Unstoppable: How Helena Tarrant has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Obsessive…

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Unstoppable: How Helena Tarrant has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

The illness is there all the time. You can’t detach yourself from your own head so you can’t get a break from yourself. Most illnesses and disabilities can be ‘set aside’ for an hour or two from time to time via a positive distraction like watching a film or getting involved in something. Not so with OCD.

As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helena Tarrant.

Helena is a writer, cartoonist and OCD advocate who recovered from debilitating, long-term OCD and anxiety via therapy and self-management. She now works to dispel the myths and stigma surrounding these conditions to help sufferers and supporters. Her book, Beating OCD and Anxiety, 75 tried and tested strategies for sufferers and their supporters is based on her own recovery notes. Containing 100 original cartoons, it is a short, practical and accessible self-help guide which is fast becoming a must-read for therapists and sufferers alike.

After spending many years in the corporate world Helena now concentrates on writing and illustration and splits her time between London and Exmoor in the UK. She is currently working on her second book A Cartoon Guide to OCD: a story of recovery from a hidden disability for everybody from 12 upwards. Details of Helena’s books and cartoons are on her website: https://helenacartoonist.com .

Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My earliest memory that I can recognise as being connected with OCD was lying awake in bed in a state of panic, at the age of seven or so. On my way home I had trodden on a leaf. I wanted to tread on it twice, because I had a compulsion to do everything an even number of times, but had to keep up with my family, so I only trod on it once. That night I felt an extreme sense of desperation and couldn’t sleep.

14 years later I was bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding. The photographer took a lovely picture of me, although it looks as if I am wearing red gloves — my hands were always raw from over-washing.

About five years after this wedding I worked in a small office where I was usually the last to leave. I finished at 5.30pm but never got out of the office before 6.15pm, because I had to do endless rounds of repeated checking of locks, windows, machines and doors.

I don’t know how or why my OCD developed. It is known that OCD has both genetic and environmental causes, and this is probably true of me. As a child I was deeply sensitive and tended to withdraw into my own world of made-up characters and places which I brought to life for myself by drawing them. Our family always had cats, and talking to them and playing with them was another place of refuge for me.

My brother is severely autistic, and life at home when I was a young child was very tense. He is the eldest, and I have a younger sister. Despite the difficulty of home life for all of us I was essentially a perfectly ordinary child, enjoying friends, hobbies and holidays. My family lived in a quiet leafy part of south west London. I always knew I wanted to be an artist or creative writer, or both.

Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?

That early episode of lying awake at night was part of a growing realization that I had more worry than other people and panicked over things which other people weren’t bothered about. I was desperately afraid a lot of the time. The fear was of imagined scenarios in my head, which were far more frightening than anything happening externally. I couldn’t socialize or fit in in the way that my playmates did, and always kept the fear and worry to myself. To try to control the fear and anxiety I started all sorts of rituals and compulsions. I didn’t know that I had an illness, I just thought that everyone else was either very brave or a bit foolhardy about life. So, in as far as I thought about it, I knew that something was wrong but I didn’t know something was wrong with me.

By the time I was in my early twenties I had to all outward appearances been leading a normal life but it was becoming an impossible struggle. Life was completely dominated by terrible fear, my checking and number obsessions, intrusive thoughts, contamination fears, rituals I had to perform — either outwardly or in my head –and the constant need for reassurance. One of the worst things about my OCD was that I had to keep hiding it. Ritualizing, continual handwashing, difficulties with handling food, obsessions and compulsions all needed mini ‘cover-scenarios’ to hide my bizarre and crazy-looking behaviours from other people. Constant reassurance-seeking, although I tried to hide it by asking slightly different questions each time, made me come across as stupid. I had to build extra time into my day in secret to make time for all the ritualizing. There was no let-up.

By my mid-twenties I had made several approaches for help, which had not ended in anything useful, partly because I hadn’t heard of OCD and still didn’t know what I was dealing with. Most doctors apparently didn’t either. I tended not to be taken seriously, my problems were usually attributed to gynecological causes (there was nothing unusual) and I was diverted into the wrong kind of treatment. At last at the age of 27 I had been properly assessed and was on the waiting list for the correct therapy at a psychiatric clinic in London.

This was the point at which I clearly remember making the mental shift to not let my OCD stop me.

I knew that the therapy was going to be tough. I had a very clear picture of being on a path which was about to fork. I could go the hard way, ie into therapy, putting my trust in specialists and hoping that the result would be at least partly successful. I would be living in a world which expected the same of me as it did of other people, and working with others who would have no idea about my OCD or my constant inward battles.

Or I could go the easy way. I could throw my hands up and be an OCD victim. I would receive state benefits and disability allowances and be able to explain to other people that I was unable to do certain things because my OCD prevented it. I would gain sympathy and work for employers which might even make allowances for me, or not work at all. I could go back into psychiatric treatment or even into hospital if I was failing to cope. In short, I could bypass many of the usual demands of life.

