“I had let down my family.”
I always remember that Jesus is with me and most of the time these days, later on in the day I’ll forget what I was worried about in the first place.
It’s not uncommon for someone who tends to be a little fussy about things being accused of OCD – Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
What is OCD and what is it like to live with it? Rosemary Burke, who suffers from the affliction has written a book about her experience – The Lava Tube.
And when is it OCD and not just someone at work constantly wanting a thorough job done – the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed?
OCD – A type of anxiety disorder
But that’s not OCD. According to Rosemary Burke OCD is a type of anxiety disorder.
“It’s all about how we deal with things that are out of our control in life and that can be a lot of things,” was how Rosemary described the condition.
It’s where we might have thoughts in our minds where we can’t stop distressing thoughts that go around and around and become an obsession.
“No matter what we do and no matter how we rationalise it we can’t get rid of that nagging thought that really begins to bother us.”
An obsessive compulsive disorder can be something as simple as thinking you’ve left the car at the park to walk the dog or whatever and you’ve forgotten whether or not you’ve locked the car.
But you have locked the car and you’ve forgotten that you did lock it. ‘Did I lock the car or not?’ That thought is causing you to become anxious so you turn around and head back to the vehicle to make sure. Many can relate to having done just that.
Could a forgetful incident like this lead to an OCD? Rosemary helped put that anxious thought to rest.
“If you find you go back to the car two or three times to check you’ve done the locking up properly, then yes!”
Uncomfortable, worried, stressed
Or maybe it’s a work matter and later after dinner you might think, ‘Maybe that was yesterday that I locked up properly at work, but maybe tonight I didn’t. I’d better go back and check again.’
For a person who is OCD positive they won’t be able to rid the thought from their mind if they were last to leave work and think they hadn’t locked the office door.
They’d feel uncomfortable, worried, and stressed about enormous repercussions for not locking up that night.
“It might affect people’s lives, it might affect the business, the worries become gargantuan in their scope for someone who has OCD,” Rosemary explained.
An OCD sufferer for example, may have thought they left the heater on in their office. They call someone still at work to go check. They return to confirm that person did turn off the heater. But the OCD afflicted person doesn’t believe them and the thought continues to go around and around in their mind.
“Rationalising and checking doesn’t seem to be enough to get rid of that nagging thought,” Rosemary confirmed, saying OCD reared its head when she was a young girl.
More than just glandular fever
Rosemary, who’d grown up in a Christian home, was about 12 years of age when she caught glandular fever.
“In those days it was called the kissing disease because it was passed on by people coughing on each other and saliva-sharing drink bottles, and yes, kissing too.”
Rosemary began to notice due to the reaction of a couple of people, she was slipping into OCD patterns.
“While I was sick I couldn’t understand why a happy, fit, little girl could get so sick, so there was a misunderstanding there.”
During the sickness Rosemary recalled a relative who’d come to visit, and she’d virtually accused her of having done something wrong to end up with glandular fever, including kissing another person, which of course was not the case.
You’re a naughty girl if you don’t come up with what really happened,” the relative said.
“That’s when I started to slip into behaviours to make me be as good a little girl as I could possibly be.”
“If I read a Bible verse every night I wouldn’t get sicker,” was one strange, quirky habit that slipped in.
“I then felt I was misunderstood and started to put all my effort into presenting myself as perfect.”
Writing things three times
Rosemary thought this would keep the anxiety away. However this was back in the 70s and the OCD went undiagnosed. Also, there wasn’t much information about it even if it had been diagnosed.
“I knew something wasn’t quite right and my parents did too,” Rosemary admitted and gave some examples of how it manifested.
“Mainly it would be like practicing my music pieces, handing in assignments, making them perfect.”
I was writing things three times to make sure they were done and because I liked the number 3. Strange things.
Is there a difference between a perfectionist and somebody with OCD? A perfectionist enjoys doing something to the best of their ability and goes home feeling satisfied.
“But someone with OCD is never quite good enough.”
For an OCD sufferer there will always be the most extreme or rare complication in their lives that may be their fault and that gets them down really badly.”
Rising anxiety levels
OCD suffering for Rosemary waxed and waned through her teenage years before she moved on to nursing. The OCD would only rear its head when the pressure was on, around exam times, but for most of the time she was feeling good.
However, married with two children and her school nursing responsibilities, Rosemary began to notice an upsurge in her anxiety levels.
“The job became quite stressful and I began to notice the anxiety building up inside me at work and that was where things began to unravel,” Rosemary shared.
“When children came to the sick bay I started to worry about all the things that might happen to them.”
