It’s Mental Health Awareness Week from 13-19 May and this year’s theme is Body Image – how we think and feel about our bodies.
Mental health blogger, Sinead O’Callaghan has kindly let us share her experience of how her mental health affects her body image:
Mirror, mirror on the wall.
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most anxious of them all?
OCD is a term that gets thrown around a lot and I think people can be confused by its true meaning and manifestations. I’m going to try and unpick some of the meaning here and explain how obsessive thoughts have impacted on my life. Let’s start with the basics: OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, an anxiety disorder wherein the sufferer is troubled by persistent, uncontrollable obsessive thoughts and may be compelled to perform certain rituals or behaviours. Fun times!
Anxiety is such a difficult bugger to manage because it is essentially a worry or fear of the unknown; a vague fear as opposed to something specific. A fear of something tangible is more easily managed as it has a solution. You’re afraid of flying? You avoid flying as much as possible, simples. But how can you solve a vague fear, when you are not exactly sure what it is you are afraid of, but still you feel a constant niggling worry at the back of your head?
A huge part of living with an anxiety disorder is feeling a lack of control. The anxiety and worry takes over your brain and tends to control you. My take on OCD and the compulsion to perform certain rituals is that the rituals are a desperate attempt to wrestle back control from the anxiety, and the persistent negative thoughts. If the same thought is running through your head all day, every day, then you are eventually going to try and do something to make it go away, aren’t you. The rituals are effectively repetitive behaviours that you engage in to try and lessen the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts.
Ah, obsessive thoughts my old friends. Where to even start? It’s quite simple really: something traumatic happened to me when I was 21 and ever since I have been tormented by obsessive thoughts and the compulsion to carry out rituals. The pain inside me manifested itself in an acute anxiety about certain aspects of how I look. However, my obsessive thinking didn’t come to the party alone. It brought along another old friend: body dysmorphia. Body dysmorphia didn’t even bring along a bottle of wine, just a magnifying mirror. Cheers for that, buddy. For those who don’t know, body dysmorphia is a part of the anxiety disorder family. A person who is dysmorphic has a distorted view of how they look and can spend an unhealthy amount of time worrying about their appearance. Dysmorphia can often affect those who have eating disorders.
As for me, I developed two particular obsessions. The first one was with my teeth. I’ve chosen the image attached to this post to demonstrate my default pose for the camera, a cheesy grin. This cheesy grin shows a fairly normal set of teeth right? In my head, not so much. I became obsessed with the need to be clean, and took out this need on my poor teeth. At my most anxious, I would brush my teeth up to ten or fifteen times a day. I would have to brush them after every cup of tea I drank. Now I’m Irish, so I drink a lot of tea. That adds up to a lot of brushing and a lot of pain. I wore away the enamel on my teeth due to this obsessive, overzealous brushing. My dentist gently had to point out that she would like to spend less time with me. Fair enough, really.
The second obsession is a lot more difficult for me to write about, and I’m not going to lie – there are a few tears hitting the keyboard right about now. Deep breaths needed and the soothing sounds of Glen Hansard in my earphones. Right, here we go. The need to be clean became confused in my poor addled head with the need to be hair free. I associated hair with being dirty. I don’t mean hair as in body hair or hair in areas that we don’t need to mention here (if only if it were that simple)! I mean the fine, vellus hair that we are all covered in which our body needs to help regulate body temperature. All women have a covering of this light hair on their face, neck, arms etc. It’s not noticeable to other people, but still, I became obsessed with this hair – particularly on my face and neck. The compulsion to pluck this hair out became the physical manifestation of my deep distress. Now, step in my closest companion, the magnifying mirror. A ticking bomb. I would (and still could) spend hours checking myself in a magnifying mirror. Obviously fine hairs are going to look pretty horrifying in a mirror like this, so I would try and pluck them out. Actually, “pluck” is too gentle a word. I would gouge them with a needle or tweezers, often leaving bleeding wounds on my face and neck.
That would be grand if it controlled the anxiety, but the trouble is, it doesn’t! It turns out, what you don’t need to do if you feel anxious about your appearance is spend hours looking at yourself in a mirror! The good news – there is some I promise – is that after years of being crippled by my anxiety and obsessive rituals, I have found a way of managing them and they don’t have such a huge impact on my life anymore. At my most ill, I couldn’t leave the house, or even get out of bed in the morning, as I was too scared to look in the mirror. And I had to look in the mirror.
Thankfully now, through a combination of medication and having worked through some of my issues in counselling, I can now manage my compulsions. They will always be there, but I control them now (mostly). I can function alongside them. I’m lucky; I have a fantastic GP who has helped me to wrestle back control over my obsessions. She has patiently fulfilled my endless requests for blood tests to check my hormone levels, just to make sure I’m not turning into a man. (It’s all fine, I’m not by the way, for those of you worrying about that. Or hang on, maybe that’s just me?)
As for the dentist, we see a lot less of each other these days. Mind you, while the compulsions have dissipated, the teacher’s pet in me still loves going and getting a gold star for keeping my teeth so clean!
Watch our interview with Sinead below: