Updated: Mar 11, 2020
Q: Do you struggle with mental illness? If so what?
A: I have obsessive compulsive disorder and my main theme has been sensorimotor OCD – a subset which focuses on the awareness of different bodily functions and sensations as intrusive. Because this form has been less researched in the realm of OCD, I was not properly diagnosed until April 2017 (11 years after onset) where I met Dr Rocco Crino from the SOCAD practice, who has helped me a lot with recovery. I have also struggled with depression and chronic pain, largely due to my OCD.
Q: When did you first realize you struggled with mental illness?
A: When I was about 11 my first sensorimotor obsession around breathing hit me and I was very aware that something was wrong with my brain because I was in a constant state of panic and the same fearful thought kept looping in my brain every few minutes.
Q: How were you diagnosed?
A: My OCD got so bad in university that it contributed to me having to defer for 6 months. My family and I had a feeling that I had obsessive compulsive disorder after doing extensive research, so we consulted an OCD specialist and I got diagnosed in my first session after telling him my story.
Q: What does "insert disorder" feel like for you? Describe your symptoms.
A: I have quite a few different themes but with all of them I get a thought, image or memory of a sensation that pops into my head which makes me feel very uneasy and then I feel an overwhelming urge to neutralise/eliminate it as soon as possible through different compulsions physical and mental compulsions (e.g. swallowing in order to neutralise an uncomfortable feeling in my throat). Because my theme is body-related, I tend to get feelings of pain in my body as "warning signals" that I'm in danger, even though I'm not. This makes me feel trapped in my mind and body, and when it's at its worst, I feel helpless.
Q: Is there a metaphor or an example you use to describe your mental illness?
A: A dementor from Harry Potter - when my OCD is bad it tries to suck the joy out of my life and keep me from pursuing my values.
Q: Do your friends and family know about your illness? If so, how did you tell them?
A: Yes. My family have known since I was a young child that I had anxiety problems because I was a very highly strung, perfectionistic and emotional kid. When OCD onsetted for me I told them the content of my thoughts because thankfully my family has always been very supportive and loving. When I was diagnosed with OCD I made a social media post about it so I didn't feel I had to hide anymore in front of friends, peers and the general community.
Q: Do you believe your illness has held you back in any way?
A: Yes, it has held me back mainly from experiencing peace of mind and joy. I still pursue my values and put up the middle finger to OCD by doing exposures (e.g. singing performances) but it has caused me a lot of trauma throughout my adolescence and has affected my quality of life by taking up so much of my mental space.
Q: What have you been able to achieve in spite of your mental struggles?
A: I'm proud of what I've been able to do despite my at times crippling OCD. I completed high school and went on to finish a Bachelor of Music degree in Vocal Performance at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music last year. I sing regularly as a classical soprano for different events and this year I was blessed to sing on TV for an Australian news segment about my story. Singing publicly has been something my OCD has latched onto but I am really passionate about pursuing what you love regardless of OCD. I have also been involved in a lot of OCD advocacy, doing volunteer public speaking for a charity that has really helped me called The Smith Family. I have travelled to schools and different company headquarters to share the truth about OCD and a background of my story. This led to me being asked to share my story in an Aussie classical music magazine called CutCommon Magazine, followed by being nominated for the 2018 and 2019 Seven News Young Achiever Award in the NSW/ACT Community Services category for volunteer public speaking about mental health. My OCD-related Instagram account recently hit 1000 followers and I was over the moon!
Q: Do you go to therapy?
A: Yes, acceptance commitment therapy, exposure response prevention and self compassion have been the biggest help in my therapy.
Q: Do you take medication?
A:Yes, Prozac has taken the edge off my OCD at times.
Q: Do you do anything besides therapy or medication to manage your symptoms?
A: A lot of music! I sing, play the piano, teach music and regularly learn new repertoire. I also exercise, do yoga, meditate, try to keep social and engage in other hobbies like learning Italian.
Q: Any stereotypes you'd like to address regarding the disorder?
A: At the moment jokes about OCD like "Obsessive Christmas Disorder" and the classic "I'm soooo OCD" are particularly rampant. OCD is not a cute quirk where you line your pencils up and have a giggle at being "eccentric" - it's a debilitating anxiety disorder where disturbing, frightening stimulus pops into your head without warning and you feel like you HAVE to get rid of it "otherwise something really bad will happen". Just like any other illness, it's not funny or cute - some people are housebound, unable to eat or drink, unable to work or even commit suicide as a result of this disorder.
Q: Are you an advocate? If so, please tell us about your advocacy work.
A: Yes, outlined above.
Q: Any books, resources, or influencers that have helped you?
A: I will mention a top 3 that come to mind for each!
The Happiness Trap - Russ Harris
Brain Lock - Jeffrey Schwartz
The Mindfulness Workbook For OCD - Jon Hershfield and Tom Corboy
The OCD Stories
Kimberley Quinlain's "ERP School"
Every single person who has ever been on the OCD Stories or who has an OCD- related Instagram with heaps of helpful resources - y'all rock!! The first 3 I ever came across were Stuart Ralph, Jon Hershfield and Jeff Bell.
Q: What do you want people to know about mental illness?
A: This is a cliché, but mainly I’d like to destigmatise the negative assumptions people have of those suffering with mental issues. There are unfortunately still beliefs that people struggling mentally could be dangerous, insane, unintelligent, attention-seeking, and/or manipulative. In fact, many people suffering with mental ill health are incredibly kind, compassionate, intelligent, strong, and very hopeful that someone can understand and empathise with what they are going through. There is also the misconception that being vulnerable equates to weakness. I’m passionate about sharing the message that vulnerability is not a marker of shame, it is strength. And I consider my goals achieved if I can inspire more people in the community to speak out about their mental health as a way of seeking assistance.
Q: Use three words to describe your experience.
A: Overwhelming, Crippling, Daring