No One Told Me OCD Could Force Me to Leave a Job I Loved
It slowly chipped away at my life, before attacking the thing I loved most.
Written by Lindsey
01 Lindsey is a nurse who left her job working from home to go work in a long-term care facility that has been devastated by Covid-19.
02 She has battled OCD and other conditions for most her life. Despite working in healthcare and being aware of her symptoms, she didn't access proper treatment until a few years ago.
03 Although she is now in recovery, she still faces daily triggers, including those that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
04 She wants others to know that you can experience intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, and an intense anxiety, while living your life and accomplishing your goals.
My earliest memories of OCD were at age 5, when I first started experiencing terrible anxiety, intrusive thoughts and compulsive rituals.
My teachers told my mom that I was falling behind in school and recommended some testing; this testing resulted in me being placed in a slow learning disability class. In the early 1980’s, a child with OCD was unheard of and something that parents, teachers and physicians rarely talked about or considered detrimental to a child’s performance in school.
As a teenager, I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and depression. I was given medication and sent on my way. I never had an opportunity to talk to anyone who could give me insight into what was actually wrong. Deep down, my suffering was raw and intense.
I was officially diagnosed with OCD at age 26 during my last year of university after getting to the point where I couldn’t take it anymore. I broke down and went to the school psychiatrist. My world had unraveled and was falling apart around me. The anxiety and intrusive thoughts had infiltrated every moment of my being.
I began my nursing career armed with my new medication and all the ambition of a new grad. I was extremely passionate about working in mental health and was fortunate to have had some amazing opportunities to work in inpatient mental health and corrections for nearly a decade. During this time, my intrusive thoughts and compulsions kept getting worse and had become much more complex and difficult to manage, but I didn’t understand why.
In 2018, I had a severe relapse (there have been several debilitating relapses in the 21 years) where I became completely housebound, lost 20 lbs and was convinced that I would never get better as my psychiatrist told me “this is a chronic condition, you will never recover.”
OCD had attacked every single part of my life, the last thing it latched onto was my passion: my career as a mental health nurse. No one told me that OCD could force me to leave a job I loved.
As a last resort, I broke my silence and reluctantly reached out to a couple OCD advocates on social media. It was through this connection that I learned about all things OCD. I discovered there was treatment available that worked and had helped people actually reach recovery. This drove me to seek proper care for myself and finally start healing.
Two months ago, I volunteered to be redeployed to help my community with the fight against COVID-19. I choose to temporarily leave my job working from home and go and work in a long-term care facility that has been devastated by this terrible virus.
Yes I still have OCD, yes I have had treatment, yes some days are hard, but OCD will never beat me again. It will never take away my ability to do what I love the most; be a nurse and care for vulnerable people in my community.
Thanks so much for sharing your story. I’d love to learn a bit more about your experience with treatment. What have been the most noticeable benefits of seeking proper care? What can you do now that was impossible before?
Receiving the right treatment has been life changing for me. Going through treatment using behavioral therapies like Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) has given me back the freedom to live a life with decreased and even minimal physical symptoms of anxiety, as well as wholehearted acceptance of intrusive thoughts without trying to change, judge, control or interpret them or their meaning.
The understanding that I have the power to change my old faulty beliefs, and that I can choose how I want to spend my time has been so beneficial in my recovery. Now, I am able to ask myself "do I want to spend my time and energy mentally reviewing, ruminating or checking something?" The answer is always no. No, I do not want to spend my precious moments doing that compulsion. Instead, I am going to choose to do something I care about like walking my dog.
One really important piece of this journey for me was learning how to articulate my values and use them to push me to do the hard things that I couldn’t do before. I used to find it impossible to deal with intrusive thoughts without having the uncontrollable urge to engage with them. With therapy, continued education and daily practice, this has greatly improved.
How has your mental health been during the pandemic? Are there certain triggers or themes that have increased?
I have now been working on the medical frontlines for several weeks, and I’m much more comfortable with the work, and dealing with increased anxiety. I still experience a heightened level of intrusive thoughts and desire to behave in a compulsive nature. Compulsions right now can look like over-washing my hands or over-analyzing if a patient’s cough penetrated my mask. Stress and a lack of sleep are big triggers for me, which is something that I have been dealing with since being involved in COVID-19 frontline work.
