Fear and Desire: My thoughts about intrusive thoughts

Ever since I recovered from depression, I’ve been interested in mental health, whereas before I knew nothing about it. I struggle to find the time (and, honestly, the inclination) to read through articles and books about it, so I was pleased to come across the Invisibilia Podcast. I listened to my first ever podcast only last week (Kendra Hennessy’s Mother Like a Boss Podcast, actually!) and now I’m hooked! I walk about 12 km every day, so it’s an ideal way to pass the time.

The first Invisibilia episode I listened to was Episode 1 from January 2015 because, well, I’m that sort of person. Got to start at #1 … . But I’m glad I did. It perfectly (and simply) explained the three ways that psychologists view thoughts and how therapists treat them: the Freudian way, the cognitive behaviour therapy way, and the ‘mindfulness’ way. I realised that the way I dealt with my depression – by writing about it and exploring it – was quite Freudian, but the coping techniques I’ve developed more closely resemble ‘mindfulness’ therapy.

I recommend this episode of the podcast as an introduction to the topic, but please note that the case study used is quite disturbing.

The case study tells the story of a man who, after watching a movie that triggered him, struggled – and still does to some extent – with terrible violent thoughts. The descriptions are sometimes quite graphic, so if you think this will affect you in any way, don’t listen. However, the explanation for these thoughts was – for me, as someone who envisioned terrible things happening to my baby while I was depressed – quite a comfort. It turns out that some thoughts of this ilk are the mind’s way of dealing with a traumatic experience. (The episode cites the case of a man who experienced constant thoughts of people being waterboarded, which was directly related to the fact that his sister had drowned.) Or, as in the case of the man mentioned earlier, and probably the cases of most PPD sufferers too, the mind fixating on something that it dreads. The man’s therapist says that, when most people have a thought about something slightly irrational (e.g. that they might cause another person harm), they dismiss that thought. But when a person has an obsessive personality, they fixate on the fear. So, in the man’s case, he wasn’t having violent thoughts because he wanted to hurt people. He was having them because it was the very thing he feared the most.

So maybe I – we, as PPD sufferers – had those intrusive thoughts about our babies, not because we wanted them to get hurt or die, but because it was what we feared the most. When reading other PPD cases, I always (while knowing it was a stupid thing to think) thought the women who couldn’t leave their babies alone, even while they slept, for fear they would stop breathing, were somehow better women than me. I, who saw my daughter’s death from SIDS over and over, but didn’t sit by her. Who watched her die in car crashes, but didn’t stop taking her out in the car. It made me think, on some level, that I wanted something awful to happen to her. After all, at the time, I didn’t feel like I loved her. But this new idea made me feel that, maybe, it was just my mind obsessing about what it truly feared, not what it desired. Maybe those OCD mums who couldn’t leave their babies alone for a second and I were in the same boat – held captive by our fear.

It’s all over now, but that thought still makes me feel a little better – in some tucked-away corner of my brain that still holds on to the guilt from those years, even though my conscious mind knows it wasn’t my fault. I didn’t want her to die, I was terribly afraid of it. Maybe that will give other mums who experience intrusive thoughts comfort: it is not desire that creates those scenarios in our heads, but fear. They are not born from hate, but from intense love.

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