I decided to take the hard way, although the outcome wasn’t certain because there were no guarantees as to the effectiveness of the treatment. I strove for a normal life because I didn’t intend to be an OCD victim. I have never regretted this decision. Although I still have OCD (because it isn’t curable as such) I have learned over the years to manage it to the extent that it hardly impedes my life at all. Like many illnesses it increases in times of stress and I have coping strategies for that. My ambition was to live the life I wanted — to be unstoppable — despite the crushing disability of OCD.

Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?

My first main accomplishment was enabling myself to live a normal life like everyone else.

Success in normal circumstances would generally look like, for example, a successful high-achieving career with a level of eminence, a certain standard of living, comfortable wealth and status, a stable and long-lasting relationship, in short a life which many would envy.

OCD changes all your reference points. Depending on how badly debilitated you are, for someone with OCD, success might mean holding down a job, sustaining a relationship, living independently or being self-sufficient. You are successful if you are able to do just one or two of these if you have a disability. If my OCD had continued the way it started, I would have been quite likely by now to have been in some kind of supported living, with state financial support, and without any of the expectations from life — such as a relationship, children, career or friends — really being possible. Therefore my biggest accomplishment has been to live a ‘normal’ life with the same expectations from life as everyone else.

Apart from enjoying a truly blessed existence these days, there have been accomplishments in addition to working out a life for myself. One is my successful raising of my autistic son, who now enjoys a fulfilled and independent life of his own, despite his early struggles. Another is my book, Beating OCD and Anxiety, 75 tried and tested strategies for sufferers and their supporters. I have gone on to establish a successful career in writing and illustration, fulfilling my childhood wish.

Ironically my OCD, rather than stopping me, is probably part of what has made me unstoppable. The therapy I underwent to recover, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), is very effective but very tough. It needed large reserves of discipline and tenacity, and also courage, because I was constantly having to face my fears. Consequently I am very disciplined and tenacious, which are useful qualities for anyone working freelance and pushing to get their work published. I also have the confidence to know I can face any situation which life might throw at me.

What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?

It’s always helpful to remember the things you have to be thankful for. You might have a disability, but supportive family or friends or a particular friend. And you will have one or more things which you are good at which can be developed to give you confidence and define you apart from your disability. I have always been very thankful for my drawing talent which throughout life has given me a means of expression and a certain level of respect, even in the midst of crises of confidence. Thankfully my disability doesn’t interfere with it. Different people have different talents, which might not be as obvious as things like drawing or acting. It might be for example something like a special affinity with animals. But if you can find the thing or things you are good at and develop them, it helps the focus to be on you rather than your disability.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

Without doubt my strongest help is my partner. Although we got together after I had lived with my OCD for many years, he has committed himself to me unreservedly despite this problem and, moreover, has enabled me to channel my creative energy to produce my writing and illustration, both practically and by sharing thoughts and insights. He is always ready to help me implement my coping strategies for OCD, having taken the trouble to learn how OCD works and what to do, and, as importantly, what not to do, if I am in difficulties. His faith in me and my abilities has been crucial to my success.

The doctor who first treated me using CBT was a very important figure when I was first diagnosed. Had he not been so good at what he did, I might not have been able to pursue the treatment and my life might have turned out very differently.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Bringing goodness to the world is very high on my agenda. Some people have the wherewithal to be of help to millions, others can make the world a better place by just giving a warm word to someone else, but there is room for all of us to bring goodness to the world.

My first book has been of help to a large number of people with OCD, and their supporters, and I am really thrilled about this. The reason I wrote it was to support people with this terrible debilitating and hidden disability. I hope my second book will be equally successful in reaching out. It’s also great when I see that my Instagram tips are helpful to others.

I have plans to work with schools and charities to help with OCD awareness and support in the lives of young people.

Please visit my website helenacartoonist.com to see more details of my work. My Instagram handle is TheOCDCartoonist.

Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with OCD “ and why.

  1. The illness is there all the time. You can’t detach yourself from your own head so you can’t get a break from yourself. Most illnesses and disabilities can be ‘set aside’ for an hour or two from time to time via a positive distraction like watching a film or getting involved in something. Not so with OCD.
  2. The illness is hidden. A person with OCD is unable to apply for help easily, and no one will think to offer, because their affliction is invisible. OCD sufferers are also constantly having to hide their OCD behaviours for being thought strange or even crazy, and this is difficult and demoralizing.
  3. The illness is exhausting. Someone with OCD is, at any given time, likely to be working very hard and using a lot of energy at that very moment, just to be able to operate in the world around them.
  4. OCD isn’t a personality trait or a quirk. It has entered the popular language to mean someone who is tidy or obsessed about something — eg “my partner’s so OCD about his car”. OCD is a highly debilitating and distressing illness which should not be belittled.
  5. A person who is successfully managing significant OCD is a strong, tenacious person who never takes life for granted.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.

George Bernard Shaw

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂

Bill Gates. He has insightful knowledge about mental health and is a great philanthropist. It would be a dream to work with his people to set up a worldwide network to provide access to OCD help resources and stop reduce OCD stigma.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Unstoppable: How Helena Tarrant has Redefined Success While Navigating Society With Obsessive… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.