Alison Holmes, 27, is mum to Zachary, two, and Sophia, five months. She was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 11, and when she and her husband Ryan chose to start a family, she knew it wouldn't be plain sailing...
OCD stands for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: A psychiatric disorder characterised by obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions, such as cleaning, checking or counting. OCD is a potentially disabling condition that can persist throughout a person's life.
The individual who suffers from OCD becomes trapped in a pattern of repetitive thoughts and behaviors (compulsions) that are senseless and distressing but extremely difficult to overcome. OCD occurs in a spectrum from mild to severe, but if severe and left untreated, can destroy a person's capacity to function at work, at school, or even in the home.
When were you first diagnosed with the condition?
Having suffered from extreme anxiety, negative thoughts and acting out compulsions for as long as I can remember (around the age of five), I was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 11 when I was at boarding school. I knew that something wasn't right in the way in which I was thinking, but put it down to feeling incredibly homesick. I was referred to a psychiatrist, having been sent to my GP by my houseparents at school, who then diagnosed OCD.
What type of treatment or therapy did you have?
Through the psychiatrist that I was seeing on a weekly basis, I had Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which involved writing down every negative thought that came into my mind, and rationalising the thought - using methods of looking at previous outcomes to not going ahead with the overwhelming compulsions. Alongside the therapy, I was also put on anti-depressant medication. I felt that the medication numbed all emotions, which at its worst, I needed - but I've not been on medication for 16 years.
Sometimes I feel that my negative thoughts and compulsions are taking over - they take the form of either thinking that my children will become seriously ill, or that my husband will be involved in an accident, and I feel compelled to do things like repeatedly wash my hands (making them so dry they can bleed) or switch a light on and off until it feels 'right'. When this happens, I will revert back to the CBT tools that I've learnt and this more often than not puts the OCD in its place and makes me feel in control again.
When you thought about starting a family, what did you know about pregnancy and OCD?
My husband and I had known for a long time that we would want to start a family once we were married. I have always wanted children. But at the back of my mind there was always a concern about whether the hormones associated with pregnancy would have an affect on the OCD, and having discussed this with a psychologist that I have seen many times over the years, she was also concerned about me being more at risk of developing ante-natal or post-natal depression. Although this didn't put us off having children, it was certainly something that concerned us. And while I was pregnant and after both my children's births, we were very careful to look out for the early signs.
Zachary and Sophia
What happened during your first pregnancy?
My oldest child Zachary is now two years old. Three months before I conceived, I had a miscarriage, and then my pregnancy with him brought my OCD to a peak. To me, this seemed natural, due to being incredibly concerned for the health of my unborn child. I worked through the first 12 weeks of the pregnancy using CBT methods such as recording thoughts and neutralising them. I kept talking to my husband about the thoughts that I was having – he is amazingly understanding, which has always helped hugely. After my 12 week scan the OCD subsided slightly as I tried to relax into the pregnancy, and despite extreme nausea, I really enjoyed it. It felt like such a blessing so I was determined that OCD was not going to get in the way. Leading up to the birth I found that my symptoms increased, due to fear of the unknown and feeling a lack of control about how the birth might go; around this time my compulsions came in abundance.
After Zachary was born, how were your symptoms?
I felt like a new person. We were very lucky to have the most wonderful, natural, uncomplicated labour and birth. I found that the overwhelming love that I had for Zachary had replaced a lot of the OCD symptoms which I had previously. It was as though all of my energy went into loving and enjoying him and the OCD took a back seat. It was amazing.
Your second pregnancy got off to a bad start - what happened?
My youngest child Sophia is five months old. During this pregnancy, I suffered from Hyperemisis Gravidarum (extreme morning sickness) until 25 weeks, which knocked me for six. Trying to look after a 14 month old and have extreme sickness was a challenge, to say the least, and my OCD came back with a vengeance. It was as though it was the only way I could cope and keep in control of the situation while feeling so unwell. I was referred to a psychologist but an appointment only came through after Sophia was born. At 28 weeks I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes, which knocked me again. Feeling like I was in some way failing my little boy and also my unborn baby, I became anxious about everything in life. On top of this I felt guilty, which resulted in more compulsions being acted. This was a vicious cycle and very difficult to stop.
How did you manage?
Once again, I had to resort back to my various methods and tools that I had gained over the years to combat the OCD. The tools which I used were the writing of each negative thought down, and then neutralizing the thought. I also used distraction methods. I managed to get on top of it, and actually thoroughly enjoyed the last 10 weeks of the pregnancy. The support of my husband also helped greatly.
How are things now?
Our little girl Sophia was born at the end of September 2012. Now that we have two beautiful children, I often find myself having to pinch myself. On a daily basis, I look at them, and cannot believe that through the darkest moments of OCD, I have managed to overcome symptoms and found a way to cope.
How do you see the future?
I know that I will always have OCD, and will need to ensure for myself and my family that I keep it under control, but I am confident with the techniques that I have learnt that I can do this. I am very conscious that I do not want our children to see any compulsions that I do, as I do not want them to pick these up.
In life I always try to see a positive in every situation, and I feel very strongly that having OCD has made me a more rounded, understanding human being. I find that it has helped me to understand myself more from a psychological perspective, as well as having a greater understanding of others – be it colleagues, employees or other mums at playgroups!
"Support if you think you may have OCD:"
Talk to your GP about your concerns and ask to be referred for specialist help.
Read 'Brainlock' by Jeffery M. Schwatz. "This book has been brilliant to educate my husband, parents and brothers about OCD. I also refer to it often", Alison says.
Visit Ocduk.org, the website for CD-UK, which independently works with and for almost one million children and adults whose lives are affected by OCD, and Ocdaction.org.uk, the largest national charity focusing on Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.