Hi, I'm Catherine. Welcome to Taming Olivia!
The first time I wrote ‘My Story’ it went on forever. Thankfully, this isn't it! I’ve tried to be as concise as possible yet still give you all the information you need to help you get to know me and what I’m up to at Taming Olivia.
So here goes… let’s start with the more general stuff. I’m 36 years old and live in East London with my husband and son. I have a degree in Psychology and a postgraduate degree in Primary Education. I've taught in various East London schools and loved every second of being with the kids. I am currently having a break from teaching full-time so that I can spend more time with my little boy and to work on different projects, such as this one!
And more specifically… I’ve lived with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since the age of three or four, and it has morphed and shape-shifted many times throughout my life. With the aim of keeping this somewhat shorter than my previous epic biopic, I’ll give a brief overview of the main sections of my history of living with OCD.
Childhood and early teenage years
As a child, at a time when my peers where obsessed with My Little Pony and Care Bears, I was obsessed about my family dying. Intrusive thoughts, images, the works. I believed that every time a family member left me, it was the last time I’d see them. I’d spend hours performing rituals aimed at keeping them safe and peering out of windows waiting for them to return, to see if my checks and safety behaviours had worked.
I carried that weight for years; I became an expert at hiding my symptoms and didn't tell a soul. I feared, even back then, that talking about it would get me labelled as ‘weird’ or ‘different’ and bring shame on my family. My compulsions varied between needing to do things a certain number of times, in a particular order, or until everything felt 'just right'. At my worst, it took me three to four hours to settle into bed as I walked the well-trodden pathway of my night-time safety checks.
Occasionally I’d get busted as my parents heard my wandering or whispered counting. They would sit with me until I was settled, believing me to be upset about something at school or going through a phase.
It was around the age of eleven that I also started suffering from tics. They started with my eyes, blinking hard and twitching or trying to stretch them open (much in the way we do when applying mascara - not a great look!). The tics then migrated to my mouth, jaw and head. This was a worrying development for me, as it was the first time I couldn't hide my symptoms and I spent my days feeling: anxious about an approaching tic, disappointment at being unable to stop it and burning shame as I realised someone had seen. I worried constantly that the tics would lose me my friends and embarrass my family. Eventually, as I got older they passed.
I have a lot of happier memories of my childhood and early teenage years, but I also remember very clearly how OCD was affecting me at the time and most memories come with a hue of OCD.
Late teenage and early adult years
During these years, OCD was joined by a more general anxiety and depression. At the age of twenty-one I suffered my first panic attack and the majority of my twenties (on top of going to university, qualifying, moving out of my parents’ house, and beginning my career) were spent trying to deal with these.
I was still very much in the grasp of untreated OCD and my new-found independence saw me constantly checking ovens, sockets, lights… basically anything that could go wrong, malfunction and kill my loved ones. If someone else didn’t do the checks I would quite literally be up all night doing them and re-doing them. I started to hate being alone, the weight of responsibility on me to keep everyone safe was suffocating. I lived a life with a constant movie of darkness and worse case scenarios playing through my mind. To the outside world I looked completely on top of my life, inside I was barely holding it together.
I should mention that by this point I had learned about OCD from a chat show on television and had attempted to read a book about it, so I understood what was happening to me, and the relief carried me through the remaining years of my twenties. I didn’t have therapy nor did I have a clue about how to make my symptoms have less of an impact on my life. I had been offered medication once for the panic attacks I continued to have, but in true anxiety style, I was too scared to take them. As my job got busier and started to take up a lot of my time, my symptoms lessened. I began to believe, despite fighting depression and panic attacks, that OCD had well and truly moved on and that I was free from it. If someone had asked me about it, I’d have said with complete honesty that I believed I had recovered.
Pregnancy and motherhood
I had an amazing pregnancy with very little sickness or cause for concern. I was anxious about the health of my baby, as most expectant parents are, but apart from that I felt relaxed and in control. Towards the ends of the pregnancy I became a little too preoccupied with the health of my baby but still put it down to a mixture of my own characteristics and pregnancy hormones. I had a difficult labour, which left me weak and unable to do much for my new bundle, and it was during this time that I suffered an intensification of symptoms. I developed an all-consuming obsession with keeping my little one safe. When I was too weak to physically perform safety checks they took place as compulsions in my mind and I also gave my husband a list of instructions so he could carry out the checks for me.
I would spend hours making sure that my little one was breathing. I’d get up constantly in the night to check he was still alive. I became terrified of someone hurting him by accident or that my own negligence would lead to him dying.
As my first week of being a mum progressed, OCD zapped me of any energy I regained after the birth. My mind was a constant wheel of flashing harm visions and I became increasingly worried that someone would deliberately hurt my baby. Not my family or friends but someone ‘out there’. I adjusted my behaviour and engaged in endless compulsions, some seemingly making sense, others completely irrational, to keep my baby safe.
Towards the end of my first fortnight as a mother, OCD shape-shifted again: no longer was my concern about others hurting my son; it created the ultimate agony for me by making me believe I might be capable of harming him.
