33 → SW England, UK → Psychology student & Mental Health Advocate → OCD → CBT, Meditation & Medication.
R: Hi Hannah, so, tell us a little bit about yourself…
H: I’m 33 years old and live in the south west of England, UK
R: What do you do?
H:I haven’t be able to work for a long time due to my OCD, but I have recently started a degree in Psychology as I’m aiming to work in the field of mental health. I also write an online blog on my OCD and anxiety.
R: How long have you been doing it?
H: I’ve been doing the degree for just two months. It’s been a big year for me so far!
R: What does family life look like? kids / pets?
H: I live with my mum and stepdad. OCD has been the dominant force in my life for the past twenty years and has hampered my progress in employment, social life, relationships etc. I do have a dog though, who is a bit like my child!
R: How would you describe having OCD in your own words?
H: Restrictive, like a straight jacket, constant fear.
R: When did its symptoms first appear?
H: In hindsight I can see that I exhibited some symptoms in my childhood for example I went through phases of having to perform certain rituals in a certain order. It wasn’t until I was 12 that these rituals started to cause me great anxiety and take up most of my time, though. It started a short while after my parents split up, but I believe that if this hadn’t triggered it then something else probably would have further down the line. I spent every waking moment reciting neutralising rituals in my head: if I didn’t do the rituals correctly then I was scared that I would cause catastrophes, eg. my mum dying. This went on non-stop for about three months. After this, these bouts occurred every few months, increasing in frequency as the years passed. Eventually, OCD stayed for good.
“I couldn’t bear that people were joking about being OCD because they enjoy putting their CD collection in alphabetical order while I knew of people whose lives had been ruined by OCD.”
– Hannah Calver
R: When did you realise other people didn’t have OCD?
H: I knew straightaway that this was something unusual and other people weren’t experiencing the same thing. In fact I thought I must be mad, and it wasn’t until a couple of years after my first experience of it that I came across an article in a magazine that described exactly what was going on in my head. I learnt that it was a condition called OCD. I was relieved to find I wasn’t alone but it was still many years before I felt able to tell anyone other than my close family about it.
R: Do you feel different to others?
H: Yes, I think I do really. OCD has always felt like a big weight around my chest, preventing me from taking opportunities and enjoying the moment. This has made me feel a bit detached from other people and life.
R: How does OCD affect your normal day?
H: Having had CBT, I’m finding OCD much easier to handle these days, but when it’s been at its worst it’s all I think about all day long with everything else like a mist in the background. It’s also resulted in me taking inordinate amounts of time to do things, due to excessive checking.
R: Is it apparent when you wake?
H: It used to be, but nowadays only occasionally, if I’m going through a bad patch.
“I passionately believe in a future where we can talk as openly about mental health as about physical health”
– Hannah Calver
R: Do you have to hide having OCD?
H: No! I passionately believe in a future where we can talk as openly about mental health as about physical health. When people used to ask me what I do etc I always skirted over the issue with a vague reply but I felt very dissatisfied. I realised it was more important for me to be true to myself than to hide my problems from other people. I thought that if I wanted to be involved with ending stigma then a good place to start would be me being open about my own situation.
R: Do you experience stigma for being ‘mentally ill’?
H: So far everyone who I’ve opened up to in my personal life – family, friends, acquaintances – have been very understanding, and many of those I’ve spoken to have been really interested in learning about what OCD is really like. I’ve had some very rewarding conversations. Saying that, I am a bit nervous about the response of potential employers when I seek a job in the future.
Just watched BBC Three's #ExtremeOCDCamp and was inspired to walk barefoot in the bathroom, which I haven't done since childhood (I'm 30)!
— Hannah Calver (@phoenixbutterfl) August 10, 2013
R: How does OCD affect your work?
H: I haven’t worked for a long time, due to OCD. I struggled with it through years of school, uni then work but as time went on it tightened its grip over me. I could no longer cope with even small tasks as I was convinced that even a tiny mistake on my part would result in catastrophic consequences. I spent every moment when I wasn’t at work obsessing over tiny details that I might have done wrong and saying mental rituals to try to convince myself all was well. In the end my brain couldn’t cope anymore and I had a breakdown.
“OCD has always felt like a big weight around my chest, preventing me from taking opportunities and enjoying the moment.”
– Hannah Calver
R: What was your inspiration for launching your blog?
