LIVING WITH OCD
OCD conjures images of neatly arranged stationery and meticulous hand washing. In reality, it’s a devastating mental health condition. Catherine Benfield shares her story
There’s more to it than scrubbing your hands
Four-year-old me, with my cheeks glued to the window, probably looked like any child waiting for her mum to come home. Only I knew that I wasn’t waiting for my mum; my ritual was saving her – and if I moved from that spot, she would die. At least, that’s what I told myself. That’s the thing about obsessive compulsive disorder; it attacks the things you love the most. I lived with OCD throughout my childhood, though it lessened its grip while I was focused on my GCSES, A levels and getting into uni. Fascinated by the mind, I chose to study psychology. But I didn’t link my own experience to the can’t-stop-washing-yourhands portrayal of OCD I read about in textbooks. Hindsight has taught me that my OCD is triggered by big life events. Like when I moved in with my boyfriend, aged 25, and thought the house was going to burn down and he would be killed. The majority of the time, my compulsions would be internal – I would lose hours looking back on the past, analysing my every word and action. But occasionally they would be external, like when I was younger and touched, say, a glass, I’d feel as though I left responsibility for my parents’ lives on it. So I’d need to touch the glass again to take it back; and so the cycle continued. I never identified this as OCD – and people around me put any slightly odd behaviour down to an anxious disposition. But it was after I gave birth to my son at the age of 31 that my OCD became unmanageable. Images of him lying still, not breathing, were front and centre in my mind as I kept nightly vigil by his bed. Things escalated to the point that I became convinced I was going to hurt him. I had visions of myself throwing him down the stairs or against a wall. I saw my crimes on the front pages of newspapers. When I confessed the contents of my mind to a psychotherapist at my local NHS mental health outpatient centre, I half expected her to lock me up. She didn’t, of course. Instead, she told me mine was a classic case of OCD. A doctor later confirmed the diagnosis and prescribed antidepressants to complement my therapy: a combination of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and ERP (exposure and response prevention). The former taught me that violent thoughts don’t necessarily precede violent actions; the latter dismantled the belief that my compulsions kept my loved ones safe. Recovery wasn’t easy, nor was it linear. After five months of therapy, I reached a milestone. I’d always refused to keep knives in the house in case my son got hold of them, or worse, I’d use them to hurt him. But therapy helped me reach the point of being able to chop onions with my son in the same room. But after a series of family tragedies – losing my dad to a heart attack and my mum to cancer just 13 weeks later – my OCD took hold once again, this time more strongly than before. The internal horror show returned, with me reprising my role as the villainous mother. Cajoled by my husband, I returned to therapy. Meanwhile, I spent hours reading about the illness and teaching myself tactics to keep it under control. One piece of advice I read was to separate yourself from the obsessive thoughts by assigning your OCD an identity. I began to visualise mine as a cartoon character, and I named her Olivia. It worked. Creating Olivia extinguished the power OCD wielded over me. When obsessive thoughts left me questioning my character or my sanity, I’d picture Olivia, whingeing. She helped me see that the condition was the problem, not me. That’s why I started a blog in her name – and why I continue to post*, even now I’m largely free from the intrusive thoughts and compulsions that once ruled my life. Alongside medication and therapy, Olivia helped me recover – and I want to pass that on.