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My life with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder has placed a strain on the very relationships that once gave way to warmth. It holds me close and tight and doesn’t let go until I am left feeling the brunt of its cruelty.

I suffer from disturbing, intrusive thoughts, over which I have no control. These intrusive thoughts can be cruel, and invade my brain throughout the day. With no warning. They threaten the very foundations in which make my life bearable – friendships and relationships.

These destructive thoughts hold me back from enjoying existence. They make me question who I am.

I feel there is something wrong with me.

I have OCD.​

I know the shame that intrusive thoughts bring about. So, I understand that only one-third of the 500,000 OCD sufferers in Australia seek treatment. For a long time, I refused to discuss it with anyone, but it becomes overwhelming and too difficult to keep locked away in my brain.

OCD calls on the demons hiding in the most remote corners of my brain to come downstairs and ruin my optimistic outlook on life. They convince me that I’m a despicable human and a danger to myself and others.

I won’t discuss in detail the context of my thoughts, what I will say though is that they cause such immense grief, I often feel my stomach may very well expel from my body.

The thoughts come in tsunami-like episodes, getting worse as time moves on, leading to one of the most heartbreaking episodes of all.

It had been a long night. I had been locked away from the outside world for just over a week. One could call it a self-isolation of a brain, my brain. It had been occurring for months, years even, somewhat episodically, but this time, it was all too much. I couldn’t handle the strain my brain placed over me. I had called a few helplines who suggested going to see someone but little did they know I was already in the process of finding someone. But as it was approaching Christmas, the wait for an appointment was well over 3-4 months.

My friend and I had planned to meet up for dinner and dessert, however, my eyes, stained red from distress, gave way to crucial evidence. She had been there for me two years earlier when the thought of still being around in 2019 felt like a mere fantasy.

It wasn’t an ideal situation. I sat in my car for 15 minutes trying to calm myself down. Once I felt the air float back into my lungs, I escaped the confinements of my car and made my way to her work. The sun, in its slow process of setting, shone a light shade of pink throughout the plaza.

“Just keep looking at the sunset,” I thought to myself. “It’s going to be a new day soon and this will all be a distant and faint memory.”

When you’re about to panic or on the verge of crying, the best thing someone can do is ask “R U OK?”, but I’ve found that this causes the flood gates to burst open, leading to a tsunami of emotion. The tsunami releases all the negativity trapped inside, explosions and cascades of gasps and tears tearing through the silence of their response. This occurred that night as I waited in the empty plaza outside the department store. Waiting. Breathing. Silence.

“Hey!” she said.

“Shit,” I thought.

Her smile often brings joy and the warm fuzzies, but on this day I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming army of joyless demons crush against my chest. The infection spread from my chest to my stomach as my hands started to tremble. I let out a nasty cry and fell into her arms.

She was the first person I told my thoughts to.

Everything spilt out in a rapid eruption of words and tears. I told her of the thoughts that caved away into the deepest parts of my brain, and how I had no control over them. These thoughts, intruding around my body as if on vacation refused to withdraw.

After 30 minutes of ugly crying, my friend thought it best that we call a mental health crisis helpline. Another 30 minutes went by. My ugly crying grew stronger and my friend performed her duty as a translator, relaying information onto the mental health officers.

I was too busy attempting to breathe. By 9:30 pm we were in the hospital’s mental health ward. Unfortunately, not my first time sitting in an emergency department due to mental health complications. What felt like a 30-minute wait turned into a 6-hour wait.

A lengthy couple of months ensued. I saw several mental health officers including a psychiatrist who put my mind at ease, informing me that these thoughts weren’t me. Asking me a very important question:

“If these thoughts, in any way, represented the type of person you were, then why would they cause you so much distress?” He said. “So much distress that it caused you to question your place on this earth.”

I finally had the answers, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

It was a relief when I finally had an answer for the thoughts. These maleficent thoughts were so overwhelming that I questioned my place on this earth. And for the week leading up to that night, my brain spun into what felt like a never-ending cycle. Continuing to ask the same three questions:

Why are these thoughts in my head?

