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As a mum with OCD, this is how I handle the Christmas overwhelm

Jennifer Sizeland, 37, a journalist, lives with her partner and two-year-old son in Manchester. She used to work in television but quit to become a writer after he was born. Here, she shares how she manages her OCD at Christmas.

Jennifer Sizeland was diagnosed with OCD at 30, which helped her understand why she found Christmas so overwhelming. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland was diagnosed with OCD at 30, which helped her understand why she found Christmas so overwhelming. (Supplied)

The festive season can be triggering, but there are ways you can make it less anxiety-inducing. While my son's enjoyment is the most important thing, I know I need to look after myself too.

"You can’t have kids until you sort out your mental health problems," a friend of mine bluntly stated on a country walk together a few years ago. I’d just told her about my later-in-life OCD diagnosis at the age of 30. I didn’t have much choice but to agree, even though I didn’t feel good about the subtext that I was too 'messed up' to have the kids that everyone else was allowed to have.

Fast forward to now, and I’m 37 and living in Manchester with my long-term partner and our two-year-old son. So yes, I did get to a much better place, but in common with many women who become mothers, my mental health was severely tested by his arrival. Now, big events like Christmas and birthdays threaten to overwhelm me in a way like never before.

While I’m aware that the phrase 'I’m a little bit OCD' is bandied around, I’m not sure people understand how truly terrifying it is to be ruled by intrusive thoughts.

Back when I was 30, I’d had similar thoughts to my friend but the idea that I would need to delay motherhood until I was 'mentally well' enough made me feel like it would never happen.

At the time, I was working in a highly pressured role as a broadcast assistant in a TV news gallery, making sure the bulletins ran on schedule. The stress of the job was a massive trigger for my anxiety which made my OCD symptoms the worst they’ve ever been.

I had a four-hour commute on public transport every weekday and at weekends I couldn’t get out of bed. The shifts were long, and between being at work and travelling there, I honestly felt trapped in my own life. So, ultimately I had to admit that my friend was right and I couldn’t bring a child into my world when I was in such a bad place mentally.

Jennifer Sizeland gave up a stressful career in television to become a writer after her son was born. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland gave up a stressful career in television to become a writer after her son was born. (Supplied)

Growing up with OCD

While I’m aware that the phrase 'I’m a little bit OCD' is merrily bandied around, I’m not sure how many people understand how truly terrifying it is to be ruled by intrusive thoughts and compulsions. I always say that OCD is a shape-shifter, every time a thought or compulsion loses its power over you, another one morphs into its place to achieve the same effect.

As a child, I wouldn’t eat any food that I’d touched with my fingers. When I was in my twenties, I had an intense knife phobia and I threw away all my sharp ones as I couldn’t be in a room with them. There have been times when I haven’t been able to eat a meal in case swallowing it meant that I would be agreeing to something bad happening.

I’ve always been open about my mental health problems, even as a teenager when I had depression.

I’ve always been open about my mental health problems, even as a teenager when I had depression and I was treated as strange by some of my friends for being open about it. One of those friends told me to meditate in order to 'get over it,' so I’m relieved the conversation around mental health is much more nuanced and understanding now than it was then.

I have known my partner since I lived with him at university so he has always been supportive of the struggles I’ve had and I know it's been hard on him at times.

After I had my son, it took a few days for the anxiety and OCD to kick in. I went into a state of panic as I just didn’t know what my life looked like anymore. I was terrified of him drowning and I would avoid going into the bathroom with him, even when the bath was empty as my fear was so strong.

I was five months' pregnant when we moved house, so I didn’t know the area very well and the overwhelm quickly set in as suddenly I had no time to myself, as well as a very limited ability to make money. Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to Christmas at all when I felt that way.

Jennifer Sizeland's anxiety and OCD got worse after the birth of her son. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland's anxiety and OCD got worse after the birth of her son. (Supplied)

The pressure of Christmas

In my late twenties, I really started to resent Christmas as the change in routine, travel, trying to get all of my work finished, securing a new freelance job for the next year, buying presents on little money and having no time to do any of these things was a big anxiety trigger. The family arguments and lack of any calming alone time also didn’t help.

