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Health Zone: Compulsions - Our lives are ruled by fear; CENTRE GIVES HOPE TO PHOBIA VICTIMS WHOSE WORLDS ARE GOVERNED BY OBSESSIONS.

Byline: HILARY FREEMAN

LAST week the Princess Royal opened The Centre For Anxiety Disorders and Trauma, a specialist facility which aims to improve NHS care for people suffering from problems such as obsessive compulsive disorder. HILARY FREEMAN spoke to three women who suffer from the condition.

Obsessed with perfection

GILLY Haston, 20, is a creative writing and theatre studies student at the University of North London. She was diagnosed with OCD when she was 15 and became obsessed with perfection.

EVEN as a child I was obsessively tidy. At the age of nine I'd lie in bed and get a dreadful urge to climb out and clean my room. But my problems really started when I hit puberty.

One afternoon, when I was 12, I had a friend round and we were colouring-in posters, listening to music. My pet guinea pig, Squeak, was at the vet and I was worried he might have to be put down. As the music began to fade out I started colouring my picture faster and faster. I genuinely felt that if I hadn't finished by the time the music stopped, Squeak would die.

From then on, obsessive thoughts started to take over. I'd have to check plugs and switch lights on and off a certain amount of times. I had to touch my bed repeatedly before I left my room, or my parents would be hurt in a car crash.

By the time I was 15, my obsession had changed to a desperate need for perfection and acceptance. I'd been bullied at school and wanted to fit in. If my friends made a private joke I was sure they were laughing at my expense. And I was far too self-conscious to have a boyfriend.

I tried to become a perfect human being, to attain the perfect weight and be a model student. I worked myself silly. I was often late for school because before I left I had to perform anI had to touch my bed repeatedly or my parents would be hurt in a car crash elaborate routine, touching my possessions a certain amount of times, moving my hairbrush and toiletries. I even got dressed in a precise order.

It sounds irrational, but I reasoned that if someone said something nasty to me, it was because I hadn't performed my routines and, therefore, couldn't be perfect. I stopped going out in the evenings. Then friends stopped inviting me out. That made me feel even worse about myself.

I never told anyone about my obsessive thoughts until, one day, I read an article about OCD and realised it described me. In tears, I took the magazine to my mum and said, 'I think this is what I've got.' She took me to see a psychiatrist who confirmed the diagnosis and started me on a course of cognitive behaviour therapy.

Today, I am finally starting to feel happier and more in control. I've been seeing a psychiatric nurse and taking anti-depressants, which I hope to come off soon. I've cut down the routines, but I'm still convinced people don't like me because I'm not perfect.

"I've only told a few friends. I don't want people to think I'm weird. I still haven't ever had a serious boyfriend - I feel too self-conscious about my body. I'm talking now because I believe people need to know about OCD. I'm proud I'm finally starting to cope.

Obsessive fear of vomiting

I decided that if I got morning sickness, I'd have an abortion

Sarah Vrhovac is 19 and lives in Caerphilly, Wales, with her seven-month-old son Jamie. She has had an obsessive fear of vomiting since the age of 13.

I'D LOVE to be able to go out for meals with my boyfriend and mates, on holiday and to dinner parties. I've never done any of those things.

That's because I'm emetophobic - petrified of being sick. My whole life revolves around avoiding anything that could make me vomit.

My obsession started when I was 13. I had a tummy bug and was sick through the night. It was so unpleasant that every time I felt nauseous I began to panic.

The problem got worse as I got older. My social life suffered. I wouldn't go to pubs with my friends because I knew they'd get drunk and might throw up. I stopped watching films and TV. I couldn't risk the possibility that a character might vomit.

Once, I stayed at my aunt's house and she became ill. I got out of bed and lay in the hall by the front door so I couldn't hear her retching.

Getting pregnant was a huge step. I was terrified I'd get morning sickness. I actually decided that if I did, I'd have an abortion. I've tried to explain my problem to friends and family but no one really understands. 'No one likes being sick,' my boyfriend used to say. We've been together since I was 16 and he's very supportive, even though he thinks my problem is bizarre.

My life is ruled by my obession. Preparing meals takes hours. I have to wash my hands thousands of times with antibacterial soap before I'll touch food and when I cook meat I have to burn it, so there's no chance any bugs have survived. I have at least two baths a day and won't go on long car journeys for fear of travel sickness.

Like all babies, Jamie is often sick. I can cope with it because he doesn't retch and baby sick doesn't smell. But I have to brace myself.

I don't know for sure, but I think the route of my problem lies in my older sister's bulimia. When I was about eight and she was 17, I'd hear her retching and it disgusted me.

Two years ago, I saw a TV documentary about OCD and realised my problem could be helped. I've just joined the National Phobics Society.

I've had counselling through my GP and I am about to start hypnotherapy. I'll give anything a try just to have a normal life."

Obsessive need to check everything

I checked the bedroom door so many times, the handle broke off

SHARON Parkinson, 31, of Gateshead, Tyne & Wear, is divorced with a six-year-old daughter. Now that she's having OCD treated, she only checks if she's locked the door six times.