Why are they coming back with more ferocity than the last time?

Should I still be alive if I have these thoughts?

The truth is, at that time I wasn’t sure why I was having them; I didn’t realise that OCD could bring about such nasty thoughts. Thoughts that made me feel physically sick. It was as if a hand had made its way down my throat, stuck these ideas in my gut then withdrew in a hurry. Scurrying far away, leaving no evidence it was once there. It left doubt in the pit of my stomach. I asked myself – Am I this sick? Am I capable of these ideas? Is this me?

If these thoughts did in any way portray the kind of person I was, then in no way did I want them to be true. This is why that night I was in such distress. Once I was suffering from this “episode” it felt as though the thoughts would never end. With my previous episodes, I had managed to force the ideas to disappear after 2 or 3 days, but I couldn’t this time.

When I realized I had no control over them a wall of shame crashed into me. This was the moment I decided to lock myself away. Fortunately for me, I had already planned that dinner date with my friend. My stomach wanted to stay locked away, but my brain saved the day. My body activated the “Save Sarah Mode”, hoisting me up, out and into the car. On my way, I went.

Luckily for me, there are be people in my life I could and still to this day can trust. You can spill your guts to them, metaphorically that is.

Even if you feel like you are alone, stuck on a boat in the middle of the ocean, someone will eventually turn up, even if they are also stuck in the middle of the ocean, maybe in a dingy. Together you will form an unbreakable bond, forced together by the wildest of fears and thoughts and anxieties that crash against you like the wild, unpredictable waves they are.

 

My friend, that night, was my lifeboat.

There is this misconception that OCD only encompasses cleaning, organising, washing hands or turning light switches on and off. Now, even though these are common compulsions, it doesn’t represent everyone who has the misfortune of living with OCD. And for me, it made it difficult to speak up about my diagnoses.

Since experiencing this terrible uncontrollable episode, I have found peace. I am now able to open up to people regarding my OCD. I am able to accept that these thoughts aren’t me. And I am not able to control some thoughts that come my way.

 

If you or anyone you know require assistance in relation to distressing thoughts and/or Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Can we simply obtain Self Love from a beauty makeover, buying a new outfit or reading an inspirational self help book? Is Self Love is not simply just “loving yourself more” or a state of “feeling good”?

Some may say that without loving yourself, you will never be able to genuinely love others.

Popular singer, Lizzo, who regularly refers to her own process of loving herself, recently told fans to “give your growth time – it took me 10 years and I’m still not 100 per cent there.”

Whilst Queer Eye’s, Jonathan Van Ness, said on Channel 10’s The Project “Everyone is always on a journey to Self Love and self-acceptance” and it’s a continued relationship we have with ourselves. Here are some simple ways we can incorporate more self love into our daily routine.

Face masks

We should all take the time to do a face mask at least one a week, because we’re worth it. There are all sorts of face masks on the market from cucumber to charcoal, clay and mud varieties, to the sheet and creme options, but what are the actual benefits? Tyler Hollmig, MD, Director of Aesthetic and Laser Dermatology at Stanford Health Care suggests face masks are good are moisturising the skin saying “even if you were to just put a mask on top of the skin with nothing in it, it would naturally moisturise the skin”.

A rule of thumb from Shilpi Khetarpal, MD, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, “Just because a product is expensive, doesn’t mean it’s better.” Some do-it-yourself at-home masks can deliver great results too, she says. Ingredients like milk and yogurt for example, contain lactic acid, which exfoliates the skin and can make it appear brighter. Aloe vera contains antioxidants that can brighten skin, too. And coffee, because of the caffeine, can minimise the appearance of pores by drying out the skin.

Lighting a scented candle can boost energy, relieve stress and even enhance mental clarity.

Take a Nice Bath

Signs that we can be depressed are that we stop showering regularly. Draw yourself a nice hot bath and pour in some Epsom salts, you might like to also add some sort of bubble bath soap or a bath bomb and light some candles. You can also add some drops of your favourite essential oils. Essential oils can improve our physical and emotional wellbeing, for example relief from anxiety and depression, improved quality of life, particularly for people with chronic health conditions and improved sleep.

