Meet Olivia... the character helping me beat OCD.
I’ll have to do the introductions as she's not in the best of moods today...
This is Olivia! She came into being about a year ago, personifying a big, black void of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) that, at times, threatened to swallow me whole. Olivia is: determined, loyal, imaginative, creative, sensitive and protective. She’s also a big worrier, irrational, unnecessarily over-dramatic and prone to the odd bout of nastiness, but more about that later...
Olivia usually extends her somewhat unconventional hand of friendship towards me and if I concentrate hard, like really, REALLY, hard, I can see that she’s often trying to be a good friend. Ultimately, although misguided, her loyalties are in the right place because most of her waking hours are spent trying to keep the most important people in my life safe from harm.
Olivia takes the things that go through my mind, the types of things that go through EVERYBODY’S mind, and turns them into something they really don’t need to be. She takes anything from thoughts, to images, to urges (for ease of writing in future I’ll refer to these under the umbrella term of ‘thoughts’) and runs with them. In fact, Olivia worries so much, that when she senses a thought she doesn’t like the look of, she investigates it straight away, and if she’s not sure about the findings of this investigation, she repeats it… and repeats it… and repeats it - she is nothing if not thorough!
Olivia is incredibly stubborn and often resists my every attempt to quell her fussing: the more I try to push her away, the stronger she becomes; the more I try to shrink her, the larger she grows; and the more I try to silence her, the louder and more persistent her voice becomes until she starts to take over my every waking moment. Every thought, every experience, the creation of every new memory, becomes tarnished with Olivia’s latest obsession, until occasionally she has me in a ‘I can’t live like this anymore’ situation.
Olivia doesn’t understand yet, that it is a brain’s ‘job’ to fire off randomly generated thoughts, that it’s evolved to do just that! Being aware of endless possibilities, in any given situation, is a skill that has kept human beings alive throughout history. Instead, she worries that ignoring these thoughts will lead to disaster and, much like a fog horn in the dark, she is very good at making herself heard. Olivia believes that it is my responsibility to work out why I’ve had a certain thought, what action is required because of it, and what it might indicate about my character.
Although not a chatterbox in the conventional sense, Olivia has other ways of letting me know how she feels. She does this by communicating with me through thoughts, images and urges. If she thinks I’m getting a bit blasé about one approach she quickly mixes it up to keep me on my toes. She also likes to change the theme of her obsessions for that very reason too.
Below is a list of typical Olivia worries:
You know what? I think you should check that again, just in case. Seriously… once more wouldn’t hurt.
Remember that time you went back and checked, and it was STILL ON?
Well, it’ll be your own fault, you didn’t act when you had the chance.
I’m just saying, if I was you, I’d touch it/check it/turn it one more time.
Only seven flicks of the switch? What’s happened to the other two? Thinking about it… did you do seven? Let’s start again, just in case.
What if…? (Insert literally anything horrible here)
This is the Olivia that I live with every single day - some days she’s in a quiet mood, others she’s very loud. She finds bedtime a challenge because she worries something bad might happen overnight if the checks aren’t completed properly. She also doesn’t like it when we are the last to leave the house, just in case we missed a potential hazard when getting ready to leave.
Over the years, I’ve built up quite a collection of strategies to help me deal with Olivia when she is like this (I’ll talk about these in future posts) and although it’s uncomfortable, Olivia in this mood is bearable…
Occasionally, though, she turns on me. She becomes a particularly devastating and powerful version of my 'everyday' Olivia. She stalks me when I'm at my most vulnerable and, for now at least, has the power to terrify me.
When Olivia is in this altered state, she worries less about irons being left on and front doors being left ajar and becomes preoccupied with me. She 'checks' me and is suspicious of most of what I do or think. She collects evidence that might suggest I'm ‘mad, bad or dangerous’; constantly searching for a dark side to my character, and when she believes she's found something of interest, she presents such a strong case that the impact on me can be devastating.
When Olivia is in this frame of mind, she throws things like this at me:
Why are you having these thoughts?
Only evil people have those thoughts!
Why would you have thought it, if you didn’t want to do it?
What does that say about you?
OK, that HAS to mean that you’re dangerous or mad, right? Quick get everyone away!
What happens if…?
I’d avoid those thoughts. Honestly, if it was me, I wouldn’t risk thinking those things.
Don’t go there, seriously don’t do that! Stop thinking about it NOW!
You’ll go to prison, you know that, don’t you? They’ll never let you out.
It’ll be all over the papers.
You’ll never get to see your family again.
You’d have ruined everyone’s life!
Quickly… where’s Pete? PETE! I’m not trusting your instincts right now, get Pete. Find him NOW! Tell him about our worries, make him tell us it’ll be alright.
I feel terrible, I can’t breathe properly. Let’s go to the DR’s - better make it an emergency appointment.
Up until recently, I've spent my time either trying to pretend this version of Olivia doesn't exist or desperately attempting to outrun her. Neither of these strategies have worked; they've just made her stronger. I'm attempting a different approach now by trying to accept her and allowing her to stay close to me when she wants to be in the hope I'll get used to her. I've been doing this for a while and she seems less frightening already. When this particularly difficult phase passes, she goes back to 'everyday' Olivia.
There we go, somewhat battered but calmer…
At the start of our relationship, Olivia and I entered into some pretty epic battles of wits, most of which she won, creating absolute havoc in my life. More recently I’ve been trying to: accept her, empathise with her and understand that making me feel bad is her way of trying to get my attention; she is suffering and she wants me to know.
I am learning how to show her compassion without letting her mood affect mine. This isn’t easy, but I’m getting there. I’m learning how to recognise her input and how not to take it too seriously; just because she tells me that there’s something to worry about, it doesn’t mean there actually is. I’m slowly learning that I do not need to indulge her by taking on her endless obsessions and performing the compulsions she encourages me to carry out.
I’m also learning to accept that the original distressing thoughts, images and urges are mine and mine alone. I created them, they belong to me, just like everyone else’s thoughts belong to them. It is the disorder, it is Olivia, that warps my thinking, that wants me to analyse everything and evaluate the meaning behind things; it’s her who turns them into something they don’t need to be.
Visualising my OCD as Olivia is helping me learn how to live the best life I can, day to day, with OCD. In seeing her, I can picture the disorder more effectively, and see how to plan its management. Maybe she will always be with me, maybe she won’t, who knows? Instead of trying to remove her from my life I accept, that for now at least, she’ll be sharing it with me. Amazingly, this acceptance is already lessening the hold she has over me..
There are little Olivias all over the world attached to kind, sensitive people. It's in their nature to be loud, fretful and focused on worse case scenarios. It's also in their nature to encourage us to perform certain behaviours and rituals, because they think that if we do them, 'bad things' are less likely to happen. This is not true. They are mistaken, and as the people living beside them, we need to acknowledge that they are mistaken.
It’s our job to recognise our Olivia’s but not to give into them.
That's her cute face.