There are these two photos of me and my sister from when we were little. We’re in our bunk beds. One is me, around four, in the top bunk, wearing a Roland Rat nightie, smiling in my sleep, the other is my sister, six, grinning with a gob full of crooked teeth while pumping her fist in the air (you can’t see what nightie she’s wearing but it’s probably shit compared to mine). My mother had taken the photos. She’d come into our room late at night and for some inexplicable reason decided to capture the occasion.
Years later, we were going through the old family album, me and my mum, and we came to these pictures.
‘I remember when you took these,’ I said. ‘I was mostly asleep but you told me to smile and I did.’
‘You both looked so cute.’
‘So you came in to take photos?’
‘No. I took the photos because you looked cute, but that’s not why I came in the room in the first place.’
‘Why did you?’
‘To check if you were both still breathing.’
And Then Comes The Intrusive Thoughts . . .
When I read through What To Expect When You’re Expecting and all the other So Soon You’ll Be a Mother and I’m Sorry to Tell You This But Your Nipples Are Going To End Up Minging books, I didn’t find anything about breath-checking or intrusive thoughts. Plenty of pages devoted to Braxton Hicks and latching on, but nothing about that fleeting terror that you’re going to find your baby dead in its cot every morning.
All the same, I was aware of its existence. My younger sister was born when I was fifteen and I was there for those early years, changing nappies and bouncing her to sleep. I didn’t check her breathing every night (my mum managed that task all by her fruitcakey self) but I was preoccupied with her mortality. My little sister was the first human being I could imagine dying for.
She was the first human being I’d imagine dying horribly every day.
She’s two and I’m walking her to the shop for some sweets. I imagine her suddenly letting go of my hand and darting off into the road and a car knocking her into the air and then another car driving over her small curly blonde head. I imagine the crunch, her limbs flopping, blood streaking the tarmac like a tube of tomato puree that’s been stamped on.
I can feel it, just for one micro-second – the horror, the grief, the enormity of it all. I make an involuntary noise (agagagaga) and spasm my face and grip her hand extra tight. This kind of thing, every day, all day.
It can be shitty, having a good imagination.
So I knew I had all this coming. And I knew that I would have a babydaddy even more neurotic and anxious than myself to bounce off. It would be like Maria Bamford and Woody Allen having a baby together.
The first couple of days of motherhood were fine, owing perhaps to the delicious Pethidin still swimming through my system. But by day three, The Fear had arrived. I spent more time dangling a scared hand over my daughter’s nose than I did trying to stuff a boob in her mouth. Every time she froze (and they do, babies, they suddenly go rigid and lifeless, complete with glazed, staring-at-nothing eyes) me and Babydaddy would shriek, ‘Oh my God, oh my fucking God, what’s wrong with her?’ and start shaking her in a way that would put a British Nanny to shame.
Babies are dickheads for doing that.
It got worse over the week. It got to the point where I wasn’t eating, and I never don’t eat. I was having these violent intrusive thoughts. I was seeing my baby gutted or run over or eaten by my dog all through the day. People would say, ‘Oh she’s so cute I could just eat her,’ and I would imagine them with a knife and fork and bib (some of these intrusions were admittedly cartoony) getting ready to carve a slice of roast baby. Babydaddy would say, ‘I’ve just put her down,’ and there would be my daughter on the veterinarian’s steel table, lying frozen-dead next to a spent syringe.
Before watching a film I would google “[film title] + dead baby”. You don’t get many dead babies in film and TV but it never hurts to be safe. Walking Dead was a nightmare – would the show’s producers dare kill off little baby Judith? No, they wouldn’t. Surely. Now, Game of Thrones would kill off a thousand babies without breaking a sweat, but not Walking Dead. Still…
Before every episode: “Walking Dead + Judith dead?”
Babydaddy was just as bad. At least once a day I’d be out the kitchen doing the dishes and I’d hear him screaming, ‘Oh my fucking God, oh my actual fucking God!’ and I’d come running out, tits a-swinging, soap a-flying and he’d be hyperventilating with the baby in his arms.
