By Catherine Benfield
Hi, I’m Catherine, I’m 36 and I’ve lived with OCD for as long as I can remember.
It’s morphed and shape-shifted many times throughout my life and has also varied in severity and intensity.
I’ll briefly tell you about my experience before talking about the things that have really helped with my recovery - I ultimately want my story to be one of hope and encouragement.
My childhood was very much focussed on keeping my loved ones safe, it centred very heavily on external compulsions. I counted, checked… recounted and rechecked everything because I believed it would help keep my family safe.
I checked taps, switches, plug sockets, window latches, basically everything and anything. It was hugely time consuming. I also had to repeat things until they felt just right and at times it was very difficult for me to lead a normal life. There were times I was heavily reliant on others to do the simplest of tasks.
I kept my OCD a secret until the age of about 25. I lived through those previous years in silence and with no mental health support at all. It was at this point I decided to speak to a couple of close friends.
Things took a nose-dive when I had my son in 2012. What began as endless checks on his safety quickly grew into my worst obsession yet – I was convinced that I was going to deliberately hurt him. I was tortured with images of this twenty-four hours a day… and my world fell apart.
I became very ill during this time and needed medical intervention. After a few misdiagnoses, and facing a constant battle against misconceptions, I was finally officially diagnosed with OCD. The fact that my compulsions had moved inward, and were now taking place mentally, meant that many medical staff didn’t realise that it was OCD, and it took a while for me to get treatment other than medication. In fact, it was me who realised that my new symptoms were OCD after I googled them and took my findings to my medical team. I’d just like to point out here that my team were amazing, very kind and supportive, but overstretched, exhausted and minus the training needed to help recognise the multitude of ways OCD can present itself. I slipped through the net for a while, it was not their fault.
I will never forget this time. When I think back to how poorly I was then, I realise how far I have come now and that if I can get through that phase of my illness, I can get through anything.
So, onto recovery. I had two sets of twenty weeks of CBT. I had to work hard, after 32 years my thoughts patterns were pretty rigid and took a while to shift.
I lost my parents within three months of each other just after finishing my first series of therapy sessions. This caused a relapse so severe, that I needed to return for another set.
Since then, I’ve gone from strength to strength. Something clicked and I realised that I would do anything it took to get well.
My well-being and health became the centre of everything because after all, if I wasn’t strong and well, I wouldn’t be able to look after anyone else.
I decided to stay on the medication for a while (I’d previously kept trying to come off them). I started exercising, not running – it gave me too long alone with my thoughts - but Zumba and fun dance classes.
I saw my friends more, I got out more. I spent time in the sun, I started to take supplements, I continued with my CBT homework I got a decent amount of sleep. I learned everything I could about OCD and mindfulness and introduced the latter into my daily routine. I opened up about my condition to anyone and everyone. I talked about it openly and was met with a lot of support. Listing it like this makes it sound quick and easy - it wasn’t it took quite a bit of work and there were bumps along the way - so please don’t feel like this is out of reach for you, it totally isn’t.
One of the things that helped the most was creating a character to help me visualise my OCD. Many therapists recommend giving your disorder a name to help you realise it’s not actually you. This didn’t work for me so I extended the concept and created a little persona that I called Olivia. She had a physical appearance, an intense personality and could change depending on her current obsession type. She helped me so much. Within months of visualising Olivia, I noticed a huge shift in the way I viewed my condition.
One of the differences between what I’ve been doing with Olivia and what many therapists and psychiatrists often recommend, is that they suggest making your visualisation scary, sinister and bully-like so that you can visualise fighting against it. Personally, I can think of nothing worse than spending my life with something else that terrified me. The concept of Olivia was supposed to help me feel more comfortable and so I decided that instead of trying to fight against Olivia I was going to accept that she was there. I was going to use her to help me learn how to accept the obsessions and compulsions. She’s worked. I’m not 100% recovered but my life is affected less by OCD now than it has ever been.
I’ve since learned this approach is the basis of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is also worth learning about, it’s incredible.
As time went by, and I got to know more and more people living with OCD through social media, I got some great feedback about the Olivia concept. It seemed particularly helpful for children and mothers wrote to me telling me that making the character non-frightening was really changing the way their children saw their condition.
I was blown away by this and decided to put the concept online. Taming Olivia has only been going for a little while but already it seems to be taking off.
At the moment, it’s a blog and will continue to be so but also, as a teacher, I am hoping to get the concept into schools to help children discuss managing feelings and mental well-being. I have also heard from a few psychiatrists who are trying the character with their own patients so I’m hoping to create some resources that will help in both of those areas.
I know how I felt as a child, going through those years alone without any support and wondering what on earth was wrong with me, and I want to join the group of amazing people sharing their stories and working hard to stop this happening to the next generation of kids.
I have only recently started to delve into my creative side - OCD took too much time away from me to do it before but it has helped enormously. The website and the surrounding creative work has given me an outlet, it keeps my mind active and busy, it gives me a sense of accomplishment and if I have a bad day, I can release those feelings through writing, photography, drawing, painting, etc. What I love most about it, is that you don’t have to have mastered putting pen or paintbrush to paper to do it. You just do what feels right. I started off trying to visualise Olivia using collages and scrap books of things that represented her. I didn’t need to illustrate her at all to get my point across.
If I had known how much creativity was going to help me on my road to recovery, I would have done it years ago. I’m so glad I’ve found it now.
Right, I think that’s about all from me for now.
Please, please, please remember this… No matter how awful OCD feels for you now it can be managed, it can be treated and in many cases, it can be fully recovered from. One day you’ll look back, be amazed you got through it, be thankful you did, then get on with your day. Believe it is possible, and until then get creating and learning everything you can about your condition. You are not alone! 😊
Thanks so much to wandering-forever.com for sharing my story! I really hope it helps.
Editor's Note: Thank you so much Catherine for sharing your incredible story and what has helped you! Check out the link to her socials and website below and read more about her on our guest contributors page.
Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000. If you live outside Australia, link to worldwide crisis numbers can be found in the sidebar.
I created a website called Taming Olivia which charts my progress, shares recovery ideas, and is aimed at spreading hope and awareness. If you’d like to check it out you can find here: www.tamingolivia.com
And these are my pages on: