IT took courage for a 16-year-old girl to write about the effect on her of one of the top 20 causes of illness-related disability worldwide for those aged 15-44 — Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
But for Rebecca Ryan, her book was a means of documenting her feelings.
Now, at the age of 19, two and half years since her sensational book launch, she is amazed at how successful it was.
Dictatorship: My Teenage War With OCD made her the youngest person ever to be shortlisted in the Irish Book Awards, and, needless to say, it was her debut work. “Awesome!”, says Rebecca.
Since the publication, she has been a touchstone for young people who wonder if they have OCD, and for adults who believe they or their children may have it.
“It seems to be hereditary”, says Rebecca. “Though unrecognised, my father suffered something similar, and now that I look back, I believe I was born with it.”
She was obsessively clingy with her mother, who, keen not to be overly attentive to her only child, hoped it was normal for a four-year-old.
It wasn’t until habits became compulsions, and extreme reactions to any slight changes in routine caused anxiety, that the behaviours seemed abnormal and started to affect the family.
There was a time around the age of 15 that Rebecca couldn’t walk though her front door and had to go out through a window. It could take hours to leave for school.
She couldn’t walk on blue floors and if she had to — there are many blue floors in schools and hospitals — she would walk, looking at the ceiling, to be able to move at all.
Writing the number four and multiples of it, later caused further stress.
To relieve the stresses of her condition, Rebecca would tap the side of her nose, convinced she needed to complete these compulsive activities so her parents wouldn’t become ill and die. She lived in a state of constant fear.
Finally, her discovery online of the symptoms led Rebecca to believe she had OCD. Her parents consulted medical professionals and she started on a programme of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) and drug therapy.
She also had to tell those around her, including her school principal and friends, that she had a mental disorder. The result was extraordinary support.
CBT wasn’t easy. OCD had become a kind of friend and she the teenager slow to completely reject it.
One simple exercise of not straightening up the television remote control could last no more than seconds initially. She had many compulsions.
Today, a student at Limerick Institute of Technology, Rebecca’s giveaway nose tapping habit has ceased. Thrilled with her course in Software Development and the low teacher-to- pupil ratio, she is one of two female students in her class, one of five in a combined year of 40.
“The industry is screaming out for girls,” she says.
Now living in the student village, she loves her life. “I’m very fortunate. I have a great bunch of friends.
“The course is mostly problem-solving, which I love. You have to learn different computer languages and coding, so I will eventually be able to build websites, which is a creative exercise.”
At the time of her book launch, Rebecca saw herself studying animation in college. Sketches from her diary, started when she was 13, were used in her book, but these days photography is stimulating her creative juices.
“I’ve always been interested and got a good camera some time back,” she explains.
Fascinated by Japanese culture, the teenager also plans to get to Japan next year and take photographs. To generate funds, she hopes to get a job in a nursery for dogs. “Getting paid for playing with dogs is pretty cool for me”.
These days Rebecca is “pretty much fine” with no relapses, even at times of stress in college. “Any stress I feel is not pathological,” she adds.
She doesn’t believe she is completely free of OCD, as there is an underlying thought process that isn’t normal. “It’s a kind of black and white thinking. I still get scared, but being able to recognise it means I can manage it.”
It’s one of the reasons she wrote the diary that became her book. “I wanted to be able to look back and catch myself and my habits before they got hold of me again.”
“It would feel weird to take responsibility for anyone, but I know people have got comfort from the book because I’m so young.
“I looked for books I could relate to and help myself when I was at the height of my problem with OCD, but there wasn’t one for young people. Since mine was published, I got to know some of the readers and keep in touch with them on social media.”
Her new ambition is to join Limerick Flying Club, once she saves up enough money for lessons. She has had a couple of simulator sessions in Atlantic Air Adventure Shannon. Her father reckons she will have a pilot’s licence before a car one. This young woman knows what she wants and usually gets it.
OCD may be part of Rebecca Ryan’s life, but it no longer controls her. This is the lesson of her book.
Dictatorship: My Teenage War With OCD costs €11.99 in bookshops and online at onstream.ie.
Rebecca is giving a free talk on her experience with OCD at Nano Nagle Place, Douglas Street, Cork, at 7pm tonight, April 12.