I’m not a blogger by any means, especially with the fact this is my first ever blog post.
For those of you who might have stumbled across this post by accident, my name is Laura, I’m 23 and I live in Northern Ireland. I also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
You (if there even is anyone reading this) might be wondering why I’m writing a random blog post on 4th February 2016. Today is Time to Talk Day* and I’ve decided it’s time to talk properly about my OCD diagnosis.
For those of you who do know me, you’ll most likely know about my OCD and you’ll know I like to take the mick out of myself about it – my coping mechanism I guess. But it’s not really a laughing matter and it’s time to open up about it. In fact it’s time to end the stigma surrounding any mental health condition and I hope this encourages someone out there to talk about mental health.
My story might change your opinion of me and I’m sorry if it negatively changes how you think about me or you think it’s a weakness but I can’t hold this back when I know there are millions of others out there suffering with some kind of mental illness.
I was 17 when I was officially diagnosed with OCD. I couldn’t figure out why I was feeling the way I was. I couldn’t figure out why my brain was telling me to do things that I knew, somewhere in the back of my head, weren’t normal behaviours for a 17 year old. I couldn’t cope with the constant thoughts that flitted in and out of my head without any rhyme or reason behind them. I became fixated on contamination and germs. I analysed every piece of food before it entered my mouth. I bulk-bought handwipes and hand sanitiser, usually going through a few bottles and packs a week because I felt a constant need to have germ-free hands. My eating habits changed; I began avoiding restaurants, overcooking every meal I made and refusing to eat any meal that hadn’t been cooked by my parents or myself. I lost a good bit of weight because I would only eat certain things (hard to believe, I know lol). I also developed emetophobia – a fear of being sick – and combining this with OCD genuinely made my life a living hell. I couldn’t cope if someone around me was being sick, even the noise set off my compulsions (handwashing, disinfecting, checking) and left me shaken up for hours. If one of my friends at school had been sick, I would try my best to avoid them so I wouldn’t catch their germs and end up sick. My friendships suffered because I felt too afraid to share what was going on.
In 2011, when I got my diagnosis, I was doing my A-Levels. I was someone who ususally focused pretty well, sometimes revising for two hours at a time before I felt I needed a break. Not this time around. My attention span dropped to 20 minutes before an intrusive thought popped into my head and revision was out the window for the rest of the evening. I usually enjoyed school (as much as you can enjoy school) but instead every day filled me with fear, there were so many potential triggers for my OCD – people, door handles, desks, canteen food, toilets..the list was endless really. I hadn’t told anyone how I was feeling. Of course, my family knew by my behaviour that something was wrong, I constantly bombarded them with texts panicking and they spent a lot of their time reassuring me that nothing bad would happen them or me. However, my friends had no clue, I kept my youth leaders in the dark and my teachers had no idea that I was pushing myself to the extremes to try and keep my grades up and battle OCD at the same time.
It finally broke me and I decided it was time to face up to whatever was going on in my brain and go to my GP.
January 2011… When the doctor uttered the words ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’, part of me was relieved. Relieved that there was finally a reason to describe my abnormal thought patterns and behaviours. Relieved that it was something I had heard about, relieved that all the symptoms that she described, explained exactly how I was feeling. Part of me felt scared stupid and ashamed that I had a condition that couldn’t necessarily be fixed. Part of me continued to feel like I had to hide it.
A minute part of me felt hope. The first stage in my “recovery” was being referred to my local mental health centre for an assessment by a social worker. There were no available sessions until March so I battled through until then. I still hadn’t told my teachers. I still hadn’t told my friends. I still felt overwhelmed by the smallest thing. March finally arrived and I met the social worker I would be seeing for the next 6-8 weeks. She spent the first two sessions trying to convince me that I didn’t have OCD and that I was just overreacting to everything. She kept saying how a lot of people didn’t like touching shopping trolleys or baskets, that lots of people avoided touch door handles and were fussy about germs. I fought with her for a while, trying to get her to understand that it wasn’t normal for a 17 year old to live such a limited life, it wasn’t normal for a 17 year old to hate having to leave her house, to be afraid of eating.
One day I turned up for a session, ready to argue with her again but she wasn’t there. She had gone off on sick leave and instead, one of the therapists approached me. His name was Adrian; he had read my case file and decided that I needed Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). My social worker being off on sick leave meant that someone else had to pick up my case, someone else had a fresh approach to whatever was happening in my head. Someone had listened.
The only downside to this was that CBT wasn’t due to start until July. It meant I had to sit my A-Levels without knowing how to cope with OCD. Boy did I struggle. I sat up to all hours, trying to cram in as much revision as I could because intrusive thoughts kept telling me that I was a failure and that I wouldn’t get anywhere in life if I didn’t pass my exams. It didn’t help I could only concentrate for 20 minutes at a time. I constantly worried but at the same time was constantly distracted. I remember the first A-Level I sat clear as day – History – my best subject. I felt I had prepared well for it, I knew a bit about everything in the module and I felt fairly confident that I would at least scrape a pass. I remember sitting down, opening the paper and bursting into tears. I think I spent the first 45 minutes debating whether I should just leave. I didn’t. I somehow managed to scribble some words down and as soon as the time was up I ran to my car and cried some more (seems to be a running theme).
