Amsterdam, NL → Creative Producer → Chess Teacher → OCD → Therapy → CBT → EMDR → Yoga & Meditation.
Rodger: Hi Marjolein, how are you?
Marjolein: Hello, very good, but very busy!
R: You’ve got it all under control though?
M: Yeah, I think so!
R: So, jumping right into it – OCD, How would you describe your experience?
M: It’s a difficult question because it’s an everyday struggle. For me it isn’t just one definition –Sometimes OCD feels like a little devil on my shoulder that’s watching me every second, every day. It’s a voice inside my head that I can’t turn off. Sometimes it’s a horrible movie playing in my head when I don’t want to see a movie in my head. I never asked to see it, it just interrupted my thoughts. Not just once or twice, the whole day, at moments I hadn’t planned. It’s a huge distraction – I have to be focused 24/7 so my OCD doesn’t rule my life!
M: My OCD started at 14. At least, at 14 I experienced it consciously for the first time. Between 14 and 17 a series of unfortunate events unfolded: my aunty died from cancer, my parents got divorced, my mom left me behind with my dad, I moved cities three times and my dad got into a new relationship. At 16, I only had one best friend in Amsterdam, and he committed suicide. I moved back to my dad’s place in Arnhem because I couldn’t handle the situation anymore in Amsterdam with my mom. My dad and I had to make a plan for school: we agreed that when I got my diploma I had to move out on my own. I got my diploma and moved into a student room as there was no place for me anymore at my parents. My dad really tried to work things out for me, but it didn’t feel like home anymore. I chose for an education in Ede for photography & film and started living on my own in Wageningen.
R: That’s a lot of traumatic experience for a teenager.
M: At 14 I didn’t feel safe. 14 is too young to not feel safe. The moment my mum left, security was gone. My home wasn’t my home anymore. From 14 to 17 I was lost.
R: Is this when the irrational thought began?
M: The irrational thoughts began the moment after my mum and dad divorced. My mum wasn’t there, and I immediately felt like I was “living behind my eyes” – I was there but I wasn’t there. I was stuck in my thoughts. I was in my own world. This carried across to school. The teacher reported that I wasn’t a good student because I wasn’t paying attention. I was in my own world. I was there, but I wasn’t.
R: As a teenager you are not capable to deal with such a situation.
M: It was hard. Also at this time, I think my dad assumed I was a ‘problem child’ because I couldn’t handle the fact that my mum walked out. I didn’t work out with me & my dad. His solution was to move me away to Amsterdam, to my mum. In his eyes this was the best solution for me because I missed my mom. For me it was traumatic to hear as a teenager that I couldn’t live at my dad’s place anymore and I had to try it in Amsterdam with my mom. Again, my home wasn’t my home anymore.
R: You needed a very special teacher who could see through this.
M: The teachers didn’t have the time to pay special attention to me. At this time I made a friend who understood – we played cards, we skipped classes and smoked cigarettes. There was so much going on in my head and I couldn’t share with anyone, but I could with him. He knew where I was living, what was going on in my life. He was the only one I trusted. Six months later he committed suicide.
R: I’m really sorry to hear that. Do you still have compulsions today?
M: I am compulsive in many things: money, checking, cleaning, ordering. Five years ago, it took me one full hour to get out of my house. I had really frustrating and time wasting rituals before I went to work: checking lights, gas, windows, knobs, locks. Many times. All the time. Every time you want to leave your home: in the morning, when you came home, when you do the groceries, even before you go to bed. I had these little candles next to the windows and every evening I blew them out was compelled to place them in the middle of the room because I thought the curtains would catch on fire. Then I was standing in my living room thinking, WTF am I doing!
R: I do it too, I move warm chargers to non-flammable surfaces.
M: I do it with my iPad.
R: Even when I came here today I had to turn the gas off, unplug the coffee machine, move the chargers. It’s hard to get rid of that feeling.
M: I have the thoughts now. But I am not doing it anymore.
R: Oh, so you’re not doing it anymore?
M: Sometimes, but usually only once.
R: Just once?
M: That’s the agreement I have with myself.
She was like the moon– part of her was always hidden away.
– Dia Reeves, Bleeding violet
R: And you can convince yourself?