‘I thought she just died again.’
We’d sit there swapping intrusive thoughts stories over our coffees, all casual like a pair of mums at playgroup chatting about fanny stitches and lactation.
‘Sometimes I’ll be changing her nappy and I’ll suddenly imagine just picking her up by her legs and bashing her brains against the wall. I have no desire to do it, it’s just one of those random horrible thoughts.’
‘I know. When I’m out walking her in the pram past the cemetery there’ll be some guy walking past and I’ll suddenly imagine him just ripping her out of the pram and impaling her on the railing spikes.’
‘I’ve had that one too.’
‘What are you vaping?’
‘Lemon cheesecake. Wanna try it?’
Now, I don’t have OCD, never have. You can have intrusive thoughts and irrational fears without it turning into full-blown OCD. I just have the seeds like everyone else, and guess what, it’s totally normal and most parents get obsessed with checking for their baby’s breathing and plenty have intrusive thoughts.
It’s important that parents know how normal this is. And not just parents.
Here is a conversation I once I had with my older sister:
Sister: Lately I’ve been feeling all wrong in the head, I’ve been having all these dark thoughts. There’s something wrong with me, I’m going to see a doctor about it.
Me: What kind of dark thoughts?
Sister: I don’t want to talk about it. It’s been disturbing me. I feel disturbed.
Me: Go on, you can tell me. I won’t judge.
Sister (sighing): OK. So for example, maybe, I’ll be walking down the stairs and I’ll suddenly imagine throwing myself down the stairs. I’ll just imagine it and it feels like I might do it and I get all panicky and have to sit down on the steps for a minute.
Me: Is that it?
Sister: It’s just one example. It happens all the time.
Me: OK, you need to listen to me now: this is normal, totally normal. It happens to most people. They’re just intrusive thoughts and they are normal.
Sister (hesitant hope in her eyes): N–n-normal?
Sister (smiling like a little girl who has been given a lollipop under a summer sky): Oh thank you, dearest sister! You have cured me with your wisdom once again and I can feel my OCD suddenly vanishing, oh to think that I can be normal! Normal!
(Sister skips off down the sunny street, tossing her SSRIs into the gutter and laughing into the sky before suddenly throwing herself into traffic and having her skull crushed under the wheel of a silver Renault.)
Knowing something is normal doesn’t always make it fine and lovely. And call me crazy but I didn’t want to waste the precious early years of my daughter’s life imagining her brains coming out of her ears or her limbs being chewed off by foxes, it’s just not nice, ya know? I went to the doctor and she diagnosed me with post-natal anxiety and put me on a low dose of Sertaline (the safest SSRI for breastfeeding mothers apparently). SSRIs work well on me; within a week I was feeling fine again. I would still get the ‘orrible thoughts but they had less effect on me – I just shook them off, which is what I’d always done.
I haven’t experienced that anxiety since, thank God (though my fat arse would welcome it back) but I still get the thoughts. They’re less frequent now and not so violent, but if anything they’re worse. For example:
I come home from my daughter’s nursery drop off in the morning and walk in the house. I am greeted by her usual trail of destruction – toys on the floor, left over porridge tipped on the floor, jigsaw pieces stuffed between the sofa cushions, pyjamas draped over the television, a potty filled with piss. And I suddenly imagine that she’s dead, that she’s just died and I’m returning home from the hospital and seeing her final mess. Finding significance in her Bing Bunny under the television, her half-drunk juice bottle.
Would I keep the piss? Her last piss?
I know. Morbid as bloody fuck.
These things go through my mind and fill me with concentrated sorrow and terror for one second, two seconds max.
And I shake it off. I shake it off. Ooh ooh.
Here is a podcast where comedian Marc Maron interviews fellow comedienne Maria Bamford (from about 26 minutes into it) and they talk about intrusive thoughts.
And here is a lil ole basic blog about intrusive thoughts.
And one about having sexual intrusive thoughts.
Do you have any experience with any of this? Are you a member of the Baby Breath-Checking Brigade?