I phoned my mum and she convinced me to go back to school and talk to my teachers. I had argued for so long with my parents that I wasn’t telling anyone, I was too ashamed to admit I was struggling but I knew in the end, it would help with them knowing. I walked back into school and first found my Head of Year, interrupting her maths class (much to the delight of her students), cried again and gave her the copy of the letter that my doctor had written back in January (probably should’ve given it to school then, ha). A lot of teachers saw me crying that day (awkward) but they were all really supportive.
To cut a very long story short, I managed to get through my exams and begin summer with a positive attitude that I was going to get better. My first CBT session consisted of the therapist getting me to detail all my compulsions and giving me a thorough explanation of what OCD was and how the chemicals in my brain worked. He asked me if I had any goals and I told him my only goal was to be discharged by the time I started university at the end of September. I had just over two months to sort myself out. I saw Adrian every two weeks and he set me challenges to do in between those times. My second session, he made me touch all the door handles in the building and drive home without washing my hands. That was difficult. I could literally sense that my hands were dirty, that I had made my car door dirty, my steering wheel, gearbox and handbrake all dirty and there was nothing I could do about it. Throughout the weeks I was with Adrian, I had to go shopping without my hand sanitiser, touching trolleys and baskets with every opportunity I had. I had to go out to eat at a restaurant at least once a fortnight and I had to order chicken (a food I avoided in case of food posioning). I had to stop texting my family for reassurance and I had to stop avoiding people who had been sick. Adrian had a term he used with me all the time, he used to say “beans, beans and more beans” – I assumed that meant I just had to keep working on it, every minute of the day. I’m still not sure what he meant.
The method of CBT I was using is called Exposure Response Prevention which the International OCD Foundation explains pretty well:
“The Exposure in ERP refers to exposing yourself to the thoughts, images, objects and situations that make you anxious and/or start your obsessions. The Response Prevention part of ERP, refers to making a choice not to do a compulsive behavior once the anxiety or obsessions have been “triggered.” All of this is done under the guidance of a therapist at the beginning — though you will eventually learn to do your own ERP exercises to help manage your symptoms.” **
All in all, ERP/CBT worked pretty well. It helped being able to talk about all the weird stuff I did without being judged. It helped to get encouragement from him when I thought I had failed at something and he thought I had done well. I still felt strange about going to therapy so I told a few close friends who wondered why I took myself off to Lurgan every two weeks for a few hours. I would wonder too (jokes). I ended up being discharged the week before I moved to Belfast for uni. I had reached my goal. I don’t really know how it happened. I don’t think it was anything I did. Don’t get me wrong, CBT didn’t cure my OCD but it certainly helped me to cope better. It totally changed how I thought about things. I became more rational and logical, something that people with OCD struggle with. University was a daunting experience – I lived with 87 other people for three years. Students aren’t the cleanest either so I was surrounded by germs. Yet I didn’t freak out like I thought I would.
I decided it was best to tell my uni from the off about my diagnosis and they gave me a Mental Health Mentor, a guy called Rikki. Honestly, without Rikki, I wouldn’t have graduated. I saw him once a week for three years and he genuinely changed my perception about everything. He was so lovely and so supportive and made me realise that OCD didn’t define me. He helped me to become more assertive, to stand up for myself and not let OCD rule my life. My tutors were great too – they gave me extensions when I needed them and I got to do my exams in a quieter environment – for me, it was all about how I could prevent my OCD being triggered rather than letting OCD get the better of me and then dealing with it.
Fast forward to 2016 and I would say I’m a totally different person to who I was when I was 17. I still have OCD but it rarely bothers me anymore. I do get the odd trigger, especially when I’m stressed, and it doesn’t help that I have general anxiety disorder , but I can cope okay. A few deep breaths, remembering my coping mechanisms and telling myself to wise up usually does the trick. Sometimes I still freak out at eating chicken. Sometimes I panic slightly when someone in my house is sick. Sometimes I check my car three times to make sure it’s locked.
When I was 17, I couldn’t imagine my life without it being ruled by OCD. Now I have a degree, a full time job and a busy social life.
I’ll never be cured of OCD but I’ll never let it get the better of me again.
For those of you who have a mental health condition, please know that you are not alone. 1 in 4 people have a mental illness. Just because it isn’t talked about as much as physical illness doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. If you haven’t sought out help already, I beg you to consider doing so. Don’t suffer in silence. Seeking help could change your life. Having a mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of. Treatment does work – you just have to be willing to give it a go. I consider myself so fortunate that I took to CBT like a duck to water. Others aren’t so fortunate and it can take years before they find a treatment method that suits them and works but it will work.
For those who don’t know a lot about mental health, please go and educate yourselves. Please talk to your friends and family about it. It’s a difficult topic to bring up because of the stigma surrounding it but by doing so, you’ll help to reduce that stigma. You could save someone’s life just by talking to them about it. You might feel out of your depth and it can be scary but all people need is a listening ear.
A big shoutout has to go to my family and friends with putting up with me since my diagnosis. I’ve probably done their heads in countless times but never once have they told me to snap out of it. Never once have they laughed or made fun of me. They have been there 24/7. They know exactly what to say to make me feel better.
Surround yourself with people who love you and build you up.
This was one heck of a blog post but I’ve just felt burdened to share it with someone.
If you’ve made it this far, thankyou for reading.
It’s time to talk.