When I was 29, I had a flat tyre and it wasn’t changed properly so the new one also went down and then my electricity went off due to the washing machine leaking. My partner was already with his family down South so I had to deal with all of this alone on Christmas Eve. I was having palpitations and desperate for someone to tell me that I didn’t have to celebrate and grant me permission to stay at home.

One Christmas I was having palpitations and desperate for someone to tell me that I didn’t have to celebrate and could stay at home.

When I was finally diagnosed with OCD at the age of 30, it all started to make sense as to why I hated this 'most wonderful time of year' so much.

I spent one Christmas away in Sri Lanka and it was such a relief to avoid the Christmas stress and admin, as the truth was I didn’t have the time or energy to put into it.

Jennifer Sizeland spent Christmas 2018 in Sri Lanka to escape the stress of the festive season. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland spent Christmas 2018 in Sri Lanka to escape the stress of the festive season. (Supplied)

Creating our own Christmas

We would also go away every New Year as it was one of the few breaks away from our relentless work schedules as my partner also worked in TV. However, I knew that once I had my son, that would all change, as it would be all about him and not about us.

Now I put more boundaries in place to stop myself from becoming anxious and overwhelmed.

When we had our first Christmas day with our four-month-old baby, we ordered a sushi platter and stayed at home, something that I would thoroughly recommend. We watched a Christmas film and didn’t have to travel anywhere or worry about cooking, which made life much easier.

Now that he’s older, I see family as before but I put more boundaries in place to stop myself from becoming anxious and overwhelmed, which both make my OCD worse. My partner is all for them too as he is happy to do anything to make Christmas run more smoothly.

Jennifer Sizeland says one of her happiest Christmasses was when she and her partner stayed home and ordered sushi with their son. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland says one of her happiest Christmasses was when she and her partner stayed home and ordered sushi with their son. (Supplied)

Keeping calm at Christmas

Of course, feelings of anxiety or stress are not exclusive to having OCD as Christmas can be an overwhelming time for many parents. So these are the changes I have made to my festive preparations and the day itself so that I can better manage or prevent feelings of being overwhelmed:

  • I give myself permission to be alone for an hour after my son has gone to bed so I don't have to feel obliged to 'perform for family' as I find it too exhausting.

  • I keep my son's routine as similar as possible, building in festive fun but without letting the Christmas inertia set in when people start to get bored and frustrated.

  • I plan and wrap my presents in advance as it’s easier to budget and allows me to tick them off the list.

  • I have mini 'Christmas parties' with my friends where we take a few hours to do something silly or fun like an escape room before we return home for our familial duties.

  • I only ask for inexpensive gifts as I can’t afford to buy anyone expensive presents and the festive season is a time of financial anxiety for me as a freelancer. It’s also important not to assume that people want loads of presents at Christmas, especially children as they can sometimes become overwhelmed with all the gifts that they receive.

  • If I give myself enough time I can involve my son in food preparation or tidying like making stuffing or loading the dishwasher.

  • I make a packing list for everything I need to take with me as I travel to avoid the stress of forgetting something that my son needs.

  • I plan to do things on my own, like going for a walk for 30 minutes so I can enjoy a bit of time without any responsibility.

  • I do 'tag-team parenting' with my partner so that one of us can take care of cooking, packing or chores while the other one looks after the child.

  • I'm forgiving of myself if I do feel anxious or overwhelmed. It’s impossible to manage every feeling and not everything can be planned in advance, so I accept it if I do instead of judging myself.

Jennifer Sizeland allows herself pockets of 'me time' at Christmas such as short solo walks. (Supplied)
Jennifer Sizeland allows herself pockets of 'me time' at Christmas such as short solo walks. (Supplied)

Embracing imperfection

My approach to Christmas now is that the changes I’ve made mostly affect me so I think as long as they get to see my son, the family are usually happy. The benefit of being a parent is that the focus is on your child during the festive season and not on you!

While it's not easy being a parent with a mental illness, it is still very possible to make lasting Christmas memories for your children without making yourself suffer unnecessarily at the end of the year. Motherhood can be painful with OCD but I feel like parenting him is healing as I accept the imperfection, vulnerability and unprocessed emotions that it reveals in me – it's an opportunity to let go and I do my best to take it.