Nikki Murphy didn’t ever plan on having children; she didn’t think it was a possibility for her because of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). By the time Nikki reached out for professional help at 28, she couldn’t imagine ever being able to parent a child — it felt as though her OCD would make it impossible.
Today, though, Nikki and her husband have a son, and she says her treatment at Sunnybrook’s Frederick W. Thompson Anxiety Disorders Centre, combined with medication and ongoing therapy, helped to make it happen.
“Without Sunnybrook, I never would have become a mother,” Nikki says.
OCD is a psychiatric disorder that affects approximately 2.5 per cent of the population. It is characterized by obsessions or intrusive, unwanted thoughts, as well as images or impulses that are disturbing and persistent, despite efforts to resist them. Obsessions tend to be accompanied by compulsions or rituals, which are repetitive behaviours or mental acts an individual feels compelled to perform.
Living life despite fear
Nikki says her OCD behaviours and compulsions often made her feel as though she wasn’t present in her own life.
“I would always look like I was in the room, but mentally I wasn’t,” she says. “I was just trying to keep everyone safe and avoid all negative intrusive thoughts. I travelled around Europe, but I feel like I was never truly there.”
She began inpatient treatment at the Thompson Centre in January 2019, where she started immersive treatment, including one of the key treatments used for patients with OCD: exposure and response prevention (ERP). It’s a method that, in small steps, exposes patients to their fears and compulsions in order to help them manage them. Nikki says it was one of the most impactful parts of her treatment, even when it was extremely challenging.
“I can’t even explain the intensity of the fear,” she says. “Even though logically I understood it was irrational, the OCD had truly convinced me that pointing a finger at one of my family members would mean I was the reason [harm would come to them]. The fears can be so convincing; it’s unimaginable.”
But she started small, and with the support and therapy from the doctors at Sunnybrook’s Thompson Centre, Nikki began to make progress. Not because she stopped being afraid, but because she learned she could live her life despite the fear
“The Thompson Centre taught me that although life is full of risks, that is no reason to stop living the life you’ve dreamed of. You can still live your value-based life despite the fears,” she says.
Managing symptoms with a supportive community
It’s been more than three years since Nikki left the Thompson Centre, and she says although OCD is a chronic condition, she has tools and support and a community to help her manage her daily symptoms.
“OCD is forever. I face the urge to compulse daily, but I have the tools to handle it now. I can make up an ERP on the fly,” she says. “I’m doing things I’m afraid of every day, which means I’m constantly progressing.”
She says that happened in part because staff at the Thompson Centre compassionately pushed her past her limits, and now she can do the things a typical parent does with their children, things that wouldn’t have been possible for her before the Thompson Centre.
“I couldn’t touch my family before. I couldn’t dress myself, or even eat dinner with my loved ones. Now, I hug my son, we sit as a family to eat dinner. I bathe him, read him a bedtime story and get his onesie on,” Nikki says. “I give him a kiss, tell him I love him and I put him to bed. Not without anxiety, but the goal wasn’t to rid us of the anxiety. It was to prove we could live a value-based life despite the anxiety.”
Nikki says she is more present in her life now, which was one of her biggest goals when she returned home because she felt as though she had missed out on so many things in her life. One way she does this is through mindfulness practices she learned at the Thompson Centre.
A beautiful life with OCD
Parenting with OCD raises unique challenges, but the tools Nikki gained at the Thompson Centre continue to help her succeed.
“I am stronger than my OCD,” she says. “I’ve learned the importance of pulling apart the typical fears parents face from the OCD fears, and tackle each with the knowledge and compassion that the staff at the Thompson Centre instilled in me.”
It’s tough to find a moment as the mom of a busy toddler, but when Nikki does have time to reflect on what it means to be a mom while also having OCD, she says her focus is on maintaining treatment, medication and therapy to ensure her family thrives.
“My goal is to give my son a fulfilling life where he is free and comfortable to be exactly who he is,” she says. “This is my focus because it’s also my personal goal. For me, being a mom means that despite having a chronic disorder, I can live a beautiful and gratifying life.”