Talking with Veronica from 'Story of the Mind'
So I've been doing a fair few of articles in this series and I thought (because I'm a bit of a goose!) that I might just do one of myself so you can get to know the person behind the website a little. So here goes...
Tell me a little bit about yourself.
Hi there! My name is Veronica. I am a university student studying Advanced Science majoring in genetics and molecular biology. I live between Tamworth & Sydney in Australia. I'm 20. I don't really know what to do with myself (I'm in my what I like to call 1/4 life crisis) but am thinking about doing a Masters of Genetic Counselling if I ever finish my undergrad!
I'm the eldest of 4 girls and have two puppies - Charlie & Lola who are basically my children (see pic below - they have an insta btw). I quite like doing a bit of photography and love a good hike. I quite like foreign films - they make me concentrate by reading the subtitles! I do quite a bit of charity work because I really love it at uni & in the past at school for a variety of causes and am currently organising a volunteering trip at the end of the year for 20 university students to Nepal. I'm really luck to have travelled quite extensively throughout Europe and part of Africa on my Gap Year and in Year 12.
What has your experience with Mental Health been like?
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety and depression. To be honest, my OCD started when I was about nine, however it quieted down until I was about 15. My anxiety levels also really started to rise during this time. At first, I didn’t realise what I was experiencing was OCD, as it doesn’t comprise of the stereotypical hand washing or repetitive behaviours. It seems to be heavily obsession based with mental rituals. It all centers around me being bad and doing bad things. I didn’t realise that what I had was OCD until I was 19 – I just thought that I was a bad, horrible person. In addition to the OCD, I struggle with panic attacks, being anxious in social situations and also general anxiety about pretty much whatever my brain can freak out about.
With the OCD, I believed that I was truly the worst person in existence. I believed I deserved to be dead for the horrible intrusive thoughts and obsessions that I was having. The more I reacted, the more I became distressed over what was happening in my head the worse it got. My OCD compulsions are a series of mental rituals and phrases – on the outside no one would even know (despite my often distressed appearance) that I have OCD. I used this as justification that proved I was a monster, I didn’t have OCD – I really was the most terrible person in existence. I really wish I knew that my parents thought I had OCD when I was younger, I think that really would have helped.
The thing is my OCD obsessions are the worst things I can imagine a person doing. They are so ego-dystonic ie. not in line with my beliefs and morals that they have had such an impact on my self worth and value as a human being. Anyone who knows me would say that I try to always be kind to everyone – no matter who they are – and would never want to even be mean, let alone commit an awful crime, or do something bad. This is what gave them so much power over me.
In 2015, I moved overseas by myself and my OCD sky rocketed. Every waking moment was filled with obsessions. I would be lucky to have 20 minutes cumulatively in a day when they weren’t screaming in my head for a whole year. I still hadn’t figured out that it was OCD at this stage. I was depressed and suicidal. I was having more panic attacks than one can count, but that worked in a funny way. I would keep incredibly busy and purposely do things that made me anxious, like flying and traveling alone. I would be so anxious about the situation I was in, I wasn’t quite so focused on the obsessions. But even still, I look back on my photos from that year and could tell you exactly what my brain was saying at that point in time, it was graphic and terrifying.
Then began the obsessive exercise and eating minute amounts of food. I wreaked havoc on my body to try and quiet my mind. I lost my period for over a year, my heart became slow, I lost my hair and I was dizzy and sick. I set all these rules for myself and was constantly thinking about how many calories I had eaten or burnt or when I could allow myself to eat next. I swapped one obsession with another (I know it’s slightly different – I mean that it occupied so much brain space fixated on food I was focusing so much on the intrusive thoughts). When I started to eat again and cut back on the exercise, then another harmful tool of self punishment took its place. I would hurt myself in almost a compulsive way, trying to prove to myself that I didn’t like these thoughts, that if I hurt myself then I wasn’t a monster.
Right now, my OCD is not as bad as it has ever been but it’s still quite severe, there’s now just other things going on as well. Some days my brain won’t shut up but occasionally I can get a bit of quiet from them. It still has quite a hold on me, but at least now I’m starting to get proper help. It’s been a slow road and probably something that will never fully go away, but a bit less would be quite nice. This year I’ve been hospitalised, tried my third lot of medication and had to reduce much of my course load at university (something that my high achieving type A personality is still trying to accept). I’m now doing Exposure and Response Prevention therapy – the leading psychological treatment for OCD weekly and trying all of the things to get better. I’m not going to lie, ERP is hard. You have to expose yourself to your biggest fears and face them without resorting to anxiety reducing compulsive behaviours or mental acts. But it will work, I’m sure of that. I am learning that I am not a bad person, I just have OCD.
What are the strategies that you have found most effective to help manage your symptoms?
Getting help from a pro is my number 1 tip - see a psychiatrist and a psychologist. It took me a few years from thinking about speaking to someone to finally doing it. I wish that I had done it sooner and not let myself get to the point I have been recently. Maybe this was inevitable, but I really just want to let you know that even if you think it’s not that bad, or that others have it worse, or that you don’t deserve help until you reach crisis point, please understand that you do, and the sooner you are supported, the better.
If someone else is in a position that you have been in, what do you think would be most helpful for them to know?
Just go and talk to a professional. It is so ok, you're not failing. Just talk and it will start to improve. Don't be so ashamed of yourself. You don't have to be perfect and good all the time.
It took me years of thinking about it to actually get it done. I want people to know that it is quite ok to ask for help and it doesn’t need to be a big secret. I think it’s important that young people know that you don’t need to wait until it gets really bad and completely unbearable to get help, if there is something that is bothering you then it’s worth talking to someone about it.
I know that a lot of people, I used to include myself in this, often think getting help means that you aren’t excelling at life. But honestly it means the opposite. It means that you are committed to helping yourself get better and that requires some serious dedication and bravery. You don’t have to do this all alone.
If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000. If you live outside Australia, link to worldwide crisis numbers can be found in the sidebar.