I can see myself biting off a baby’s fingertips one day. I don’t mean that’s my dream retirement plan, I mean I can really clearly see it. Sometimes I don’t even have to close my eyes, it’s just there, transposed over whatever I happen to be looking at in that moment. My teeth. Baby’s fingertips. This recurring intrusive image started popping into my mind when I was about eight years old, after a friend told me that her mother had to bite the fingernails of her new baby brother. I immediately pictured myself tasked with trimming a baby’s fingernails with my teeth, and accidentally trimming the finger instead.
It’s okay, I know this is a weird thought to be having. In the past, when the image popped into my mind, I would shake it off with a sound that transcends the written word. Remember in Clueless (stop reading now if you’re not interested in 90s cultural references) when Cher gets out of the car after Elton tries to kiss her? That sound. The sound of an affronted woman, but with the optimism that comes from having Paul Rudd on speed dial. That used to work for me, a little shake and a cutesy noise, and the image would disappear back into my unconscious, dormant until I stumbled across another reference to babies’ fingernails, or babies in general, or fingernails in general, or biting.
It didn’t start to have a massive impact on my life until I had a child of my own. I wasn’t prepared for it. How could I have predicted that this would be a time of increased references to babies’ fingernails, and babies in general, and fingernails in general, and biting? So. Much. Biting.
At this point the image fused. A fused image is one that becomes connected to a particular meaning, a felt sense that there is more to the image than meets the eye. In my case, I felt like I might actually bite one of those tiny fingertips off by accident. It didn’t matter that in the 30-odd years since I first had this image, they had invented teeny tiny adorable baby nail clippers. Now I just imagined that I would snip them off instead. I then started thinking I might bite them accidentally while kissing the baby’s hands. Or that I secretly wanted to bite the baby’s fingers and would do it at the soonest available opportunity. It wasn’t just an image anymore, I could imagine the feel of the nubbin in my mouth, I could feel myself spitting it out like so many crumbling teeth of my dreams. I was fused.
Fortunately, because I am a CBT therapist, I knew that this was just an intrusive image, that it didn’t really mean all those things - it just felt like it did. I didn’t have to respond to that feeling, because it was just an image, and I could go ahead and cut my baby’s fingernails, safe in the knowledge that it was impossible that I secretly wanted to harm my own baby. I could just go right ahead and give them a little trim, because I was a therapist who knew about this stuff. I could just do it. Just take those tiny fragile hands and a sharp object, and snip away. Snippety snip, no big deal.
The baby’s nails were starting to cause damage to all who came in their path, including the baby’s own face. Not only had I not cut the fingernails, I’d stopped kissing those adorable little hands - partly because I didn’t believe I could control my hidden desire to chomp, and partly because I didn’t trust the baby not to shred me to pieces with those talons.
I wanted rid of the image. Attempts to suppress or ignore intrusive thoughts and images often result in the intruders returning with more force and more frequency. If I couldn’t get rid of it, I needed to defuse. I decided to try the technique described in Russ Harris’s excellent book, The Happiness Trap. To disconnect the image from its laden meaning, you picture the image as if on a TV screen in your mind. It is something you watch, rather than something that is part of you. I closed my eyes and - eurgh - deliberately brought up the image in my mind. I tried to shift the image onto a TV screen, but I just couldn’t make it happen. It was too visceral - I could still feel it like it was happening. So I added a soundtrack. I imagined I was in a Luscious Jackson video singing “Well I got babyfingers, lady, I got kid gloves, baby I got heart...”, picturing a comedy horror theme, complete with babies’ fingertips exploding like popcorn.
Once that started to feel funnier than it did disturbing, I added in some exposure. I stared at pictures of the fingernails and the nail clippers, playing the music video each time the image popped back into my mind. The next step was to do the same thing while kissing the baby’s hands, moving on to pretending to nibble on those fingertips. When I experienced being able to resist the temptation to demolish one of those fingers completely, I was finally able to trim the baby’s nails with a set of baby nail clippers. While the baby was fast asleep.
I am now back to a little shimmy and the sound of an affronted woman with Paul Rudd on speed dial. I don’t like the image, and I really don’t like the feeling, but it no longer stops me from doing what needs to be done. And any day now I’ll try trimming those nails when the baby’s awake.
A little note: Having intrusive thoughts and images about harming your baby (when you don't really want to) is very, very common. If you find yours particularly distressing or they get in the way of bonding with, looking after and/or enjoying your baby, please speak to your GP, health visitor, or your local IAPT psychology service. If they don't offer help, ask someone else.