A seemingly normal day can flip in an instant, a single touch, thought or action changes everything. A loss of control if only for a moment unravels your entire day, consumed by a singular feeling; – fear. Many people experience fear but in some people fear isn’t just a worry it consumes every thought and action. Fear doesn’t discriminate; age, race, sexuality, or religion, we will all fear ‘true’ fear at some point in our lives. This is what living with OCD is like.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder isn’t about mild discomfort or wishing something was different. It causes me intense discomfort and anxiety (obsessive thoughts) which causes me to complete an action to ease my feelings (compulsion). For example, if I touch something dirty I become consumed by thoughts such as “this is going to make me sick the germs will contaminate me and I will make my family ill.” These are Obsessions, they are intensely distressing and difficult to control. With Obsessions come Compulsions; you’re immediate and unavoidable response. When this happens I wash my hands a certain way and number of times or check objects in sequence, depending on what my thought was about. The compulsion helps to ease my anxiety but rarely does it abate entirely.
Obsessions and compulsion can be almost anything and they affect each person differently so what affects me may be entirely different to someone else suffering from OCD. One person’s mountain can be another’s molehill, but the struggle is the same even if their journey is different from mine. Living with and overcoming fear is something everyone can relate to in some way. Yet what is your initial thought when you hear the term OCD? Many people believe OCD to be a way of saying your; particular, fussy, a clean freak, or overly tidy. In reality, it is much worse than that. They are many misconceptions and assumptions surrounding anxiety and unless you have experienced it personally, it can be very difficult to understand and empathize with. Although there is support for suffers of OCD there needs to be more support available for the families too as it is detrimental to family life, I speak from experience. Personally, although my family is supportive it can be frustrating for them and they make things worse without meaning to, so it is important to keep communication honest and open. I would say to anyone who knows somebody personally with OCD if you are unsure of how to help; ask. They will probably know best what helps them.
So what helps me?
This means being able to say if I am having a bad day, not just suffering in silence. As what I am capable of changes daily.
Don’t assume, ask
There is nothing more frustrating than someone just writing me off without asking. Instead of saying “she can’t do this she will freak out and have a panic attack,” ask. I may be able to face a situation head-on with support.
Have a back-up plan, be prepared
If I know I am doing something that will trigger specific symptoms; I plan for it. Whether it be carrying alcohol gel and wipes, a list, a change of clothes, or lots of research beforehand. This allows me to prepare for challenges I may face more effectively.
Celebrate your victories
Some day even the smallest task feels insurmountable, it is important to understand if putting on my shoes without a panic attack is all I can manage, then that is a victory. It is too easy to berate myself for what feels like a lack of ability.
It is a constant cycle forcing myself to counteract negative or intrusive thoughts. When these thoughts attack instead of thinking “this won’t contaminate me it’s not dirty” I am not fooling myself and I’m allowing the thought to have power over me. Instead, I try thinking I know it is dirty but it won’t make me ill, I can use antibacterial gel to kill the germs and wash my hands as soon as I can. I will be okay.” This is something I find the most difficult as when the panic starts to take over it can be paralyzing and it is so easy to focus on the negative thoughts. I try to utilize this on a daily basis, in the hope eventually it will help to ease a major panic attack.
Find an outlet
I find it useful to immerse myself in an activity I enjoy as an outlet for my feelings. enjoy scrapbooking, writing, painting and cake decorating, as it gives me something to focus on when I am feeling anxious.
These are techniques that I find helpful, they may not work for everyone, but it is important to figure out what works best for you.
I know that for some people suffering from OCD it can be difficult to open up and share what obsessions and compulsions are affecting you. There can be a heavy burden of guilt and shame, even confusion.
When I first had these thoughts of feeling contaminated and being fearful of something bad happening I was very confused and embarrassed. I was fifteen years old and dealing with a lot of stress from school, as well as having a hard time with bullies who made my life hell. My self-esteem was through the floor and I was crying daily unable to find a way out. I started feeling dirty and I started to wash my hands more and more. It was the only thing that made me feel better. Although that didn’t last long. I became fearful, worrying about everything, I would sit under my desk at night putting my fingers in the plug sockets to make sure they were off having to count to thirty, if I didn’t something bad would happen. Once everyone was asleep I would go downstairs and check the doors and switches. I would stand in front of the front door unable to move away and going to sleep each night resulted in terror, I was afraid I would never wake up. To a fifteen-year-old girl, this was terrifying. When I finally found the courage to speak to my parents they didn’t believe me, it took some time until they realized I was serious and then they took me to the doctors. It was the doctor who told me that I was exhibiting signs of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, I didn’t understand what it was but I was at least glad that there was a name for the madness I was feeling. At Sixteen I started seeing a Psychologist, he, unfortunately, was not helpful. He told me it was stress-related and that it would go away. Over the years my symptoms got progressively worse, I had constant panic attacks, depression and I went from washing thirty times a day to around one-hundred and fifty times a day. Work became near impossible, and working with children was my job. I love children and I wanted to continue in that career but children are well known for being unaware of hygiene at a young age and sometimes I wished I had gone into a different profession. I wish I could say that now at thirty things are better.
For many people getting a diagnosis takes years, and treatment options are limited. The main treatment option available is a combination of medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Honestly, although studies say this is a proven effective form of treatment, I feel it depends massively on each person and the therapist that you get. I have been through four cycles of CBT and I only found it effective in discovering what triggered my OCD and what the thought processes are behind it. I found a self-help book on OCD more effective than attending therapy as I found the experience very stressful. Once your twelve-week treatment is over you are left with no help afterward to process and continue with recovery.
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is the most commonly used therapy treatment used in conjunction with medication as it has proven to be the most effective. However, it does not work for some people myself included. CBT basically looks at different aspects of our thinking patterns and how we can break the cycle of negative thoughts that cause our behaviors. Some of these aspects of CBT include challenging core beliefs, breathing techniques and relaxation, challenging negative thinking, behavior experiments, types of thinking, and exposure-response prevention. Arguably Exposure Response Prevention is the most important and anxiety-inducing part of CBT. As in essence, ERP is where you expose yourself to something that you fear such as if you have a contamination obsession you could touch a bin, then you try not to complete your compulsion like wash your hands for as long as possible or a set time. Then you could complete your compulsion. The idea is to repeat this many times, eventually for a longer periodS of time so the anxiety is no longer crippling. Sounds easy right? I guarantee you it’s not. I still struggle with this after fifteen years.
Therapy can be a very uncomfortable experience because you are forced to challenge your behaviors and it causes a lot of extra anxiety. Typically you can be referred for either group therapy or one-to-one therapy. I have tried both, I have actually just finished a group therapy course. Although personally, it was not effective for me I do think it can be helpful for some. It is a good option if you want to meet other people who suffer from similar issues, and it is helpful to hear what techniques work for them. For this reason, I think it is a good starting point as OCD is an incredibly lonely illness, and finding others who understand can be difficult. One to one therapy is more intensive. You look more at the core beliefs of why OCD becomes an issue in the first place. How can you move forward if you don’t know why you feel this way in the first place. What is the trigger? You are also able to do behavior experiments and Exposure Response Prevention therapy. This is definitely helpful as when you do it on your own it can be very easy to give up because it is distressing.
I feel it is important to raise awareness for people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as it is not something many people talk about. There is often judgment and the only way to break the stigma is for it to be spoken about. If you would like someone to speak to, I am happy to connect with others who suffer from anxiety and OCD you can contact me through my BLOG http://www.lifewithocdandme.com or my Facebook under Stacey Frewin.