Wendy was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder in her early 50s. She believes the symptoms started during her childhood.
When did you notice the OCD and what were the symptoms?
I was diagnosed seven years ago. The symptoms would have started when I was about nine, I think. I used to worry - ever so much - about sins and what I had done wrong, and have to go to confession and think I was bad. It was torture. That went on all my childhood years, right through my teenage years, and I made lots of trips to the church - to confession and to Mass. I would go to these missions and really be afraid of the priests, be afraid of what I had done.
What did you think you had done and what were you afraid of?
I was afraid of hell: that hell was where I would go. I suppose I don't really know what I was afraid of - it was just illogical. It was illogical, but it was controlling.
How have your symptoms changed over the years?
They stayed from when I was nine until probably a couple of years ago. It's a lot less now. When I was 19, I developed an eating disorder. I was treated for anorexia, but I strongly feel that it was OCD. I had a lot of trips to hospital and I never seemed to get better.
All through the years of eating problems, I had other things happening. Like thoughts - unwanted, intrusive thoughts - and I would have to shake my head to get rid of them, because they weren't nice thoughts. For instance, if I saw knives and forks (anything that might have been harmful), I would imagine that I wanted to hurt whoever was near me - the children or whoever. To me, that was shameful and bad, and I wouldn't want to do that because I'm gentle.
So I had to shake my head more and more to get rid of it. Now I know the more I do it, the more it stays. When it wouldn't go, I would have to say, 'No. No. No!', and get louder and louder and shout it out. Of course, I know now that it doesn't go, but I would have to scream in the end.
What is it like to live with OCD?
I found it very time consuming and distressing. My whole day was made up of a lot of little bits. It might be checking or cleaning or worrying about illogical things. It was exhausting and rather horrific, because it never let my mind rest. Before I knew what it was, I used to say, 'I just want to feel free. I wished I could go out into a field and shout it all out and get rid of it all'.
What is it like to experience an obsession?
It is torment and it's like your mind can't rest because you can't let it go. It just stays there and goes over and over and over until you nearly go crazy.
What is it like to experience a compulsion?
Well, it is relief. It is a temporary relief, because you do a compulsive thing to relieve the obsession so that you feel better for a while. But you do it and you want to do it again. So it doesn't fix anything at all. It helps for a while. It helps alleviate the anxiety, but it is only temporary.
How did your OCD affect your husband?
My husband was exasperated; he didn't know what to do. He got angry. I can't blame him, because it must have been hard. He didn't get much sleep, because my eating problems were horrendous, just all-consuming. For a long time, in the later years, he wouldn't have got much rest, because I didn't feel safe with my eating. I started to eat when I felt safe, which was late at night, say at 10 o'clock. So I was still eating at two o'clock in the morning, in bed. I mean, everything I ate, I ate in bed.
I knew what I was eating, so I never gained any weight; in fact, I probably lost it. I got into patterns where I would start off with one lot of food - the vegetables, the fruit, the toast, the scones, whatever was next, and I always ended up with porridge. That went on for months and months. I would be actually sleeping whilst I was eating. It was so painful. And it was for him, too, because he wasn't getting any rest.
How do you think it affected your children?
One of my obsessions, which I still feel a bit ashamed about, was that I couldn't give my children food (like packets of food or things) until after the 'use-by' date. That's terrible. I looked after myself, but that wasn't logical either. I could eat something well within the use-by date, but the silly part was I didn't eat it, because I wasn't eating. Maybe I would eat a quarter of a biscuit and then wrap it up, eat another quarter or a little bite another day and then wrap it up and put it in the freezer. I wasn't eating it, but I couldn't give it to them either. They would say to me, 'Mum, is this passed the 'use-by' or not?' They would sort of make a joke, but they didn't really know. I didn't know what the problem was then either. I felt it was a bit shameful that I couldn't feed them properly.
My mind felt 'stuck'. I could really feel it. In actual fact, it does get stuck. You have to learn to change your thinking: to change the gears in your mind. Getting started is a huge problem. Sometimes, you are not motivated and then, of course, you can't get started. But I find, even now, although I can get really motivated, I just can't get started. It's like you are reaching out, you want to do it, but you just can't get started. Then, when you do get started, you can't stop. I know it might take me two or three hours to get started, and then I'm still going at dark, because I can't stop. Yes, it's a problem, but you don't know when you will get started again!
What sorts of things have helped you over the years on your road to recovery?
I'm part of a support group and, being able to support each other, you learn to believe in yourself. You are accepted for what you are, and you become friends. You share a lot with them, and you learn to laugh. We laugh a lot and it is rewarding, because it gives others hope.
To recover, I feel it is important to improve your self-esteem. It is very important to feel better about yourself. That's what we worked on at the hospital. By doing cognitive therapy (which I call 'thinking therapy') and learning to feel better about myself, I have gained more confidence. I think I'm okay. Even six months ago, I wouldn't have done things I am doing today. I have a lot more self-determination and I want to follow a cause. I want to do the best I can and the best I can to help other people. Seeing other people improve, even if it is in little ways, is so rewarding, because it helps you too.
How do you view your OCD now?
I feel that I have broken out of what I call a cocoon of OCD. I can see the world for what it is and me for what I am. I'm finding out the sort of person I really am. The OCD hid that. It was like a veil over me, but now I'm finding out who I am. I'm growing. I'm like a tree and I get new shoots and buds and blossom and bloom - and I can laugh. I couldn't do that before. I was sad, intense and depressed, and overwhelmed by all this horrific stuff.
OCD wrecked my life physically because of my eating problems. It made me really weak. I had no strength, no motivation. It wrecked my life emotionally and spiritually. Now, I'm seeing myself for who I am and the whole world for what it is. I'm growing physically, spiritually and emotionally, and I'm a much calmer and more peaceful person. I've gained a wealth of insight about OCD.
What would you say to somebody recently diagnosed with OCD?
If they can find support from others who are suffering from the same condition, then they will find out they are not alone, that we are all special people and that there is hope. At the support group, you will be accepted and be in a safe environment; there will be no judgements made and you will learn more self-esteem because you can share with others. You feel you are not alone with this problem and you can learn to laugh. When you first come, you think, 'Oh, will I ever be able to do this?' But you do, and you laugh, and it is such good therapy.
Also, find a professional to help manage your illness. A professional you feel comfortable with, who you can talk to: someone you can be honest with, someone who will understand. I think it is important that you have that, so you can be open with them. Find someone who is flexible in how they treat you. It is important that they treat you like a human being, because you are worth it and probably you know as much about the disorder as they do.
I would suggest that you have faith in yourself and hope. I know when you are recently diagnosed that is the last thing you think of. But don't give up. There is hope there and there is help there. You are not alone. There are a lot of other people who are struggling, but winning. You can learn. You can learn to accept yourself for what you are and you will grow and bloom. It might be hard, but be gentle on yourself. If you have any little victories, don't be hard on yourself and expect them all the time. It will come.
Be gentle. Take steps, gradual steps. Don't tackle big things first. It is like a ladder. Just climb a step at a time. Take on trying to work on the obsessions that are going to cause you the least amount of anxiety. Don't go for something really big, because then you might feel a failure. Take on the small things, and do it until you feel comfortable with it. But yes, you need support from friends.
I have found I have enough inner strength to cope and beat it, instead of it controlling me. I now know I have a choice and I can choose to either let it tell me what to do, or I can tell it what to do. It has wrecked my life for long enough. Now I am appreciating life for what it is.
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