PUBLISHED: 23:29 15 May 2017 | UPDATED: 23:29 15 May 2017
Kiera Barlett as Miss Cromer, with TV comedian Jimmy Cricket and her fellow carnival royal family members. Picture: supplied
But, behind her sunny smile, the 18-year-old former Cromer High School student hid a secret illness that had blighted her life for more than ten years.
It affected her relationships, had a huge impact on her self-esteem and led to her spending hours every day carrying out seemingly pointless tasks and fighting off terrifying intrusive thoughts. Although she didn’t receive a diagnosis until 12 years later, Keira was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a widely misunderstood condition affecting less than 2pc of the population.
“People think that it is all about hand-washing or checking the front door is locked,” she said. “But, actually, people with severe OCD are seriously ill and, to be blunt, it can lead to some people simply not wanting to carry on living.”
Keira Bartlett (left, with brothers Serle and Elliot) pictured around the time she first began showing signs of having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Picture: supplied
Mum-of-three Keira, 41, remembers being plagued by intrusive thoughts for the first time as a six-year-old, when she lived in constant fear of being chased by the police.
“There was just an overwhelming feeling that something bad was going to happen, I had even planned my escape route,” she explained.
By the age of ten, the illness had escalated and, with her obsessions focusing around contamination, she began secretly hand washing her bedding and school uniform, before drying them on the radiator in her bedroom.
Keira Bartlett as an 18-year-old Miss Cromer in 1992. Picture: supplied
Over the years, Keira’s OCD has “morphed” many times, with her obsessions taking the form of fears that something terrible will happen to those closest to her and her compulsions leading to her carrying out “neutralising” actions in multiples of four.
If, after carrying out these compulsions, the fears are not allayed, or she is distracted, she will repeat the actions until she feels they have been done “properly”.
“It’s like sitting someone down and asking them who means the most to them and what is the worst thing that could happen to them,” she explained.
“For me, after I became a mum the thoughts were around my children – that they would get attacked, stabbed or even decapitated, or, worse, that I would do something to harm them myself.”
Because OCD is an anxiety-based illness, Keira’s symptoms become more severe at times of stress, but while her rituals have changed over the years, her morning routine of spending up to two hours bathing – often to the point of making ears or arms bleed – has been a constant for as long as she can remember.
Reactions from family, friends and acquaintances range from sympathy and concern, to disbelief and flippant remarks such as, “I’m a bit OCD myself.”
“It is hard for people to understand, even for people who are close to you,” she said.
For Keira, who lives at Cromer, a turning point came when she decided to set up a local support group for people with OCD and related conditions, eventually going on to become vice-chairman of Norfolk OCD Support.
“It was my way of coping and I think my recovery started once I set the group up and I began to recognise when I’m slipping and to know what to do to stop it,” she explained.
After attending an event run by national charity OCD Action, she was asked to become a trustee and was given the task of working with other organisations to create a charter for the charity’s 80 UK support groups.
She was then taken on as groups and communities manager and, in 2013, launched the lottery-funded project Better Together, which works in partnership with other groups to provide support, signposting services and peer supervision.
The scheme has since won further funding, with Keira and her team giving practical advice and emotional support to group leaders all over the UK, as well as running 16 online groups accessed by sufferers from as far afield as France, Brazil and Australia.
While Keira still struggles with her condition on a daily basis, she says she has “turned a negative into a positive” and, despite her battles, wouldn’t change the way she is.
“Although I feel sad about how much time OCD has taken from me, especially precious time I could have spent with my children, if there was a magic cure, I really don’t think I’d take it,” she said.
“Those horrible moments give me drive and passion to help others and give me an edge in what I do as, when someone with OCD makes contact, I totally ‘get it’.”
A daily struggle
From the moment she gets up each morning, Keira wages a constant battle with her OCD.
After taking a bath, when she washes each part of her body four times and washes, rinses and conditions her hair four times, she repeats the process in the shower, then dresses and sets off to work at Merchant’s Place, Cromer.
Here, her intrusive thoughts are on a continual roll and she will regularly have to carry out rituals – tapping her desk four times or repeating a word four times to “neutralise” intrusive thoughts.
Talking on the phone, or to office visitors, she is afraid she will say something offensive, and driving home over a bump in the road she might convince herself she has hit a pedestrian and have to get out to check.
Shopping, Keira will often buy things in fours and, if she stubs her toe, she has to hit her other foot to “even it out”.
At bedtime, she kisses her children four times or, if she is not with them, kisses the air.
What is OCD?
OCD is listed as one of the top ten debilitating disorders by the World Health Organisation.
It is characterised by obsessions – including fear of contamination, concerns about symmetry and order and fear of causing or failing to prevent harm – and compulsions, which include checking actions, rituals, washing and cleaning, repetition of phrases or actions such as counting, and seeking constant reassurance.
It is usually treated by a combination of medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
For more information, log on to the following website: www.ocdaction.org.uk or phone the Cromer office on 0303 040 1112.
Keira will be taking part in the Westminster British 10k run with son Kye, friends David and Laurenne Goldstone and colleagues Carol McKean and Connor Simmonds on July 9 to raise funds for OCD Action. To sponsor them, visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/ocdactionteamcromer