M: I don’t let myself check again. The only question I can ask myself is: what’s the worst that can happen? There was once a storm while I was at work and I had a sudden anxiety that my windows and doors were open and I had to close them. I went outside and the storm was hectic, so I said to myself: what’s the worst that can happen? The floors get a wet, and they flap in the wind, so what? Who cares?
R: Could you continue to work the rest of the day?
M: Yeah, I got over it. But a few years ago, before the therapy, I would make an excuse that I left something at home just to go there to check something.
R: It’s so funny that we make these excuses just to ease the anxiety that suddenly choking us. That you have succumbed to this crazy compulsion. Did anyone ever notice you were doing this?
R: In my head I think everyone must notice, but it isn’t true, OCD isn’t that easy to detect.
M: A few years ago, I took my niece to her ballet lessons. I picked her and my nephew up from school, drove to the studio, drove back to my sisters place, parked the car, turned the lights off, locked the door and walked them inside. “Fuck I think the lights are on! And it’s not locked!” I told the children I forgot something in the car, I will be back in ten minutes.” ”Ok aunty!” they said as they drew some pictures. I went to the car, took pictures of the front and back of the car, the lights, the locks and the dials in the car. I kept thinking: my brother in law needs the car tomorrow for an appointment, if the battery doesn’t work, he can’t make it, I must make sure the lights are off. I walked back. Every time I had a compulsion, I would look at the pictures in my phone.
R: What a great idea to take photos! Did it work?
M: It’s a temporary solution. It allowed me to leave the car and not go back. The feeling wasn’t gone, I checked my phone a substitute for checking the car. The feeling was gone the following day when my brother in law was at his appointment the next day. Every time you check you don’t get more secure.
R: Every time you check, it weakens you.
M: That’s what I learnt at therapy. You can check it one time, or ten thousand times. It doesn’t make a difference.
R: When you make the choice to check, you have already doubted yourself. How many times you check is not important. The doubt is already there.
M: My therapist told me to make some agreements with myself: a locked door I can check once, I can check my alarm is set once, I am not allowed to clean my own apartment etc.
M: If I do it by myself on a Saturday, it costs me ten to twelve hours!
R: When you do clean, you clean obsessively.
M: Every week.
M: OCD causes me to think in extreme situations quickly – for example, if I have my washing machine on I’m always at home. It’s not on when I leave my apartment, because what if there is something stuck in the machine, and it floods, then my house floods, then my building floods, my neighbours aren’t home, and their place floods, and I’m not home, I have to buy a new floor, I have to buy a new washing machine, I have to clean the house, I don’t have any more days off this year, when will I clean it! My insurance! Will it cover it? So there’s no laundry when I’m not home.
This thought scenario all happen in a split second, it’s like there’s a little computer in my brain processing irrational scenarios super fast.
R: You think a lot in a little bit of time.
M: And I think that’s the reason why I am a good producer. Which is a positive.
R: How does OCD affect your work in general?
M: The first assignment my therapist gave me was to be honest with myself and everyone around me. It’s not like you hang a sign around your neck saying “I have OCD”, but I did tell everyone I work close with.
R: They understood?
M: Completely. Before I explored my OCD with the therapist I was really not flexible, for example, I would set up a project and plan out all the steps from concept to final production. The next day one of my colleagues would change the order of my plan and I went mental! The plan can’t be restructured! You can’t change it! Sometimes there were arguments. After therapy, I let go: I gave my colleagues trust, I let my obsessive structure go and allowed my colleagues to also make the decisions for the project.
R: The more you give them, the more you get back.
M: True. The old Marjolein couldn’t let them do it. Couldn’t let go of my obsessive way of thinking. Years ago, when I was offered an indefinite contract, my boss made me promise that I get out of the office at 6 so I don’t do too much overtime. That doesn’t always work for me though. In my last job review, my boss said I am so much more relaxed than I used to be.
R: That’s a good thing
M: Yes, but five years ago, I was like: I have a list, I won’t leave until it’s done. I won’t leave until it’s perfect. After addressing my OCD, I was like: if I do eight out of ten jobs on my list, I can do two in the morning. That will give you more time for personal activities. Then I had time for Chess and Yoga.
R: And today it’s a whole lot better?
