I’d like to introduce you to Emma. She does her best to parent her beautiful children while living with OCD. She copes with constant obsessions and compulsions every day. Hopefully her experiences will resonate with some of you. Please remember that if you are dealing with similar situations you may benefit from some support from a mental health professional. If anything in Emma’s experiences triggers you, please consider calling Lifeline for a chat on 13 1114.
When my psychiatrist first suggested I might have OCD, I laughed. Of course not! “People with OCD don’t know the things they do are crazy, that’s why they do them,” I told him. “I’m fully aware that these things I do are crazy, I’m just not sure why I can’t stop doing them.”
In my mind, OCD was Adrian Monk, obsessed with hand-washing and germs and totally oblivious to the fact that he’s completely batshit crazy.
It wasn’t until the psychiatrist pointed out just how much time these little ‘quirks’ (or as he called them ‘rituals’) take out of my day, and how much of the in-between time I spend feeling anxious about them, that I began to concede that he might be right. In fact, OCD is by definition egodystonic – sufferers are well aware that their actions are irrational and that awareness is the basis for a lot of the anxiety that comes with it. The hand-washing and obsessive cleanliness? A common symptom but not definitive.
When my OCD it was at its worst, I spent most of my waking hours either performing rituals (that’s the compulsive part), or thinking about performing them (that’s the obsessive part). I couldn’t have the volume on my television or radio set to an odd number. I couldn’t take my baby out of the bath unless the digital clock above the bench where I bathed her read an even number. If I arrived home and the clock in the car was on an odd number, I’d pull over to the side of the road just outside my driveway and wait for them to tick over to an even number. When I did the groceries, I had to buy two loaves of bread or four, not three, although I rationalised in my head that one wasn’t technically an odd number because it’s just one. See, totally irrational!
Why did I do all these things? Because in my mind, I believed that if I didn’t do them, bad things would happen. The bad things were rarely directly related to the rituals themselves; I think the rituals were more just a way of keeping my hands and mind busy and in doing so, keeping the churning anxiety at bay.
Perhaps even more distressing than the obsessions and the compulsions however were the intrusive thoughts – thoughts which had no basis in reality but which came crashing into my conscious mind in the most upsetting manner. Perhaps most vivid is the night I was lying in bed trying to get to sleep when I suddenly thought, ‘I’ve never wanted to harm myself because I couldn’t stand the thought of someone else raising my children. But if I kill myself and the children I don’t have to worry about that’.
I’d never, not once in my entire life, ever consciously thought about hurting myself. And the idea that such a thought had even occurred in my mind, regardless of how completely ridiculous it was, made me so desperately upset that I lay awake for the rest of the night, terrified to go to sleep lest I wake up to find those crazy intrusive thoughts had invaded my reality.
That was my tipping point, the point where I realised that the OCD was controlling me and not the other way around. I started on medication, and while I was skeptical about whether it would work – in my mind, I still saw the compulsions as behavioural and I couldn’t see how altering the chemicals in my brain could fix that – it did. After about three days, I suddenly found my anxiety levels dropping. That in itself was disconcerting. I’d worn the anxiety for so long like an old familiar coat that living without it took some adjustment. At a fundamental level, I still believed that I needed the anxiety in order to provoke the rituals which prevented the bad things from happening.
In addition to the medication, I also started regular CBT sessions with a psychologist who specialised in OCD. These sessions taught me techniques for living my new, medicated life without the anxiety cloak. I don’t know that medication or the therapy would have worked as standalone treatments, but the combination of the two was incredibly effective.
It’s been nearly seven years since I was diagnosed with OCD, and while it’s still there affecting my life in little ways, the medication and therapy combo continues to help me keep it somewhat under control. I’ve also learned some creative ways to avoid the compulsions – for example, I have a lot of rituals around hanging the laundry on the line. The washing must come out of the machine and into the basket in a certain order. It must then be hung on the line in a certain order, the pegs must all match and certain items require specific combinations of pegs. It can take up to an hour to hang a single load, and with five small children, there’s simply too much laundry and not enough time, so instead of battling with my head to try to combat the rituals, I avoid them altogether by drying all the washing in the clothes dryer. Yes, it’s an expensive exercise, and no, it’s not great for the environment, but if there’s one thing that living with OCD has taught me it’s to save my energy for the big stuff and not sweat the small stuff.
I’m open with my friends and family about what it’s like to live with OCD, and it’s even been the source of some amusement – my husband regularly tells people that he got ripped off because I don’t have the obsessive cleanliness thing going on. He reckons that if he has to live with the darker side of the condition, the least he deserves is the perk of a clean house!
I’m also realistic about the fact that I’ll probably need to keep taking medication for the rest of my life. I’ve had a few breaks from it over the years and they’ve generally not gone so well. Without the medication, the anxiety is simply too overwhelming for the CBT techniques to touch. Do I love the idea of pumping my brain full of drugs? Of course not! But it keeps the playing field level, it gives me the upper hand over my OCD and that makes it worth it.
I own my OCD, I will not let it own me.
One-time high-flying journo turned SAHM, Emma blogs at Five Degrees of Chaos about parenting on the edge of sanity – navigating her own personal mental health minefield while raising five girls, one of whom lives with chronic illness. You can find her blog here.