Sam is 23 and works full-time in Wellington. Originally from Milton Keynes in England, he has lived in Aotearoa for more than 13 years.
Sam remembers what it was like to live through another worldwide virus – H1N1, or the Swine flu. He was 13 at the time and recalls seeing news reports as it spread across the world.
“I remember my father telling me on a few occasions to make sure I was sanitising my hands after touching things in public. It was scary at the time because people didn’t really know what would happen with it,” he says.
Initially, Sam didn’t think that H1N1 had impacted him at all. However, looking back he realised that public messages around keeping yourself clean had contributed to a change in his thoughts and behaviour.
He started to experience obsessive thoughts around other people’s saliva, worrying that any saliva landing on him might contaminate him. These thoughts escalated rapidly, and he found himself avoiding touching things like stationery and making regular trips to the school bathroom to wash his hands. It impacted his ability to continue with his usual life, so he and his family decided to visit a GP, and then a psychiatrist.
Sam was formally diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Over the next two years, he saw a lot of changes in his mental health – at first it rapidly declined, and then he experienced an almost-complete recovery due to a change in his medication.
Less than a year later, he found that his obsessive thoughts had returned. The obsessive thoughts were no longer around saliva, though – they now centred on faeces and urine and the uncomfortable feeling of dirtiness they can bring.
“The obsessive thoughts just all came back, to the point where again, I was struggling to maintain a normal life. That’s sort of been the case ever since, really.
“OCD is one of those things that’s incredibly fluid, it can just change all the time. My original compulsions have remained, but what is troubling me has changed.”
Now, in the midst of Covid-19, Sam is “still figuring out” if a new, related obsession is forming.
“I went to the supermarket for the first time last week and I did find that when I came home with the groceries I was quite concerned about different things I brought home being contaminated with Covid-19.”
He also worries that spending much less time outside his home might affect his progress.
“To manage OCD, you have to keep constantly exposing yourself to your fears. A lot of worries and my ways of exposure happen when I’m outside of the house, and so when I’m trapped in my safe, clean house I’m very comfortable and happy in a sense, but it’s really bad for my OCD to not be challenged at all.
“I worry that moving forward, when this does end, that I’m going to have a hard time re-adjusting back to real life.”
Sam has found some solace in Zoom calls with his psychologist, where they revisit triggering memories or online images and then try to sit with the feelings of anxiety.
“It’s definitely not the same as actually exposing yourself physically to something and then challenging your compulsion, but it’s still relatively effective just for getting used to being able to sit with the feeling of discomfort.”
On a day-to-day level Sam believes there’s little anyone else can do to help with his obsessions and compulsions, but he hasn’t appreciated those who have belittled his experiences and reinforced incorrect stereotypes around OCD during this time.
He believes the stigma around OCD stops people from talking about it.
“Around 1% of people have OCD. I can think of thousands of people I’ve met in my life and can’t think of anyone who has had any signs or who has told me they have it.
“It’s something that’s so well-hidden, and probably something that people think they’re suffering from alone, but I think it’s about time that someone did speak a bit more openly about it to make people feel less alone and more supported.”
Sam is finding that sharing his thoughts with friends and whānau, keeping himself occupied and maintaining a sense of hope around the situation is helping him to get through.
“Remind yourself that any feeling of discomfort is temporary and will not last forever - you will get through this.”
Managing sudden change and uncertainty can trigger new and old distressing thoughts or manawa pā and trauma, and remind us of situations where we’ve felt trapped, helpless or afraid.
To help, the Mental Health Foundation have worked with a registered psychologist and tangata/people who’ve been through traumatic experiences in the past to give us some quick tips on how they would manage, and are managing, the big emotions that many of us are feeling right now. You can read them here.
We all need a bit of support from time to time. If you or someone you know is struggling, there are free help and support services available.
Support is also available through the Anxiety Helpline - 0800 ANXIETY (0800 269 4389) provides free national 24/7 support, information, and advice about managing anxiety and stress, including taking callers through breathing and relaxation techniques, and supports callers to learn and practice anxiety management skills.