinterpret the meaning behind the thoughts – you take it seriously – you carry out compulsions to try to deal with the anxiety. As a result the obsessions get worse and you need to carry out compulsions more.
‘It’s a horrible insidious loop. Recovery has seen me be able to break out of this cycle. The thoughts are no longer seen as threats and so the need to carry out compulsions isn’t there.
‘I no longer have perinatal OCD. But I do still have relapses of OCD that presents in other ways.
‘I recently found I was worrying about contamination when working in the garden. I made sure I faced it, did exposures, got out there and am thankfully nipping it in the bud.
‘You have to stay vigilant with OCD and address any new obsessions – some people call them ‘themes’ as you go along.
‘I had 80 weeks of CBT with ERP.
‘Exposures included carrying my son on train platforms, up escalators, forcing myself not to stay in the room with him. It gradually trained my brain into understanding there was no weight behind those thoughts.
‘I stayed on top of self care – getting enough sleep, exercise and eating well. I don’t always do it but I try. I have to put my health as an absolute priority.
‘I know now because of my recovery work I’m a better mum as a result of it and my son is growing into an absolute beauty who talks openly about mental health and shows compassions for those suffering. He is an amazing kid. We have had a normal mum/son relationship for over four years now. that bond is unbreakable.’
Years on, with her son now seven years old, Catherine is ready to speak openly about her experience in the hopes that her story could help other mums who are struggling.
Catherine says: ‘OCD put us through an extremely painful and frightening experience.
‘We have lived through very extreme times together. As much as I wish it hadn’t happened, I can recognise how much stronger we are now.
‘And yes I did lose time with my son but I’m more than making up for it now. We have an incredibly close relationship.
‘I feel proud of what we got through and just how hard I had to work to get there. I feel angry that a poor general knowledge of what OCD actually is meant I slipped through too many nets and didn’t get the support I needed for such a long time.’