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

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - illustration ELISA MACELLARI

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.

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