Welcome to The OCD series. I’m Francesca, a Nutritionist who has lived with OCD since I was 10. In my teens and late 20s, I hit rock bottom with OCD – it was so distressing and debilitating that it left me feeling suicidal and as it worsened, partially housebound. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I've been living largely OCD-free since 2012. I now offer support to people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back.
If you've landed on this page and would like to go to the beginning of The OCD Series, where I'm discussing nutrition for OCD, click here.
A client recently asked about my experience of relapse, and our conversation reminded me I’ve been meaning to write about this.
To give you the very short version of my own recovery story…..at age 29 (2009), I'd hit rock bottom for the second time with OCD. I was partly house bound, hysterical at some point most days because of the intense anxiety of my obsessions, and suffering all kinds of physical health issues (PMS, migraines, insomnia, bloating, acne, urinary incontinence...). Plus, the rumination was paralysing….sometimes I literally couldn’t move or speak, I was so frozen in a rumination spiral and mentally reassuring myself and retracing my steps to 'ensure' I had done things ‘right’.
I finally realized enough was enough and sought help from a Naturopath experienced in supporting people with OCD. I committed to making nutrition and lifestyle changes and looking after myself in a way I never had before. After 15 months of solid commitment, and a few months before my 31st birthday, I reached the point of experiencing around 90% reduction in my OCD symptoms. And an end to the many physical health issues I’d suffered through my 20s (acne, bloating, loss of bladder control, migraines, PMS, constipation, and more). Life opened up, and I began studying to become a Nutritionist later that year.
It was a joyous time in my life.
Fast forward to mid-2014, and, well, things had been rough for me that year and in 2013. In 2013, I went through a marriage break up and moved abroad to a wonderful but emotionally and environmentally stressful country, Cambodia. Then in early 2014, I experienced trauma and soon after that had the experience of enduring surgery, alone, in a hospital in a developing country. I then had a break down and suffered a savage depression, which in hindsight was really a response to both past and recent traumas. I was suffering from a lack of love and support around me, too. And in mid-2014, I was suddenly made redundant from my well-paying job.
I left Cambodia and moved to London for 6 months – an environment that didn’t suit me at all – and struggled to find work. I was very, very burnt out (mentally and physically exhausted) from the events of 2013 and 2014. And the highly polluted, noisy, crowded, class-driven and stressful London environment worsened this. I was also not getting the love and support I needed from people around me.
Looking back, OCD had actually begun creeping back in, in 2013.
And then in December 2014, I relapsed. By January 2015, OCD was gripping me badly. I was in the jaws of the OCD dragon again. And shocked that my OCD had returned with such a vengeance.
It’s not surprising to me now that I relapsed at that point in my life. Our bodies and souls can only endure so much physical and emotional stress and trauma. It's common for OCD to return or worsen when we are under significant stress. I often see this is many of the clients I now work with.
Fortunately, I'd made a connection with a British psychotherapist in Cambodia who I knew had experience working with OCD, and who offered ERP therapy (Exposure and Response Prevention) and CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). I booked in to see him fortnightly via Skype, and got started with adding these new tools to my mental health tool box.
I also got out of London (phew). I slept a lot. I continued to eat nourishing foods and started taking quality supplements again. I practised yoga and enjoyed being in a small town by the sea. I spent time with dogs and enjoyed forest walks. In other words, I started taking good care of my nervous system again and I reduced stress.
What did my relapse look like? I had been feeling a real lack of safety around some of the people in my life – a deep sense, on the basis of their behaviours, that my wellbeing was not important to them. That my only value was what I could do for them. I was also still making sense of the trauma I had experienced in 2014, and still recovering from the accumulated stressors of 2013 and 2014.
And, one of my big OCD fears had returned – the (contamination) fear of coming into contact with floors and anything that had been on a floor. This fear makes being around other people and attending a job very stressful, because people always put their bags and coats on the floor, then pick them up and want to touch you or hand you stuff, or touch your workspace, and so on…. So, my daily life had become very stressful and I found myself spending a lot of time on compulsions, hiding them from others and feeling very anxious in social and professional settings.
There is a happy end to this story.
After six sessions of ERP therapy with my therapist, plus the other lifestyle and nutrition changes mentioned above, I was back to living 90% free of OCD. And best of all, I now had new tools – ERP and CBT techniques – for my mental health tool box. My therapist commented that my progress has been remarkably speedy and successful. I believe this is because I was combining powerful tools. If I'd not had the knowledge of how to look after my mental health with nutrition, supplements and lifestyle tools, I don’t think I would have had the same fast and solid result from ERP therapy.
I want to acknowledge my ex-husband and a few good friends who supported me during my relapse. Their concern, kindness and love was invaluable, even from afar. I still recall the words of a beautiful friend I’d made in Cambodia who also has OCD, during a Skype call one afternoon.
"When I think of you, I don't think of OCD. It doesn't define you. I think of you in so many ways that have nothing to do with OCD. And, if we were meant to be divine in this lifetime, we'd be divine. But we're not...we're meant to struggle and learn and grow."
Real OCD recovery is not about attaining a perfect mental health fantasy. Real recovery is about doing what we can to keep moving forward, loving ourselves and working on our health, while accepting that sometimes we’ll take backwards steps before moving forward again.
We learn from these backwards steps. We get better at being selective about who we let in and who we don’t. We get better at paying attention to how we feel, and allowing ourselves to feel. We come to understand which environments suit us and which don’t. We get better at looking after ourselves, loving ourselves, and knowing what our souls need (and don’t need). We learn ever more about the role stress and trauma play in affecting our health. And if we are willing, we seek out new tools for our mental health tool kits. And we come out the other side – healthier, stronger, more resilient.
It’s January 2020 as I update this article. I have not suffered another OCD relapse since that tough, tough time. Maybe I never will again. Maybe I will. Whatever may come, I know I have a solid mental health tool kit, loving people and love for myself, to help me get through it.
If you’d like to have a chat about getting support with your OCD recovery, I invite you to get in touch.