H: As I said above, I feel so strongly about de stigmatising mental health issues. OCD in particular has gone from something no one has heard of to a grossly misused term in everyday conversation and in the media. I couldn’t bear that people were joking about being OCD because they enjoy putting their CD collection in alphabetical order while I knew of people whose lives had been ruined by OCD. I realised that the public aren’t to blame, they’re just misinformed, often by films and TV programmes. I want to go some way to redress the balance by explaining to people how serious OCD can actually be.
New blog post for Diary of an OCD Battle https://t.co/KTTI5qa37F via wordpressdotcom
— Hannah Calver (@phoenixbutterfl) February 1, 2016
R: What is your primary aim?
H: As well as informing non-sufferers, my other aim is to reassure people who are going through similar things that they are not alone and help is out there. As well as having OCD specifically, I also have chronic anxiety issues so I hope my blog helps people with these issues too. At some of my lowest points the thing that’s kept me going is the desire to help other people going through the same thing, so this has been my driving force.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response from people I know personally, via Facebook. I’ve had some fantastic comments”
R: Have you received any great feedback or response?
H: I’ve been overwhelmed by the positive response from people I know personally, via Facebook. I’ve had some fantastic comments, that have given me the confidence to carry on with it. I’ve also had a huge increase in Twitter followers, so I assume this means that they like it too!
R: Were you officially diagnosed by a health professional?
H: Yes, by my GP about 16 years ago. I had a brief course of CBT but I think CBT for OCD was in its early stages then, as I found that that it was like merely putting a sticking plaster on; it didn’t get into the nitty gritty of my OCD. Last year I was assessed and diagnosed by my local NHS mental health team, and had a course of CBT that this time I found incredibly helpful.
R: What was your initial response?
H: I wasn’t surprised that I had OCD, as I’d already read about it in a magazine as mentioned above. I think that in some way I was relieved – I knew for certain what I had and could now work towards making things better.
R: Did they explain where your OCD originated – genetics or trauma or so?
H: During my recent course of CBT we explored a little bit about what can trigger OCD, but the main emphasis was on my thought processes now and how I can challenge them to make a better future for myself.
R: Did the doctor / professional prescribe medication?
H: Some years ago my doctor prescribed me tablets for anxiety issues in general, as I was struggling with a lot of issues at the time.
“I know it’s not for everyone but I also find mindfulness meditation really helpful: it distracts my mind from running away with worries that can then develop into OCD obsessions.”
R: Do you / Did you take medication?
H: I am still on the above medication, as it is for OCD and other anxiety disorders, so it covers everything for me. Actually, my doctor and I have just decided to try a trial run of lowering the dose a bit.
— Hannah Calver (@phoenixbutterfl) August 29, 2015
R: How do you best manage OCD? Medication, meditation, yoga, alternative medicines, or something else?
H: Medication and techniques I’ve learnt in CBT. I know it’s not for everyone but I also find mindfulness meditation really helpful: it distracts my mind from running away with worries that can then develop into OCD obsessions.
“I’m able to see the warning signs before things get out of control, and know how to handle obsessions and compulsions if they arise. I still have days where I struggle a bit”
R: Are you in control of your OCD?
H: I certainly manage it a lot better now. I’m able to see the warning signs before things get out of control, and know how to handle obsessions and compulsions if they arise. I still have days where I struggle a bit, and I think that I’ll always be vulnerable to OCD, but I’m cautiously confident that it will no longer be the biggest thing in my life. I feel I’m now on an upward trajectory and am looking forward to be able to achieve the things I’ve always wanted out of life!
R: Do you tell friends, family and colleagues about your OCD?
H: Yes, as explained above.
R: Do you know others with OCD?
H: I’ve met a couple of people via social media and local support groups. It’s very interesting to see how OCD can manifest itself in so many different ways.
R: How do you educate yourself on management and resources? Do you read specific blogs, magazines or news articles?
H: I’ve got a lot of information and support from OCD-UK
R: What’s on your horizon for 2016?
H: I’ll be continuing with my degree and mental health blog. I also aim to get involve in some sort of mental health volunteering, and get involved with more things in general.
R: What next for your OCD?
H: I’m going to keep challenging it by exposing myself to situations that trigger obsessive thoughts and anxiety, while resisting doing the neutralising compulsions (Exposure and Response Prevention).
R: Thanks Hannah!
Rodger Hoefel in conversation with Hannah Calver
Images courtesy of Hannah Calver