What drew me to my friend Amy Bodossian seven years ago was her bohemian, wacky, eccentric spirit. On stage performing her poem ‘The Artist’, it was her presence that validated my own decision to pursue my art.
At the time I had just exploded out of a very conservative life in search of myself. Bodossian is a comedian, performing strange characters like Graaahm; she’s a poet and a cabaret singer with a voice that soothes me on my worst days.
When we met for coffee at a Coburg café – which has since become our special place and where we’ve even made films – I found it funny when she went behind the counter to wash her hands. She’d been a daily customer since relocating from Adelaide and the owner had grown accustomed to Bodossian’s nature. It was then that she told me she had ‘OCD’: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Instantly I thought of Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets turning his lock three times.
It took some time to realise that what I thought was a quirky characteristic of Bodossian’s personality was for the most part, a real hurdle in her life, a disorder separate from Bodossian as a person and one that I, as her friend, needed to take seriously. “People have no idea, they think it’s about being a germaphobe,” Bodossian says. “It’s a deeply misunderstood condition.”
It was only last year that OCD was removed from the ‘anxiety disorder’ category in the DSM global mental illness bible and put into a category of its own. Although a spokeswoman for the Federal Department of Health tells me that, for reporting purposes, it still classes OCD as an anxiety disorder.
There are four million sufferers of mental illness in Australia every year. 14.4 per cent of adults experienced an anxiety disorder in the last 12 months as did 6.9 per cent of children and adolescents.
The obsessive thoughts
I see Bodossian as a person, not as her disorder, and am often in awe of how much time, love and compassion she has for not only her friends but complete strangers. She says it’s because she can multi-task with the OCD thoughts firing off in the background. Initially, it would frustrate me when Bodossian would go round circles deciding if she should come dancing with me on Friday night, and I couldn’t understand why. It’s only in the last few years when Bodossian has vocalised her thought processes to me – sometimes debilitating to the point where she can’t leave her room all day – that I started to understand.
“The obsessional thoughts are mostly about anything that could go wrong,” Bodossian explains. “They generate anxiety, and you perform some kind of compulsion to alleviate it, which stops the feeling from running its course, but the thought gets stuck, like a groove in a record. Anything can be a compulsion, like hand washing, but it can even be suppressing the thought. Some people don't have rituals, they just have excessive debilitating thoughts. That's called pure OCD.”
Bodossian had her first intense episode of horrible thoughts on a trip with a friend when she was 19 where she says her 'horror thoughts' made her feel like a bad person.
“Sometimes some pretty dark thoughts can get stuck on repeat, and when you don't understand what is going on it can be extremely unpleasant.” Bodossian turned to alcohol and drugs to self-medicate for many years. It was a friend studying psychology who helped her realise she might have OCD.
“It’s so emancipating and illuminating when you find out it’s something independent of your personality, so you can go ‘that’s that, that’s not me.' You can objectify it and you’ve something to work with.”
It took some time to realise that what I thought was a quirky characteristic of Bodossian’s personality was for the most part, a real hurdle in her life, a disorder separate from Bodossian as a person and one that I, as her friend, needed to take seriously.
When I caught up with Bodossian and her hands were really red from washing, I’d worry. Approaching her gently I would try to help her identify why she might be stressed. It’s sometimes difficult to know what to say. Our strong communication has helped. Bodossian says showing understanding, compassion and just being present with her helps. “'Try not to engage with the thoughts. Saying things like ‘this is your OCD’ helps.”
It’s rarer these days to catch her with red hands. Growing tired of her condition, which she’s had since she was little, Bodossian has been proactive in the last few years in getting help. It all started when she was introduced to the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron and her talks.
“Meditation allows you to see yourself, and things become clearer,” she tells me. After nagging me for some time she got me into meditation too, to help with my anxiety. Bodossian started seeing a psychologist and doing exposure and response prevention therapy (ERP). She also attended an OCD support group. But she doesn’t have the luxury of these services as much as she needs them. “I need more ongoing assistance but I don’t have the money. I only have mild OCD. Some have it far worse and they don’t have access to help.”
When I caught up with Bodossian and her hands were really red from washing, I’d worry.
Despite the hurdles her OCD places before her, Bodossian continues on with her dream of being an artist. In the last year she has also started to bring her OCD into her art, which is something she was extremely resistant in doing when I discussed it with her two years ago. Now she has a whole show about her experience of working at The Salvation Army and having OCD, called Salivation Bodossian. There are many times she feels so overwhelmed that she wants to quit, but I remind her that this is her talent, and I motivate her to keep going.
“There’s a lot of shame involved in having OCD. But as I have done more self-exploration I am now more aware of myself and it’s coming out in my work in a more conscious way.” Bodossian performed the first poem she has ever written about OCD at the mental health week launch last year, Pour The Champagne. She has also started facilitating an OCD support group through the mental health foundation. “Some people, they have these responses to things but they have no idea what it is. What would be amazing is if someone didn’t even know they had OCD and my art somehow helped them.”
Bodossian’s cabaret show ‘Don’t Worry, I’ve Got It Covered’ will be on at The Adelaide Fringe from the 28th of February to the 4th of March
Koraly Dimitriadis is a writer, poet, filmmaker, theatremaker and author. www.koralydimitriadis.com