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OCD is not about being tidy, it is a mental illness that sometimes makes me think suicide is the only way out.
OCD could have robbed Sarah Harrington of motherhood – and her life. The 35-year-old shares her story for OCD-UK to Wendy Roberts of the Derby Evening Telegraph.
SARAH Harrington cannot leave the house until she has locked the front door – and checked it. She turns the key, pulls down on the handle and checks it again. Then she checks it again and checks it again. And, before she drives off, she dashes out and gives the handle one last comforting and reassuring tug.
The 35-year-old Derby mum has OCD – Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
"I don't know why I check and check and check because in my heart I know I've locked the door," she said. "But I have to make sure and then make doubly sure. It's something I am responsible for, so I have to know that I've done the job right. It's just a compulsion – that I feel I have to do. I'd worry all day if I didn't check half a dozen times. My mind would fill with worry."
Sarah has other OCD habits too. She is forever making sure that she has turned off her hair straighteners and runs upstairs several times before she goes out. She is always checking that the fridge and freezer door is shut and that food in her house is not past its sell-by date. She is a bit of a hand washer too. And she never, ever, ever, puts her hands in her mouth. Why? She has huge anxieties about germs.
"At work, I'm generally fine and do my job without my OCD affecting things too much," she Sarah, who works as a fleet coordinator for a health care company. "There are a few things I do to help get me through the day. At lunchtime, before eating my lunch, I'll have to open the door from the kitchen back to my office using a paper towel so that my hands are still clean."
Sarah believes she has always had OCD. She was an anxious child. She had little rituals and habits and understands now why she did certain things during her young life. But it was the birth of her daughter, Beatrice, that triggered a more serious side to her OCD. And, within weeks of her becoming a new mum, it had spiralled out of control. "I was diagnosed with postnatal depression," said Sarah.
"I think this was a trigger to the worst episode of OCD I have experienced so far. But after Bea was born, I started having intrusive thoughts. These thoughts would be absolutely horrendous and I would feel physically sick and ill.
"It's hard to explain how it was for me – but I'll try to tell you. Imagine being in town shopping and walking past the escalator. Imagine thinking 'if I pushed the pram down the escalator the baby will die'. After that, I'd be consumed with guilt. I'd be thinking 'why did you just think that ... maybe you wanted to do it ... you're a bad mother'. I'd feel so ashamed that I'd even had a thought like that. It would completely consume me. I'd be upset that I'd even been capable of thinking about something so horrible. I'd cry and feel really upset. I'd tell myself that I was a bad person and that I didn't deserve to be a mum.
"The responsibility of looking after Bea was huge. I found it very hard at times and these intrusive thoughts were just horrendous. Some are too horrific to tell you. For about a year, I struggled to cope with all these obsessive thoughts. They overtook my life. I felt ashamed about what I was thinking."
Desperate for help, Sarah saw a private consultant. She had regular sessions of behavioural therapy – but she did not feel cured. Reading about OCD and learning about other people's OCD was the best form of medicine for Sarah. She says she gradually improved things by working hard to phase out the intrusive thoughts. Going back to work after her maternity leave also helped.
"It was very hard to tell myself how unrealistic these thought were," said Sarah. "I tried so hard to put them out of my mind but, when I had them, it was really bad. I felt I didn't cope as a new mum. My anxieties deepened and that's probably because I felt so responsible for my baby. Her care was in my hands. I was in charge of someone else's welfare and I felt overwhelmed by it."
Sarah turned to her parents for support. Her mother – a born worrier – and her dad did what they could to help. At times, she felt like ending it all. On a bad day, suicide seemed like a good way out. "I remember being out once and thinking: 'I wish this car would hit me'. I didn't want to be here. Living with all the thoughts was just too much," she said. "My life was on a knife's edge."
Sarah thinks OCD and anxiety runs in her family. Her granddad, she says, had some obsessive behaviour and her mum is a anxious character. She thinks she has inherited a bit from both of them. "OCD is horrible," she said. "It takes over your life and makes you feel very, very low. It makes you feel uneasy and apprehensive. You feel worried and scared."
"Checking that the door is locked probably reduces those anxieties. But, at the same time, it can also make you feel upset because you know what you're doing isn't normal.
"People use the term OCD too loosely. You hear people say 'she's got OCD' just because she likes to live in a tidy house. It's very misunderstood. It's not just about being tidy or washing your hands after going to the toilet. It's more than that. It's much, much more.
"Education is the key. I think people need to know more about it so there's greater understanding."
Sarah has taken the brave move to share her story today. She is nervous about seeing her life in print. She also knows that a lot of people will be surprised to read what she has to say. She has never hidden her OCD but she has never really opened up about it. Now, she says, is a good time to talk. She wants to share the troubles she has had. She wants everyone to know how difficult her life has been at times. She also wants to give hope to anyone else going through the same.
Her daughter is now six years old and Sarah is in a happy place. She has a supportive partner, a lovely home and is still on a high after returning from a luxury break in St Lucia.
"Bea doesn't know about all this," said Sarah. "But one day, we'll sit down and talk about it. I'll tell her how I used to feel and how I coped. She knows I have these 'jobs' to do in the house, like checking the door. She's good. Sometimes, when we're sitting in the car, she'll say: 'it's ok mum, the door is locked. I saw you do it, it is locked'. That makes me smile. It also makes me feel assured. She's an amazing little girl."
Sarah wants to raise the profile of OCD and support the charity OCD-UK. She is running the London Marathon next month for the organisation, which was set up by Derby's Ashley Fulwood. "I'm in training now," she said. "I've been running for quite a long time but this marathon is important to me. I need to raise money for OCD-UK."
Twice a week, Sarah sets off on a long run. She has just hit her 20-mile goal and she is thrilled. She did it in three hours. If she can do a few more long runs, she says, she will be prepared for the April event. "Running helps my OCD," she said. "If I feel anxious, I run. Physical exercise helps so much when you are trying to cope with a mental illness. Obviously I've got Bea and I work but, when I can find time, I go out and run."
"I'm determined to finish the London Marathon in a good time. I'm doing it for everyone with OCD. I'm in a better place now. Life is good but I still have moments when I struggle. Just the other week, I was obsessed that I'd hit a man off his bike with my car. Lots of thoughts started to kick in and I was really upset. It upset me most of the day. When I got to work, all I wanted to do was go back to the scene and check that he wasn't lying there in a heap on the floor. I knew I hadn't hit him but the thoughts and the worries were real."
Sarah is appealing for sponsorship for her London Marathon run which she is fundraising for OCD-UK. To donate, visit http://uk.virginmoneygiving.com/SarahHarrington2