10 popular essential oils:

Peppermint: boost energy and aid digestion

Lavender: relieve stress and reduce pain

Sandalwood: calm nerves and help with focus

Bergamot: reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema

Rose: improve mood and reduce anxiety

Chamomile: improve mood and relaxation

Ylang-Ylang: treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions

Tea Tree: fight infections and boost immunity

Jasmine: help with depression, childbirth, and libido

Lemon: aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more

Eating Well
There is a strong link between what we eat and how we feel. Eating well can help improve sleep, energy levels, concentration and you are also less likely to crave sugar, salt or fat. New research suggests if you eat Colourful fruits and vegetables, Wholegrains, Fermented foods and Fish whilst cutting back on Sugar, Alcohol and Saturated fat, you will feel good. – Headspace

Drinking Two Litres of Water Every Day
Minor dehydration can have effects on our mental and physical performance. The body is made up of between 50 per cent and 80 per cent water and relies on water to function properly. We need water to absorb nutrients, for digestion, to lubricate our joints to help us move, get rid of waste products and to regulate our body temperature. Drink around two litres of water everyday.

Meditate
Mindfulness meditation often takes just a few minutes and there are a wide range of apps available. Meditation is one way to help manage anxiety and depression. Sadhbh Joyce, Senior Psychologist and PhD Candidate at the Black Dog Institute, says “When freed from the task of processing so much external stimuli, the brain has the opportunity to focus its resources differently. For this reason, meditation can often lead to us to experience greater creativity. Meditation allows us to take advantage of our brains’ neuroplasticity and effectively rewire it to enhance things such as concentration, focus and memory.”

Light a Scented Candle
Lighting a scented candle can boost energy, relieve stress and even enhance mental clarity. The smell of the scented candle is said to stimulate the part of your brain which is connected to memory and mood.

Lavender: relaxes instantly both mind and body

Clary sage: lifts mood

Cinnamon: makes you feel refreshed
Pine: relaxes

Orange: reduces stress

Lemon: improves mood

Apple: controls anxiety

Peppermint: wakes up your mind and enhances focus

Frankincense: helps battle anxiety and gives a great stress relief

Sandalwood: relaxes and calms body and mind

Vanilla: increases happiness levels, uplifts your mood and stimulates feelings of relaxation and joy
Rose: makes you more likely to have happy dreams

Get a Massage
Getting a massage is one of life’s many pleasures and has so many physical and emotional benefits. Studies of the benefits of massage show that it is an effective treatment for reducing stress, pain and muscle tension. Studies have also found massage may be helpful for anxiety, headaches and insomnia related to stress. Take time out for yourself a book a massage.

Eat a Cinnamon Scroll
Danes are the happiest people on earth, and experts think a philosophy called Hygge that encourages the savouring of everyday pleasures could be the secret. One thing Danes like to do is eat baked goods, especially cinnamon scrolls. There’s something special about the smell of the cinnamon, the warmth of the dough and its delicious sticky goodness.

Call a Loved One
When were feeling depressed we tend to withdraw from close family and friends and we don’t want to go out anymore. Usually we’re left feeling overwhelmed, guilty, frustrated and unhappy and what we really need is to reach out to someone. If you’re feeling down or distressed, call a friend or family member or alternatively you can see a psychologist or call lifeline on 13 11 14.

Listen to Music
Make an empowering playlist on Spotify, with music that really uplifts you, something upbeat for example a track by Lizzo. Although one song that might calm a person down may irritate another. So you may choose something sombre for example have you ever felt better after crying to a breakup song? Or maybe a happy song brings you a sad memory? Go with what makes you feel most comfortable.

Kristin Neff PhD, Associate Professor at the University of Texas and global expert on the academic study of Self Compassion, discusses the antidote to harsh self-talk and how a swathe of worldwide study is proving the benefits of befriending yourself.

