‘My mom said, ‘You can’t return to work. You need to get better.’: Woman shares journey to OCD diagnosis, managing symptoms

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Childhood Trauma

“After hundreds of hours of therapy, I now understand my diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Anxiety has stemmed from past trauma. It all began in 2002, at the age of seven, when my younger cousin was diagnosed with Leukemia, which, as you can imagine, had a huge impact on the whole family. This was my first encounter with illness. Following this in 2003, my baby brother died the first day we brought him home, at one day old. And between both of these times, my mom had contracted meningitis twice. In a short amount of time, I had experienced a traumatic death and terrifying illnesses. The repercussions of these events had transformed a once happy and carefree child into an anxious and panic-stricken one. I experienced panic attacks every day, during school, bike rides, dinner times, but especially bed time, where I was perpetually terrified I would die in my sleep.

father, daughter, and mother standing together
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

In hindsight, this was directly influenced from my baby brother dying in his sleep. This was a very difficult time for myself, as well as my family because, although it was obvious I was struggling with the aftermath of events, in the early 2000’s, mental health was not where it is today. My parents took me to many counseling sessions, but being so young, I didn’t want to keep attending. As I transitioned into a teenager, my trauma had evolved into anger and hostility, mostly towards my family and school. I didn’t know why I was so angry; I believed it had been long enough to overcome the past, and because of this, I never linked the anger to it. I believed this was just who I was. A terrible person. I was stuck in this mindset of not caring about anything or anyone for a long time, perhaps from the ages of fourteen to my early twenties.

But underneath it all, I am quite a shy and introverted person. Around the age of twenty, I had decided to drastically adapt my traits and become a confident, fearless, and opinionated person. This didn’t happen overnight and my mantra was always ‘fake it until you make it.’ However, on completion, my desired personality was communicated as self-righteous, argumentative, and hot-tempered. Today, I find this remarkable because at the time, I had no idea I was essentially wrapping myself up in an identity that could better deal with possible future trauma. I felt protected, that nothing or nobody could hurt me.

young woman sitting in an empty, white window
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Mental Breakdown

From 2017-2018, my anger had dissipated slightly and I had become much more tolerant and pleasant to be around. Throughout previous years, I had struggled with certain one-off situations, which I was totally unaware of at the time was OCD. It was only in 2020, where I experienced a nervous breakdown fueled by health-related OCD, that it became clear. It can never be certified what causes a breakdown, but I believe a few different stressors I endured in life from 2019 to 2020 had contributed to it, as well as my past trauma that had never been resolved. A breakdown is a serious mental health crisis that occurs when an individual becomes overwhelmed by stress, which consequently causes the individual to become unable to function in their everyday life. My breakdown began in February 2020, when I contracted tonsillitis. I was very ill, and for roughly eight months I still had strange after-effects of this illness. Looking back, I can see this was where the breakdown had begun, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was becoming increasingly worried about the symptoms I was still experiencing, such as vertigo, sickness, head pains.

Understandably, I was visiting the doctors frequently, which ultimately reinforced in my mind something was wrong and they just ‘couldn’t find out what.’ This continued for months, intensifying as time went on. However, it was now grouped with daily panic attacks, dizziness, and other physical symptoms of anxiety (which I believed were additional symptoms of the mystery illness). This all came to a head on the evening of September 16th, 2020. I had come home from work and was exhausted, emotionally and mentally. By this point, I was experiencing multiple panic attacks a day and major sensory overload. For example, a customer at work would be engaging in a conversation with me, and I would have to leave my desk, walking away mid-conversation because I couldn’t take any more information in and I needed to shut my eyes as they were so sensitive to light. I had absolutely no awareness or concern about whether this came across as rude. To me, I was in survival mode.

On the night of the 16th of September, I phoned up my mom, who by now was used to my countless phone calls a day and used to being greeted with my latest health concern, crying and begging for her and my dad to drive me to the hospital. She drove to my apartment and witnessed that I was at the end of my limit and explained to me that I could not return to work, that I needed time off to get better. After speaking to my doctor the next day, I was automatically signed off and ultimately I remained signed off until January 2021.

woman in white dress looking out over cliff edge at ocean
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Finding Community

This was, without any exaggeration, the most difficult time of my life. I didn’t think I would ever get better again, and my life would consist of obsessive health worries, body checking, Internet searching, and never-ending doctors visits. I remained very unwell until roughly April 2021, and only then did I begin to see any hope. This was due to regular private therapy, medication, meditation, my new-found love for CrossFit, and general self-care. Something else that benefited me in a powerful way was the creation of my Instagram account dedicated to OCD and general mental health. It allowed me to learn and focus on my condition while helping others who were experiencing similar situations. I found a community who understood my struggles and, even though reassurance is regarded as unhelpful for OCD as it is a compulsion, the reassurance I received from not feeling alone was incredibly soothing.

woman doing CrossFit group workout
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Along with this, another huge benefit from engaging on Instagram was the discovery of acne and body positivity. I have suffered with acne for five years, and never in my wildest dreams did I think I would publicly post of photo of myself baring my biggest insecurity. Social media platforms get a lot of stick, sometimes for good reason, but this loving and accepting community of people is a big reason for why social media can be so positive. In my early twenties, there was no such thing as sharing photos of your skin conditions, stomach rolls, cellulite, or body hair, and that is because we as a society have been so heavily conditioned to believe all of these normal human features are shameful and unworthy. Sharing photos of my acne and the most insecure parts of my body was not an easy thing to do, and it didn’t happen overnight, but I am proudly now at the point where posting these types of photos makes me feel confident. It feels good to do good, and as well as doing it for others, I am also doing it for my younger self who was only exposed to perfectly contoured bodies and clear skin. If one of my photos can reassure one person, I would be over the moon.

