Hey everyone, I am very happy to announce that Amy from Sassy Cat Lady agreed to share her story with us. She has had OCD for a long time and is in recovery right now, but even though she is doing great, she still struggles from time to time. However, you should read her compelling story yourself. Amy has her own blog, which you can find here. She mainly writes posts about mental health problems, such as anxiety, but mixes everything up with lifestyle posts. I would especially recommend reading her “Letter To My Younger Self“, as I absolutely loved it. However, you should check her blog out yourself. Of course, Amy also has social media, so give her all your support hand follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest.
I think I have said enough now. Enjoy the read and tell Amy and me what you think .
I have OCD. It still feels strange to say it. Strictly speaking, I’ve been in recovery for 2 and a half years, and even when I make the decision to tell someone about it, I’ll be met with “I have that too, I can’t stand things being messy,” or something similar. It’s been a common misconception that OCD is all about being a “neat freak” and getting upset when your books aren’t alphabetised, and I’m tired of it. It’s not a personality trait no matter how many times you say “I’m SO OCD,” and it’s not something to be made light of in the form of mugs and T-shirts that say things like “I have CDO. It’s OCD, but how it should be spelt.” Now, while I hate that assumption that OCD is about being a clean freak, unfortunately, obsessive hand washing and fears around contamination is the thing I struggle with the most.That being said, I’m just one individual. OCD takes on many different forms, and there are plenty of other behaviours I’ve done that aren’t related to cleaning, which I’ll talk about a little later. First of all though, let’s kick things off with a little context.
What is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is an anxiety related disorder, and it’s said to affect around 1.2% of the population (OCD UK, 2019). The sufferer frequently experiences unpleasant and unwanted thoughts, known as obsessions, and they’ll often carry out behaviours that temporarily relieve these thoughts, which are known as compulsions. These behaviours come in many forms, such as checking, avoidance, seeking reassurance, and counting.
In addition to the common perception that OCD is related to fears around contamination or illness, there’s a whole spectrum of obsessions that sufferers might experience.
- Fear of harming yourself or others deliberately
- Fear of accidentally harming yourself or others (such as leaving the gas on and setting the house on fire)
- Fear of contamination or disease
- A need for symmetry/orderliness
- Intrusive thoughts of a violent/sexual nature
I have suffered with anxiety issues ever since I was a child, specifically, I suffered with a severe phobia of vomiting, known as emetophobia. For a while it didn’t affect me too much. As a child, it would simply be a case of getting distressed whenever I had a tummy ache, but as I got older, it extended to fears of catching stomach bugs, being very cautious watching TV, and avoiding certain foods. In particular as a teenager, one Christmas I came down with norovirus, a rather nasty stomach bug, and because I was so scared of it coming back, I ate nothing but ginger biscuits and mints for two weeks, much to the dismay of my mother. Once everything had settled, things began to go back to normal, aside from the major panic every time I heard that someone I knew was ill.
It wasn’t until I went to university that I started considering there was perhaps something else going on too. In addition to washing my hands more frequently and avoiding people who were ill, I had started to carry out a ritual to counteract unpleasant thoughts. We’ve all heard of the expression “touch wood/knock on wood” and this was what I used. It started out as just doing it to get rid of thoughts around illness (“touch wood, I’ll be fine”), but over time I got into the habit of doing it for pretty much everything else too, such as passing my driving test, going out with my friends or making a trip home for the weekend. Most of the time it was “touch wood [this event] will go really well and I’ll have an amazing time,” because being generic meant that I was covering all eventualities. I studied psychology at university, so while I was very much aware of this being one of the characteristics of OCD, I would usually brush it off as a similar thing to “med-student syndrome.”
After graduation, my boyfriend (now my husband) and I moved back to our hometown so we could be with our family and friends. He went straight into a graduate job, while I worked in a retail job that I loathed for over 5 years – in addition to being incredibly stressful in general, this particular job was also not something that helped my emetophobia, because, as with most retail jobs these days, you don’t get sick pay, meaning that people would still come into work regardless of how ill they were. Of course this wasn’t always the case with stomach bugs, but over time my fear of catching a stomach bug began to extend into other illnesses too. I would instantly jump in the shower once I got home, anything that I had brought into work with me would need to be wiped down with antibacterial spray, and in some cases I would even refuse to use the toilet if someone had recently been ill.
