I was convinced that I was going to deliberately hurt my son.
I’ve lived with OCD for as long as I can remember. It’s morphed and shape-shifted many times throughout my life and has also varied in severity and intensity.
I’ll briefly tell you about my experience before talking about the things that have really helped with my recovery – I ultimately want my story to be one of hope and encouragement.
My childhood was very much focused on keeping my loved ones safe, and it centred very heavily on external compulsions. I counted, checked… recounted and rechecked everything because I believed it would help keep my family safe.
I checked taps, switches, plug sockets, window latches, basically everything and anything. It was hugely time consuming. I also had to repeat things until they felt just right and at times it was very difficult for me to lead a normal life. There were times I was heavily reliant on others to do the simplest of tasks.
I kept my OCD a secret until the age of about 25. I lived through those previous years in silence and with no mental health support at all. It was at this point I decided to speak to a couple of close friends.
Things took a nose-dive when I had my son in 2012. I was convinced that I was going to deliberately hurt him, I was tortured with images of this 24 hours a day… and my world fell apart.
I became very ill during this time and needed medical intervention. After a few misdiagnoses, and facing a constant battle against misconceptions, I was finally officially diagnosed with OCD. The fact that my compulsions had moved inward, and were now taking place mentally, meant that many medical staff didn’t realise that it was OCD, and it took a while for me to get treatment other than medication. In fact, it was me who realised that my new symptoms were OCD after I googled them and took my findings to my medical team. I’d just like to point out here that my team were amazing, very kind and supportive, but overstretched, exhausted and minus the training needed to help recognise the multitude of ways in which OCD can present itself. I slipped through the net for a while, but it was not their fault.
I will never forget this time. When I think back to how poorly I was then, I realise how far I have come now and that if I can get through that phase of my illness, I can get through anything.
So, onto recovery. I had two sets of 20 weeks of CBT. I had to work hard: after 32 years my thought patterns were pretty rigid and took a while to shift.
I lost my parents within three months of each other just after finishing my first set of therapy sessions. This caused a relapse so severe that I needed to return for another set.
Since then, I’ve gone from strength to strength. Something clicked and I realised that I would do anything it took to get well.
My well-being and health became the centre of everything because, after all, if I wasn’t strong and well, I wouldn’t be able to look after anyone else.
I decided to stay on the medication for a while (I’d previously kept trying to come off them). I started exercising, not running (which gave me too long alone with my thoughts), but Zumba and fun dance classes. I saw my friends more, I got out more. I spent time in the sun, I started to take supplements, I continued with my CBT homework, I got a decent amount of sleep. I opened up about my condition to anyone and everyone. I talked about it openly and was met with a lot of support. Listing it like this makes it sound quick and easy, but it wasn’t: it took quite a bit of work and there were bumps along the way. So please don’t feel like this is out of reach for you, it totally isn’t.
One of the things that helped the most was creating a character to help me visualise my OCD. Many therapists recommend giving your disorder a name to help you realise that it’s not actually you. This didn’t work for me so I extended the concept and created a little persona that I called Olivia. She had a physical appearance, an intense personality and could change depending on her current obsession type. She helped me so much. Within months of visualising Olivia, I noticed a huge shift in the way I viewed my condition.
One of the differences between what I’ve been doing with Olivia and what many therapists and psychiatrists often recommend, is that they suggest making your visualisation scary, sinister and bully-like so that you can visualise fighting against it. I personally can think of nothing worse than spending my life with something else that terrified me. The concept of Olivia was supposed to help me feel more comfortable and so I decided that instead of trying to fight against Olivia I was going to accept that she was there. I was going to use her to help me learn how to accept the obsessions and compulsions. She’s worked. I’m not 100% recovered but my life is affected less by OCD now than it has ever been.
I’ve since learned this approach is the basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is also worth learning about, it’s incredible.
As time went by, and I got to know more and more people living with OCD through social media, I got some great feedback about the Olivia concept. It seemed particularly helpful for children and mothers, who wrote to tell me that making the character non-frightening was really changing the way their children saw their condition.
I was blown away by this and decided to put the concept online. Taming Olivia has only been going for a little while but already it seems to be taking off.
At the moment it’s a blog and will continue to be so but also, as a teacher, I am hoping to get the concept into schools to help children discuss managing feelings and mental well-being. I have also heard from a few psychiatrists who are trying the character with their own patients, so I’m hoping to create some resources that will help in both of those areas.
I know how I felt as a child, going through those years alone without any support and wondering what on earth was wrong with me, and I want to join the group of amazing people sharing their stories and working hard to stop this happening to the next generation of kids.
I hit a pretty big snag during the initial planning phase of bringing Olivia to the outside world. And that was that even though my drawing isn’t bad, I didn’t think I’d be able to do Olivia justice for the things I had planned for her. Even though I had absolutely no problem imagining her in the minutest detail and visualising her alongside me day to day, I didn’t think my drawing level matched how she was in my head.
That’s where my husband Pete came in. He’d recently become a self-employed artist, and I bribed talked him into taking on the role of illustrator for the site.
This collaboration has had a hugely positive impact on my recovery. Pete’s always been very good at understanding my condition and has been a fantastic support to me over the years, but producing the illustrations of Olivia has taken it to another level. Thanks to him, Olivia has been introduced to the wider world and is already helping others.
I have only recently started to delve into my creative side. OCD took too much time away from me to do it before, but this has helped enormously. It’s given me an outlet, it keeps my mind active and busy, the site gives me a sense of accomplishment and if I have a bad day I can release those feelings through writing, photography, drawing, painting, etc. What I love most about it is that you don’t have to have mastered putting pen or paintbrush to paper to do it. You just do what feels right. I started off trying to visualise Olivia using collages and scrapbooks of things that represented her. I didn’t need to illustrate her at all to get my point across.
If I had known how much creativity was going to help me on my road to recovery, I would have done it years ago. I’m so glad I’ve found it now.
Right, I think that’s about all from me for now. Please, please, please remember this… No matter how awful OCD feels for you now it can be managed, it can be treated and in many cases, it can be fully recovered from. One day you’ll look back, be amazed you got through it, be thankful you did, then get on with your day. Believe it is possible, and until then get creating. 😊
Editor’s note: Check out Catherine’s work at www.tamingolivia.com, where you can also create and share your own OCD-inspired characters.
Categories: The Wall
Just came across this. A good read, thanks.
You are helping SO many with this article! Great job!!