In previous blog posts, I have opened up about my experience with Postnatal Depression and Anxiety (or PND for short) and how it took soooo incredibly long to recover (about 2.5 years) due to the time I spent in denial and the long-winded process of finding the right people to help, which I will cover in depth in this article.
For background information, you can read all those stories here:
Something I haven’t disclosed so openly is the ins and outs of my journey with Perinatal and Postnatal OCD and what that looked like for me. This is mostly due to an incredibly quick recovery following intensive treatment through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) over a period of six months. After being sick for so long, I finally felt like a ‘normal’ human again (whatever ‘normal’ means) and got straight back into normal life with minimal delay. I kind of forgot all about what I had been through when it came to OCD and as a result, didn’t give it the full story it deserves.
Being a more complex disorder, I wanted to take the time to write about what it’s like living with OCD but free from any sort of victim mentality. We can’t control the cards we’ve been dealt but we can make a commitment to ourselves and loved ones that we will fight the good fight of faith and overcome. The truth is, I don’t know why it had to be me – maybe a combination of genetics, being abandoned and neglected as a baby, a long history of bullying and trauma throughout school, a sensitive temperament and always feeling overly responsible for everything and everyone.
OCD is 100% treatable and manageable but the road to recovery is not for the faint-hearted
The road to recovery is not an easy one but it is worth it. For six months each Saturday morning would be spent in my therapist’s office, talking through different obsessive fears and working through CBT/ERP exercises. These irrational fears included:
- Fears of harming/killing others, in particular, my son Elias
- Fears of contracting a rare and incurable illness
- Fears of Elias being killed/kidnapped and associated thoughts of him dying
- Fears of suddenly turning crazy and being institutionalised in a mental facility (for the record that fear did eventuate but it was actually a really positive experience – you can read about that here)
- Fears of becoming psychotic and going on a killing rampage
- Fears of hearing voices, having hallucinations and later being diagnosed with schizophrenia
- Fears of being condemned to hell for eternity
- Fears of being possessed by demons
- Fears of accidentally or intentionally killing someone and being locked away in prison
Therapy consisted of going through each fear and learning to tolerate it more and more to the point where my brain would just reach boredom. It’s like a horror movie you watch repetitively until it loses its effect until you no longer feel terror. I eventually habituated to all these scenarios and by the end, OCD backed off entirely after I finally learnt to conquer my fears. Easier said than done, but it’s one of those situations where you endure some pain and discomfort in order to overcome the greater pain of living in constant fear.
So WTF is OCD and is it just being overly particular about cleanliness?
There are three hallmarks to OCD. The first is fear – fear of [insert your nightmare here]. This can be anything from fear of harming loved ones to fear of contamination, fear of being homosexual, hypochondria and religious OCD (check out the OCD Center of LA for further reading).
The second is doubt – this unshakeable doubt that whatever obsessive thought pops in your head must be true and is an accurate indication of what kind of a person you are on a moral scale. OCDLA puts it this way:
Harm OCD obsessions often focus on violent thoughts or images and the anxiety is often secondary to the overwhelming fear that the presence of such thoughts indicates a sub-conscious desire to purposely engage in violent behaviors. People who doubt that they have Harm OCD might ask questions like, “What if, deep down, I actually want to act on my thoughts, and I’m just manipulating my therapist into thinking that I have OCD so that I can go on a killing spree?”
To alleviate the intense associated anxiety that feeds off the fear and doubt, OCD comes with compulsions, which is the third hallmark of this doubting disease. Some check locks and doors, whilst I found myself checking Elias while he’s sleeping several times in a single hour, just to make sure he’s still breathing and hasn’t died from asphyxiation.
This is the primary reason why treatment for OCD is delayed
My therapist told me a story about a client who was so adversely affected by OCD that he couldn’t leave his house. He was unable to work, socialise or do anything because he felt so crippled by his fears of contamination. This is the worst-case scenario, but it can be a reality for some (or many) because appropriate treatment is not accessible. Treatment is not easy but it is the only pathway to healing.
We are not short of doctors and professionals in the world of psychology. In Australia, we have more than enough NFP organisations such as Beyond Blue, RU OK, PANDA and LifeLine to help and refer every single person struggling with some form of emotional or mental disorder.
What I’m talking about is professional registered psychologists (not health coaches or counsellors, I mean Clinical Psychologists) who simply DO NOT know how to recognise the symptoms of OCD and treat it using evidence-based methods.
I reached out to my local private mental health hospital, naively believing that if the session was going to cost me $200 that treatment would be good and effective. What I found was a pseudo-therapist who was unmotivated and had no idea about OCD. He tried to give me life coaching about balancing my priorities (family, work, social, church etc). He threw a book at me called “The Happiness Trap” and said that would solve all my problems. He openly denied that I had OCD and said straight out, “It’s all in your head. BTW, you need your medication checked.” It was the most disappointing experience and after I forked out $200 to this shiny and sterile clinic, my OCD was still there, haunting me day in and day out.