M: Last Sunday night I had an unexpected and unusual experience: watching ‘Chocolat’ on a beamer in my yoga studio on our Yoga mats. Not the conventional way to watch a movie: no seats, everyone sat on their mats. It was nice, but I had a strange feeling ‘this is not how it is supposed to be, not the way I can enjoy a movie’. But I did it, and in the end it seemed fine and I went home and went to bed at a very normal time. My alarm rang Monday morning at 730 and I couldn’t get up! It was a strange feeling, I was very fuzzy and I think I was exposed to too many screens: too much iPad, MacBook, TV, iPhone and then the movie in the evening. Overexposure. Overkill. The next day, the whole day I was ‘living behind my eyes’.
R: I like that saying. It’s so true that your mind is somewhere else.
M: And that was very difficult because I had a very busy day at work and people needed me. I was like, fuck, how am I going to do this? I have to snap out of it. And I couldn’t do it at work, – I did my work and I did it well, but the whole day I had to be focused, I had to be there, I couldn’t be “behind my eyes” I need to be in this room.
R: Did you find a way out?
M: No the whole day it was like this. A haze. A fuzz
R: Did colleagues notice?
M: No, not that I know of. On a normal day I multitask and do too much. On a bad OCD day I just do a normal amount of work, to everyone else, it just looks like a normal day.
R: Did you have to show them a website or give them a booklet to outline what OCD is all about?
M: No I never did that. I just said “Ok guys, I have OCD”. In reality it’s a longer explanation. Some people said: I have seen a picture with all these shoes lined up neatly, that’s OCD right? I know what it is!
Well, that is only a small part of the whole spectrum of OCD. And I think that is the hardest part: when you meet people and they think they know because they’ve seen pictures on buzzfeed, and they say “just arrange it like I do, and it’s fixed, right?” And that’s a little bit difficult, some think they know, but they don’t.
R: The problem with OCD is that it exists in your head and no one else can see it, and you just keep doing the best you can, all the while fighting this battle on your own.
M: I thought about it, and without structure I’m lost. During April Holland had three public holidays over three weeks on random days. The structure of the week, of my day, is so important for me, and it killed me. So I decided to work on the last public holiday and I got the structure of the week back, I felt normal, and I felt fantastic. I worked 9-6, 8 hours, all by myself in the office and I got it all done, and in my head it was all fine, I went to yoga the next morning and everything fell back into place. You know, not at that exact moment, but after two weeks my whole being is like ‘hello! This is not working!
R: It’s not in the guidebook of symptoms for OCD that there needs to be structure. But you have just figured out yourself, that without a certain plan to your week, despite all your therapy and CBT, that your mind goes somewhere else without some structure.
M: And to many screens on top of the non-structure and my brain goes into freak-out mode. To restore some balance in my brain I play chess and do yoga.
R: How is the chess?
M: Really good, I really love it, because it’s rest.
R: Every Thursday night for 3.5 hours you play chess, right?
M: And teach chess to kids.
R: The amount of thinking you need to do to teach, and then to play chess is immense. So when you’re thinking of all the different moves and strategies, your brain is focused and you get to be somewhere else, away from your OCD thoughts.
M: For me, playing chess is 3.5 hours of focus.
R: Per week?
M: Per match
R: Per match!
M: Well you can finish earlier, but for me every Thursday is a little bit of heaven: no OCD symptoms for 3.5 hours. Absolutely none. I am focused.
Before I start though, I’m dizzy: it’s a small room, around 30 boards, 60 people, for me it’s too many really, all these energies that I need manage. I’m not good with crowds. Sometimes there’s people with negative energy which I am very sensitive too, I suck it all up unintentionally.
R: What happens?
M: I’m very sensitive for people with bad energy. I get really sick and think, maybe I got the flu, maybe I’m tired, maybe this is too much. Twice I went home, when I got home, I was fine, then I was like WTF happened at the chess club? So the next day, I said to my mate in the chess club – I’m not good with crowds, too many people in the one room is too hard for me. “Ok, no problem” he said, when it happens again just go outside, relax, get some fresh air.
R: Do you also explain to him you have OCD?
M: Yes. Almost everyone knows it at the chess club.
R: It’s great that you told them.
