By Julie Leitch and Kim Bonett.
Reprinted with permission from That’s Life magazine, February 2008.
I ripped out another page of homework and sighed. “You need an eraser,” my mum Joan, 33, chuckled. “It’s all right” I said, starting a fresh page. I was only eight but I took pride in presentation. If I made a mistake, I’d rip out the page and start again. When I was finished, I went to say goodnight to Mum and my dad Ted, 40, and my brothers, Robert, 11, and Jeffrey, six. “Goodnight, Daddy,” I said, giving him six gentle peck son the cheek. “Night, Mum,” I said next, counting out six kisses. “We can never have too many kisses from our little girl,” she smiled. But she was wrong. There could be too many. I didn’t know what’d happen if I gave her seven, but I wasn’t game to find out.
As the years passed, school became harder and homework was near impossible. Opening my textbook, I tried to concentrate. The land was hot an arid, it read. Or did it? I read it again. Did I miss something? I fretted, reading it a third time. Only when I was satisfied I hadn’t missed a word could I move on. It was two hours before I finished the paragraph. What’s wrong with me? I wondered. Nobody else seemed to have this problem.
At 14, I went to say goodnight to my parents. Maybe I’ll just give them one kiss tonight, I thought. But I couldn’t do it. If I do, someone in my family will die, I thought, terrified. In bed that night it dawned on me why I did lots of things other people didn’t. I was sure that if I didn’t complete all my rituals, something bad would happen. It sounded so stupid, and as I got older I was too embarrassed to tell anyone how I felt.
At 17, I left school to attend business college. I excelled in maths and when I finished, I became a TAB agent. This is great, I thought. But a year later, locking up, a familiar anxiety washed over me. Did I lock the safe? I fretted, scurrying in to check it again. An hour later, I was satisfied.
But even a checklist didn’t stop me worrying, and I hired a casual employee to double check all my checking. Late one night, months later, my thoughts turned to work and suddenly, I was short of breath. “I’ve left something at work,” I told Mum. “I’m going back”. I knew it was irrational. But I was suffering a panic attack at the thought of the agency not being properly locked. If it wasn’t, I believed something would happen to my family.
At 21, I met Dennis, 27. When our relationship got serious, it became harder for me to hide my compulsions. “You’re quirky,” he laughed. “It’s just me,” I shrugged. When we got married two years later, things got worse. IT wasn’t just my business that I was responsible for now, it was our home too. I’d clean the house so thoroughly that nothing got finished, and each day before work, I unplugged everything. Dennis had to reprogram everything when he got home. Even cooking was an ordeal. “What are you doing?” Dennis laughed one night. “Boiling the pots before I use them,” I said, embarrassed. “You’re cooking, not doing surgery,” he smiled. I knew others didn’t share my behaviour, but the idea of losing a loved one made me so anxious it was like I was in a trance. I’d sweat and have heart palpitations, or cry hysterically. Once each ritual started, I couldn’t stop it.
One year, we were going to celebrate Christmas at my parent’s house. “Lucky that it’s not here or we wouldn’t get fed until Boxing Day,” Dennis teased. Loading up the gifts, I checked each card and counted them meticulously. Have I packed Jeffrey’s? I wondered, pulling them out and checking again. When we finally got to Robert’s I enjoyed the day, knowing I wasn’t responsible for anything.
But in the New Year, my behaviour didn’t improve. Showering was a nightmare. I’d wonder if I’d remembered to wash everything. Eventually each shower took up to two hours. “I have to do it or my family will die,” I sobbed. Then one day in the early hours of the morning, I woke Dennis up in a panic. “Can we sleep with the light on?” I asked. Dennis faced me calmly. “We can’t live like this anymore,” he said. “You need to see a doctor.” He was right. I was exhausted and desperate for a solution.
The following day, my GP sent me to a psychiatrist and I told her everything. We chatted each week for two years, but nothing helped. “Maybe it leads back to your childhood,” she suggested. “Maybe,” I nodded. One night Dennis handed me a magazine. “Read this article,” he said. It was a story on obsessive-compulsive disorder, also known as OCD. “That’s me!” I cried. My behaviour had a name.
The disorder had controlled my life for over 20 years, but suddenly I had hope. The woman in the story had been cured with specialist treatment. Four weeks later I went to see Dr Rocco Crino, an expert in treating OCD. After we chatted, Dr Crino suggested I had an extreme fear of death. He wasn’t wrong! If ever I went to a funeral, I burnt my clothes afterwards. “This won’t be easy,” he said. “But I can help.” Dr Crino helped me face what I feared.
I stood in front of a funeral home and stayed there until my panic attack subsided. One day I had to ask about the cost of burying myself. Each task was excruciating. “You can do this,” Dennis encouraged. Then Dr Crino had me write a sympathy card to myself. Gasping for breath, I put pen to paper. Dear Julie, deepest sympathies for your loss... It took me weeks of facing my fears before I finally accepted that my actions couldn’t cause someone to die. “Welcome to your new life,” Dennis said. “Thanks for putting up with me,” I smiled. I slowly got on top of my OCD. I saw my friends again and stopped making Dennis get up in the middle of the night to check things—that is, until our baby daughter Amy arrived.
Today, my OCD had been under control for 18 years. It’s not always easy—I know if I return to my old habits the disorder will spiral out of control. I now work for Anxiety Australia, helping other people who have anxiety disorders, including OCD. For years I had no idea I had obsessive-compulsive disorder. I hope my story will help others. Now my only compulsion is to get out there and live.