I’ve suffered with some form of anxiety my entire life. Emetophobia (the fear of vomit) hit me in my early childhood, gradually turning into a severe phobia of germs that, over time, destroyed my hands, my bank balance, a friendship, and worst of all, my personality. Eventually, I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) in 2016. A lot has happened since my diagnosis. On the mental health front I’ve had talking therapies, I’ve taken medication (and still do), and on the personal front, lots has happened. I changed jobs, my husband and I bought a house, I changed jobs again. For a while, after starting on medication and embarking on a course of high intensity CBT, I was in recovery. I was doing well for a couple of years. Then the pandemic happened. Living with contamination-based OCD during a pandemic wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, I can tell you. I wouldn’t say I’m back to the point I was after my diagnosis, but I’m definitely not in recovery any more. As our queen and saviour, Taylor Swift would say, “I might be okay but I’m not fine at all.”
Anyway, on to today’s post. I like to share something mental health related when Time to Talk Day comes around each year, and 2022 is no different. This year, I want to share a few lessons I’ve learned during my journey with mental illness. They include lessons on self care, lessons on accepting your illness, and lessons about the people around you. Whether you’re someone living with a mental illness, or you have a loved one living with one, I hope in a way that you find this post helpful.
1: Keeping Things Under Wraps Isn’t A Good Idea
From my own experience, when you’re being tortured by your own brain on a daily basis, it’s hardly something you want to share with your nearest and dearest. You don’t want to be seen as crazy or weird, but most importantly, you don’t want to worry anyone. But trust me, telling someone how you’re feeling or what you’re going through can make such a difference, and ultimately, it can be a huge weight off your shoulders. Yes, they might not understand it straight away, but by telling them, you’re still doing yourself some good. It’s a cliché, but a problem shared really is a problem halved.
2: Admitting You Need Help Is One of the Best Things You Can Do
Again, it’s a cliché, but often, admitting you have a problem is often the first step in your recovery. It’s a concept used a lot with those recovering from addiction, and it’s the same when it comes to mental illness. For years, I was reluctant to get help. On some level, I knew I had OCD, but part of my brain (the OCD part, obvs) told me that I didn’t have it. It told me that I was making it up, that I was being the OCD stereotype with my contamination fears, and because of that, I was offending everyone who had real OCD. It’s a right little complicated fucker of an illness. Before I was diagnosed, I spent years filled with guilt because I thought I was just making it up. When I finally got that diagnosis, it was a huge relief. But the only way I got that diagnosis was by first of all, admitting that my behaviour and my thought patterns weren’t normal, and then coming clean with my GP and telling them just how extreme things had become. Yes, it was embarrassing, and I felt completely ashamed, but in the long run, it’s one of the best things I ever did. It meant that I got a diagnosis, and more importantly, that I got the treatment that I needed.
3: Medication Isn’t Something to Be Scared Of
One of my main regrets is that it took me so long to agree to start on medication. For years I was adamant that the doctors didn’t care and that they were just trying to shut me up by thrusting a prescription at me. I was terrified of side effects, and I was scared that I’d never be able to come off them, but realistically, there were very few options that I had left, and it seemed like such a simple and easily reachable solution. It was already obvious that I was going to be waiting a stupidly long time to get an actual mental health assessment, so the very least I could do was try and take the edge off of my symptoms. While I had some initial side effects, they disappeared fairly quickly, and once I finally got started with CBT, I very slowly started to see the difference. It wasn’t a magical fix, and I’m still taking my medication to this day, but it made a massive difference. I hope to come off of it someday, but I think if I don’t, I’d probably be okay with it. I’m aware that medication doesn’t work for everyone, and that it’s not something that would be used on its own for treatment, so it’s down to the individual of course. However, my point is that it’s nothing to be scared of.