Do you have a nickname for yourself? Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way writes about her inner critic she calls Nigel, “He looks down on the rest of me. Nothing is ever good enough for Nigel.” As a child I heard my mum call herself, Stupid, hyphenated with Idiot. She called me Darling, like I do with my kids.

Dr Kristin Neff, Associate Professor of Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas thinks I should start calling myself Darling instead of Stupid-Idiot; as a breadth of research indicates I could have better physical health, happier relationships, more motivation, less anxiety and depression and a stronger resilience for coping with stress and trauma.

But where would we be without Nigel?!” asks the stiff upper lip of our collective Western psyche. “People have false beliefs about Self Compassion. They think it’s going to make them weak, undermine motivation, make them complacent or self-indulgent but once you have the research it shows, well actually, it’s just the opposite. It helps people say, ‘Well, maybe I’ll give it go,’’’ says Neff, an academic pioneer of the subject who, in 2003, developed a ground-breaking research tool called The Self Compassion Scale.

Designed to evaluate trait levels of Self Compassion within an individual’s thoughts, behaviours and emotions, the scale has since been used in over 2000 studies with the concept continuing to gain mainstream interest.

What is Self Compassion?

“It’s a very simple idea,” says Neff, “It’s a common sense idea, it’s not actually radical. You just ask people to think about how they treat their friends’ struggles or a loved one and the type of things they say to help them in difficult times.”

Our self-dialogue is commonly very severe, full of admonishment and criticism which questions self-worth and often leads to feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.

Neff has found, being harsh and critical doesn’t motivate but rather undermines motivation. She says, “It just makes sense that you’d want to encourage and support yourself and let the voice inside your head be a friendly and supportive one as opposed to a hostile aggressive one. Once people get that, they make the switch for themselves.”

Neff made the switch during her last year of Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley. She was completing her PhD in the examination of children’s moral reasoning when she became interested in Buddhism.

It was a difficult time, as she was suffering the break-down of her first marriage and had begun questioning her prospects and self-worth.

Through Buddhism, she found relief and noticed that Self Compassion, a central construct of Buddhist Psychology, had never been examined empirically and thus began her passionate devotion both personally and professionally to the practice and study of Self Compassion.

Neff explains that you don’t have to be a Buddhist or spend hours meditating to practice Self Compassion to gain the benefits but there are three components that all need to be practised in order for the concept of Self Compassion to be complete.

The Three Components of Self Compassion

MINDFULNESS Firstly, you must be willing to acknowledge that you are going through difficulty.  Often, during hard times, people are caught up in the narrative and don’t identify their own suffering.

“We can get so lost in the struggle, the storyline, that we have no perspective, we’re trying to fix it, trying to problem solve, we’re sometimes trying to shove it under the rug, we don’t even look because it’s too hard. And, it actually doesn’t make sense to be supportive of ourselves if we don’t know we’re struggling,” explains Neff. So, the first step in practising Self Compassion is voicing what is going wrong and how that feels so we notice our own suffering.

SELF KINDNESS means responding to yourself during imperfect times with a kind, internal voice such as, ‘I know you’re feeling scared and overwhelmed right now and this is a difficult time but I’m here for you.’

Placing a hand over the part of your body that is feeling stressed, stroking your arm or giving yourself an endearing name can soothe the emotions experienced, not with the intention of overcoming them immediately, but rather responding with love and support so the problem becomes less overwhelming and easier to bear.

COMMON HUMANITY “Is what distinguishes the practice between Self Compassion and Self Pity.” By acknowledging everyone has flaws and bad experiences, it allows not only an extension of compassion to oneself but also others, leading to less feelings of isolation.

“The problem, overall, is most people know logically we are all imperfect, but emotionally, when a person makes a mistake or something difficult happens, they react as if something has gone wrong. As if this is not supposed to be happening, if it’s not perfect then something is terribly amiss, which isn’t true,” says Neff, who believes that within our inherent connectedness, “That all people struggle, all people make mistakes, everyone is imperfect,” we are able to accept and cope better with our own failings and be less critical of others.

