Real Voices interview: Jessica Collis
Meet Jessica, who was recently diagnosed with the condition obsessive–compulsive disorder, and her mum Diane
Who are you?
Jessica: I’m 18 and I have worked at a greengrocer’s since I finished sixth form about a month ago. I have obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD), which means that I have to do* certain things a lot, like washing my hands, checking things and sometimes self-harming.
When did you both find out about Jessica’s OCD?
J: I knew for a while before I was diagnosed a few months ago. I got really bad during my GCSEs; I used to check everything – fire alarms, burglar alarms, the corners of rooms. I think I’ve had it since I was about five, but it’s only been confirmed recently.
Diane, Jessica’s mum: We had an incident when she was about eight. The teachers called us [her parents] in because they were concerned she was washing her hands a lot, but it still didn’t click. When she started her GCSEs, she had a really bad time with it, and we realised something huge was going on.
How does it affect your lives?
J: There are a lot of things in the house I don’t like touching: the side of the chair, the TV controls, a wall in my bedroom, light switches. When I’m really low I punch my leg over and over, and sometimes I scratch my arm until it breaks the skin. I have a thought in my head that it itches and I have to keep scratching it. I haven’t done those things for a while, though.
D: When she checks parts of the room all the time, it’s mostly just frustrating and annoying. If you’re just trying to watch the telly, it’s really off-putting! But it’s horrifying to see her self-harming. You can’t stop her doing it, and it’s hard to accept you have to back off a bit. It’s heartbreaking seeing someone you love so much going through something like that and you can’t do anything about it. At the moment it’s not too bad, but you’re aware of it all the time.
How did it affect the rest of the family?
D: It was really awful to start off with. It nearly split the whole family apart. Jessica’s younger sister is severely dyslexic, so she didn’t understand what was going on and why Jessica was getting all the attention. At one point Jessica couldn’t even touch the end of my finger; she really couldn’t touch me at all. Now we know what we’re dealing with and have support from groups and forums, it’s getting better. It’s really useful to talk to other people who are going through the same things as you.
J: I think my family coped well, but when it gets bad they don’t like seeing me that way. When I start checking things and washing my hands over and over, it gets difficult.
How do other people react?
J: I’ve only been able to tell about five people face-to-face because I don’t know what to say. I did a photography project based around OCD for my A levels, and that was a big deal because I had to tell my teachers and friends. They were surprised because I try to control it at college. I used to use hand sanitiser a lot, but that’s all they noticed. I recently made a friend on the OCD-UK forum. That helps because I can learn from his experiences. I always thought I was the only person, so it’s good to talk to someone else who understands what I’m going through.
D: There’s nothing worse than when people say, “I’m a bit OCD”. Everybody thinks it’s just hand washing and making sure everything is straightened, but they have no idea.
J: It really annoys me when celebrities and other people talk about ‘having OCD’. They don’t realise it affects you a lot and can make you feel really down sometimes.
How do you think it will be in the future?
J: I just started CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) yesterday. It was my first one, so we just talked about everything, and [the CBT specialist is] going to try to help me get better. I want to be more confident so I can go out more without worrying about my OCD. I think in the future I would like to go out to schools and talk to people about OCD so more people understand, but at the moment I get too nervous. I’m even really nervous doing this interview.
D: She had counselling before and that did nothing. But since she was diagnosed a few months ago, the doctors have been really good and referred her for this CBT. She’s got on really well so far and seemed very upbeat after her first session.
J: I know I’m not supposed to be like this, but I can’t help it. I’m hoping I will get a lot better soon, now I’m getting the help and support that I need.
*Obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety-driven disorder where someone has repetitive and unwelcome thoughts that can lead to obsessive compulsions, impulses or urges. There are many forms of OCD, with both physical and mental attributes. OCD-UK says: “Quite often people with OCD feel they have to carry out the action (the compulsion) to neutralise the obsessive fear that they have, but the key word there is ‘feel’. So where you might wash your hands when you see they are dirty, someone with OCD might ‘feel’ they are dirty or contaminated, it just does not ‘feel’ right, and so the urge to carry out the compulsion is created.” 1.2 per cent of the population is affected by OCD and it is diagnosed when any kind of compulsion consumes excessive amounts of time, causes distress and interferes with daily life. CBT is a highly effective treatment. More information can be found on the OCD-UK website.