Happy Tuesday! Please welcome Catherine Benfield, OCD warrior and creator of Olivia, a rather adorable cartoon representation of Catherine’s obsessions. Olivia has been making the rounds on social media and regular media, so she may look familiar — but even if she doesn’t, you’re about to learn all about her, and you may even feel inspired to dream up your own “OCD as an annoying but not exactly terrifying” character. I just love Catherine’s outlook on OCD and appreciate her candor, so I’ll let her take over now!
How long have you had OCD, and how did you first realize what you were experiencing might be OCD?
I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember. As a child, I was terrified of harm coming to my loved ones and compulsions took up a lot of my time. I checked taps, switches, plug sockets, window latches, basically everything and anything. I also had to repeat things until they felt just right and at times it was very difficult for me to lead a normal life.
I saw a few things on the media about OCD during my late teens so realized that that was probably what I had, but in true anxiety style I was too ashamed and frightened to tell anyone.
This theme of OCD — of checking everything — stayed with me to varying degrees until my early 30s, with whole years of being much, much better in between where I managed to hold down a successful teaching career, get married, and begin the extension of my family.
In 2012, I had my son, and about five days after that, my checking OCD returned in force. This was shortly followed by what I now know is postnatal OCD and I became very poorly. I didn’t know what it was at the time, and what ensued was, without doubt, the hardest and most frightening time in my history of living with OCD. I became convinced that I was going to harm my son or worse. My story gets a little heavy here but I want to be totally honest and get this out there so people know that they are not alone, and that it’s important to talk about it. My postnatal OCD caused me to have graphic, detailed images of me hurting or killing my little boy every minute of every day. Obsessions, in general, can be based on thoughts, images, and urges and in this case, I experienced all three. The thing that terrified me the most was the urges. I now know that most new parents get have the odd urge to hurt their children, it’s just what the brain does, it’s all a bit random, but the difference with me was that whilst many people could brush them off as meaningless, my OCD kept replaying them because it wanted me to be certain that I wouldn’t do it. Ultimately, my OCD kept up until it had convinced me I was capable of harming my son. I hit crisis point and went to my doctor to beg him to take me away from my child for his own safety. That didn’t happen obviously and I received medication. I still had no idea that I had postnatal OCD.
I went through a few months of misunderstandings and misdiagnoses before eventually I wondered if what I was experiencing could be related to the checking OCD I had. I keyed it into Google and found a world of stories just like mine and that’s where my recovery began. Accepting that I was the one who found out what was going on with me, and that I initially flew under the radar and didn’t get adequate help for a while, has been part of my recovery process. My medical team were amazing professionals, they just hadn’t been trained in all the ways OCD can present itself. Amazingly, only a few years later, I am seeing so many developments taking place in this field. It’s fantastic to see.
Although not very nice, this time of my life was what got me actually looking for help and treatment; it helped me to accept that I needed to work hard to overcome the condition. Without hitting rock bottom, I’d still be wondering around checking everything all the time. So, the positives aren’t lost on me!
Once you knew it was OCD, what steps did you take?
Once I realized that I had postnatal OCD I went straight onto medication. I was desperate to stop the thoughts, images, and urges from circling like vultures and they bought me some much-needed relief.
I hadn’t read much about how to recover from postnatal OCD because I was worried it would make it worse or give me creative suggestions for my next obsession — classic OCD talk! So, for a while the only way it got treated was with medication. It became clear that that wasn’t enough when I relapsed straight after coming off them, so I self-referred to CBT therapy.
I spent twenty weeks with the most amazing therapist, and boy did she work me hard! We worked a lot on negative thinking styles, and thought challenging. I also live with generalized anxiety disorder and depression so we had to address some of those issues before I was ready to move onto the exposure and response prevention (ERP) work. I lost my parents shortly after finishing my first lot of therapy and relapsed, so I went back for another twenty sessions where we readdressed some issues and worked on bereavement. I came out of those sessions a new woman.
I made sure I always completed my homework from therapy sessions too. I read everything I could about OCD, self-care, and mindfulness and I started implementing what I’d learned into my life. I did exposure work… I stood, holding my little boy in my arms, by the side of the road, on a bridge, at the top of an escalator, and on a train platform, whilst holding a carving knife, as a way of exposing myself to the fears that consumed me and I gradually started to see a shift in my thinking and sense of well-being.
I told one non-medical person, my husband and absolute rock. I’ve always told him everything. He was worried, as anyone would be, but learned as much as he could about the condition and supported me the whole way through without falter. As for everyone else? I couldn’t bring myself to tell them. I couldn’t even imagine how that conversation would go. I thought once it “got out” everyone would be concerned about my child’s welfare and I wanted to stop them taking him away from me. Fear was still stopping me make helpful decisions.
A couple of years later I decided to begin telling people. I felt like I was living a lie and wanted to be open about my OCD. I told my close family and friends, and once I knew I was going to start prepping for, and ultimately launching, Taming Olivia I told everyone. Not one person was anything other than totally supportive. I’ve had so many mind-blowingly open conversations about mental health since then — it really is incredible.