4: No Job Is Worth Damaging Your Mental Health
You’ll have read earlier this week that I started a new job last year, and I can’t emphasise enough just how much it has helped my mental health. I spent two and half years working for someone who – to put it politely – was a bully. Not surprisingly, it wore me down. I thought I’d got lucky when I left the job before that (which I think is one of the main things that contributed to my OCD) for this one, but that clearly wasn’t the case. After mere weeks working in my new job, I could see a huge change in my mood and my anxiety. Whether it’s the atmosphere, the people, or a combination of things, working in a toxic job has the potential to do some real damage to your mental health. There may be reasons why you stay there – for me there certainly was – because you’ve got friends there, because you know the job, because you’re not good with change; but whatever it is, if your job is wearing you down mentally, it’s not worth it.
5: A Simple Message From Your Friend Asking How You Are Means the Absolute World
When you’re in the throes of a mental health wobble (is wobble the right word? I’m going with wobble), it can feel incredibly lonely, and as we all know, that can make things even worse. Which is why during those dark AF moments, a message from a friend asking how you are can mean the world. During the height of the pandemic and the very first lockdown, my OCD naturally took a huge crap-dive, but getting regular check-ins from my friends gave me the boost I needed. Even if you’re just chatting about what TV you’re bingeing on (spoiler alert: for me it was Normal People). For some people, these little things can make a massive difference. In some cases, they can even be the difference between life and death – so make sure you check in with your loved ones as often as you can.
6: People Will Try and Relate To You Just Because They Like Having Their Bookcase Alphabetical
A slightly more lighter-hearted lesson, but nonetheless, it’s one that I’ve learned multiple times. It doesn’t quite piss me off as much as it used to, but one of the things that still niggles at me is when someone uses the phrase “my OCD is so bad with keeping things tidy” – funny that babes, because my OCD is so bad with convincing myself that I have cancer, or telling me that I hit and killed a child the last time I drove past a school..
Okay, I lied, it still really pisses me off.
I think all OCD sufferers will relate to this, and I sometimes feel a bit of a hypocrite because my OCD is largely based around contamination (which fits the stereotype everyone is familiar with). But then I have to remind myself: OCD is not a personality trait, it’s not being the real life version of Monica from Friends, and most importantly, IT’S NOT AN ADJECTIVE. Listing this as one of the lessons I’ve learned makes it sound like it’s something those of us with OCD need to accept, but that’s not the intention. Once again, it’s yet another polite reminder that OCD is an illness. It’s a debilitating illness. So, I urge you to please think about the language you use.
7: Never Underestimate Cuddles With Your Pet
Finally, let’s end with a simple but effective one. I recently finished watching the final series of Ricky Gervais’ masterpiece that is After Life on Netflix (which I urge you to watch). Alongside making me bawl my eyes out at the final episode, he shed some light on a lesson that we all should be reminded of from time to time. That being in our darkest moments, our furry friends can bring us the hope we need. Of course in the show, the focus is more on dogs, but I think it can be applied to all animals. Dogs and cats especially have this amazing power to know when we’re upset or sick. Tilly trots in and jumps up next to me whenever I’m having a meltdown, and she’s often curled up by my side on the occasions when my IBS decides to mess with me. Similarly, just before my OCD diagnosis when I spent all day curled up on my Mum’s sofa crying and wishing I was dead so I didn’t have to deal with the compulsions anymore, her dog, Daisy, didn’t leave my side. More recently, I spent an evening with my two best friends, Lillie and Cheryl, and I brought up something I was really struggling with because I was desperate to get it off my chest. As I was talking, Lillie’s dog, Copper, who is just the sweetest boy, came and sat next to me, putting his paw on my lap.
They know. They really do. The simple act of listening to your cat purring or playing a game of fetch with your dog can work wonders in improving your mood and getting you to just feel present for a few moments, and I sometimes feel like that’s way more powerful than any drug or therapy.
For mental health information and support, please visit the Mind website.
If you’re in the UK and need support, you can call the Samaritans, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year on 116 123. If you are in crisis and need urgent help, call NHS 111, phone 999 for an ambulance, or visit your nearest A&E department.
For those outside of the UK, mental health charity CALM has a great list of international organisations you can contact if you are in need of support.