“The very rare situations that they might become involved in and not why they had come in the first place.”
Rosemary gave an example. A little child said she had been bitten on the end of her finger by the school rabbit.
She came in crying. I looked at her finger and there wasn’t anything there at all and she just needed some reassurance.
But this is where Rosemary’s obsessive compulsive disorder reared up and the alleged rabbit bitten girl’s finger took a turn for the worse.
“With the OCD kind of worry I wrote a note and put it in her bag. Then I began to worry she might not take the note out of her bag and give it to her mum. She might develop an infection nobody knows about.”
Bitten by a rabbit
Rosemary’s anxiety-ridden mind became plagued with fears the little girl would become really sick and die and they would lose their child and everyone would hate Rosemary.
“So I went to the phone and rang and left a message on the answering machine at the girl’s family home.”
“I said, ‘Your little girl has been bitten by the school rabbit.’ And then half an hour later I was wondering if their answering machine worked, maybe it’s broken. So we’re back to the start again.
Maybe she won’t take the note out of the bag. So I rang up again.
The girl’s grandmother answered the phone and abruptly said she’d received the message and knew about the rabbit.
“It will be fine. I will tell her mother!” OK. The drama was over. No need to worry about it. Not for Rosemary. Because of her disorder a new chapter in the rabbit bitten girl saga was about to surface.
“But what if grandma gets sick and doesn’t pass on the message?” Paralysis by over analysis.
‘Rosemary, I think you have nervous exhaustion’
The rabbit girl was one among a number of children affected by Rosemary’s disorder and this unfortunately brought about her resignation.
“It was a professional disaster. My stress levels were so high I left early before reaching a resignation date set earlier.”
“Rosemary, I think you have nervous exhaustion,” said her doctor. “Here’s some medication and I want you to see a psychologist right away.”
If that doesn’t help I’ll be sending you to a psychiatrist for further help.
Rosemary thought, ‘How could this be me, a faithful Christian person who’s got her act together?’
“I always believed God would be there for me but I did believe I was letting Him down a lot,” Rosemary recalled.
“Was I good enough? Why had I failed? I had let down my family.”
‘Accepting I was sick’
“All the school knew I had become sick because it had been put in the school newsletter that I was stressed.”
For Rosemary there would be no quiet place to have a breakdown. It was out of her control and she was in no place to really know how she was going to cope with that.
Rosemary finished up with psychiatrist who has been a great help professionally, and also with some of the editing of her book.
What helped was a holistic approach. Accepting I was sick. I did have OCD.
That helped her become more accepting of other people with mental illnesses. Another assist was through the medications that Rosemary understands will be for a lifetime.
“I had regular counselling and psychiatry assistance and got education and became self-educated.’
Coffee with Jesus
One thing Rosemary did was to keep in touch with her church community as she backed away from other commitments.
Books that were very deep were put to one side replaced by Psalms, photographs and songs.
“These would bring peace to my heart when I was feeling very anxious. I would play a CD or go for a quiet time in the bush or a coffee with Jesus, something like that, just to calm myself down,” Rosemary said.
The answer to Rosemary’s affliction, her irrational extreme anxiety, has been both spiritual and medical.
“People with a spiritual belief often get on better in learning to manage OCD because they have a more holistic approach to life.”
“People of faith do have a broader perspective on Life,” Rosemary remarked.
“There’s someone bigger than me, closer than a breath.”
“I always remember Jesus is with me most of the time these days, and later on in the day I’ll forget what I was worried about in the first place.”
We all have a story. People’s stories can make us laugh or cry, trigger joy or fear, inspire us or challenge us to step up and act. Rosemary’s book is more than just a story. In telling her story, Rosemary shares her struggle with mental illness and the attitudes of those around her, laced with hope, recovery, and the grace of God.
Rosemary explains in simple and engaging terms her own journey through various treatments, attitude changes, and management techniques for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). She gives constructive insights into the tension between oversimplified responses framed in spiritual language and the clinical explanations of medical practitioners.
OCD is defined by the presence of obsessions, compulsions, or both. Obsessions can take the form of unwanted recurring and persistent thoughts, urges or impulses. This can cause significant anxiety and distress.
Compulsions are actions or behaviours which the person feels they must complete in order to manage the obsession. These actions or behaviours are aimed at preventing a dreaded event or situation, or to reduce anxiety.
It is common for healthy people to have obsessive thoughts or compulsions at some stage in their lives. However, for people with OCD, obsessions and compulsions can be extremely upsetting, time consuming and impact on daily activities.
For urgent assistance call Lifeline on 13 11 14