'I spend 11 hours a day biting things'

Published Tuesday, Jul 15 2014, 08:00 BST  |  By  |  2 comments
Ashlea Peckett suffers from a condition that leaves her sinking her teeth into everything in reach...

When most people hear of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), their thoughts immediately jump to uncontrollable cleaners, frantically scrubbing away imaginary dirt.

But for Ashlea Peckett, this couldn't be further from the truth. Instead of mopping floors and scouring work surfaces, the 26-year-old from County Durham spends up to 11 hours a day biting things.

Ashlea Peckett, I spend 11 hours a day biting things


Ashlea's condition means she bites everything

She sinks her teeth into everything from the banister running up her staircase to burning-hot hair straighteners, making hers an extremely dangerous compulsion.

"It started when I was about seven years old," Ashlea explains. "My parents were splitting up, which I've since been told might have triggered it, but at the time, I didn't connect the two. Whenever I'd walk downstairs, I started to touch the banister a certain number of times, in particular places.

"It's hard to explain, but in my head, if I did that, then I could stop bad things from happening. At the time, it was my parents' divorce, but it escalated to other things.

"Soon I started touching door frames, taps, everything. Touching progressed to smelling, then to licking.

"The first thing I bit was my phone. In the beginning, it was just every now and then, but because it was always in my hand, it quickly progressed."

At first, Ashlea's mum believed it was just a childish habit she'd grow out of, but when she was still doing it at 15, she took her daughter to the doctor's. He diagnosed her with OCD.

"The thoughts that were spinning around in my head were driving me mad, so it was such a relief to get a diagnosis," Ashlea remembers. "I thought I was going crazy."

Ashlea Peckett, I spend 11 hours a day biting things


Ashlea nibbles everything - including cushions

But despite having cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), going for counselling sessions and being prescribed antidepressants, nothing could cure her nonstop nibbling.

"I had to get up two hours earlier to leave for work as my morning rituals took so long. And I couldn't bear to not do them, because I was convinced that if I didn't, terrible things would happen to the people I loved.

"When my mum was diagnosed with lung cancer, I was certain it was because I wasn't doing enough rituals, so I started biting new things.

"I even ended up taking my hands off the steering wheel while I was driving to touch the roof of the car. It was physically and emotionally draining."

Not only has Ashlea's condition affected her everyday life – she can't carry a cup of tea from her kitchen to the living room without burning herself because she has to touch the doors en route – it's threatening her future, too.

Married to Brian, 30, Ashlea is desperate to have children, but she's frightened of how any offspring might be affected by her condition.

"I'd be terrified for their safety. I once dropped a mini fridge that I was carrying upstairs because I had to stop and bite the banister – what if that was a baby? I couldn't trust myself."

Ashlea Peckett, I spend 11 hours a day biting things


Nik and Eva Speakman are trying to help Ashlea

Although Ashlea has confided in many friends about her condition, she knows it's not easy to understand and their responses haven't always been sympathetic.

"Lots of people smile and ask me to come round to their house to clean up. It's very frustrating to have a joke made out of something that is essentially controlling my life.

"Since I've been with Brian, my condition has become increasingly worse, and although he is supportive, it does cause tension between us. He sees me biting into nail varnishes and hot irons, which worries him. And it's expensive to keep redoing the banister after I've bitten all the paint off.

"He even started picking up some of my bad habits, like only turning the volume of the TV onto even numbers or checking the plug points in the room time and again to make sure they're switched off."

But it wasn't until Ashlea's mum came to stay for two weeks at the end of last year that she realised just how bad her daughter's biting complusion had become.

"Mum told me I had to get help and got in touch with a TV programme featuring Nik and Eva Speakman, a couple who've helped people with similar problems before. At first I was dubious, but then I realised I had nothing to lose.

"All I want is to be normal. To throw on a coat and leave the house; to make me and Brian a cup of tea and carry it to him without hurting myself; to not have to repaint the banister every month. My only hope is that the Speakmans can help me. My future is in their hands."

The Speakmans is on weekdays, at 2pm, on ITV from Monday 14 July. Ashlea's story will feature in the second episode on Tuesday 15 July

Ashlea's biting behaviour explained...

Therapist to the stars, Eva Speakman says: "Ritualistic behaviour such as cleaning, checking, washing, counting, the need for symmetry and tapping, is the usual foundation of obsessive compulsive disorders. However, Ashlea had the most unusual and life-threatening OCD we'd ever come across.

"Ashlea's need to bite was not only taking up huge amounts of time, but she was also biting unhygienic bags of her dog's waste and hot straightening irons, which burnt her lips.

"Our concern was Ashlea was no longer considering her own health or safety. We were also alarmed that she was taking both hands off the steering wheel while driving, thus endangering others, too.

"Our Schema Conditioning Psychotherapy is based upon locating the schema – the thought that drives the behaviour – and providing overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

"Ashlea's OCD was set up in childhood, trying to create good luck. Our aim was to get her to observe the OCD through an adult's eyes. We asked Ashlea to compare it with historic rituals such as human sacrifice, which were also based on creating good luck. We also highlighted that despite her rituals, Ashlea had still experienced unhappy events, thus providing undeniable evidence that rituals do not provide happiness."