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Just Listen is a seven-part mental health podcast series, exploring how to support a person in serious and ongoing mental distress. Six New Zealanders and their support people share their mental health journey and challenges with journalist and host Juliette Sivertsen. Made with support from the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand, and Like Minds, Like Mine.

Francesca Eldridge isn't afraid of germs. But to an outsider, her excessive cleaning rituals at the height of her OCD could have been interpreted as someone who had an intense phobia of dirt.

The 39-year-old has lived most of her life with metaphysical contamination OCD, which she believes was triggered by childhood trauma. Her OCD wasn't about a fear of germs or dirt, but that certain objects, people or spaces felt "contaminated". The anxiety around those contaminated objects would then drive her to carry out the compulsions, which included lengthy cleaning rituals.

"It was never about germs or disease or dirt, it was a feeling of mental contamination," says Eldridge. She says the compulsions are the visible part of OCD, but few people understand the distressing and intrusive thoughts that drive those compulsions.

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New Plymouth woman Francesca Eldridge lives with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Photo / Jason Oxenham
New Plymouth woman Francesca Eldridge lives with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Photo / Jason Oxenham

At worst, Eldridge was housebound. She spent up to five hours a day on her compulsions, couldn't sleep, suffered soap wounds from excessive cleaning, had acne, urge incontinence, digestive issues and aches and pains from the intense way she would clean the house.

Sometimes, if she couldn't clean an object properly, or if it was damaged in the cleaning process, she had to bin it. "I've thrown away a few things in my life that I didn't want to throw away, for that reason."

OCD took a toll on her marriage. She's now separated from her then-husband Glenn Pennycook, but he remains a supportive figure in her life. Eldridge remembers a key moment when she realised she needed to take control of her health.

"He sat down on the couch and he started to cry. And I'd never seen him cry before. And I looked at him and I said, 'You're sick of being yelled at aren't you?' And he said, 'Yep'. And that was the moment when, I don't think I verbalised it - but said I have to do something about this."

Eventually, Eldridge overhauled her entire diet and lifestyle and found a supportive psychologist who understood her condition. Her dog Bailey has also helped comfort her in times of need. She didn't want to go on medication, so took a holistic view of her health, which led to a massive reduction in her symptoms.

Francesca Eldridge, pictured with her dog Bailey, lives with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Photo / Jason Oxenham
Francesca Eldridge, pictured with her dog Bailey, lives with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). Photo / Jason Oxenham

Pennycook says there are things he would do differently if he found himself in a supporting role again. He says it's important to understand the rituals that a person with OCD may need to undertake, is usually about cleansing, not cleaning. He also advises against riding the same emotional roller coaster as the person with OCD.

"You have to stay calm in that moment. You can't start arguing back," says Pennycook. He says it's crucial not to fall into a permanent role of rescuer or caregiver, because that results in a power imbalance in the relationship.

Eldridge, who now works as a nutritionist in New Plymouth, says it can be difficult to seek help as most people with OCD suffer intense shame. And it's not helped by portrayals of the condition in movies, where it's often played as a kooky or quirky trait rather than a debilitating illness.

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It's also a condition commonly made light of to describe a particular habit or preference, rather than mental health condition. She wants people to know how serious OCD can be, but also that it is possible to recover.

"OCD is like this vicious dragon and when you're in the depths of it, it's like you're in the mouth of that dragon and it's shaking you like a rag doll. And when I started working on my health, it was kinda like I just climbed out of the jaws of the dragon."

Listen to Francesca Eldridge's full story in the Just Listen podcast, embedded at the beginning of this article.

Francesca and Glenn's tips for supporting a person with OCD:

• Understand it is driven by anxiety.
• Recognise triggers and subsequent processes.
• Have a trusted friend who you can talk to .
• Don't ride the same emotional roller coaster as the person with OCD - and take time out to look after your own mental health.
• Avoid making light of OCD, as a person living with the disorder often experiences deep shame, which prevents them from seeking help.

WHERE TO GET HELP:

If you are worried about your or someone else's mental health, the best place to get help is your GP or local mental health provider. However, if you or someone else is in danger or endangering others, call 111.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633

Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)

Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

There are lots of places to get support. For others, click here.​