M: I have to. If I don’t explain, if they don’t understand what’s happening to me, then they can’t help me. If I don’t tell them anything, and I freak out, they don’t know what’s happening to me. That’s a way to isolate yourself. That’s a way to miss out on all the fun stuff. Now that they know, they think in solutions. There was once a chess player who was like “oh, you relax, go upstairs, I’ll arrange all the chairs downstairs and when everyone is seated you can come back to sit behind your board.”
R: What a good guy
M: Yeah but everyone is like that! My experience is that when you are honest with people, no matter where you are: a yoga studio, a chess club, your work, or with friends or family, they all understand. No one will say, “Oh, shutup,”. No one. That’s the best part of being honest: everyone you know in your close environment likes you, not the OCD you, but you as a person, just you and they want the best for you.
R: That’s why they invited you. They’re more than happy to facilitate for you, and make sure all is ok so they get the best out of you.
M: Being honest is very helpful.
R: Did you go to therapy?
M: Yes, in 2010.
R: Who advised you to start therapy?
M: I told my GP that I was checking locks and placing candles in the middle of the room at night. I thought what am I doing?! Maybe I need to be locked up in an institution for crazy people! My GP said maybe we have to make an appointment with a therapist. Ok I said, and cried. I was so frustrated. I was scared. Why am I thinking like this? Why do I have to do this? Why am I asking this from myself?
R: How long was the therapy?
M: One year of therapy, which included CBT and EMDR.
R: So therapy was a success?
M: Definitely, I fixed some rules in place, and gained a lot of understanding.
R: Did you tell the therapist about the thoughts?
M: I told my therapist everything and she confirmed that these were a part of OCD. After my therapy sessions I understood that my OCD wasn’t only about checking, arranging things or the irrational thoughts, it was also in finance! With a credit card!
R: Do you mean that you are always checking your bank balance?
M: No, for example: If I had a limit of 500, and then I have to spend 500. If I had 1000, I go to 1000. I couldn’t stop.
R: You spend to the limit?
M: I had this compulsion, this need to spend my limit. I couldn’t help myself. It wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t say ok, I need to stop, cut it in half. It felt like a rush, like running away from something in a bad dream, and I just had to keep going, keep spending.
R: Do you still spend like this?
M: No, it finished because I maxed it out at a high amount! I have only just paid it off ten years later! If I had known that I had OCD, that these compulsions would get the better of me, I would have been able to make smarter decisions. I wouldn’t have got myself in that situation.
R: What else did the therapist ask?
M: The first question my therapist asked me was what are your hobbies?
I enjoy working I answered.
No, hobbies she replied.
No, hobbies, after work. Do you know what hobbies are? If you can’t think of them You don’t have them.
I work late?
You’re a workaholic Marjolein, you’re very compulsive in your job, which doesn’t have to be a problem, but at some point you have to close the door on work and do something for yourself.
R: Do you think that therapy put you on the path to free time?
M: Yes, it made me focus on the things in life that I enjoy besides my work.
R: What other methods have you tried?
M: Besides Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), I have also done EMDR.
R: Did you take anti-depressants?
M: No. I didn’t want to. I wanted to do it on my own strength.
R: That’s great!
M: I always thought that you’re not fixing yourself. Using medicine doesn’t help you to control your OCD, it just masks it out.
R: What happens in CBT?
M: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy meant I had to talk about everything, I had to describe all the lock, alarm and stove checking. I clustered all my symptoms. We made a schedule. Week one we chose the easy symptoms and divided them into nine different categories – from least difficult to most difficult. Then we made an agreement: I can’t do them anymore.
R: Just like that!?
M: Then I documented it all. I kept a diary for years, listing every thought, symptom and situation. Then she taught me the What’s the worst that could happen? technique and I learnt to apply that to all situations in my OCD life.
R: And it worked?
M: Quite well. I thought she was there to cure me though. I thought when all the sessions are finished I will be OCD free.
R: That’s what you think right? You pay all this money and then you’re free.
M: Before the last session of CBT I was like yeah I’m gonna be totally OCD free today!
The therapist replied OCD free? What do you mean?
Well, this is the last session isn’t it!?
Yes, but you’re not going to be OCD free. Ever.
R: Ever. That’s a harsh reality check.
M: I said Really? But this is therapy for OCD right? CBT? wtf are we doing then!?