Second to that, I contacted another clinic, this one attached to my church, desperately hoping for help. The admin staff mixed up my appointments and botched up the dates, delaying treatment when I was at crisis point. I saw three different psychologists from this health centre – all lovely I might add – but surprisingly incompetent in treating OCD (of course, I didn’t know it at the time, this is all in hindsight).
At this point, I was hanging on by a thread and feeling suicidal. This is important for mental health professionals to note because timing can be the difference between life and death. I understand there’s a process in healing, but timely intervention is just so important when someone has hit rock bottom. It could mean one less suicide as a cause of death.
There’s a post on the Postpartum Stress Center Facebook page addressed to healthcare providers about the importance of new mothers reporting OCD symptoms without being at risk of having child protective services breathing down their neck. The sheer ignorance of these people is quite appalling really and only adds fuel to the already difficult stigma attached to mental illnesses:
That time my OCD fear came true but I was totally OK with it
A very close friend of mine referred me to this guy who was at the top of his game in the world of psychology. He was a psychologist and professor who lectured at multiple universities. After some Googling, I stumbled on this place called SOCAD, a Sydney-based private clinic that specialised in OCD and anxiety disorders, led by Dr Rocco Crino. JACKPOT!
I spent my first session shaking and crying because I was so anxious while the therapist (who I still see to this day) was getting some background information from me. Over the coming weeks and months, I came to learn what OCD is and it was incredibly freeing. Just being able to attribute all these crazy symptoms to a single condition helped put everything into perspective. I told her my worst fears and found so much liberty in being able to vocalise that I had thoughts of stabbing my beloved child. This is dark stuff you do not share at mother’s group, bible study or by the water cooler at work.
Over an intensive period, I applied myself to multiple CBT/ERP techniques such as writing down and voice recording my OCD thoughts and repeatedly reading and listening to them in order to become desensitised. We went through a lot of fears and to be honest, some still pop up today. I’m not immune to having those thoughts but at least I know how to handle them.
During this period, I was under the care of a psychiatrist named Dr Brakoulias at St John of God who also happened to specialise in OCD. He was the only one in Sydney recognised for his private and public work with anxiety disorders as well as a successful research program. From late 2015 until mid-2016 I was in and out of hospital, on and off various medications and event spent a few weeks at my local public hospital mental health unit. I suppose at the time things were horrific (very bad withdrawals coming off Valium) but I actually had faced my biggest fear in situ or “in vivo” as they say in OCD speak.
I quite literally went crazy and went to a mental hospital.
My worst fear happened.
But it wasn’t that bad after all.
It was actually a life-changing experience that I will never forget.
Living life beyond OCD despite it being a stage-five clinger
It would be nice to say that I suddenly woke up one day and OCD magically disappeared. It can creep back in from time-to-time, usually around the time of stress. I find when we are having problems with Elias’ bleeding disorder that the obsessive fears about his health come rushing in again. I’ve just learnt to accept that anxiety is a normal part of life and I can reduce the amount of time worrying and obsessing by using some CBT strategies such as delaying all my worries until the end of the day when I have 10 minutes of ‘designated worry and prayer time.’ This helps immensely and allows me to get on with the day without getting hooked into the fear-doubt-compulsion cycle.
Granted, there will always be opportunities knocking at my door for me to be afraid of something and I believe that’s largely influenced by the media and the fabulous job they’ve done in fear-mongering. Of course, news headlines and click-bait are there to deliberately arouse public fear about death, illness, terrorism or economic downturn. Reducing the white noise prevalent in today’s media is also helpful to maintain some peace and quiet from the supposed ‘terrors’ of the world.
Right this minute, I am waiting for our baby girl to be born. In the lead-up to this significant event, I have had several obsessive fears re-emerge from the darkness. They always start the same and end the same: The thought starts with “What if…” and ends in the most catastrophic way possible. By now I’m accustomed to the game that OCD plays and how it preys on my most beloved things, namely my family. The same persisting thoughts may be there (repetition is another characteristic of OCD) but this time around, I’m mentally and emotionally prepared.
I know these thoughts are ego-dystonic, which basically means in complete opposition to my character, values and goals.
I know I will never act on my fears.
I know I can tolerate the uncertainty of the future – no matter how anxiety-provoking – without requiring reassurance.
Each day I reframe my thinking I get a little bit freer as those fears loosen its grip. My head gets calmer and clearer and I can get on with my life.
As I continue to share my experience and spread the word about how anyone who so desires can get past OCD, I feel like I’ve not only conquered this chronic disorder but kicked its ass, big-time.
Here are some highly recommended resources for OCD
nOCD: A free app created by top OCD experts downloadable on iTunes as it’s not always possible for OCD sufferers to access/afford prompt treatment (also great to complement therapy or the above book).