I’ve always been someone who would stress and get worked up over nothing. I liked things tidy and in order and the slightest hint of change would make me tense. It wasn’t until I was formally diagnosed by a professional as having the anxiety disorder OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), that I finally understood why I was the way I was.
There are so many amazing articles online that you can read which help to explain what someone with OCD goes through. But I’m hoping that I can provide a personal insight with this post. Why am I sharing? Because I can. I can now openly talk about my mental illness with pride. I will never be ‘cured’ but I have learnt – through hard work – how to manage it. If you read this post and nod your head at any of it, it could be a sign that you could also be suffering silently, like I did. A lot of people think that going through life worrying about the little things is normal, that not being able to make sense of their thoughts is just the way they are, but getting rid of that cloud that always hangs over you is possible. All you need to do is speak to someone. Life is so much better once you get help.
A few months after my mum passed away in 2013, I started to see a therapist. I was feeling ‘OK’ about her passing which didn’t seem right, so a friend suggested I see someone to talk it through.
My first therapy session was all about me, my life and how I live it. Once the hour was up, she said “sweetie, you have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which is causing you major anxiety”. I didn’t really understand what she meant. I mean, yeah I stress a lot, but who doesn’t? I worry about silly things, but who doesn’t? Yeah I like to plan things out, but doesn’t everyone? Did I really have a mental illness? That’s pretty serious! Apparently the way I went about my daily life was not normal. And this was a major reason why I was grieving the way I was.
My therapist wanted to start me on some medication right away which would help with the anxiety symptoms. I declined. So we started Cognitive Thinking Therapy the following week. In short, Cognitive Therapy teaches you how to train your brain. It takes a long time, and it’s hard work. You have to dig really deep and figure out what your triggers are, allow them to happen to the extreme, and put the training in use. I was totally ready to do it.
About 6 sessions in, we established what my trigger was: I never wanted to NOT be in control of my life. If I felt that I was losing control, the anxiety would set it, and I would obsess and then compulse.
Let me explain…
As soon as I felt that I was losing control of my life, the anxiety would creep in. I would feel tense, faint, my heart rate would increase, I would feel close to blacking out, I would be dizzy and my teeth would clench. I’d be angry and sad at the same time, and I would feel a sense of scary adrenalin coming over me.
Anything could bring the anxiety on. Something as simple as waking up sick one day and not being able to go into work. Or going into Coles and skipping an aisle only realising 5 minutes later that I needed to go in there. These simple changes meant EVERYTHING needed to change. Nothing was going to plan, so the plan needed to change. If the plan needed to change, everything needed to change. My whole life was in danger!
This would then bring on the severe obsessions. I’d worry that if I didn’t do something about this change of plan that everything was going to fall apart. How could I let this happen? I need to ‘fix it’. I need to do something and quickly before my whole life fell apart. I felt physically sick, like someone had kicked me in the guts.I needed to take back control!
After the obsessions, came the compulsions. My brain told me that there was no other way around this feeling than to go through my ‘ritual’. For me, my ‘ritual’ was list writing, and keeping things in order.
Whenever I try to explain this ritual to anyone, they look at me very confused. Here, I try to set it out as simply as possible while still trying to show you what would go through my head.
Below is a flow chart of how I ‘managed’ my life.
I would have a typed up document listing my ‘Life Goals’, which would flow onto a ‘5 Year Life Plan’ and then ‘Action Items’ that needed to get done in order to achieve those plans. I’d update these about every 6 months or so. A print out would sit in my diary where I could look at it, and read over it whenever I needed reminding of where I was headed in my life.
Next, a ‘Weekly Planner’ list was written on a yellow post it note and stuck on the inside of a clip in ruler that sat in the current week’s page in my diary. This was updated each week on Thursdays and it reminded me what I needed to do THAT week from the overall ‘Action Items’ list.
Then I had ‘Ben’s routine’. This was an excel spreadsheet that was colour coded and had answers for any scenario. “What to do if he doesn’t want his second nap” was in there! Oh Yes, I was one of ‘those’ mums. It was printed out and in the diary.
Next, I had our family budget. This would help me determine how much I should be spending on grocery shopping each week so I would plan out what ‘bulk’ items I’d buy each week. For example, nappies one week, formula the next, shampoo and detergents the next. Another excel spreadsheet that was colour coded, printed out and in the diary.
Still with me?
Finally, my daily planner would be written in my diary under each day. This I would update a few times a day.
‘Normal’ people would write things like doctors appointments or birthday parties in their diary. I would write everything from ‘wash the dishes’, to ‘have a shower’. And they’d have to be in order.
Some days my daily list would look like this:
- Wash dishes
- Wash dishes
- Take down clothes
- Do nails
- Make dinner
- Wash dishes
On Thursday’s, I would also have ‘next week’ in the list which meant I needed to do the ‘weekly planner’ for the following week including the meal plan (which was written in green on each day), and then ‘Coles’ for the weekly grocery run would be listed on the Friday.