She said I’m teaching you how to control it. To make it as simple as brushing your teeth. You have to learn how to deal and cope and manage OCD into your daily life.
R: Is that what CBT is?
M: It’s the confrontation with yourself and with your obsessions.
R: And it worked for you, right?
M: Yes. She taught me how to rationalise all the thoughts.
R: The thing is, you can’t figure out how to do this on your own.
M: It’s not the same as having a professional tell you how it should be done.
R: How did the CBT sessions conclude?
M: After all the CBT sessions she said You have it under control now. Now we have to dig into why it happened. How was your youth? How were you when you were a toddler? Were you happy? How was your family? Were your parents together?
R: Right into the gritty details!
M: My therapist said I was not in a normal situation for a 14 year old: at 17 I was on my own, with a room, but it didn’t feel like home. I learnt that I couldn’t help that all these things happened, I couldn’t prevent my aunty from passing away, I couldn’t help my friend, and I couldn’t help my parents. Everything was out of my control and I needed control back.
R: And then maybe you took too much control back?
M: Exactly. That was the start of my OCD symptoms. After CBT we started with EMDR, we took all the traumatic situations and clustered them by theme, and that really helped me.
R: What’s EMDR again?
M: Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing. A form of therapy for people with traumatic experience. With EMDR you disconnect memory from feeling, you reprogram. For example, the image of my mum leaving my parents house – leaving me, my sister and my dad – with EMDR we went back to that day and I could see myself, I could smell what I could smell that day, I could feel the same feelings I had when I was 14. After several sessions we reduced the emotional attachment to each memory. At one point, your feeling is nine (high on the emotional scale) and then each session you build your emotional attachment of each memory down to zero. And then you move on to the next.
R: How do you build it down?
M: Talk talk talk talk talk. Cry. Release. Talk. It’s heavy. But was really helpful.
R: How long did you do it for?
M: Six months CBT, and six months EMDR.
R: And from the beginning to the end you would say you were many times better?
M: I had good days, I had bad days, I had worse days. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.
R: But they definitely both helped?
M: They definitely both helped! The combination of the two worked really well. I couldn’t live in a normal way. Things were really a problem. I was crying a lot. Why did I have to check the alarm, the windows, the locks? I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I couldn’t live a normal private life anymore. I questioned myself often why do I have to do all these things? I didn’t know what was going on. I felt shame for what I was doing, because you know it isn’t ‘normal’. The combination of therapies really helped. I got my control back.
R: Have you downloaded any apps, read any books, seen any films or listened to any speeches that have helped with your OCD?
M: No. No. No. No. No. I am really scared of reading other stories, I am too scared of gaining another symptom. There is a TV program Compulsive People and I couldn’t watch it. I was too scared of getting another compulsive thing in my life. I said to myself no, that is other peoples stuff, not mine.
R: I never thought about it like that. It could easily happen.
M: At different points in my life I read loads of different things about OCD, and I learnt a lot. But when I read about OCD sometimes I was like really! I have that! And I recalled the point in my life where I experienced that. I was like Shit, that was also my OCD. But not every website is good for OCD.
I do read online from credible sites. I found it helpful when I could recognise myself in there. But I had to teach myself – along with the credible stuff, there is some shit out there.
R: One can be easily misinformed online. One can also be misled, there is a lot of information disguised as advertising. I have learned the most about OCD by having this conversation, actually!
M: Sharing knowledge!
R: Have you ever found any products that are OCD friendly?
M: I used to have a blackberry, and I checked that I turned my alarm on ten times before bed. If you set your alarm with a blackberry it turns red: that’s not ok! Now, for years, I have an iPhone and when I turn the alarm on the switch is green. That gave me a lot of security! Maybe it sounds weird, but for me it was so helpful. The little things in life makes it easier.
R: That’s why I have started this site. To share management techniques.
M: To share knowledge! I think that’s the key. If you read a story, you can think I’m not the only one! there is relief. There is something heavy lifted from your shoulders. Someone lives life just like me and I’m not alone in this world. You don’t have to see OCD as your enemy.
R: You have to embrace it.
R: You have to be proactive also.