I'VE had OCD since I was 17, but it's only recently that medical professionals have begun to take my problem seriously. I'd thought I was crazy, trapped in a web of obsessive thoughts, silence and depression.

It began with constant checking. I'd check doors were locked, lights switched off and electric items unplugged. Then, I'd go back and check again. I knew I'd turned the light off, but until I'd turned it on and off again, it didn't seem true. I couldn't relax until my shoes were in a row, neatly arranged by colour.

Slowly but surely, the obession began to take over. If I went to the supermarket, I'd convince myself I'd put something in my bag without paying for it. I wouldn't go out unless my boyfriend came with me because I'd obsess I might be unfaithful.

Next I started to fear harming other people. I'd be in the car and be terrified that we'd run someone over. If I walked past someone in the street, I'd have to turn and follow them to make sure they weren't lying dead on the pavement.

"Agoraphobia began to set in. I rationalised that if I didn't go out, nothing bad could happen.

"By the time I was 19 and engaged, I'd realised I was ill and, having read articles on OCD, plucked up courage to see my GP. But he just put me on anti-depressants. My family and partner were supportive, but didn't know what to do.

"Having OCD spoiled everything. On holiday in Lanzarote, I checked the hotel-room door so many times the handle broke off. OCD even ruined my wedding. The night before, my fiance left me in the car with his cousin while he went to the cashpoint. During the ceremony all I could think about was that I might have been unfaithful because I'd been alone with a man.

"When I gave birth to my daughter at 25, things got better for a while. I was so busy looking after her, I didn't have time to obsess. But when she went to nursery, it all started up again. This time I couldn't cope. Now separated from my husband and sure I was going crazy, I had a breakdown. At last, I got to see a psychiatrist and was officially diagnosed with OCD.

"Since then I've been taking Prozac and having counselling, and I joined the National Phobics Society. I've managed to reduce some of my checking habits.

"I don't know why I developed OCD. Perhaps it's a chemical inbalance in my brain - I do have a depressive nature. I accept that I might never be cured, I've just got to learn to live with it. I'd love to meet other sufferers in my area. It's important for people to know they're not alone."

- Sharon can be contacted via the National Phobics Society.

The expert's view

What is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

OCD is a mental condition characterised by obsessive, unwanted, intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviour. Many sufferers feel compelled to repeat mundane activities such as washing their hands or checking that electrical appliances are switched off. They may then develop rituals or routines which they are unable to stop performing.

How many people does it affect?

ACCORDING to Prof Paul Salkovskis, clinical director for the Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma at the Maudsley Hospital in South London, the number of people affected by OCD is a matter of controversy.

Prof Salkovskis says: "OCD used to be considered extremely rare. But doctors now believe it has a life-time prevalence of about 0.5 per cent of the population, with 0.25 per cent affected at any one time. Men and women are affected equally and the condition can develop at any time, though it peaks in the teens and early 20s."

What happens in OCD?

THERE'S nothing abnormal about the thoughts of OCD sufferers. Everybody has intrusive thoughts - they're part of daily life. Many people wonder if they've turned the cooker off even though they're sure they have, or have thoughts about harming another person. But people with OCD over-react to these normal thoughts and start to become obsessive about them to the extent that they interfere with normal life.

Prof Salkovskis says most OCD sufferers are extremely sensitive people, who have highly developed consciences. Often, they're perfectionists who lack confidence and try too hard to please.

"If you're angry with someone and wish them harm, you know that you don't really want anything nasty to happen to them. But people with OCD have a type of belief known as thought-action fusion. They believe that having a bad thought might make it happen and that they are therefore a wicked person."

What causes OCD?

NOBODY'S sure exactly why OCD develops, although certain types of experience can make people more vulnerable to the disorder. If, for example, your grandmother tells you off and you wish her dead and then, two days later, she actually does die, you might believe you're somehow responsible for her death. This experience could sensitise you, causing you to become an obsessional person later in life.

Doctors used to believe that OCD was linked with low levels of the brain chemical, serotonin. Prof Salkovskis says there is very little evidence to back up this theory: "It's based on circular scientific reasoning - that serotonin-based drugs are effective so the patient must therefore be deficient in the chemical. Patients with OCD have normal serotonin levels."

Can it be treated?

PROFESSOR Salkovskis says the medical profession is getting better at treating OCD and sufferers can now be cured: "We use two types of treatment, medication and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), which teaches patients how to re-examine and replace their negative belief.

"A particular group of anti-depressant drugs known as SSRIs are helpful, but won't overcome OCD alone. Recent data shows that having eight to 12 sessions of CBT gives much better results in the long term. Most people improve and about 30 per cent of patients totally recover."

- For advice or information, contact:

Obsessive Action: 0207 226 4000

National Phobics Society: 0161 227 9898

Truimph over Phobia (TOP UK): 01225 330 353 -For a referral to The Centre For Anxiety Disorders And Trauma, consult your GP.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Apr 12, 2001
Words:2097
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