Welcome to the ongoing 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 almost killed me. Now, after investing time, money and effort in creating a mental health tool box, I'm thriving. And I offer support to people suffering from OCD who want to get their lives back and live free of OCD.
I was recently talking with one of my courageous clients who is on the road to OCD recovery. They 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 house bound, hysterical most days and suffering all kinds of physical health issues. Plus the rumination was paralysing….sometimes I literally couldn’t move, I was so frozen in a rumination spiral and mentally reassuring myself I had done things ‘right’.
I finally realized enough was enough, sought help from a wonderful 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 experienced around 90% reduction in my OCD. 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 fascinating but often 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 foreign country. I then had a nervous 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. Really struggled. I was very, very burnt out (mentally and physically exhausted) from the events of 2013 and 2014 especially. And the highly polluted, noisy, class-driven, cut-throat 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. Just a little.
And then in December 2014, I relapsed. By January 2015, OCD was gripping me badly. I was in the jaws of the 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.
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 weekly or fortnightly (I can’t quite recall) 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. And I spent less time around people who clearly didn’t care about me.
What did my relapse look like? I felt a real lack of safety around some of the people I'd been around at that point in my life - a deep sense, on the basis of their behaviours, that my wellbeing was not important to them and my only value to them was what I could do for them. I felt unloved. I was also still struggling with 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 just six sessions of ERP therapy with my therapist (plus the other lifestyle and nutrition changes mentioned above), I was back to where I had been in 2011 and 2012 – 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. And 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 some perfect mental health fantasy. Real recovery is about doing everything we can to keep moving forward, loving ourselves and working on our health, while accepting that sometimes we’ll take backward 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 realize 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 best of all, 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 March 2018 as I write this. 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.
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