M: You have to be a survivor, not a victim. If you think: I have OCD and I suffer, and you listen to all the doctors telling you you must use medicine, you have to go to a therapist etc, first you must listen to yourself, think about what’s good for you. You have to really really really want to have control over your life and live with OCD.
R: You have to do what feels right.
M: Some doctors gave me advice about medicine, they said If you take this medicine you will get better. No it won’t, it still lives inside you. The pills can’t make it go away forever, they can just keep it under control. Only you can choose the best way to deal with your OCD and find out what feels best for you! Of course, some people might need medicine, but try other options first, maybe that will work just fine.
R: I think it’s an important point: try a few different treatments and find out what suits best.
M: Yes, exactly. Some doctors have said to me ok, this is the diagnosis, take these pills, stop working for a few months, relax. That’s not a solution! You have to learn how to deal with it in your normal life, in your daily life, in friends lives, in family lives, in your private time, in your quiet time, everything. You can’t take a person out of society and give them a bunch of pills and leave them at home and say ok you figure out how to deal with it, and when you’re done, i’ll put you back in the system. Then when they’re back in the system and it doesn’t work.
R: What the hell is wrong with this person, they’ll think!!!
M: Here have some more pills they’ll say, but that’s the wrong answer. You have to teach them how to deal with work, with private life, with OCD. Not alienate them. I think that is the worst thing you can do – to leave them out.
R: Do you feel like you’ve got control of your OCD now?
R: It took a long time right?
M: It took five years. Five years of hard work.
R: Finally you feel in a good place.
M: I feel like I belong. I feel attached to my own house. There’s more balance, there’s more rest. I feel like my home is where I want to be. I am more at ease with myself. I am more relaxed. It was only this year when I placed my tattoo on my feet, that was the point I was really in control, from therapy until like 14 weeks ago. That was really the point when I was in balance.
R: What was 14 weeks ago?
M: When I tattooed my feet. I got a line from I’m Walking by Ayo on both feet. The sentence on my left foot is about my past and getting my OCD under control – I’m walking my way out of trouble. The line on my right foot, where I am now – I’m walking to find peace again.
This tattoo reminds me of the struggle, fighting, survival mode & that I don’t ever want to go back to that time period. And gives me energy to work hard to stay like this. That day I said I closed my past, I embraced my OCD and closed all my traumatic experiences.
R: Nice one, seems like you’re on top of this thing.
You have to work on it every day though. Chess and yoga are like a little maintenance for my head. I really need these distractions from my own mind to get a little peace and balance. Some people say “oh that’s a busy schedule,” but for me it’s like brushing my teeth or eating breakfast, I need this to function in daily life.
R: When you don’t have them you feel like you’re missing something.
M: My head is really busy then, Not structured. it’s fuzzy, busy, there’s something not right.
R: What is it about yoga that relaxes you, is it the meditation, or full body exercise?
M: Full body exercise. I think with OCD you have so much tension built up within your body, sometimes your muscles are really tense and hurting. When I have a bad day, I feel my muscles. With yoga you can stretch everything and it’s such a relief to lose tension. Sometimes, I sit at my desk cramped, Yoga frees my muscles. I sleep better. My breathing is better. In OCD anxiety situations I can go back to the morning feeling from my yoga practice. For example, this morning I had yoga, in the afternoon it was super busy in my head, so I took my Ujjayi breathing from Yoga, and my anxiety level went down. It really works for me.
R: That’s a great tip.
M: If the tension builds up you’re like a little bomb. If someone pushes me BOOM. If I do my yoga sessions, and someone pokes me then, I can be like it’s ok, I can listen, I’m relaxed. It’s something I really need.
R: Thanks for being so open, Marjolein. I learnt a lot of new things about OCD, I hope others will too.
M: It’s nice to talk with someone who understands and doesn’t judge me for being me. I felt free to say everything regarding my OCD. Really, everything. Sharing stories is all about sharing knowledge. Sharing Knowledge is about helping other OCD sufferers. Maybe they will get inspired, or can relate to the stories you will share. Then they can make a change for themselves.
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Marjolein Aarten.
Photography by Rodger Hoefel (portraits)
Yoga and Tattoo images by Marjolein Aarten
Marjolein tweets about her life with OCD at @OCD_GIRL
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Marjolein Aarten
Cover Photo by Rodger Hoefel
Other images by Marjolein Aarten