Antrim man uses his own experience to help others 'be free from OCD'

PAUL McCarroll was just 15-years-old when he began to experience the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

OCD is a mental illness that causes repeated unwanted thoughts or sensations or the urge to do something over and over again.

Some people can have both obsessions and compulsions - a common complaint is hand washing or bathing excessively to rid the mind of unwanted thoughts and the carrying out of multiple rituals as the person tries to get control over their situation.

Twenty years ago, the condition wasn’t well known or talked about, and Paul struggled hugely.

“I thought I was going mad. I thought I was a maniac,” he said.

Eventually he was withdrawn from school and things got so bad that he was hospitalised.

“I’m from a very loving, caring, supportive working class family, but my problems developed in my teenage years.” said Paul.

“I found the very rigorous push for academia at school very stressful and overwhelming and I began to experience unwanted thoughts.

“I didn’t know what was going on and there was a real stigma around mental health, I thought I was going crazy, my thoughts were not making sense and yet there was no history of mental health issues in me or anyone in my family.

“It took a long time to get a diagnosis. This was going on since adolescence and it took a hospital admission before I started to get the right treatment and support.”

With the help of medical professionals, family and friends, Paul got his life back on track, but he felt left behind.

“I left hospital when I was 17. My mates were all looking forward to going to university and I didn’t have a qualification to my name.”

However Paul decided to use his experience to help other people.

“The ‘wounded becomes the healer’ maxim really resonates with me,” he said.

“I had belief in my own ability to get well and my real motivation was when I got well, I would use the things that I had learned to help others, so that they would not have to go through the things that I had.”

Paul began to study extensively and he went on to achieve a Level 5 Advanced Diploma in the Theory of Integrative counselling and he is now a Peer Recovery Trainer,Wellness Recovery Action Planning (WRAP) Facilitator and I has trained in Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Mindfulness and Exposure & Response Prevention(ERP).

And he now works as a mental health trainer from Holywell Hospital, the place where he first received dedicated help for his condition.

“For a long time I would have refrained from telling people I was an inpatient, but in reality it has been the cornerstone of the work that I do - I know how my clients feel, because I have been there.”

Paul also runs his own service, Be Free From OCD, and over lockdown has been helping people all over the world, including South East Asia and the USA.

Mindfulness is a huge part of Paul’s work.

“When I first heard about Mindfulness, I thought it was about Buddhist monks, going up the Himalayas, chanting and spending all day in silence - I thought, how can that have impact on my everyday life?

“But it is actually hugely important, just to focus on being in the present, it can be applied to every area of your life.

“At one time I was always looking for the answer, the magic want to eradicate all the difficult feelings, I became a bit of a self-help junkie.

“But it takes time. It is a process. You can’t set yourself unrealistic targets. You have to take things day by day.

“For me, it’s the acceptance part of mindfulness that really helps me, such as recognising thoughts are just thoughts and by doing my breathing exercises.

“There is a saying in mindfulness meditation that you come to it when you’ve tried everything else and yes, I did try everything else.

“I have tried other avenues and I did take anti-depressant medication.

Paul explained that OCD in these terms: “If you and your friend hiked to the top of a mountain, one person might think ‘what would happen if I jumped off the top?’.

“That person might acknowledge the thought, then think, no, that was not a thought that is deserving of my attention, and would prioritise looking at the view and then trying to get back down the mountain before it got dark.

“The other person would think, what does this mean about me? Am I weird? Am I suicidal? And it would lead to a constellation of other thoughts, they would become afraid and overwhelmed and it would not leave their head.

“I deal with clients who have washed their hands, don’t feel clean or think they have not completed the task properly, then spend long periods of time at the sink, and get associated problems like red hands.

“It can become a real debilitating thing, I have worked with clients spending two or three hours in the shower.

“A common theme is continual thinking, they are consumed with what is going on in their mind.

“By the time people come to see me, their OCD is affecting their work, their family, their hobbies, they are essentially chewing the cud, over and over again, it is taking away from their quality of life.

“Humans worry, that is part of life, but most people can manage and regulate those worries.

“When those worries stop you from performing simple tasks or going about your daily business, then it is a real problem.

“A lot of clients are always living in the future, thinking about the worst case scenario, all the things that could go wrong, and it takes over their every waking moment.”

Paul says that while there is no definitive cure for OCD, there are many ways to help minimise it.

“Part of acceptance and commitment therapy could be working with someone who feels they have to wash their hands ten times before they leave the house.

“Not doing that may seem like an insurmountable task. So we see, can we try nine times? And try not to progress to the tenth time?

“That would mean less time at the sink, more time with the kids, more time pursuing the life you want to live.

“There are a lot of similarities to addiction therapies. You don’t need to shell out for two day silent retreats or a Bikram yoga course.

“We are not going to be able to magically make this stuff go away immediately, but we can manage and make it more liveable with.

“If I tell you not to think of a pink elephant, most people will think of a pink elephant.

“If you try and avoid the thoughts, you can make things worse.

“The problem evolves when you try too hard to get rid of those feelings of anxiety and you might try other ways of dealing with it, like alcohol, or zoning out or suppressing it.”

He added: “If you are in a restaurant and there is background music, it’s better to acknowledge that the music is on in the background and you don’t have to give it your full attention.

“It is better to put your time and energy into the meal and the people you are with and doing what matters.

“The unwanted thoughts become less dominant and dictating.”

Paul said that putting the unwanted thoughts in another voice or to a song is another technique to minimise the impact.

One of his wellness tools that he shares with clients is getting out in the fresh air and getting active.

During Mental Health Week, he recently told clients at the Northern Regional Recovery College, based at Holywell: “I am very fortunate to have beautiful scenery near me. Some days when I finish work I like to go for a walk at the lough shore or around the Castle Gardens - both being in Antrim.

“Getting out in the fresh air, appreciating the lovely scenery and doing a bit of exercise helps to improve my mood and regulates any stress or anxiety that I may be feeling.

“Another favourite location of mine is Shaw’s Bridge in Belfast. There are lovely walks, great scenery and a coffee shop so I can stop and have a coffee en route. I often bring my son with me and we both enjoy the fresh air and all of the many things to see and do.

“So during this Mental Health Awareness Week, I would encourage you to spend a bit of time in nature - whether that is spending time in your garden, going for a walk or sitting in your car appreciating the view of one of your local beauty spots.”

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