Interview and photographs by Samantha Moss
Izzy Votsis is a writer and artist based in Melbourne. When she’s not creating she spends her time adoring all dogs everywhere.
Can you tell us about your experience with OCD? What does OCD look like to you and how does it affect your daily life?
I’ve had intrusive thoughts since I was a kid, most people do. This is why I didn’t find out that what I was actually dealing with was Obsessive Compulsive Disorder until only last year.
What differentiates OCD from your standard intrusive thoughts is the fact that obsessive thoughts persist. Instead of being able to let these thoughts go easily, I engage in compulsions to be rid of the distress. This can include thinking certain phrases over and over in my head, touching things amount of times, eating excessive amounts of food or checking things x amount of times. As the disorder manifests itself mentally, I can be dealing with intrusive thoughts for hours and it will be almost undetectable to the people around me. Because OCD is an anxiety-centralised disorder, your brain takes what you are most afraid of and uses thoughts about that to illicit constant fear. For me this most prominently include’s thoughts of hurting other people, especially people I care about. To counteract these distressing and often very visual thoughts I will think phrases like ‘I would never hurt anyone’ and say that to myself over and over in my head. Unlike Schizophrenia, where you hear voices that aren’t yours, intrusive thoughts have your own voice and sound like you. This makes it difficult to distinguish between what thoughts are truly your own and which thoughts are symptomatic of the disorder. As these thoughts are consistent throughout most of the day, they create difficulty focussing on normal activities like keeping a conversation or driving. Anytime I experience heightened anxiety for any reason, it’s almost guaranteed that my obsessive compulsive thoughts will increase drastically.
What was your experience seeking help within the Australian healthcare system and being
diagnosed with OCD?
It took me years to be diagnosed with OCD, which isn’t uncommon for the illness. I had been
exhibiting symptoms since I was about seven years-old and honestly just thought that the intrusive thoughts I was experiencing weren’t signs of OCD. To me, (thanks to constant misrepresentation of OCD in the media) OCD was washing your hands a lot or sanitising everything. OCD wasn’t meant to be experiencing crippling fear that you were going to hurt the people you care about. It wasn’t until I tried therapy that I was formally diagnosed by my psych that I still see now. I’m super grateful that I’ve had mostly good experiences with doctors and psychologists because I know that isn’t always the case for people who suffer with mental health issues.
What have you implemented into your daily life/routine to help maintain/combat your OCD?
For me, how I interact with my intrusive thoughts is key to combating my OCD. Labelling these
harmful thoughts as intrusive and not taking them on as something that is absolute fact has been imperative to my recovery. Something that really helped me was understanding the idea that your brain can lie to you. For me I had to learn how to distinguish between the lies and truth I would tell myself before I could loosen the grip that OCD held on my life. Mindfulness practices have also been really helpful. My favourite apps to practice it, are ‘Breathe’ and ‘Act Companion’.
How have you taken control of your own healing process and what advice would you give
others wanting/trying to help themselves?
I think it’s important to figure out what works for you personally in terms of healing. Some people with OCD won’t benefit from traditional therapy, so creative practices can be really helpful. For me that outlet is writing because it allows me to get all my thoughts out and focus on something that isn’t my own brain. I definitely think it is essential to consult a GP or psychologist at least from time to time just to make sure you’re on the right track. From personal experience, it can be really difficult to monitor your own progress objectively. There are so many different kinds of therapies that can benefit people who have OCD so definitely do your research and try out anything that encourages you to be mindful and feel good about yourself.
How has writing helped you as a creative outlet for your mental illness?
Writing has transformed the way I deal with mental illness. Having an outlet to call out the way
people talk about this disorder and reflect back on the way that traditional media talks about the
illness really helps me to find empowerment in the disorder rather than being debilitated by it.
It also makes for a great distraction from intrusive thoughts and allows me to immerse myself by focussing completely on a task. I’m honestly so grateful for this outlet. I hope to one day write a book on my experiences with the disorder to help other people who are experiencing it too.
Can you tell us about your experience with stigma in regard to discussion surrounding
mental health both in your life and in the media and how you are trying to raise awareness
through your writing?
Something that pisses me off to no end is this whole “I’m so OCD” bullshit. People who treat this
disorder as a quirky character trait and not as the debilitating mental illness it is need to learn that it’s not okay to do that. Questions like, ‘Are You Sure You Have OCD?’ also absolutely kill me. Yes, I’m sure! Would you like to consult my psychologist? Perhaps you can both liaise and talk about my potential treatment options! I think the biggest issue facing all mental health awareness is just pure ignorance and lack of education. Mainstream media attention regarding OCD truly needs to be taken with a grain of salt, unless you’re actually consulting mental health organisations like Headspace.
What is your experience coming to terms with the fact that your OCD will be with you in
some way or another your whole life?
Realising for the first time that I’ll have OCD for the rest of my life was horrible. When I fully
understood this at the beginning of my diagnosis, I became a totally different person. I didn’t want to go anywhere, do anything, or see anyone anymore. I think now I am a lot better at dealing with this truth because I’ve realised that while this may be something that is with me forever, the bad patches can only last so long. Understanding that my tolerance for intrusive thoughts will get better makes me hopeful. It’s actually kind of exciting to think that one day this disorder won’t dictate so much of my brain.
Do you have any final tips, tricks or advice that you have picked up along the way/gained
from your experience that may be helpful to others?
I think the best advice I can give to anyone in a similar situation is: if you’re concerned about
having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, talk to a healthcare professional that you trust. My journey with this mental illness has had a lot of downs and it’s only really been this last month or so that I feel like I’m starting to find my groove again. To those who have been suffering for a while: know that if there’s downs there will be ups again. Surround yourself with people who have your best interest at heart and throw yourself into anything that makes you feel good. It can be so easy to feel like a crazy person when you have this illness, but as long as you really take the time to practice self-care and be kind to yourself and others around you, anything you encounter will become more manageable over time. As redundant as it sounds, hang in there and the rest will work itself out.