It was the death of a loved one that finally gave Stacey the strength and determination to face – and embrace – the OCD and mental health challenges that had plagued her since childhood
It was an afternoon in October, 1998. I was five, and standing in the playground at school, when a voice inside my head spoke. It told me that if I didn’t pick up the leaves, then something bad would happen to my mum. This was the moment when OCD joined me.
The reason why I needed to keep my mum safe was because we were both being abused at home. I changed overnight and became an anxious child who had panic attacks every morning before school, and when I got there I would cry for most of the morning.
My life became a whirlwind of obsessions and compulsions. I had to keep the doors locked, in case an intruder got in. I had to lie still in bed, in case the sheets became untucked.
When I was 12, my mum and I moved out for a week to my nan’s house to get away. But I didn’t get away from anything, as images kept me awake, and all I could think about was keeping mum safe.
When I started secondary school, I only lasted three days before I refused to go. My OCD was plaguing me with thoughts about my mum being dead, and I was scared to be away from home.
Growing up in a household like that was hard, and it took its toll on my mental health. In 2012, when I was 18, and after a breakdown, I was formally diagnosed with PTSD and OCD.
It was a horrible time, and I had begun self-harming as a way to cope. I didn’t disagree with the diagnoses. My mind was plagued with images of things that had happened in the past, and they were scaring me. I felt like a failure and a fraud for being as ill as I was. Then I hit a low point, and started having thoughts about ending it all. I took comfort in the thought that if it got any worse I could end it.
I started therapy in 2013 and it helped me up to a point. I had some tools to help when the OCD was bad, and grounding techniques for the flashbacks. But I wasn’t happy.
I found myself full of anger that these things happened to me, and left me mentally ill. The fact that I had these issues, and I was on medication, made me bitter. I spent the next six years in and out of therapy, doing nothing but being angry and ill.
Then my life took another turn. It was very early on 6 January 2018 when I took the call that my husband’s step-mother, my friend, had died. In the weeks that followed I didn’t know if I was crying because she was gone, or for the memories that were left behind.
Ruth, my friend, had been there for me since we first met, and we would talk for hours every week. We related on so many things, and as much as I helped her, she never knew how much she helped me.
Grief hit me hard, and I struggled every day with images of saying goodbye. It affected my mental health and made me feel numb to everything. This was the first time I had ever lost someone, let alone someone so close – and it scared me.
I looked at myself in the mirror, and for the first time I saw a warrior, not an ill person
I started worrying about everyone around me dying, and found myself looking for warning signs. My OCD had latched on to death, and I felt a doom around me – that everyone I loved was going to die. I spent a month watching people, thinking about what death would be like, and trying to put things in place to make sure people didn’t get ill.
I bought people vitamins, and tried to encourage everyone to eat healthily. I went to the doctor to make sure I was well enough, and insisted that others do the same.
I had made the decision that I wanted to speak at Ruth’s funeral, something that filled me with anxiety, but I had to do it. I stood up and told everyone how special she was. This was the last moment I would ever have in her presence, and that is when it hit me: Ruth is gone and I’m wasting my life being sad and angry.
I was holding myself back from life and needed to change. I looked at myself in the mirror, and for the first time I saw a warrior, not an ill person. I began to embrace the fact that I had OCD and PTSD, and that they made me think and act a little differently from the average person.
The power of losing someone made me realise that I was taking for granted all the good things I have now. Yes, my childhood wasn’t perfect, and growing up was hard, but I’m not that little girl any more.
Flashbacks were scary, but for the first time in my life I allowed them to come and then let them go. I didn’t sit there and think ‘why me?’ or allow myself to be mad at the fact that I had one. I stopped allowing my brain to hold me back, and it was liberating. I started to do all the things I wanted to do, big or small.
When I look back at my life now, I have no anger at anything. It happened for a reason – so I could help people. I still have OCD and PTSD, and I always will, and that is OK. I have them but I’m not defined by them. I’m not going to say it’s been easy to get to the point where I embrace my disorders, but I do, and I wear them with pride.
You might think that is a strange thing to say but it’s helped me massively. I have a job now which I love, and I’m free of the guilt for having a bad day. I still take antidepressants, and I have to remind myself that my OCD is wrong. But I’m not angry, sad, or embarrassed by my mental health; life’s just too short.
I miss my friend every day, and it is still painful, but I hold on to the good times and memories. It’s been nearly a year, and it’s still raw, and sometimes I can’t believe it.
My friend Ruth left me a legacy – to fight. And I did just that. Mental illness is scary and hard, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Embracing the fact you have issues is the most powerful tool to beat them.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) UKRCP Reg Ind counsellor, says:
Stacey first encountered OCD at just five years old and, over the years, it became overwhelming. She attended therapy, but found her flashbacks extremely difficult. While a close friend’s death initially triggered her anxiety, she came to a turning point. She realised that she could change how she saw her OCD, and value the positive parts of her life – a practice we can all use. Although Stacey is realistic about her mental illness – acknowledging the difficult days and feelings – she doesn’t allow it to negate the good parts of her life.