Thanks for chatting today April! Firstly, tell us five things about yourself.
I’m a primary school teacher by trade, and I love it so much. There’s something magical about seeing the world through the eyes of young people and watching them grow and learn. I’m a new(ish) mum. My precious Elise/Ellie/Bean was born in November last year and so far it has been just the best ride ever. Mum life; if you know, you know, right? I’m an imperfect, forgiven, growing-every-day follower of Jesus. Nothing brings me rest and peace like the relationship I have with Him. I’m an unashamed geek. Give me a Star Wars marathon with a cup of tea over a night out any day of the week. There are two things in the world I will not eat. Bananas and yoghurt. Bananas are the fruit that led to the fall, and I will not be convinced otherwise.
What is OCD?
OCD stands for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and is a mental illness characterised by a cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.
Basically, the mind of someone with OCD struggles to let go of thoughts or images that they find distressing or disturbing, and they run constantly, on repeat. This is the ‘obsessive’ part of OCD. In response to this, they will then engage in a ‘compulsion’, a behaviour that seems to relieve the discomfort or stop the thoughts. However, the condition is cyclic, and these behaviours only stop the thoughts temporarily. Inevitably, the thoughts return, then the behaviour has to be repeated and this continues on and on. At its worst it is completely exhausting and debilitating and can lead to additional diagnoses of depression and anxiety. (That’s my understanding and definition, but I’m not a psychiatrist/psychologist, so if you want to know more you can find some good info here: https://iocdf.org/about-ocd/ )
I wasn’t officially diagnosed with OCD until I was fifteen, but remember having obsessive thought patterns and rituals from a much younger age. For a few years of primary school I believed that if I didn’t recite the same prayer word for word before I fell asleep that Mum and Dad would die in the night. If I made a mistake in the prayer I would have to start again, and again, and again. Sometimes this took hours. In my teenage years things escalated and my obsessions became darker, more distressing and harder to get rid of. The rituals that had always relieved my anxiety stopped working. Every waking second was terrifying and exhausting, and I spiraled into a deep depression. I will always be grateful that my parents recognised how unwell I was and supported me in seeking treatment. Thankfully I received the right help quickly, and between GPs, psychologists, psychiatrists and some nifty little tablets I was a different person within six months.
OCD can be treated really well, but not cured. It’s a genetic disorder related to the chemistry and structure of my brain so I’ll be in the OCD club for life, but I am grateful to be so well treated that it has a pretty minimal impact on my day to day.
How does OCD affect areas of your life, i.e. being a mum, your career, relationship, friendship?
These days I am so well treated that the effects on my life are pretty minor. That being said, I can easily fall into the trap of forgetting that I live with a disorder and not managing it properly, which is when I start to struggle a little more.
I just generally seem to have a lower threshold for busyness and stress than the average person. The longer I live with my condition the better I am at recognising when stressors are piling up too much and my thoughts are beginning to control me rather than the other way round. I am so thankful to have started my teaching career in a super supportive workplace, and the leadership staff at my school have always gone above and beyond in their efforts to understand my condition and support me as I’ve needed it.
I became a mum in November last year, and in the lead up I had some anxieties around how the postpartum period might impact or worsen my symptoms. This was made harder by the fact that my medication (which I’ve been on for twelve years) is incompatible with pregnancy, so I was suddenly faced with the terrifying thought of going without it. In the end, the first few weeks postpartum were pretty messy (aren’t they always?!) but things resettled very quickly after I restarted my medication. Personally, I’ve actually found my mental health easier to manage as a stay-at-home mum than I did as a full time teacher!
I’m also unspeakably grateful for my husband who is my biggest support and just so understanding and patient. We actually started dating in high school when my mental illness was at its worst (brave guy!) so he’s seen me at my very worst, my best and everywhere in between. He often recognises symptoms creeping in before I do, and knows exactly what I need when I’m stuck in a spiral. Because of this the impact on my marriage is pretty small. He’s seriously the best.
What do we as a society need to continue to learn about OCD?
In short: heaps!
Firstly, there’s so much education that needs to happen around what OCD actually is, and what it definitely isn’t! The term ‘OCD’ is used so often in day-to-day conversation, and almost always incorrectly. Most commonly, people will use phrases like “I’m so OCD” because they like to colour code their books, or “I’m a bit OCD” about how the dishwasher gets stacked. What they’re actually talking about is perfectionism or fussiness (or the less pleasant term, ‘anal-retentiveness’). Unless these behaviours are driven by intensely distressing thoughts, they have nothing to do with OCD at all. I want to stress here that these people never have ill-intent, but it’s still important to gently let them know that it’s an unhelpful phrase to use, as it perpetuates myths around OCD and makes it harder for people who actually have it to get help or be taken seriously.
I would also love to society become more affirming of long-term medication use, because for people like me whose condition is rooted in their genetic make up, it has to be a long-term thing. The best analogy I’ve heard to explain this was from one of my psychologists, who drew the comparison between OCD and diabetes. Both are lifelong conditions, determined (at least in part) by your genes and involve the underproduction of certain chemicals by your body. Someone with diabetes will need to take insulin for life in order to function in the same way as someone without the condition, and you would never dream of asking them “Hey have you thought about going without it and trying to cope on your own?” or “You still rely on insulin? Aren’t you over that whole diabetes thing already?” Yet these questions are asked of people with OCD (and other psychiatric disorders) constantly, despite the fact that our need for an external input of chemicals is no different. As a rule of thumb, don’t discuss someone’s medication with them unless they raise it with you and explicitly ask for your input. Otherwise, its best left between the patient and their support team.
What helps you manage your OCD and mental health?
It depends on the season and what else is going on in my life, but generally I find the combination of my medication and learnt management skills to be enough. I’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists on and off over the years and I know that their doors are always open if I am going through a rough patch or relapse and need some reminders of the strategies that work for me.
General self-care is so important too, and I’m getting better all the time at recognising the relationship between my physical health and my mental wellbeing. The better I eat and the more I move my body, the easier my thoughts are to manage. I know it’s been said a thousand times over, but that’s because it’s true!
Finally, and most importantly, my support network is everything. My husband and family know me so well and care for me in every season, as I spoke to above. Of course, Jesus knows me best, and the closer I walk with him the more loved, known and seen I feel, no matter what my brain decides to throw at me!
To anyone reading this who is in a dark place at the moment, I am so sorry. Mental illness is shit, and there’s no two ways about it. I know what it feels like to be at the very lowest of lows, and to feel like there’s no way out or this is your forever. But please know that there is so much support and hope and a very bright light at the end of the tunnel. If you haven’t looked for help yet, please do. It’s so worth it! And if you’re currently in the trenches going to a million appointments, trying things that scare you and looking for the right medication, hang in there, that’s worth it too. I’m just a little way ahead of you on this path, and I promise there are blue skies just around the next bend. Just a little bit further.
Thanks, so much April for bringing to light important and often unsaid truths surrounding OCD and mental health in general. As April mentioned, if you are in need of support, reach out for help whether it be personally or professionally. To speak to a Lifeline Crisis Supporter, dial 13 11 14, or head to https://www.lifeline.org.au/about/contact-us/ for further support.