Joanna: How I'm thriving with OCD

"Want to curl in a ball and cry. My head aches, my body feels why bother. Negative thoughts take over. I can't imagine feeling happy. I can't see how I can improve..."

This is an extract taken from a piece of creative writing I wrote in a diary in 2011. At the time, I was surviving. Actually, I was trying to survive with mental health problems, to just get through each day, but it was tough.

What if?

I was in the grip of anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I had experienced intense worry and stress before, but nothing like this. It was frightening; I didn't know what to do.

I continually had 'What if X happens?' type-questions going around my head. 'What if I accidently leave a cooker hob on, it creates a fire, and I burn my house down?' That's just one example, but when my anxiety combined with my imagination, I could think of countless hypothetical worries about different themes. 'What if? What if? What if?!'

The more I worried, the more anxious I felt. The more anxious I felt, the more action I took to try to calm my worries. This in turn made me more anxious, more fearful, more doubtful. And so, I became trapped in a cycle of anxious thinking and rituals. I would check, repeat, count, arrange, sort, avoid, check again.

Everyday life

The anxiety and OCD impacted on my everyday life. I've always been someone with a lot of interests, but my mental battles took up a lot of energy and time. Activities sometimes didn't seem worth the worry, which meant I inadvertently gave more time to my OCD.

I did always manage to keep going to work. I enjoyed and cared about my work and I had a role with plenty of responsibility. Plus, as many of my worries revolved around things at home, I functioned better at work.

A crucial message a therapist had repeated to me was: 'You must leave the house.' Somehow, despite the distress I typically faced at the time as part of my morning routine, I put a smile on my face when I walked through the office door and got on with my working day. Looking back, I don't quite know how I managed it, but I did. The psychologists would say I was a 'high-functioning person with OCD'.

For a long time, the connection, love and support from my partner really kept me going and gave me something positive to focus on. However, living with the bully that OCD became took its toll on both of us, as individuals and a couple. Over these few years we also grew apart and we eventually separated.

All change

My life was turned upside down.  I was not only battling my OCD and anxiety, but dealing with the upset and grief of a relationship breakup. I lost much of my self-esteem and sense-of-self along the way and wasn't sure how I would feel happy again. Despite all this, I kept going. Even if I felt really fed up, I had an inner (sometimes annoying!) determination.

My wellbeing journey

Over several years I tried everything I could to tackle my OCD and anxiety, and to feel happier in life. Through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) I worked on challenging and changing unhelpful beliefs, thinking patterns and behaviours. I accessed counselling, giving me the opportunity to deal more with how I felt emotionally and the changes in my life.

I read self-help books and online resources. I learnt about mindfulness and practiced meditation. I increased my physical activity, getting into running and joining a yoga class. I practiced better selfcare and being kinder to myself. I changed my career direction, stepping away from being in a stressful management role and bringing more creativity into my work. I also opened up more to my friends and family.

Eventually, after a lot of hard work and determination, I began to thrive. I reached a much healthier and happier place. I engaged in my creative hobbies again and tried new ones, such as a beginner dance class. Furthermore, I took on challenges I never imagined would be possible when I was simply surviving. These included a 13-hour hike and a half-marathon run. I got back my sense of self and started thriving!

A holistic approach was key

Looking back, I can't say exactly what helped me to overcome and manage my OCD and anxiety; it wasn't any single action or realisation. What I can tell you is taking a holistic approach to my wellbeing, addressing my mental and physical health in various ways, was key.

This was supported by self-compassion, self-care and gratitude. I occasionally have wobbles when I feel more anxious or have a dip in mood, particularly if I'm really tired, but I'm able to draw on my learning to quickly rebalance myself.

I reflected on my wellbeing journey and realised how much I had learned. I then decided to set up Smile Being You to share my experiences and learning. Now through my blog, talks and social media channels I'm sharing ideas and information to help others enhance their wellbeing and happiness.

The way forward

There's no easy solution when it comes to mental health: the mind is so complex. I hope that by sharing my story I have provided some insight into OCD and encouraged the belief that, whatever situation you find yourself in, you too can find a way forward and smile more in life.