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How former model Caroline McMenamin faced secret battle with anxiety and OCD

Former model Caroline McMenamin, from Londonderry, has struggled to deal with OCD since she was four years old. Here, she tells Lee Henry how medication, retraining as a mental health professional and love has helped her find happiness

Former model turned mental health counsellor Caroline McMenamin has a prevailing memory from her childhood - being afflicted by anxiety and the debilitating effects of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder - which involves her common black patent leather school shoes.

"Every morning, before going to school," she recalls. "I would obsess over the tightness of my shoelaces and spend hours ensuring that they were as tight as they could possibly be, to the extent that my little hands were red raw when I was done.

"It was the same every morning. If, in the end, my shoelaces felt just right, then I believed that my day would be good. God forbid if they didn't.

"I remember standing in my bedroom, crying as I stared down at the frayed laces. I had no idea that I was suffering from OCD."

Born and raised in Londonderry, Caroline remarkably recalls a "happy" childhood, despite her ongoing mental health issues. She attended St Mary's College, loved to sing and enjoyed spending time with her sister Elaine and brother Tony.

From the age of four, however, when she felt the first sensations of anxiety creep into her every day life, Caroline learned to live with what she innocently described then as "the bad feeling". It would govern her existence for 17 years until she was diagnosed and medicated aged 21.

"The World Health Organisation lists OCD as one of the world's top 10 debilitating disorders and I can attest to that," she says. "OCD is often misconstrued as a condition that relates to an individual's obsession with cleaning, for example, and while contamination fear is a big and debilitating part of the illness, there is so much more to its definition.

"If everyone knew how sinister OCD really is, we wouldn't use it as a word to casually describe a harmless quirk or innocent need for symmetry."

While Caroline daily fretted over shoelaces and lived with a plethora of other irrational fears, her particular form of OCD manifested itself mostly through intrusive thoughts, a common symptom for sufferers.

"I was so plagued by intrusive thoughts and panic that I didn't want to live anymore," she says.

"I'd constantly be bombarded by thoughts and images of the most vile, sick and twisted scenarios. It was crippling because those thoughts and images went against the person I was.

"I'd obsess over why I had those thoughts but I would never find an answer.

"That's because OCD is a bottomless pit that keeps getting darker and darker and harder to come back from.

"Every human gets nonsensical, fleeting thoughts and images now and again, but someone with an anxious disposition, like myself, can react to those thoughts, personalise them and believe them. That's when they wreak havoc."

Throughout her teens, Caroline attempted to live a normal life, going out with friends to gigs, listening to her favourite rock bands, indulging in the odd alcoholic drink.

"I was surviving and was able to keep the anxiety managed. But when I was stressed, the OCD would spike and my anxiety would be unbearable. It felt like I was living with an invisible monster," she says.

She began modelling aged 15, citing her bright red hair as the reason behind her popularity among photographers and agencies.

She took part in catwalk shows all around Ireland and featured in fashion shoots for magazines and television.

"The whole experience improved my confidence and introduced me to new friends," she adds.

"But it was a novelty, really. I never took it too seriously. How could I when I was constantly consumed with what was going on inside? Plenty of times I'd be sat in a chair having my make-up done while trying to stave off a panic attack."

In spite of a culture of silence surrounding mental health at the time - "Nobody spoke about it; I didn't know what was wrong with me" - Caroline regularly visited her GP with parents Teresa and Tony in tow, without ever truly getting to the bottom of her affliction.

Shortly after her 21st birthday, however, after refusing to leave her GP's office without further tests, she was finally given as assessment in Adult Psychological Therapies.

"And I broke down," she recalls. "I cried. I vented. I verbalised everything. I pleaded for help.

"It was then that I was diagnosed with OCD and prescribed Sertraline, an anti-depressant," Caroline adds.

She is not at all sheepish about discussing her medication, which she describes as "empowering".

"Some people see medication as a form of defeat. Not me," she says. "Medication helps me be more me. You wouldn't deprive a diabetic of their insulin, nor should you deprive someone with OCD of their medication, especially if it considerably increases their quality of life."

Having graduated with a drama degree in 2000, Caroline was so consumed by a desire to further understand and combat the effects of OCD and anxiety that she returned to Queen's University in 2011 to study for a post grad in Cognitive Behavioural Therapies, and subsequently attained an Associate Degree in Integrative Counselling from the University of Ulster and North West Regional College in 2014.

These days, Caroline delivers mental health well-being workshops across Northern Ireland and further afield through her Replenish programme and will be recognisable to many through her online Red Dutchess persona.

"Initially I was on the blogging bandwagon by posting content on fashion and make-up," she admits.

"I still love fashion, but I felt I had so much more to say, so I changed my approach. I spoke openly about my struggle with OCD, but also used my professional experience and training to give some guidance.

"Through my fashion work, I knew that people would assume that my life was carefree and easy, but lots of my users were surprised to discover that I've been living with OCD for so many years.

"People assume that people suffering with mental health issues have a certain look - that people look how they feel - but obviously that isn't always the case."

Each Monday at 8pm, Caroline offers a free Facebook Live video clinic in which she answers user's questions and gives one-to-one advice.

"I get requests to talk about topics such as depression, eating disorders and how to help a loved one with their mental health, and it's the most rewarding, humbling and fulfilling process.

"By Tuesday morning my video views are at 6,000, on average, and I spend all day replying to messages and comments. I encourage people to private message me so that I can signpost them onto the organisation or charity that I feel would help them most.

"Mental health awareness is my passion and I won't stop until people know that there is always hope."

She has come a long way since her own diagnosis and agrees that her OCD and anxiety now have much less of an impact on her life than they previously did. She is still on medication and takes "specific self-care steps" to ensure that she doesn't fall ill again, but she is happy to have left her darkest days behind.

Finding love has helped with that. Caroline has been dating 27-year-old fellow Derry native Stephen Cleary since 2014, whom she met through social media.

"No, not on Tinder," she laughs. "I actually stumbled across his profile on Instagram while I was at the hairdressers. It's quite a nice story, in fact.

"Stephen lives in Germany, where he works for Adidas, so we have a long distance relationship. Initially we talked on Skype and then we met up in Dublin and really hit it off.

"We have been together ever since and usually meet up every three weeks, whether it's in Derry, his home in Nuremberg, or somewhere else in the world.

"I've blogged about it, about how I discovered his sense of humour in Australia and he my interest in history in Rome.

"He's an unbelievable guy, an absolute gentleman, and he's very handsome. He backs me 100% in everything I do and we plan to live together very soon. But for now, we're just living in the moment."

That is something that Caroline has become used to over the years - appreciating the here and now, trying not to stress too much about what's around the corner - and it has served her well, so much so that she even took the brave step to appear in a film last year.

She says: "It was called Taking Off The Mask, and it highlighted mental health in Derry in particular and how it is perceived here.

"I was lucky enough to have University of Ulster drama students help me stage a panic attack in the middle of Guildhall Square to see the public's reaction to blatant mental health distress and the results were surprising. You can see it on my YouTube channel.

"The conversation on mental health has just begun, really, and we need more voices to join that conversation.

"Thankfully, I've now become the person that my four-year-old self needed when mental health dialogue was non-existent. I hope to help many more young people in the years ahead."

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