Thursday 7th February is Time to Talk Day. If you don’t know what that is, let me inform you. Time to Talk Day was started by Time to Change, the mental health campaign. Their aim is a simple one: to get more people talking about mental health. One in four of us are affected by a mental health problem, but many are reluctant to talk about it (Time to Change, 2019). Over the years, some excellent work has been done in reducing the stigma around mental illness, but there’s still plenty more to do. Time to Talk Day means simply having a conversation about mental health. Whether it’s in the form of a full on coffee morning at work, or just checking in with a friend who’s having a crappy time, you’ll be doing your bit.
With that in mind, today’s post is all about my experience with mental health. Those who know me only briefly will probably think I’m a major germaphobe who is regularly an incredibly moody bitch. However, something that only my close friends and family know (until now, obviously), is that I have OCD. I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder in 2016 after years of being fobbed off by doctors and not taken seriously. I unfortunately fit in with that stereotype of obsessions with cleanliness, avoiding illness, and keeping everything in order, but there are other aspects to it that I’ll get to later on. And I’ll say right now, OCD is NOT just about keeping things clean and tidy. So before you say to me “OMG I think I have that too, I’m SO OCD about germs,” maybe just calm your tits.
I’ve had issues with anxiety ever since I can remember. Over time, I’ve seen various counsellors for a majority of different things, but the main one I sought help for back in the day was my emetophobia. Emetophobia is the irrational fear of vomiting (yes, I know, NO ONE likes being sick – but listen). Some of you may be surprised to read that, given that a vast amount of my drunk escapades involve me throwing up, but one thing it’s never stopped me from doing is getting hammered with my friends. However, for a lot of sufferers, that sadly isn’t the case. While little is known about emetophobia, it’s actually one of the more common phobias. It’s estimated that 1-3% of males and 6-7% of females suffer from it (Anxiety UK, 2018).
Emetophobia was something I had suffered with since I was a child, but it was 2014 or thereabouts when I noticed things beginning to worsen. I noticed I began to obsess over things a lot more and my episodes of anxiety would become more frequent. My main worry that controlled pretty much everything was my intense fear of catching a stomach bug. I would obsess about every surface I touched and every person I came into contact with. Not only that, but I would imagine the worst scenario that could happen in every single situation. I would wash my hands so much that they became red and sore, often getting so dry that they bled. To illustrate exactly how much I was washing my hands if you’ve not got the picture already, I went through at least two 500ml bottles of hand soap every week. It wasn’t just that either, my obsessive thoughts ranged from worrying I’d hit a child every time I drove past one to convincing myself I had cervical cancer just because I kept seeing stories of young girls dying from it because they were too young to have a smear test. The worry that these thoughts caused would sometimes be hours, or in the worst case, days.
An Unusual Form of Wedding Jitters
Looking back, my obsession with avoiding getting sick was related to the fact that I was getting married in 2015. I was convinced that someone would be ill beforehand and they would selfishly pass it on to me or my husband leaving one or both of us ill for the entire day. Or what if someone in the wedding party got it? What if a guest was ill on the day and it ruined the hotel trip we had booked a few days later? It got to the point where it wasn’t just stomach bugs either. It was colds too. If anyone coughed or sneezed near me I would instantly want to kill them, and I hated them for trying to ruin my day. Forget being jilted at the altar or my dress not fitting properly – my number one fear was illness in any way, shape or form on my wedding day. But guess what? It was fine. No one was ill. Of course they bloody weren’t.
Getting a Diagnosis
A few months after my wedding, I was prescribed medication for what the doctor had diagnosed as anxiety, and I was put on a waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I had my assessment a few months later and was referred for some high intensity CBT, which meant I would be put on yet another waiting list. In all honesty though, I was happy with this because it meant I would have to see a different therapist. This one in particular was not a good match. If there’s one thing I hate (okay, there’s many things I hate), it’s being patronised. And she did just that. But, it was then that I was given my diagnosis of OCD. They give you a questionnaire to complete called the OCI (obsessive compulsive inventory). The cut off score for someone who was not considered to have OCD is 40. My score was 121.
After several months of being on a never ending waiting list, I thankfully started my first high intensity session in October 2016 with a lovely therapist who listened to me properly and I really got on with. And what was better, she was positive that she could help me. We worked to put together a hierarchy of exposure tasks for me to work through, and she taught me a number of different techniques to manage my anxiety and my obsessive thoughts. Things were finally starting to look up.
Fast forward to the end of 2016, where just before Christmas, I spent a whole day of being curled up on the sofa with my Mum’s dog and wishing I was dead because two people I knew at work had come down with norovirus and we were due to go away for our Christmas party at the end of the week and I didn’t want to get on a bus with them when they were still contagious. My ultimate fear was a horrific Monty Python-esque situation where several people came down with it thus resulting in a hellish bus journey home. Of course, I still went on said Christmas party, and it was a brilliant night. Again, I’d had a week of severe depression and panic for nothing, and I’d also put my Mum and husband through the worry too.
It sounds weird, but getting a diagnosis really helped. Even though I knew something was wrong with me for a while, and I did toy with the concern that maybe it was OCD, part of me kept thinking I was being stupid. Stupid because it was just my anxious personality and there were people who actually had OCD suffering far worse than I was. It was all my head. It was definitely my main reason for not getting help. But actually being diagnosed with it meant that it wasn’t “all in my head,” so to speak. Something was genuinely wrong with me and I was able to get treatment.
I had my last session of CBT in March 2017. I personally didn’t feel ready but I’d had the maximum number allowed on the NHS which meant my time was up. However, I’d worked through and successfully completed a good 75% of my tasks and my therapist was very pleased with my progress. I had to complete one final OCI questionnaire, and when my discharge letter arrived two weeks later, she had included my score – 58.
This year I’ll be 2 years therapy free. I’m not cured. I’m still on the highest dose of my medication and I still have several bad days during any given month. The obsessive thoughts still pop into my head when I’m stressed and during the winter months my hand-washing still increases. I still become scared of getting ill when I have a big event or something I’m looking forward to coming up. But, I’m better. I’m doing things I thought I’d never do again – literally simple things like cleaning my bathroom and not instantly showering afterwards. I now use one bottle of hand soap a week, and last year my husband even pointed out that our water bill had gone down. Little victories and all that.
Some people I knew were shocked to find out that I had OCD. I obviously don’t spread it around much (until now), mainly because from past experience the most common response I’ve had is “yeah, I’m the same, I like things clean” and other connotations. But the other thing they quite often say is “but you hide it so well!” Well, yes. Unless you follow me into to the bathroom or watch me leave the house, then I do hide it incredibly well. A lot of people still don’t realise that OCD isn’t just about behaviour – it’s about thoughts too. Being in my head is still incredibly exhausting. It doesn’t even have to be extreme. I have genuinely wasted hours worrying over whether I’ve said or done something to offend someone or piss them off. OCD is incredibly clever at convincing you that you’ve done or said something you haven’t or vice versa. Or to put it another way – it’s a complete asshole.
I apologise if you’re bored by this point. This was indeed a very long post. But I hope that it prompts you to start a conversation about mental health on the 7th February. If you know someone that’s suffering with a mental health problem, or someone that’s going through a rough time, reach out to them. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, just a simple text to let them know you’re thinking of them, or invite them round for a coffee. It goes without saying that the smallest things are what truly make a difference. Thanks for reading if you still are, and big love to anyone out there who’s struggling.
If you or a loved one are suffering with a mental health problem, take a look at Mind’s website, where you’ll find plenty of information and support. You can also find out more about Time to Talk day here.