Jillian Halket has overcome—and accomplished—a lot in her young life. At just 28 she’s worked through trauma, substance abuse, and undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and now her first book is out! In her memoir Blade in the Shadow, Jillian shares her experiences with harm OCD and how she tried to cope with it before finally getting the proper diagnosis and treatment. Jillian tells her own story so beautifully, so let’s get to it.
When were you diagnosed with OCD, and how did you realize what you’d been going through was a disorder?
I was diagnosed with OCD at twenty-one.
I’m very grateful that I was diagnosed at this age as I know that it can take a long time for people with OCD to get their diagnosis. However, although it was early in life comparatively, I still spent much of my early life unaware that the intrusive thoughts I experienced daily were part of a disorder.
I struggled with violent obsessions. I thought I was some kind of freak. I tried to hide it—to wear a mask in public and pretend everything was okay but it didn’t work and when I moved away to university at eighteen, I spiraled out of control.
I attempted to numb the thoughts by turning to alcohol and after an experience of sexual assault and my intrusive thoughts increasing in intensity—I turned to self-harm. It was an incredibly bleak time in my life and there are times I didn’t think I’d make it through. But I’m still here and I have my wonderful family and the medical professionals who helped me to thank for that.
Without them I wouldn’t be here today.
I often tell people that I didn’t think I had anything—since my obsessions were largely fears that I might harm others, I thought there was something wrong with me, that I was a bad person. You struggled with violent intrusive thoughts. Did you have any idea that you had OCD?
I had no idea.
I think representation has a big role to play in this. Like many, I associated OCD with contamination or repetitive compulsions only as that was all representation in the media that really existed at the time. I couldn’t reconcile the violence in my mind with what I saw on television about OCD.
In saying that, I remember being completely devastated at a particular episode of Scrubs where Michael J. Fox played a surgeon with OCD. Every time I watched it, I cried at the ending. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. At the time I thought I was just responding to Fox’s amazing performance and the visible pain of his own condition (Parkinson’s) but now I realize I was responding to seeing part of myself reflected on screen.
For years it was the closest thing I had to what was going on in my mind. It’s why I believe sharing our stories is so important. The more representation we can get out there, the more diversity of stories and voices—the better. We all need to see ourselves in reflected in this world and know there is a place for us.
How did it feel to have a diagnosis? Did you share it with loved ones?
I was relieved.
I was sad.
My mama was in the hospital waiting for me and I walked out in a daze with this yellow sheet of paper clutched in my hand. I knew then that there was no going back. This thing in my mind—it had a name. There was no escaping it. No escaping myself. I’d tried that for years. Moving to different places, doing different courses, different groups of friends, different clothes and hairstyles, always trying to be different versions of myself. But in the end, there was no change I could make. It was always there.
And now it was official. That little scrap of yellow paper held the answer to something that had affected my life for so many years. I remember feeling extremely grateful. I now had a name for it. And that meant I could fight. And maybe win.
You recently wrote a book, which came out October 14, 2021. Congratulations! What inspired you to write the book?
Thank you so much. It still feels very surreal.
For a long time when I was at my most unwell so much seemed lost to me. I’m sure a lot of people can relate—when you are your most ill mentally—the future doesn’t exist anymore. So, the fact I’m not only still alive at twenty-eight but that I have this book out there is just beyond anything I could have hoped for. I’m very grateful.
At first, I was just trying to make sense of those difficult years in my life—the mental illness, the sexual assaults, and the alcoholism. Through writing I was able to recontextualize some of the trauma I had been through and turn it into something. I felt a power in choosing creation over destruction.
Then as I read misconceptions in the media about OCD, I became fueled by a desire to add to the conversation in any small way I could. If I’m being honest—I started to become very angry. I’d see the phrase “I’m so OCD!” plastered on shopping merchandise or posts about tidy sock drawers and I just wanted to scream. It upset me to see the disorder being trivialized in such a way. And so, I decided to channel that anger into something productive.
That’s how the beginning of the book came about. I wanted the reader to wake up with me on a typical day and experience the onslaught of intrusive thoughts. For them to see the violent things that bleed into my mind—and the mind of so many people with OCD—on a daily basis. I hoped that maybe after that they would never minimize the suffering of folks with OCD again.
What do you hope readers will walk away with?
The truth is we have no idea what someone else is going through. So be kind.
One email I received was from a woman in her seventies who had gone her whole life with intrusive thoughts and never known there was a name for it. It upset me that she had never had the access to treatment. And yet when I clicked on her profile, I saw her recipes for pumpkin pie and her beach holidays with her grandkids. She radiated kindness and strength and yet no one could know that in her mind there were violent thoughts, obsessions, and trauma. This woman is why I feel so lucky to have this opportunity to tell my story.
Because I believe it is all of ours.
No one gets through this life without being wounded in some way. And in being vulnerable we can foster understanding and realize we aren’t as alone as we might have thought.
Yesterday I was watching an interview with Kathy Bates and she said that storytelling is a way we create empathy. Blade in the Shadow may focus on OCD but in truth it’s a story about healing. About embracing the elemental pain that comes along with living. Of knowing that pain intimately and choosing to stay anyway. I’m glad I stayed. And I want other people to stay too.
What has helped you the most in your recovery process?
I live in Scotland and I was privileged enough to get twelve sessions of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) on the NHS with a psychologist. The NHS saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without it. Without a doubt therapy was the thing that helped most in my recovery. If you do not have access to therapy at the moment, I would recommend the book The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris for some techniques to help in the meantime. There are also therapists who work on a sliding scale and can offer treatment for lower prices if finances are difficult. There are also free resources online and OCD communities that can help.
OCD is a disorder and like any other disorder—it requires treatment. In the same way you would never tell a diabetic they could do without their medication—I would never say to someone with mental illness that they should try to struggle on without treatment. Now I’m a big advocate for patient autonomy so treatment might look different for different people. Some might be comfortable with therapy or some might need therapy and meds or occupational therapy or inpatient intensive courses or self-help resources and access to a counselling helpline or CBT activities online. But OCD is an illness and needs treatment.
If you could share just one piece of advice with someone who has OCD, what would it be?
You are not your thoughts.
They have no bearing on your character or who you are as a person. Please, if you feel safe enough, reach out to a family member or friend or teacher. If you aren’t ready for that step yet there is information and resources online but please, try your best to get in contact with a medical professional if you have access. OCD needs treatment. Please stay safe and hold on. It won’t always be like this.