Meet Rebecca Ryan – the girl who has learned to beat her OCD demons

At a low point, Rebecca Ryan could only leave her house through a window. She tells Sharon Ní Chonchuir how she learned to beat her OCD demons

REBECCA Ryan may be 16 years old but she’s no ordinary teenager. Three years ago, her OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) became so extreme that she couldn’t deal with the colour blue, the number four or doorways.

It got to the stage where she had to climb through windows to leave her house near Kilrush, Co Clare.

The following is her description of one morning in March, 2013: “It was apparent from the moment I woke up that it was going to be a bad day.

“It took me longer to get dressed, to do my dance to get through the doorways, to hop the squares in the bathroom, to tap my nose and blow away all the bad colours, numbers and words in the world around me. It took me 25 minutes to brush my teeth and another 15 to get downstairs.

“It took me even longer to eat my breakfast and when it came to getting out of the house, I just couldn’t.”

Today Rebecca, an only-child, couldn’t be more different. She’s cheerful and articulate. She has just started sixth year at school and is looking to the future with enthusiasm.

She has also published a book called Dictatorship: My Teenage War with OCD, which describes how she learned to manage her OCD with help from her parents, friends, school and mental health professionals.

“OCD is absolutely horrible to live with and I’m still living with it, even though — technically — it’s gone after ages of it dictating my life,” she says.

“Having spent time in OCD hell, I’d like to contribute to the growing knowledge of OCD and to help other people know what it’s like.”

Rebecca describes OCD as a mental disorder marked by intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviour. “Have you ever stood over a cooker, making dinner, and suddenly an image of the pan catching fire and the fire spreading flashed into your mind,” she asks. “You flick it out of your mind, knowing that in all probability, it won’t happen. That’s an intrusive thought.”

Everyone has these thoughts but people with OCD can’t flick them away. They can only do so by performing repeated actions or compulsions and over time, they start to rely on those compulsions as a coping mechanism.

One of Rebecca’s compulsions was tapping her nose. “I’d do it to tap away the sadness or general negative effects of whatever the trigger was,” she says.

“Sometimes, I didn’t get it exactly right and I’d have to do it again. This could take a lot of time but I’d have to go with it.”

Typically, the compulsions take priority over everything else, which means that daily life becomes more and more restricted. For Rebecca, this culminated in not being able to leave the house that morning in March, 2013.

She started to experience OCD at the age of four, when she began to feel anxious about changes in routine. “How I’d fall asleep, how I’d watch TV and whether I stayed up to 10:00 or 10:01; everything had significance,” she says. “It was awfully black and white.”

Any deviation from that routine worried her. Her parents going out without her was a particular source of anxiety.

“Heck, in January, I would start to worry about them going to the next Christmas dinner dance,” she says. “I would look to the Rebecca in the future, who had already experienced the night out, and ask her how it went.”

At that time, her parents weren’t too concerned about her behaviour.

She was happy at primary school. She had friends. And her father had behaved in a similarly eccentric way when he was a child so the assumption was that Rebecca’s problem would clear up much as his had done.

Picture: Miki Barlok

But this didn’t happen. Her compulsive behaviour worsened when the move from primary to secondary school proved to be more than she could handle.

“It was like my OCD suddenly exploded,” she says. “Over the course of month, I went from having manageable compulsions to being the focus of a blizzard of internal threats, repetitive actions and self-berating for giving in to those blasted things.”

By February, she was avoiding the number four and its multiples, the colour blue, the cracks between paving stones and tiles, doorways and medical words associated with disease and death.

She also needed to make everything straight and symmetrical. “This might seem manageable,” she says now. “But I have seen the sunrise on multiple occasions because I was up all night straightening and checking the symmetry of everything in my room.”

OCD took over and as a result, Rebecca found it hard to concentrate at school. Her grades suffered. Other students began to notice her behaviour and her family life deteriorated.

It wasn’t until she watched a TV show about OCD that she realised what was wrong with her: “It was like watching myself in other people’s bodies” .

That realisation was the spur she needed to tell her parents just how much she was suffering. They immediately called their doctor, who referred Rebecca to a therapist.

She was diagnosed with OCD shortly after that but her diagnosis only marked the beginning of her recovery. Her book describes that recovery process and has a long section on her struggles with the exposure and response prevention approach.

This involves exposing someone to something they fear but not allowing them to engage in compulsive activity to ward off that fear. The idea is to familiarise the person with the anxiety so that it no longer affects them.

Rebecca was advised to go home and to try leaving the TV remote on the table at a crooked angle for five seconds. She only managed three seconds and that was after days of being nagged by her parents.

Picture: Miki Barlok

“It’s like everything went out of kilter for those three seconds,” she says. “OCD was like a cuddle blanket in my mind. I had always cuddled that same metaphorical blanket, even when I was small. The prospect of dumping it was terrifying. I had never lived without it.”

Rebecca overcame her OCD through a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy and medication prescribed by a psychiatrist. The fact that her parents informed the principal of her school of her problem helped too. It meant that all her teachers knew and that they were better able to support her.

She started to write her book during her recovery. In fact, she embarked on lots of new activities during that time. She made her own films and animations. She went on a skiing trip with her school. She was also able to concentrate on her schoolwork for the first time and as a result performed strongly in her Junior Cert.

Now in her Leaving Cert year, she is busy making plans for university.

“There is so much I want to do and I want to get started,” she says.

She knows her OCD will never truly leave her but she feels confident that she can manage it.

“I’d like to be able to say it’ll never come back but I can’t,” she says. “I haven’t had many thoughts in ages but I’ve learned that when I do, I need to distract myself by doing something I’m really passionate about or by talking to someone about something entirely different. I say no in my head and stand up to that bully in my brain.”

She hopes her book will help others struggling with the condition. “People need to wake up to just how destructive it can be,” she says.

“They also need to realise that it’s possible to break free, even though it’s not easy. I’d urge everyone out there suffering to seek help. There’s so much available if you would only talk to someone.”

Dictatorship: My Teenage War with OCD is published by Onstream. It’s available in bookshops and online at onstream.ie, €11.99.

WHAT IS OCD?

– Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a chronic disorder in which a person has uncontrollable recurring thoughts (obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions) that they feel the urge to repeat over and over.

– People with OCD may have symptoms of obsessions, compulsions or both.These symptoms can interfere with all aspects of daily life, including work, school and relationships.

– Common symptoms include excessive cleaning, ordering and arranging things in a particular and precise way, repeatedly checking on things such as whether the door is locked and compulsive counting.

– Everyone double checks things sometimes. But a person with OCD can’t help it, even when they recognise their thoughts and behaviours are excessive. They spend at least an hour a day on those thoughts and behaviours and only feel brief relief from anxiety when they do so. n Symptoms can come and go, ease over time or worsen.

– OCD is thought to be caused by a lack of serotonin in the brain and treatment usually consists of medication, psychotherapy or a combination of both.

If you think you or someone you know may have OCD, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. They will refer you to a professional who can help.