Take care of your physical health. It isn’t necessary to turn into a keep-fit guru or be skinny, just to do the usual things we are always told about. Our brains and minds are part of our physical bodies and it stands to reason that keeping our body healthy will give our mental health the best chance.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview 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 Cognitive behavioural 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, is based on her own recovery notes and containing 100 original cartoons, is a short and practical self-help guide which is fast becoming a must-read for therapists and sufferers alike.
After spending many years in the corporate world Helena is now developing her creative career and splits her time between London and Exmoor in the UK.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I grew up in Twickenham, a suburb of London, UK, with my parents, a younger sister and an elder brother. My brother is very severely autistic and never developed speech. My father was a university professor in physics, and my mother a teacher. At around age 10 I started attending church with my mother and sister, and my Christian faith remained. Because of my brother’s severe disability life at home could often be tense, and when I was a child I had a tendency to withdraw. However, I enjoyed many activities and spent a lot of time drawing, especially creating cartoon people and fantastical creatures. We always had cats, which helped me to stay calm when things were difficult.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Courage isn’t having the strength to go on — it is going on when you don’t have strength. Napoleon Bonaparte
There were many times I experienced total despair and depression with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and during particularly difficult episodes of life. It would have been easy to succumb, and decide my life was always going to be a second or third rate one. Even when it felt all my strength had gone, the necessity of going on with work and daily routine always gave me the means of getting through another day.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Tenacity. When something is important to me, I won’t stop working for it until I have achieved it. My son is autistic and when he was small I had to fight tooth and nail for the education and social services to give him access to the special provision he needed. He’s now a young man at the start of his chosen career with lots of good friends and always out and about.
Courage. I couldn’t have recovered from OCD without it. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy proved really effective for me but it’s not for the faint hearted, because you have to face your fears and do things which are counterintuitive. You have to push yourself out of your comfort zone and face what is really difficult, all the time.
Creativity. My drawing gives me work and helps others and is my own unique product. I always feel really happy and fulfilled when drawing. But creativity is also important for seeing more than one solution to a problem.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Look forward, not back. With OCD it’s very easy to regret time spent in ritualizing, checking or doing other compulsive behaviours, or time wasted being paralyzed with fear, or regretting lost opportunities which you were too debilitated to follow. The important thing is to look ahead and focus on what life has to offer now. When I started to recover I had to make a conscious effort not to dwell on the life I had missed.
- Set challenges for yourself in the form of projects — actual things you want to achieve and which you enjoy. It could be climbing a mountain or it could be reading a book — it’s always necessary to have something you are working towards, because it helps you feel fulfilled and keeps you looking forward. My book, Beating OCD and Anxiety, started as a collection of recovery notes for myself, and as others became interested and started to benefit from my early copies, I became really motivated to write it fully and publish it. It was also very cathartic for me.
- Keep to a routine and keep reasonably organized . In my worst times, the sheer necessity of having to get out and go to work, or look after my son, were the sort of things that kept me going. If you have no work or family obligations at the moment which require you to do certain things at certain times, develop a routine of your own. It’s very easy to start feeling a bit sub-human if you have no reason to get up or no punctuation points throughout the day. Also if you are living in a mess, it’s easy to start feeling out of control. These things open the door for the depression and difficulties to come back.
- Nurture the relationships you have with others and develop new ones. Sharing is a very important part of life, whether it’s to offload, develop ideas, be there for others or just have fun. It is the best way to be supported and to support others — mutual support gives us all a purpose, and keeps us focused on the bigger picture. I make a point of contacting my friends and arranging to meet them because life slips by too easily without seeing them if you don’t. Everyone is busy and we often live a distance from our family and friends, so it’s necessary to put some effort in to maintaining proper contact.
- Take care of your physical health. It isn’t necessary to turn into a keep-fit guru or be skinny, just to do the usual things we are always told about. Our brains and minds are part of our physical bodies and it stands to reason that keeping our body healthy will give our mental health the best chance.
Let’s discuss this in more specific terms. After the dust settles, what coping mechanisms would you suggest to deal with the pain of the loss or change?
I lost a lot of my life because of OCD and the resulting depression and low self esteem. It’s as if I was in prison for 25 years. I couldn’t follow my chosen career, I was belittled and treated badly, I had to settle for a lot less in terms of living standard and life experiences, like travel, that I had hoped for. OCD of course didn’t happen suddenly, it got worse over years and it was a long time before I realized that I had a condition that could be treated. It was truly wonderful when, as the therapy started to take effect, I began to be aware of the wonderful possibilities of life that I could now begin to explore. At the same time though, I realized what I had been missing, and I felt angry that I had missed out and wanted to blame somebody.
My coping mechanism was to focus on all the possibilities I have now which I didn’t have before. Recovery came too late for some of them, but there are plenty of others.
How can one learn to to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
Some of the regret of time lost, and anger at having OCD, will always be with me. I turned the negative energy about this into positive energy by writing and illustrating my book, in the hope that others might seek help earlier than I did and learn one or two things which might be useful. From the feedback I get on the book I know it’s helping others, and it’s really good to know that the experiences I had might mean someone else has a less difficult time. It’s also very important to focus on what I want to do now and in the future, rather than what I was not able to do in the past.
If you fell into a large whole in the ground you would be looking for how to get out, not sitting at the bottom wondering why you’re there. If you have OCD, energy needs to be spent in seeking recovery and making it happen, rather than dwelling on why you have OCD or what it has cost you.
Aside from letting go, what can one do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
Look forward. Rejoice in the positive things in life. Don’t worry about things beyond your control. To quote Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Serenity Prayer’: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.
How can one eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation?
I have done this by turning negative energy into positive energy, which motivated me to write my book and become an OCD advocate, working independently and with several charities to enable discussion, reduce stigma and point the way to the right help.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
What a wonderful thing it would be to be in that position! I would start a ‘world sharing drive’. People are getting more and more isolated from each other, tending to care only about their nearest and dearest. I would love to find a way of making it easier and worthwhile for individuals to connect and focus on humankind as well as their own worlds.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. 🙂
Elon Musk. He is a genius and a visionary who turn his visions into reality, works for global good, and is one of the most influential people in the world.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdn1n98Y_ZNuo4ETG2E_YgA
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
PS: one of the action shots is of me and my son John.