Es­cap­ing OCD’s prison

Jenn Cow­ard, of Brockville, wins a Royal Ottawa In­spi­ra­tion Award for her strug­gle with de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­or­der

The Recorder & Times (Brockville) - - FRONT PAGE - BLAIR CRAW­FORD

Jenn Cow­ard was 15 when the obsessions started.

Af­ter a neigh­bour’s house had been bro­ken into, she be­came con­sumed by thoughts that she and her fam­ily were in dan­ger, too. And so be­gan a se­ries of rit­u­als that even­tu­ally would take over her life: Check­ing that doors were locked, that win­dows were closed, search­ing any po­ten­tial hid­ing spots for a bur­glar who meant harm.

Cow­ard had no idea she was in the pow­er­ful grip of ob­ses­sive com­pul­sive dis­or­der.

“I didn’t re­ally know what was go­ing on,” said Cow­ard, who lives and works in Brockville. “I would get re­ally dark thoughts like :‘ Some­one’ s go­ing to come in and mur­der your fam­ily and it’s all your fault.’ I just knew I felt this re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure ev­ery­one was OK. I’d find my­self check­ing for hours to make sure that doors were locked and that no one was in the house.”

Now 32 and an out­spo­ken ad­vo­cate for men­tal health and OCD in par­tic­u­lar, Cow­ard was named one of The Royal Ottawa Men­tal Health Cen­tre’s 2017 In­spi­ra­tion Award win­ners at the hos­pi­tal’s spring gala. Next month, she’ll speak at an OCD in­for­ma­tion ses­sion at The Royal, to raise aware­ness about the con­di­tion and de­scribe her own path to well­ness.

Med­i­ca­tion helped Cow­ard, but even more im­por­tant was some­thing called ex­po­sure and re­sponse pre­ven­tion ther­apy, an in­tense and gru­elling treat­ment in which OCD suf­fer­ers con­front their great­est fears and learn to cope with­out re­sort­ing to their rit­u­al­ized be­hav­iour.

When Cow­ard fi­nally worked up the courage to con­fide in a high school friend about her prob­lems, she soon learned she wasn’t alone. When she fi­nally told her par­ents, they were able to find her treat­ment in Brockville fairly quickly.

“So many peo­ple suf­fer in si­lence. They don’t re­al­ize that they’re not alone,” she said. “I think a lot of peo­ple un­der­es­ti­mate the se­ri­ous­ness of what OCD can be like. They joke about it. I hear peo­ple all the time say­ing, ‘I’m so OCD.’ That’s not what OCD is like. It can take over your whole life. It can make you a pris­oner in your home.” Ear­lier this year, for­mer NHL goalie Corey Hirsch re­vealed his bat­tle with de­pres­sion, OCD and the “hor­ri­ble, ridicu­lous, dark thought” he couldn’t get rid of.

He wrote about telling his mother about his sui­ci­dal feel­ings brought on by OCD as they stood atop the Em­pire State Build­ing.

“I mean, think about this,” Hirsch wrote in The Play­ers’ Tri­bune. “All your son ever wanted to do was play in the NHL. He gets drafted by the New York Rangers. He’s along for the ride on a Stan­ley Cup run. He’s stand­ing on top of the world, lit­er­ally. And he’s com­pletely bro­ken.”

Cow­ard had her OCD un­der con­trol, un­til she was in her 20s and had an un­ex­pected and se­ri­ous re­lapse when she was liv­ing and work­ing in St. Thomas. Re­lapses are com­mon among peo­ple with OCD.

“It took me by sur­prise,” she said. “I wasn’t pre­pared to han­dle it. I had my own job. I had my own life. Then OCD kind of took over. Ev­ery­thing be­came a rit­ual, ba­si­cally from the day I got up in the morn­ing un­til I went to bed. Even­tu­ally I hit a break­ing point. I thought: ‘I have to do some­thing or I’m not go­ing to be alive any­more.’”

Cow­ard moved back home and again re­ceived treat­ment with ex­po­sure and re­sponse pre­ven­tion (ERP) ther­apy. She knows she’s lucky. Not ev­ery­one finds the help they need.

Psy­chol­o­gist Con­nie Dal­ton was see­ing so many OCD pa­tients at her Ottawa prac­tice, she’s de­cided to make ex­po­sure and re­sponse pre­ven­tion ther­apy a spe­cialty at her Ottawa In­sti­tute of Cog­ni­tive Be­havioural Ther­apy.

“There is a deficit in Canada, re­ally, not just in Ottawa. There re­ally isn’t much avail­able. We’re try­ing to fill a hole,” Dal­ton said.

It’s es­ti­mated that OCD af­fects about two per cent of the pop­u­la­tion and it af­fects men and women equally. Though most peo­ple with OCD know the thoughts aren’t real and that the rit­ual re­sponse isn’t log­i­cal, they’re pow­er­less to stop it.

Se­vere cases of OCD might re­quire three hours of ther­apy a day, five days a week. The cost can be enor­mous, more than $1,000 a day. The ther­apy isn’t cov­ered by OHIP, though some pri­vate in­sur­ance plans cover at least a por­tion of the cost.

A per­son who is ob­sessed with germs might be asked to eat a grape that’s fallen on the floor. A new mother who’s con­sumed by thoughts she is go­ing to hurt her baby, might have to have the baby in the kitchen with her as she cooks, know­ing there are knives nearby. She isn’t al­lowed to per­form any of the rit­u­als that she would nor­mally do in an ef­fort to keep her baby safe.

“They know that the thoughts aren’t log­i­cal, but they can’t make them go away,” Dal­ton said. “But they’re just thoughts. Ev­ery­one has them. They’re not go­ing to act on them.”

Al­most all peo­ple with OCD have other health is­sues as well, she said. It might be ad­dic­tion, anx­i­ety or, very com­monly, se­vere de­pres­sion.

“OCD can af­fect the whole fam­ily,” she said.

For those in the throes of OCD, the de­mands of ex­po­sure and re­sponse pre­ven­tion ther­apy can be un­bear­able.

Cow­ard re­mem­bers once con­fess­ing her doubts to a doc­tor at an OCD con­fer­ence.

“I said to him: ‘I don’t think I can do it. It’s too hard.’ He said: ‘Yeah, I can un­der­stand that. But isn’t it harder to live with OCD?’

“It put it in per­spec­tive. I’d given up my whole life. I’d given up my job, my in­de­pen­dence, my friends be­cause of OCD. It made me re­al­ize, as scary as this is, if I don’t do it, I’m not go­ing to get bet­ter.”

RON­ALD ZAJAC/THE RECORDER AND TIMES

Jenn Cow­ard and her kit­ten, Ivy, are seen through the In­spi­ra­tion Award tro­phy she won from the Royal Ottawa.

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