I would spend about half an hour every morning writing the daily list. It had to be in order and it had to look tidy. I had to use the exact same pen every day (a Bic 4 pen) and if I needed to change something, I couldn’t just cross it out; I’d need to liquid paper it out. And not the liquid type, but the roll on one, so that it would be instantly dry and I’d be able to instantly rewrite the list. And yes, I’d liquid paper the whole list and start again.
As the day went on and I had completed things on the list, I would ‘refresh’ the list. Once again, liquid paper the whole thing and rewrite it. If the indents of each item on the list weren’t in order, I’d need to start again. If the thickness of ink on one letter was heavier than the others, I’d have to start again. If the size of the letters weren’t consistent, I’d have to start again.
If I was interrupted while I was in the middle of completing one of the items on the list, say for example Ben had started to cry while I was washing the dishes, I’d need to stop washing the dishes, rewrite the list to now say ‘finish washing dishes’, see what Ben needed, finish washing the dishes and then refresh the list because the dishes were done.
The whole thing was exhausting. I could spend about 45 minutes writing and rewriting the daily list at a time. Some days I had a sudden urge to just rewrite EVERY list. Update my whole life plan! And I would! When this was happening I was completely oblivious to the world around me. I was in the zone; I was trying to get back in control of my life.
I would compulse and compulse until it felt ‘right’. Something in my brain would eventually click and the anxiety would go away, the obsessive thoughts would go away, the compulsions would stop and I would feel calm. Until then, I would continue rewriting the list and just starring at it before I rewrote it again.
In addition to list writing, my other ritual was cleaning. And I don’t mean sweeping the floor to get the crumbs; I mean a top to bottom 4 hour clean. Skirting boards, inside cupboards, rearranging the bathroom, everything. I would start at one end, and finish with sweeping the concrete outside. I would use the same products every time (Windex, Jif, White King and Morning Fresh).The moment I felt the house was ‘untidy’ I would need to spend 4 hours the following Friday cleaning. If I had noticed it was getting dirty on a Monday, the anxiety and the obsessions would not go away until the compulsion (cleaning the house on that coming Friday) would flick that switch in my brain, and I would feel calm again. Once the house was clean, there were certain no go zones. The dining table was off limits. Even a tiny finger print would set off the anxiety again as it meant the house was once again untidy.
I knew that what I was doing wasn’t right, that it was a little over the top, but giving in to the compulsions made me feel better. I never once thought it was all because of a mental illness.
Working through the steps of Cognitive Therapy with my therapist, I could see that what I was doing was ruining my life. I had no time to rest, no time to have fun and absolutely no time for spontaneity. Cognitive Therapy helped me identify what triggered my OCD in a well-structured process. I would have to complete exercises which challenged my OCD. From things like using a different coloured pen in my diary, to not fixing my bed in the mornings. These exercises forced me to practise what I had learnt. I’d acknowledge how I was feeling, and identify why. Then think of the worst possible outcome, but also explain to myself how it wasn’t as drastic as I initially thought.
This was a five step process that I needed to write out each time and show my therapist at each session. As time went on, I could see the pattern of my thought process shifting. My anxiety was a lot less regular, and a lot less dramatic. I soon started to just go through the process in my head and not need to write it down. I was slowly taking control of my life, in a brand new way. I was learning to manage my anxiety and OCD and I was starting to feel free.
It’s now been about a year since my regular therapy visits, which went on for about 2 years. I still see her every now and then when I feel like I need a little refresher, or talk through anything toxic that’s going on in my life. But I don’t NEED to see her all the time, and I certainly don’t need the medication.
That first therapy session changed my life. She saved me. I became a better person. I can now see clearly, think clearly, and be calm. When you have OCD, the only time you feel total calm is when you’re about to fall asleep, after an hour or so of clouded confusing thoughts. Why? Because your brain is practically switched off!
There are still days where I feel like I’m losing control. I still plan and write lists. I still clean my house. But I do all these things because I like to be organised, and I like a tidy house. I don’t obsess over them, and they’re no longer compulsions. I also don’t need a daily list to remind me to shower. If I stink, I shower! My diary these days has hardly anything in there, except for fun family activities!
Looking back at how far I’ve come, I could not be more proud. But I could also not be more thankful for the support from my husband. He understood me, he supported me, and he didn’t judge me. He probably thought I was crazy, but he knew it was my way of getting through life. He always hinted that maybe I should see someone, but he was patient. He knew I needed to do it when I was ready. He’s seen me at my absolute worst and still loves me. He’s my biggest fan and my biggest encourager. Yes, my therapist taught me how to manage my anxiety, and I did the hard work. But my husband picked up the pieces along the way and that’s pretty awesome.
Please. If you’re reading this and there’s that tiny little whisper in your head saying ‘maybe you need help’ please get help! Talk to your friends, your family, or your co-workers. Talk to me! Talk to someone because even though anxiety is something people live with every day, some of us have taken back control. It is possible! I promise!
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