Living with OCD
I am a third level OU psychology student currently studying DD307 - Social Psychology. I am also a long term sufferer of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I recently gave a talk about my journey with OCD at the OUPS Cambridge annual conference: ‘Mental Health and Wellbeing’. It was a really interesting and thought-provoking day and I was asked at the event to write a piece about my journey for the newsletter.
I have suffered with OCD since I was ten years old and I believe it was this struggle that eventually led me to pursue a degree in psychology. I wanted to learn more about the mind, brain and the human condition and potentially pursue a career in psychology, using my experience to help others. I chose a degree with the OU as it gave me the freedom to travel whilst studying as I am a professional figure skater.
I would like to begin with a quote from Dr Steven Phillipson (2013), who is a clinical psychologist and specialist in OCD, as I feel it sums up the experience of OCD quite well:
‘The portion of the brain responsible for OCD functions very much on the same level as that of a two- year old. Trying to reason with either in the throes of a tantrum is senseless.’
I think this quote really captures the frustration in OCD and gives an idea of what it can be like. OCD is typically characterised by obsessions which are unreasonable or irrational thoughts and fears. These are often followed by compulsions which are repetitive behaviours a person engages in to neutralise the obsessional thoughts and prevent them from happening. It is important to note that people do not always perform compulsions.
My OCD began very suddenly at the age of ten. I can remember the day very vividly; I had left school early to go to the doctors for something unrelated. Whilst I was in the waiting room I saw a poster about the symptoms of meningitis. I’m not sure why but from that point on I became obsessed with contracting meningitis. I worried about it all the time and began trying to neutralise these obsessions with compulsions in a number of ways. I was constantly checking myself for the symptoms of meningitis that I had seen on the poster and getting other people to reassure me that I was not infected. I assigned meanings to numbers (mostly bad) with ten being the worst as that was the amount of letters in the word M-E-N-I-N-G-I-T-I-S. The compulsion involved doing things a certain number of times (a good number) and avoiding the bad numbers to make sure I would not contract meningitis. This counting ritual permeated everything I did such as washing, tapping/touching items a certain number of times, looking at items, blinking, walking (fitting a certain number of steps in a particular space), repeating words and lining objects up correctly to list just a few. Unfortunately engaging in rituals is always a short term solution, in the long term anxiety increases as you are reinforcing your fears. Inevitably my obsessions spread further than meningitis, leaving me anxious, isolated and confused. I wondered why this had happened to me and felt I was the only person in the world who behaved in this strange way. Over time I started to internalise my compulsions when I was in public as I felt embarrassed and ashamed by my behaviour.
It was not until I was fourteen years old, when I overheard some girls talking about OCD in class, that I finally realised I had an illness and most importantly that I was not alone.
A few years later at the age of seventeen my OCD resurfaced bringing with it depression. I believe it was triggered by the fact that high school was coming to an end and I had to decide what I was going to do next. All of my friends were going to university and knew (or seemed to know!) what they wanted to do but I had no idea what I wanted to study or where. I felt like I was having to decide the rest of my life there and then! I became overwhelmed with the pressure and anxiety of everything which led to perfectionism and I was unable to make any decisions for fear of making wrong or bad ones. This induced a very low mood and depression; coupled with the ending of school and my friends moving away, I was lost. I approached my doctor for therapy but ultimately I was not ready. I was put on an anti-depressant called Fluoxetine which is an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor). Serotonin is responsible for having a good influence on mood, emotion and sleep. SSRIs work by increasing the effect of serotonin in the brain by blocking its reuptake back into the presynaptic cell and allowing it to continue passing on messages to surrounding neurons for a longer period. My mood greatly improved after being on the antidepressants for a few weeks.
A couple of months after the end of school I was asked to take part in a professional ice skating show within a circus in Lisbon, Portugal. I guess you could say I quite literally ran away with the circus! It was a fantastic experience and it was the beginning of my career as a professional figure skater travelling and performing all over the world. Skating has always been very therapeutic for me, when I am on the ice my mind is clear and I am enjoying being in the moment. After a few years of travelling I had grown a lot as a person and I felt strong enough to get help for my OCD.
I was referred for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in a group with the NHS. It was a twelve week course lasting two hours each week. CBT works by challenging the thoughts (cognitions) and behaviours of OCD by exposing yourself to fears in a graded approach. You begin with obsessions which you feel are easier to tackle; when exposed to the fear you avoid ritualising in order to gather evidence that the fear/thought will not happen if you do not neutralise it through compulsions. An example would be if someone had a contamination obsession and as a result had to wash their hands ten times after touching something then gradually the number would be reduced down. The idea is that over time confidence increases as a result of this exposure and anxiety should decrease. That is the theory but it is an extremely difficult process to put yourself through; challenging strong beliefs which you think are keeping you safe. It takes courage and persistence. The goal of CBT is to give you the tools to gain control over your OCD and your life; it is no magic cure and you get out what you put in. This ideology really made sense to me and I was determined to give it everything. I tried to be really creative with the challenges which led to some rather strange tasks! I had a fear that if you ate really spicy food it would burn your insides and perhaps damage your internal organs so I decided to eat a whole Birdseye chilli in front of the group! It was unpleasant to say the least but helped me gather evidence and conquer that fear. On another occasion one group member who suffered with contamination obsessions was being encouraged to touch things without washing her hands for as long as possible. To help her with this and really push my limits I ended up eating some cereal that I had crushed with my shoe off of the bathroom floor! The idea is to go beyond what is ‘normal’ to really prove to yourself that your fears are irrational. Being in a group was a really positive experience, at first everyone was unsure and would have preferred to have been on their own but it was great to meet people for the first time who were going through something similar to you and could understand how it felt. After a couple of weeks the support was great and everyone was really encouraging each other, a triumph for one became a triumph for all and it motivated us to work hard. The therapy really helped me and as it was coming to an end I enrolled on my first course with the OU!
Life after therapy was really positive, I felt in control again and I was able to see my thoughts and compulsions for what they were; irrational. OCD is always a work in progress, it is never cured but maintained. This gives the individual a sense of power and agency over their own lives taking the control back from OCD. As a result of my therapy I was invited to train to become a mentor with the NHS to help guide people with depression through a course of CBT with a qualified clinician. I am there as a person with experience which they will hopefully be able to relate to and to try to put them at ease. It is a challenging but very rewarding role which I am very proud of. I know that for each individual achieving a very small thing is a huge triumph so to be any part of that is great.
I believe the OU has helped me understand so much more about the mind and the world and all its complexities that make us who we are. It has helped me to see the world from a different perspective. It has also made me realise how much I have to learn and has given me a thirst for knowledge! The OU has given me the courage to speak out through meeting lots of like-minded people at the summer schools and OUPS events where I have always felt a real sense of acceptance for who I am. It felt like the right place to tell my story. I was very nervous but I think it gives a good sense of how far I have come. I felt it was important to speak about it as this is the only way to break the stigma of mental health and we must keep fighting. There is lots of help out there and no one should suffer alone. I have come to realise only fairly recently that OCD is not something I should be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It does not define me; I may have good days and bad days but I ultimately have control and the final word.
I would like to end with a thought that really helps me stay focused and strong:
‘Thoughts are not facts’ just because you think something, it does not make it true; challenge, challenge challenge!
Phillipson, S. (2013) OCD Online [Online]. Available at http://www.ocdonline.com/ #!speak-of-the-devil/c1mva (Accessed 7 December 2014).