Every second of everyday was filled with images of me deliberately hurting my two week old. I lived in a perpetual state of terror. I'd stopped eating, I wasn't sleeping. I avoided being alone with him at any cost 'just in case'. I was so desperate to keep him safe that I went to my Dr and told him I thought I was worried I was going to hurt him. I believed at the time that my life as I knew it, had dreamt it could be, was over (I'd already said goodbye to my baby and husband fully believing we'd be separated from then on). I had no idea that I was suffering from what I now know is Maternal (or postnatal) OCD and Harm OCD. I believed that the intrusive thoughts indicated intent. That they were acting as an early warning sign that needed to be taken seriously and acted upon immediately. Thankfully, thankfully, my Dr recognised anxiety and for the first time I agreed to try, and actually take, medication.
I was lying in bed one night soon after starting medication, desperate for some relief, when I remembered the OCD symptoms I'd had in the past and I wondered if they could be related. I thought it was the actions of a woman backed into a corner, grasping at straws, but I googled 'OCD and fear of harming son' and a world of stories just like mine popped up. I spent the night reading them in tears of relief that I wasn't a child-killing monster after all.
OCD took my relief and twisted it into every shape it could to keep my fear alive. It fought to keep me down for the first three years of my son’s life. I spent my better days, those not consumed with obsessions and compulsions, torn between trying to fight my anxieties for the sake of my son and willing a fatal accident to come my way. I don't know if I'd have got to the point of ending my own life but I know what rock bottom felt like for me, and without some form of recovery, I don’t know how long I’d have been able to live feeling like that.
Through that time I saw many drs, midwives and health visitors. I usually wasn't able to get an appointment with the same person twice, so I was often dealing with someone new each time and I think this led to confusion over exactly what was happening to me. My midwife team thought I had postnatal depression, they were focusing on the fact that I felt very low but not the reasons why I felt low and I was told if I was diagnosed with postnatal depression that my son would be put on the 'at-risk' register - what a way to get me talking! I was told very clearly the risks of admitting my problem but not given one piece of advice about how to get myself better or how to access support structures for new mums living with postnatal anxiety and OCD. The reason for this? I don't think they knew what it was or how to identify it. In terms of postnatal mental health all that was mentioned was depression and psychosis, there simply wasn't the knowledge there to help me get through something I now realise is a common postnatal condition. I don’t blame those individuals at all, it was clear how hard they were all working, under really difficult constraints too. It was obvious that the majority really cared about my well-being, but there’s no doubt awareness needs to be built upon in certain areas of the medical community too.
The Past Couple of Years
I had two sets of 20 week sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) with a brilliant psychotherapist and these sessions, along with the medication I’d been prescribed, gave me my life back.
I now understand the way OCD works, that it prays on people’s biggest fears and that it tends to affect sensitive, kind, conscientious and empathetic people. It takes individuals’ values and beliefs and taints them with doubt and guilt.
I sadly lost my parents in 2015. They died three months apart following, in my dad’s case, a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease, and in my mum’s, a shorter cancer battle. I also lost my beautiful cat, Archer, later that year to cancer too, so my recovery has been dealt some pretty severe blows. The losses, although devastating, gave me the determination to do everything I possibly could to meet my OCD head on.
I’ve spent the past two years reading everything I could about OCD: self-help books, psychology books, blogs, studies, you name it. I’ve also read around the subject of general well-being: exercise, nutrition, adequate sleep, etc. I've developed a toolbox of help strategies that I can call on whenever I feel the reaches of OCD. I've worked hard to try to understand the way my own disorder works so that I can live alongside it, even if I can’t rid myself of it completely, and most importantly, I've learnt not to take my own health for granted and that I need to prioritise my own well-being. I have accepted that I must work a little harder than others to feel well and that's OK.
The Birth of Taming Olivia
Towards the end of 2016 I started to think about sharing my story openly with friends and family members who had no idea that I lived with OCD. I told some people in person and others online through a Facebook post. I’d seen one too many ‘jokes’ about OCD on social media and it was getting me down. It hit me that we would never come across posts joking about other illnesses, so why was OCD so funny? Quite simply put: misconception. Unless people know someone who lives with OCD (who is also open about all the areas of their condition) the general population have no idea what it actually involves other than a bit of perfectionism and a love of cleanliness and order. Thankfully, that's changing, the word is spreading and I’d like to add my voice to all those people sharing their stories, in the hope of imparting a little knowledge and a whole heap of love and support.
One of the things that has helped me the most has been to learn to separate myself from the condition. To accept that even though I live with OCD, it isn't who I am as a person. I found this such a difficult concept to grasp that I invented a character to help me. A character that allowed me to visualise OCD as a separate entity. This is where Olivia comes in and since she first popped up, she's been invaluable to my recovery.
My journey isn’t over, I’m still affected by OCD to some extent every day, but I can live alongside it now and want you to know that, whether you are living with OCD or know someone who is living with OCD, there is a lot of support out there for you. The online OCD community alone, is one of the best I’ve come across, and I’ll include links to these throughout my blogs. I'll also include parts of my own story, where relevant, along with the things I've learned about living with OCD, helpful hints and tips about how to deal with various aspects of the condition and I'll also talk about the mistakes I've made along the way (of which there have been plenty!) in the hope that you can avoid the same pitfalls. Oh, and keep an eye out for Olivia, she's bound to make an appearance soon!
I have OCD, it almost beat me - but it didn't! I carry that knowledge with me every day and so will you because we are fighters.
We are warriors in the truest sense.
Welcome to Taming Olivia, I hope it helps.
UPDATE: Please click here to read a more detailed account of my time with OCD that centred around harm based intrusive thoughts and impulses! 😊