The Best Way to Foster Self Compassion in Children

MODELLING “Is the best way to foster compassion in your children. Model it out loud. A lot of parents are really careful of what they say to their kids but what they’re modelling is, ‘What??!! I’m so stupid, I lost my car keys.’ Children pick up those messages and think, oh that’s the way you’re supposed to be,” says Neff.

MIRROR NEURONS The Mirror Neuron System is somewhat debated in the field of Neuroscience. Mirror Neurons, special brain cells, which are activated both through action and observance are said by some neuroscientists to represent, among other things, the capacity for human empathy. Others have challenged the strength of this claim. However, Neff says, “We’re designed to feel each other’s messages. A huge proportion of the brain’s real estate is evolved for feeling others’ emotions.”

Neff believes humans do this at a primeval level and thinks what happens internally is just as critical as outward behaviour, in terms of what children are capable of picking up on. “We aren’t silos,” she says, “What we cultivate inside impacts others outside.”

“Children pick up those messages and think, oh that’s the way you’re supposed to be,” says Neff.

SELFISH COMPASSION, Neff believes, is of benefit to our children She explains, a lot of parents think, “‘Oh it’s selfish, I shouldn’t be focussing on myself,’ But what I tell them is, ‘Who do you want your children to interact with, someone who’s full of compassion, kindness and calm, so they get that through their mirror neurons? Or do you want them to interact with someone who’s frustrated and angry?

“My son’s autistic and I talk a lot about him and what a huge difference we’ve made. If he was in a space where he was really anxious and I felt really frustrated and anxious myself, I wouldn’t even say anything but he would ramp up, he would feel my tension. If then, I could just say (and I don’t say it out loud in this case, just to myself), ‘You know, this is really hard for me, I’m feeling really overwhelmed and I just don’t know what to do.’

“I then try to be kind supportive and say (to myself), ‘It’s Okay. I’m here for you.’ As soon as I’d changed my internal mind-state he would almost always calm down. So, those messages were received. That’s why I think Self Compassion is one of the biggest gifts we can give children. But we have to be willing to say that it’s hard to be a parent, it is hard, not always, it’s also joyous, but sometimes it’s really hard.”

“So, it’s at those worst of times,” says Neff, “That if we can acknowledge the pain and just give ourselves kindness and support, then the pain won’t overwhelm us. It’ll be more temperate, it won’t last as long, and then we actually learn to cultivate calm, kindness and connectedness in the midst of the worst of times and it helps everyone, yourself and your kids. ”

“Self Compassion is common sense, you know, but for some reason our culture doesn’t encourage it.”

Self Compassion vs Self Esteem

Western Culture has become reliant on Self Esteem gauging self-worth. Boosting a child’s Self Esteem requires the child be special or above average, placing others below them. The hierarchal demands of high Self Esteem create a risky, cut-throat validation system which fluctuates at the mercy of achievement. Self Compassion, on the other hand, shows up amid failure and encompasses compassion for others, who also fail, which provides a more constant guard of self-worth, leading to better outcomes for overall wellbeing.

High Self Esteem can also lead to an overestimation of one’s abilities and reduce the motivation to improve. A 2012 study conducted at University of California, Berkeley, involved students sitting a difficult test they were designed to fail. Two groups were formed, the first being told not to feel alone as others had also found the test hard and they’d do better next time. The second group was told not to worry because they’d got into Berkeley and so, must be really smart. Students were then provided notes with unlimited time to study before taking a second test. Students from the first group, who were encouraged to be Self Compassionate, spent more time studying than the group who had been boosted and were more realistic about what was required to improve.

“You don’t want to hate yourself, you want good Self Esteem, but we can’t always get it right, we can’t always be the better than others. Be a compassionate mess instead,” says Neff. 

RESOURCES Kristin Neff shares many free resources on her website selfcompassion.org and has developed an 8-week program to teach Self Compassion skills with colleague Chris Germer. She has also published a book, Self-Compassion.