close up of woman smiling with acne marks in gray
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Like all mental health illnesses, OCD is often stigmatized and mocked. OCD is an extremely difficult condition to manage and navigate and is often misunderstood as just wanting things to be extra clean and in order. There are lots of people that claim they have OCD as a quirk, ‘Oh that’s just my OCD,’ but this is can be very hurtful for people who genuinely have the illness. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder creates obsessive thoughts that are upsetting, terrifying, disturbing, and shameful. Then, the mind generates compulsions to temporarily relieve and cope with the anxiety. However, compulsions actually reinforce the fear and anxiety of the obsession and, in a sense, make them stronger as the brain learns it is something to be feared.

There are different subtypes of OCD. For example, I struggle with Health OCD, Relationship OCD, and Contamination OCD. Those are the subtypes I mainly suffer with now, but in the past I have struggled with Harm OCD and Paedophile OCD. Just reading some of the names of the subtypes can make it clear how OCD is so stigmatized and, in addition to wanting to help others with OCD, I am hopeful that my Instagram page can be another voice attempting to break down the stigma.

up close photo of woman with acne on face
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

A new one for me that has reared its ugly head is Responsibility OCD; I have obsessions I may have offended someone while conversing, leading me to ruminate for hours after the conversation ended. Something important that needs to be addressed with OCD is how it can latch onto anything. I never knew this, and it is understandable to believe that you may struggle with only one subtype of OCD. However, in my experience, I have watched as my obsessions switch up and change shape. The fresh intrusive thoughts can be extremely convincing too, due to the fact the concern may have never come up before, meaning it must be valid and significant to enter your mind in the first place. OCD can affect everything in your life, and it is only until you are self-aware of the problem and seek out help (which can be any way you feel supports you) that you can begin to understand and manage the illness.

Positivity

Although, being unwell was a very hard time, I am a big believer of the universe’s power to deliver and during this time, my brain was altered to see life in this new perspective. My whole mind radically changed for the better, I became a truly positive and compassionate person full of gratitude and I began to view life through a rosier lens. In January 2021, I quit my job (while signed off sick) and decided to embark on a new venture, which was studying psychology at The Open University. I began my degree in February 2021, and I will be starting my third year in October 2022. I feel as though, after everything I went through, there was something positive that was coming out of it, a shiny new future I could grab with both hands and embark on. Sometimes, the worst days of your life can bring you to the best times of your life, and I truly believe if I had never become unwell, I would have never changed my life so drastically. Sometimes I wonder, ‘breakdown or breakthrough?’ Now, I am working towards my future and hoping to one day help others who are in similar situations as I was.

woman sitting with two dogs in a poppy field
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Although, my life is much more positive now, I still have a mental health illness, which will be a part of me for the rest of my life. There are many days where I am plagued with intrusive thoughts and setbacks, and I still endure terrifying bodily sensations I believe are life-threatening. I have periods where I believe my partner has got bored of me or doesn’t love me anymore. I wash my hands a little bit too much sometimes if I’m extra stressed, or I won’t touch a certain object, or I will be conscious that my partner just put the bin out and then touched the door handle, so I must remember to clean the door handle or wash my hands if I touch it. And I must check that I definitely locked the door properly at night, and if it doesn’t feel right, walk away and walk back to check it again and again until it does. Or what if I’m allergic to this type of food now? My throat feels weird, so I must be experiencing an allergic reaction. Panic. And I know the fight or flight response causes the windpipe to become rigid to allow more air to enter, but what if this time it is an allergic reaction? OCD is so understated in regards to how much you have to endure, how many thoughts you have to learn to curiously observe without reacting to in order to slowly prove to your brain that nothing bad happened just because you didn’t engage in any compulsions.

woman standing with dog at cliff overlook of ocean
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

Ultimately, I could not have got through the breakdown or coped with day-to-day OCD occurrences without the love of my family who were there to support me every step of the way. This also extends to my partner and to my friends who didn’t lose their faith in me. Overall, it feels like everything has come full circle in the most poetic way. Nowadays, I feel genuine in who I am; I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not, like I was for years. The woman I am now has been pushed down for so long due to a defense mechanism I created to protect her. My authentic self before any of the trauma, the carefree and happy little girl, has been released and brought back to the surface after the perseverance of healing her trauma. I couldn’t be more proud of myself for getting through it all and continuing to manage OCD every day.”

woman and partner standing by overlook off ocean
Courtesy of Olivia Bayly

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Olivia Bayly, from Cornwall, UK. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories.

Read more stories about OCD:

OCD Is So Much More Than Cleaning Obsessively

‘When I was face to face with someone, it popped up. ‘I want to kill you.’ It tortured me.’: Woman with OCD urges ‘you don’t have a bad brain’

‘I was 33 when I learned there were others like me.’: Woman shares journey with undiagnosed OCD in catholic household

‘Read it again or else your fear will come true.’ An image of my mom flashed in my mind, lying on an ambulance stretcher.’: Woman shares journey to motherhood through OCD, anxiety

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