Can you share some of your more common obsessions and compulsions with us? What techniques have you found most helpful in addressing them?
A new one for me is the well-being of my son. As he’s got older, my OCD has shifted from physical harm to emotional, mental, and psychological harm. I often analyze how certain events may affect him. I trawl through memories or weigh up “evidence” trying to find out for certain that nothing has hurt him in this way. I find myself constantly wanting to ask, “And how did that make you feel?” I have to fight the urge to be too overprotective. Again, I use the strategies I mentioned above. More specifically I have to remind myself of “what I know.” I know there is nothing certain in life — I cannot be 100 percent sure that something hasn’t hurt him in this way. I know that OCD tends to focus on the things that are important to you and my son is definitely that. I challenge my thoughts. I stop myself from performing the compulsions; I don’t ask him all the time how he is feeling. I still struggle to find moderation here, so I look to my husband and friends as an example; it’s a bit like carrying out a survey. I use others to help give me an indication.
My other one is the baby gate at bedtime. I find it such a challenging one to conquer that it’s even got a whole blog written about it. It’s become a bit of a celebrity! I check it and check it in the hope it’s shut, and that my little boy won’t fall through it in the night. I again use what I know of OCD to stop me checking it, and it’s my current exposure work so I’m working up to shutting it and going to bed to “sit with the discomfort.”
I’ve found that treating my own OCD as “other” can be very helpful. You’ve taken that concept to a new level, creating “Olivia,” an impish cartoon character who represents your OCD. How did you come up with this idea?
They say necessity is the mother of invention and that was very much the case for the development of Olivia. Due to the nature of my intrusive thoughts, my self-esteem had taken a nose-dive and I was looking for a strategy that I could use, alongside the strategies I was already using, to really hammer home the fact that the thoughts didn’t indicate something bad about me — that they weren’t “me.” I’d heard a few people say that their therapists had recommended giving their OCD a name; I tried this for a while but I personally found that it didn’t do enough to externalize the condition for me, so the next step was to extend that idea into a character. Most of my intrusive thoughts take place in image form, particularly the very unsettling ones, so it became the case of using images to help defuse images. It wasn’t really a conscious thing at first; I just started imagining Olivia throughout various daily OCD spikes and it really started to help. As I started seeing results, she became less abstract and developed a form and a personality. Olivia is now very much her own “being.” Every time a new OCD-related situation or theme comes along, I find I can adapt her to the situation, and it helps me appreciate the situation in a new light. I now use her to help me externalize all kinds of obsessions, not just image-based ones.
Physically, Olivia is a cross between an alien and a hare with a few extras thrown in. Her ears are important because they provide a very clear indication of when she is startled. I wanted her to be dramatic because it helped me see how over the top and irrational she — the OCD voice — could be. The arms and legs were vital too and they change depending on her mood. There’s a real vulnerability about hares, those big eyes and twitching noses. They’re not as cute as fluffy bunny rabbits but there’s something athletic and graceful about them. I always think it’s easy to see the raw panic they display, and that matched Olivia’s personality perfectly. (I also think it may stem back to when I watched Watership Down as a kid — if you’ve seen that film you’ll know what I’m talking about!) Finally, to round it all off, she’s a little tatty because she’s been through a lot. Actually, before I go on, I must take this opportunity to thank my husband as he is my honorary resident illustrator and responsible for getting Olivia “world-worthy.” He is a professional artist, which has proven very handy for me (not so much for him! 😊).
I undertook some research to see if anyone else was doing the same thing to help them externalize their conditions and couldn’t find much information. What I did find was very heavily based on using fear to help externalize the condition. People were encouraged to imagine their OCD as a bully that constantly tried to manipulate them into certain thoughts and behaviors. Although I can see how that might work, it wasn’t something I was willing to do. There was enough about OCD that I found frightening already; the last thing I wanted to do was to live my life beside a character straight out of a horror film that required the energy to constantly battle it — so I reversed the idea.
As a teacher and mother to a little boy, I found it more natural to imagine her as a child, and in this particular case, a frightened and vulnerable child. I do my best to try to understand that she is constantly focused on worst-case scenarios and that she kicks off big time if she wants my attention. I try very hard to show her empathy, kindness and compassion; it doesn’t always work, but on the whole, it does. I don’t want to struggle against her… I know from experience that that doesn’t work. The aim had always been to try to accept Olivia in my life. Funnily enough, since beginning this acceptance, I find I spend far less time with her than ever before.
I spoke to a few other people about Olivia and got great feedback, so I decided to make it public in the hope it could help others.
What kind of response have you gotten to Olivia? It seems that people love her!
I’ve had some amazing feedback. I’ve received emails from all over the world telling me how much Olivia is helping people externalize their own conditions. They’re not all OCD related; I’ve heard from people with a range of mental health conditions saying that the concept is the only thing that’s worked for them. Some use Olivia; others create their own. I’ve had people share their own creations with me — it’s brilliant! Some of the characters are deliberately designed to look ridiculous to take the power away from them, and there have been a good few laughs over the results. How amazing is it that people can laugh about an externalization of a condition that has at times tortured them?! It’s so healing! I believe a few psychiatrists are starting to use the idea in their practices. Olivia’s story was picked up by the OCD-UK Compulsive Reading magazine and was in a recent edition.
