Living with OCD
By Sue Leonard
Published in Feelgood, The Irish Examiner.
3rd June 2011
Julia Hennessy radiates confidence. In her fifties, the mum of three daughters from Bray looks the picture of health. Yet she is coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a condition that, twenty years ago, took over her life.
“I would dread going into the shower, because it would be a ritual,” says Julia. “Washing would take me a long, long time. I couldn’t plan activities, or make appointments. I had to have everything clean and orderly.”
There are different types of OCD, but for Julia, it was a fear of germs.
“I’d have to Hoover the house over and over again. It took me four hours. I could change my baby’s nappy, but then I’d wonder, did I contaminate the couch, or the fireplace? I’d clean it, then clean it again.
“I was terrified of sitting on the DART. I’d go home and change all my clothes. I’d have to clean the wheels of the buggy. And every time I went to the hairdresser, she’d do a lovely job, but I’d go home and wash my hair. I didn’t trust the brushes.”
For Julia, OCD crept up gradually.
“When I was 12 an uncle I really admired committed suicide. After his death I started doing everything twice. I’d go up one step, go down and go up again. I’d walk a line in the street, go back, and walk it again. Mum took me to a psychologist, and within a month I was cured.”
After school, Julia lacked confidence. Failing to become an art teacher, she ended up working in an office.
“I didn’t enjoy it. I managed a shop as well. But I was made redundant three times. It knocked my confidence.”
In the early seventies, Julia’s father contracted Parkinson’s disease.
“I got married, then my father died. Then my mother got cancer and she died. All that happened within the first eighteen months of my marriage.
“I’d go down to help mum dress or feed my father. And one morning she rang and said, ‘can you come, your father has fallen.’ I was making a batch of Apple Tarts – I was trying to prove I was a good wife – and I’m ashamed to say I cleaned up all the flour before I went down. The impulse to clean was overwhelming.”
After her mother’s death, Julia admitted she had a problem. Her GP sent her to a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants.
“They took the edge off the problem. I saw a psychologist too. He convinced me I’d be ok to have children.”
Julia had her first two daughters, but her symptoms got worse. She saw a private psychiatrist and joined a therapy group, but she wasn’t coping.
“I felt desperate. And I went to see the local parish priest. I told him about the rituals. He was wonderful. He said, ‘there’s a local group called Recovery. Give them a try.’”
Based on the teachings of the late Abraham Lowe, Recovery tackles symptoms of mental illness, giving people tools to deal with life. Based on cognitive behavioural therapy, Recovery is respected by many doctors.
Professor Patricia Casey has referred numerous patients.
“It’s excellent for patients with bipolar disorder and anxiety, as well as for OCD,” she says. “The members are very supportive, and it helps people deal with their day to day problems.”
Julia says Recovery saved her.
“From the first meeting I felt cared for,” she says. “June and Anne, in particular were such a support. People give examples of how Recovery helped them with various situations, and the members then comment. I was amazed at the things people suffered from, and by the answers that were given. I came away thinking, ‘is it that easy?’
It took time for Julia to learn the system, but twenty-one years on, she’s taken various postgraduate courses; she takes marriage preparation classes for ACCORD, and is assistant leader of the Bray group of Recovery. All thing she could never have contemplated.
“I still have OCD,” she says. “If I’m out, I won’t use a toilet. I still obsess about crumbs in the kitchen, but now I cope with it. I can shake hands with someone who has used a tissue and not rush to wash my hands.”
Dr Michael McDonagh, consultant psychiatrist at St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin, says that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is his preferred treatment.
“It achieves the best long term results,” he says. “Someone with OCD on serotonin based antidepressants, has a 90pc rate of relapse if they come off them. CBT is effective by itself, or given with serotonin.
“2 to 4 pc of the population have OCD,” he says. “That number isn’t increasing, but more sufferers are now seeking treatment.”
SYMPTOMS OF OBSESSIVE COMPULSIVE DISORDER
• Compulsions include counting, repeating words of actions, like checking locks or hand washing.
• Arranging things according to rigid rules.
• These behaviours are done to prevent or decrease anxiety.
• When severe, symptoms significantly interfere with a sufferer’s daily life.
• If you suffer symptoms, see your doctor.
FOR MORE INFORMATION.
Recovery International – www.recovery-inc-ireland.ie 01 626 0775.
OCD Ireland – www.ocdireland.org.
OCD support Group. (St Patrick’s Hospital.) 01 249 3333.
Sue Leonard is the author of Keys to the Cage. How People Cope With Depression. New Island 2010. (Includes a chapter on the Recovery method of mind training.)
Copyright. Sue Leonard. 2011.