Southsea woman reveals agonising truth of living with OCD

‘No one wants OCD, believe me’ says Becca Cairns. The 31-year-old has suffered from the condition all her life and she’s exasperated by news stories about it since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 10:26 am
Updated Tuesday, 5th May 2020, 10:27 am
Becca Cairns from Southsea who has severe OCD.

Actually, exasperated is not strong enough a word to describe how she feels. She is furious at headlines such as: Everyone needs to be a little bit OCD about hand-washing.’ Or: ‘We all need OCD now’.

Her severe OCD is utterly debilitating. She is housebound. She cannot see friends. At one point she was hospitalised for four months.

OCD is so much more than hand-washing and obsessive checking.

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Becca Cairns from Southsea who has OCD, with her mother Annie

OCD is cruel and preys on the sufferer’s worst fears, manifesting itself in irrational and intrusive thoughts.

And just to keep sufferers on their toes, it changes and morphs over the years to include ever more frightening anxieties.

Becca, a PA, lives in Southsea with her partner. She has two very different, but equally devastating, obsessions at the moment – one is about dog mess and the fear of it making her go blind or contaminating her.

The other, which torments her even more, is Paedophile OCD (POCD). She explains, ‘I have OCD and depression – the conditions work together, they fuel each other. I remember it affecting me from the age of six. My mum says I would constantly smell my hands to make sure they were clean.

‘I was always an anxious child and when I was about eight or nine I got a bad mark on an essay. I was a nerd so when I got a B rather than an A I was devastated. I had to rewrite it and I got up throughout the night to check it and recheck it. I was so scared of letting my parents down, I thought I would fail school.’

As Becca has got older her OCD has changed. At one point she was gripped by a fear of contracting an STI or becoming pregnant – before she had ever even had sex.

As an older teenager there was another terrifying development.

‘OCD plays on your worst fears and my worst fear is paedophilia, I find it so abhorrent’, she says. ‘It's so extreme that I have actually got POCD – I’m gripped by the fear that I might do harm to a child.

‘I was quite young when it started and it was triggered after we looked at the Jamie Bulger case in college. I found it profoundly disturbing.’

Becca was so horrified by the case of the toddler who was abducted, tortured and killed by two 10-year-old boys, that she became fixated with it. She was so disturbed by the feelings, she was suicidal. ‘It was not because I wanted my life to end’, says Becca. ‘But because I wanted the thoughts to stop and for the hurt to stop, both for myself and my loved ones.’

She eventually opened up to a psychologist when she was 25, having read the blog, dreamstobeanxietyfree.wordpress.com from October 2013. Becca says ‘It was like reading about myself.

‘The psychologist explained that it is one of the most common obsessions but no one talks about it. You get flashing images in your head of horrendous things. You check your body for physical sensations when you are around children. I avoid children when I can. I get this guilt – what if I get bad thoughts, what if I hurt them?

‘And it is so sad because I have got to an age where I would like to start a family – I have been with my boyfriend for seven years. But I don’t know if I would be able to because of the dog poo OCD coupled with POCD, I don’t know if I could be a good mum.’

People living with POCD have no desire to harm a child, yet they're tormented by thoughts of doing so.

The dog mess obsession began 10 years ago. It is so extreme that she can not leave her flat alone.

Becca’s partner drives her the short distance to work because of her overwhelming fear that she may come into contact with dog mess, or someone carrying a dog poo bag.

Every single area of her life is dominated by it. She is in debt because she has to replace beautiful clothes she has chucked away because she convinces herself they are contaminated. The constant vigilance is exhausting and puts a huge strain on her relationship. The pandemic is only making this worse.

Becca says: ‘I always buy anti-bac for the office and when it (the coronavirus pandemic) began, colleagues started asking me how I managed to keep my hands soft with all my hand-washing.

‘They didn’t mean anything by it but it hurt. Everyone still thinks that’s what OCD is all about when in fact there are so many different forms of it.

‘But being at home is exacerbating the problem. I’ve been told to do everything I’m trying not to do – staying at home and washing my hands lots. It’s really hard to fight that.

‘Now, because I’m so stressed I’m washing things repeatedly.’ The flat above Becca’s recently had a leak into hers, and she fears now that her flat is contaminated because there is a dog upstairs.

From July to November 2018 Becca was an inpatient at Bethlem Royal Hospital. She received excellent treatment and made great progress but that was undone because there was no community support to keep up the work.

She says: I could do things there because I had no other worries. I needed that support when I got out but it was not there.’

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) are used to treat OCD. ERP exposes sufferers to the fear and stops them engaging with the safety behaviour.

With the dog mess obsession, for example, Becca says: ‘It would mean walking across Southsea Common, coming back and not washing my hands again and again, and not stripping off, not washing my clothes three times.

‘I cannot do ERP with my family because we would end up rowing.

‘If I go outside I cry, I lose it, I can’t breathe, I’m on edge and there is no reasoning with me.

‘What I needed was neutral support and it wasn’t there. I need help walking to work, going to the shop to get milk. There is even less chance of getting it now we’re on lockdown.

‘I have had no support since early 2019, I was left to my own devices.

‘It is so important to get people access to treatment in a timely fashion. If I had the treatment I had at Bethlem 10 or 15 years ago, I would not be where I am now. ‘

The unusual part of the present situation is that Becca has no fear at all of Covid-19. She says: ‘I was not worried about getting ill. I was worried about giving it to someone else but I had no fear for myself.

‘OCD is so irrational. I’m fully aware that the things I do are crazy but there is no reason to it at all.

‘Covid-19 is a real risk and everyone is anxious about it, they have a right to be. But I’m not.’

It’s so sad to hear someone as young, beautiful and intelligent as Becca say OCD has stripped her of her real character. Her partner is now basically her carer. ‘I can’t make any decisions for myself. Every single thing is governed by OCD in one form or another.

‘With OCD you are constantly on high alert, it’s completely and utterly exhausting. I come home from work, have a shower, and go to bed. It is no life, and I would not wish it on anyone.’

A mother’s perspective on OCD

Becca Cairns’ mother, Annie, has shared her thoughts on what it is like to see your child suffer from OCD. ‘When your child has a diagnosis of OCD, your whole life runs on a different parallel.‘You find yourself questioning your parenting skills, you become defensive and protective, and you view others with more than a touch of jealousy. Life changes completely, you find you are drawn into a constant world of checking and reassurance, emotions run off the scale, for reasons you do not understand, or cannot grasp as reality.‘Knowledge is key, and you spend hours researching this illness that has taken over your world. Support is difficult to come by and treatment takes, on average, eight months for each block of 12 therapy sessions, you are then on your own once more to do battle until the next crisis occurs, and it will, because treatment tends to get to crisis point before intervention.‘OCD has had a hold on our family life knowingly for at least 14 years, it is a serious mental health disorder and ranked in the top 10 of debilitating illness by the World Health Organisation.‘I have watched my daughter become so stressed, I feared for the outcome, yet I have felt completely helpless and unable to comfort her due to contamination fears. ‘OCD strips you of being able to hug/comfort/touch your child.I would love to spend a day simply walking outside carefree with my daughter doing what many take for granted, instead I watch others.‘So remember next time someone jokes about being ‘a bit OCD’, it is not about being tidy and neat, there is nothing good about it.’For support go to ocduk.org or ocdaction.org.uk

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