The absolute best feedback I’ve had have been from parents telling me that the Olivia concept is really starting to help their children who have previously been encouraged to create frightening externalizations. One woman even told me she hears her daughter explaining to her character, in a calm and collected way, about why she (her character) was wrong! I burst into tears when I read that letter!
I was so nervous when I first launched Taming Olivia. I worried people might think it belittled the illness or that I was trying to make a joke out of something painful, but I haven’t heard a single criticism. I’m sure not everyone is a fan but they are, at least, kindly keeping it to themselves.
Your blog, Taming Olivia, is helpful and so fun to read. Imagine someone approaches you and says, “I’d love to start a blog about OCD, but I don’t know where to begin. Can you give me some advice?”
I’d say go for it! Don’t rush; take your time to collect your thoughts. I spent about two months carrying a little notebook around with me and every time I had an idea of a potential blog subject or made an observation about OCD, I’d scribble it down in there. This will give you an indication of the direction you want your blog to go in and have the added bonus of giving you loads of material for when you come to start. This is such an exciting time because you can see everything coming together. Of course, if you don’t want to wait — just go for it. You know what works best for you!
My other piece of advice would be to ultimately do it for you. Of course, you want to help others too, but remember people will benefit from reading your posts anyway. The last thing you want is for it to become an added responsibility or pressure.
Blogging is an amazing way to express your feelings; writing things down forces you to take your time and consider things carefully. I’ve found it very cathartic and great at helping with the recovery process. It also keeps my brain busy and gives me a real sense of achievement.
You stay right on top of Taming Olivia, posting regularly. I admit that I get in ruts, where I start to feel anxious and too overwhelmed to actually do anything. Do you ever encounter writer’s block, and if so, how do you push past it?
The website only launched a few months ago and it’s still very much in the honeymoon phase. I am lucky as I am based at home, so I can do bits and bobs when my little one is at Nursery. I know these circumstances will probably change before long so I’ve been doing quite a bit of promotion to get it off the ground. I wanted it to have a solid base that I could build on when I had less time to give it. I think it will be good to take my foot off the gas pedal a bit because I know how beneficial time away from a screen, social media, and reading and writing about OCD can be. It’s all about moderation.
I do get times where I feel totally overwhelmed and anxious and wonder what on earth I’ve started. I try to be really kind to myself when that happens. I have a few back-up blogs written before I even launched the website and the artwork was pretty much planned, so I’ve been able to use those, which has taken the weight off. I also have blogs planned in my notebook so I’m yet to have the feeling of starting something from scratch.
I’m supposed to be writing a blog about visiting your GP/doctor this week, and I’ve been dragging my feet with it. I know it’s not going to be the easiest one to write and I have a few other things going on this week that need my attention, so I think I’ll either write about something a little lighter or leave it until next week or another time. I naturally put a lot of pressure on myself so I have to actively try to remove it and chill out a bit. If it doesn’t get done this week, it doesn’t matter.
And how do you push through everyday slumps and bumps OCD can cause?
It all depends on the nature of the slump really. Sometimes I go back to my CBT strategies: identifying and challenging negative and OCD-related thoughts; I might read my positivity journal, or try to concentrate on what I’m grateful for. I might also do some exposure work. Imagining Oliva gets me through many difficult moments because she often helps me nip things in the bud before they have a chance to grow into something more uncomfortable.
I find being productive and keeping busy helpful too, along with concentrating on things I enjoy.
I’ve collected a dizzying amount of strategies over the years and I’ve written them all down on paper so when I’m not feeling great, and my OCD is kicking up, I can refer to it to find helpful suggestions. I write these lists to myself when I’m feeling on top of my condition and they help me for when I’m not handling it so well.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others with OCD, what would it be?
My goodness, there are so many things I want to write about here! For me it would have to be to show yourself absolute love, understanding and compassion. Having OCD can really affect your self-esteem and sense of well-being and it is essential that you go easy on yourself. The nature of your obsessions, or even just the fact you have OCD, can make you feel truly awful so be really kind to yourself. Whether it’s just saying “Okay, that exposure didn’t go all that well, I’ll try again tomorrow” or turning down an invitation to something and deciding to rest instead, just go for it. Write a letter to yourself about how strong you are and what you have achieved so far, and when you feel low read it. If you feel bad about yourself get thought challenging, start a positivity journal that lists some of the things you’ve done during the day and all the awesome things that says about you. Treat yourself, living with OCD can be tough, treat yourself to things you enjoy, or to walks, or some exercise. Engage in self-care, do eat well, do get enough sleep. We don’t have to turn into little models of perfection, but there’s a lot we can do to help us fall in love with ourselves and stay in love with ourselves. Those living with OCD are amongst my absolute favorite people: strong, determined, kind, and compassionate. Make sure you know that about yourself too. You are everything!