She used to wash obsessively until her hands bled, run up and down the stairs 270 times before breakfast of half a Weet-Bix and water, and was locked in a hell where the number four ruled her life, forcing her into senseless rituals of twisting door knobs and turning pages four times, believing if she didn’t she would die.
After 10 years of crippling anxiety, hiding her symptoms in shame, now 23-year-old Genevieve Mora is speaking out to remove the stigma around anxiety disorders.
She runs an organisation, Voices of Hope, with a friend, and on Monday is speaking at the organisation’s first public event to raise awareness about mental illness.
“I’m sharing my own experience because I want others to feel less ashamed,” says Mora.
It was not easy to open up.
“It was something I had been putting off for months and months. One night, I was lying in bed thinking about all the reasons why I didn’t want to share my story [and] I decided I had to do it.
“How was the stigma going to change, how [would] future generations and those suffering not feel ashamed unless I spoke out, told my story and let people know that it’s okay to not be okay and that you can get through.”
Mora feels that there is less public understanding about anxiety and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder than depression.
“It’s amazing that depression is being spoken about a lot more openly than it used to be, and I hope that other mental illnesses begin to get discussed more openly too. Many mental illnesses work together. In my case, OCD, depression, anorexia and anxiety.
“Until recently I was happy to talk openly about them all, but kept my eating disorder a secret. I felt a massive sense of shame and worried hugely that people would judge me for my past.
“Eating is such a huge part of our culture and people find it hard to understand why I couldn’t just eat and be better. If only it was that easy.”
CD is defined as having obsessive, uncontrollable thoughts and performing deliberate repetitive actions. It usually starts during childhood or in teenage years and is genetic.
For some it can be a minor irritation, but for others it can become a debilitating illness.
According to the Mental health Foundation, the most effective treatment is a combination of psychological therapy and medication, which is succesful in 80-90 per cent of cases.
Mora says OCD is often not taken seriously. “It’s a term that is thrown around a lot – for example: ‘My room is so clean, I’m so OCD’. I just brush it off, but it is a little frustrating, as my struggle with OCD nearly killed me and it’s a very real and huge issue for many people.”
Mora thinks there needs to be more recognition about how anxiety can affect young people – and the fact it is on the rise.
“There’s a lot of pressure on young people not only with study commitments but social media which could be playing a big part in this rise.
“What people post on social platforms often doesn’t depict their reality. It’s easy to post an edited pic and look like your life is perfect, but everyone has a story and nobody is happy 24/7. Everyone has bad days.
“There’s a lot of pressure to act and be a certain way. I’ll often see girls commenting ‘my goal’ on a picture of someone that has been edited.”
Mora thinks schools need to speak more openly about mental illness.
“I know for a fact that there were at least 10 girls in my year at school fighting a silent battle when I was.
“Having programmes set in place within schools is important. We recently got back from a nationwide school tour and at one school the kids we talked to were as young as 11. We had kids coming up to us after and thanking us and wanting to talk because they now knew that they needed some help in dealing with what they were feeling.”
Her own anxiety began at just 10 years old, when she started to worry about leaving the house because of “an irrational fear of teenagers”.
She would wash her hands till they bled, and performed rituals from the moment she woke until the moment she got to sleep. If she didn’t complete rituals such as doing things in fours she believed there would be terrible consquences.
“I thought either my parents or sister would die or I would die or someone I love would get hurt in a car crash.”
She turned to food and exercise, “to find something I could control”.
Eating too became an obsession. “I would run 270 times up and down the stairs before allowing myself breakfast of half a Weet-Bix with water.”
“I began to hate life, hate myself, and wished myself dead. I would wake up each morning and wish I hadn’t.
“I ate less and less to the point where I was barely eating at all and exercising a few hours a day”.
When her weight plummeted to dangerous levels – she weighed just 48kg despite being 184cm – she was referred to hospital.
She packed an overnight bag. In the end she stayed for 12 weeks.
“There are a lot of people who are struggling terribly with no place to go, who are turned away from hospital because they haven’t attempted to take their life, even though they are suicidal.
“I was one of the lucky ones to get the intense treatment I did because I was physically in danger.”
In hospital she met someone who became significant in her own recovery – a 2-year-old girl with a chronic illness, which made Mora want to fight against her own illness.
“She and her family became a massive part of my journey and to this day are some of the most important people in my life. I often talk about her as ‘the silver lining’ of my hideous illness. I cannot imagine life without her.”
Despite this, she says it is a “tough battle”.
“Fighting a mental illness takes huge strength, and it shouldn’t be seen as a weakness. It’s an exhausting battle, trying to do the opposite of what the nasty voices in your head are telling you to do 24 hours a day.
“Every part of me wanted to be well again, to be socialising with friends, eating freely, to be able to read a book without having to read the page four times.”
Nadine Isler, Registered Psychologist at Anxiety New Zealand, said anxiety disorders were on the rise though experts were not clear on exactly why.
“It can affect almost every area of a person’s life – their relationships, their health, their life goals and of course general mental health – the individual may believe they are the only ones who suffer from these thoughts and compulsions, feel guilty, or as though they are ‘going crazy’.”
Isler said symptoms could show up as early as pre-school age, though it often went undiagnosed until a few years later.
“There is help though, and with help comes hope. I have enormous respect for anyone who has recognised they have a problem and does the hard work to get well … it’s certainly not easy, but definitely worth it.”
Now well, Mora lives in Auckland and works as a teacher aide while auditioning for acting roles, and the organisation Voices of Hope also takes up a lot of her time.
Since making a YouTube video of her experience she has been overwhelmed with support from people she knows and strangers from all over the world.
“It gives people hope and that’s more than I could have wished for … I made myself very vulnerable but it has all been so worth it.
“I feel a huge weight off my shoulders. I can live authentically and I am proud of where I am today.”
She has a message for other young people experiencing anxiety symptoms.
“People need to learn to love themselves and not compare themselves to others. Easier said than done, I know. Social pressure can create a lot of anxiety.
“It’s also important to acknowledge that some mental illnesses have no cause other than some of us are born with a tendency to depression or anxiety.
“But whatever the reason it’s vital to reach out and get help.”
How to fight: an evening focusing on the practical ways to fight suicidal thinking and mental illness
Monday, 7pm to 8pm
EVENT Cinemas, Westfield Albany.
WHERE TO GET HELP:
If you are worried about your or someone else’s mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call police immediately on 111.
OR IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE ELSE:
LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
SUICIDE CRISIS HELPLINE: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633
NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)
KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
WHATSUP: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
DEPRESSION HELPLINE: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
SAMARITANS: 0800 726 666
There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.