How, if at all, does OCD impact your job as a nurse? Do you struggle with any contamination or health-related anxiety?
The career path I’ve chosen has not been easy, and OCD has greatly impacted my job as a nurse in many ways. It’s been difficult to have so much medical knowledge, and have experienced the things that I’ve seen, while living with untreated OCD. I’ve worked in jails, prisons and long-term psych for nearly a decade. There have been a lot of times where evident compulsions have crept into my workplace. My colleagues have caught me repetitively checking my blood pressure, and I have roped them into my sneaky compulsions, asking them to check my vital signs many times.
I’ve also really struggled with fear of unintentionally harming someone through medication administration. Maybe I missed a medication, maybe this is the wrong medication/dose, maybe they will have an allergic reaction because I did not check their chart accurately. I’d check medications over and over and over. I would draw up insulin into a syringe, count the lines, compare the dose to the order, have someone else check it and sign off, and still have to waste it and start over - just in case I made a mistake both myself and my colleague missed. The simplest tasks were exhausting.
My contamination fears are complex. For most of my life, my issues with contamination have surrounded food. In the workplace, if I had a coffee or a drink I would place it down and study the exact pattern on the countertop under my cup until I had a visual imprint in my brain of the position of my cup. This way I would be able to recognize if my drink had been tampered with when I came back. This fear wasn’t backed by a distrust of my colleges, but rather an urge by my brain to do these things to stay safe. It came to the point where I was hiding my coffee or drinks in drawers, even though doing this didn’t even reassure the irrational fears.
What are you doing to cope with the uncertainty and increased pressures of Covid-19?
I cope by sticking to my values and doing what I care about the most. The staff and the residents at the long-term care home are what keep me motivated to get me through tough moments when the storm in my brain gets ugly. I continue to be present every day with these individuals because being compassionate, kind and caring are values of mine.
I also have an amazing support system - my husband is a very understanding, patient and kind man. He knows not to give me reassurance when I underhandedly try to get it, and intuitively knows when I need a shoulder to lean on. He has never judged me and he accepts me for who I am. Last year I met one of my dearest friends who also has OCD, she undoubtedly was sent to me from OCD heaven. Sometimes you just have to find the humor in what OCD can throw at you, and one of my favorite things to do with her is laugh at how ridiculous one other’s intrusive thoughts are. She is simply the best.
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Do you think there's a stigma around seeking mental help amongst doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers? If so, how can we combat this stigma?
There is absolutely stigma when it comes to being a healthcare provider and having a mental illness - talking about it is completely taboo in this world. A large barrier to seeking help as a nurse or doctor is directly linked to a general lack of understanding and awareness that one gains from having open honest conversations with others about their experiences. It is one thing to be able to evaluate how an illness manifests in a patient, but it takes a lot of insight to be able to spot this in yourself, even if you work in mental health. Many people do not talk about their symptoms out of fear of what would happen if their employer or licensing agencies find out.
We do not live in a world where we can be transparent about our experiences and still be considered safe, competent and trustworthy providers at the same time. In order to combat this stigma, we need to start normalizing discussions about mental illness and start trusting and sharing more. We also need to start seeing nurses, doctors, nurse practitioners as human beings instead of living thinking machines who are expected to show up day-in and day-out with a crisp pressed uniform, smile on their face and zero thoughts or emotions that are not in line with their professional cookie cutter code.
What closing advice do you have for people reading this?
I want people to know that you can experience intrusive thoughts, images, urges, sensations, and have all the anxiety while you are busy living your life and accomplishing your goals. I am not going to tell you that this journey has been easy and I am not going to deny that I still have days where I feel like I won’t make it through.
COVID-19 has given me an opportunity to prove to myself that I can still do really hard things. More importantly, it has given me a chance to help the most vulnerable members of my community that have been devastated by this virus. You can do this, no matter how hard it seems now you will get to the other side of OCD. Reach out, ask for help and help others if you can. I believe in you.