In 2014 I remember being very unwell with severe pains in my stomach, extreme fatigue, aches and pains, and a very upset stomach. This went on for almost 3 weeks until my mother dragged me to the doctors and demanded they run some tests. A blood test and a stool sample revealed that I was suffering from food poisoning. Looking back I remember this being a real turning point in my behaviours getting worse – I started to boil wash clothes, sheets, towels, because I was terrified I’d get infected again. I’d constantly ask for reassurance from my boyfriend that food was properly cooked, and I’d even be checking for pink bits in certain foods.
Meanwhile, because of a bucketload of stress at work, I had also started to develop a whole array of checking behaviours. I would often be late because I would need to check the oven was off (not that I’d even used it!), the taps were off, the door was locked, my handbrake was on, my car was locked, that I wasn’t parked on double yellows. You name it, I checked it.
The following year my boyfriend and I had started to plan our wedding, which is when things got significantly worse. My fears around contamination soared – what if we were ill for our wedding? What if a guest was ill? What if someone in the wedding party was ill? What if my make-up artist was ill and I caught it? Forget all the typical things a bride to be worries about, for me it was all about illness. I regularly showed up at my Mum’s house in floods of tears because [this person] was ill, or [this person’s child] was ill. Regrettably this irrational selfishness actually caused one friendship to fall apart. Of course, no one was ill in the run up to, or on the day itself, and for 24 hours I felt normal for once.
Over the last few years I had started to consider that maybe I did have a mild form of OCD. I felt the need to wash my hands a minimum of 3 times every time I went to the toilet, when I was driving past a cyclist or a child I’d need to go back and check that I hadn’t hit them, whenever I had to clean my cat’s litter tray I wouldn’t feel fully clean until I’d showered, and there were areas of my house I just refused to clean because I was worried that I’d contaminate myself while I did it. At my absolute lowest, I boil washed my coat (subsequently destroying it), I threw away three handbags, I broke 2 phones due to water damage where I was constantly cleaning them with antibacterial wipes, and I left a cheque for £1500 in my car for two months before I cashed it. Why? Because the person who gave it to me told me they were getting over a stomach bug. Yes, I thought this was all a mild case of OCD.
After a particularly severe breakdown where I confessed to my Mum and my husband that I wanted to end things, I went to my GP where I was prescribed antidepressants and referred for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). After nearly a 6 month wait, I was given an assessment and I was formally diagnosed with OCD in September 2016. It actually felt like a huge relief, because there really was something wrong with me. All of the time that I’d considered that I might have OCD, I would feel ashamed, because I knew there were people out there genuinely suffering with it, who couldn’t leave the house, who were left completely isolated by it, and I wasn’t one of them. I felt by self diagnosing I was almost making light of someone who genuinely had it. Hearing “your scores indicate that you have OCD” instantly felt like a weight being lifted.
I worked with a wonderful psychological wellbeing practitioner who really helped me to see things from a different perspective and we looked at factors that had contributed to the OCD developing. In conjunction with taking my medication, I gradually worked my way through a large list of exposure tasks, which included things like going out and using my phone without wiping it afterwards, to use the cutlery at work, and to only check the door once when I left the house. As the amount of sessions I could have was quite restricted, I didn’t complete my list, but I got a good 75% of it done. I had my final session in March 2017, and a month later received my discharge letter, saying that my scores on the OCI (Obsessive Compulsive Inventory) scale had decreased from 121 at my assessment to 58 at my final session. Just to give you some context, the cut off for what is considered ‘normal’ on this scale is 40.
Over 2 years later and I’ll admit things have slipped a little, but I’m still miles better than where I was before I started my treatment. I’m still taking my medication, and I still can’t bear the thought of getting sick. I still get those horrible thoughts, and I still feel the need to check the front door more times than necessary. I still have incredibly dark days and want to curl up in a ball until it all goes away. However, I’m better equipped to deal with it. I’ve learned to recognise when it’s the OCD talking rather than me, to recognise my triggers, and I have a bank of techniques to use that can calm me down. I left my retail job back in October last year, which has definitely helped to improve my mental health too. I feel positive about the future, and over time, I hope that I can at the very least get my medication reduced, if not come off of it all together. But, baby steps of course. Right now, I’m just happy that I can clean my bathroom without needing a shower afterwards.
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