OCD

Learning to give thoughts less attention

To this day I still get Intrusive Thoughts, but I’ve learnt to pay them less attention

We all have them – little explosions in our minds catching us off guard. Thoughts that are out of character, unusual, maybe even a little disturbing, “Where did that come from?” We ask.

Estimates vary, but the average person has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day. Our minds are complex beasts and it can feel like we’re at the mercy of some of these thoughts. We’re not good at controlling our minds either; a familiar test – for the next minute you’re not allowed to think of a big pink elephant no matter what. Go… Wasn’t easy was it? And that’s what OCD Intrusive Thoughts can be like. When your mind fixates on a thought or a particular idea and just won’t stop going over it. It’s beyond your control. It’s in control of you – at least that’s how it can feel.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was fairly well portrayed by Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets. His character, Melvin Udall, had to bring his own plastic cutlery to a restaurant because of a fear of germs and has to use a new bar of soap each time he washes his hands. Hand washing, flicking light switches, counting, avoiding cracks in the pavement… These are almost anecdotal ways that OCD presents itself. Certainly not to be downplayed, for sufferers at the mild or extreme end of the spectrum, these obsessions and compulsions can be one of the most horrible experiences to go through. According to the charity OCD UK, the World Health Organisation has listed OCD as one of the top ten most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life.

The obsessive in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is when a person fixates on thoughts (usually without their own free will) and, more often than not, finds them extremely unpleasant, troubling and sometimes anxiety provoking. Some sufferers will feel an urge or compulsion to do something to “cancel out” the thought, to make things feel better again and reduce their anxiety. For instance; they have a thought that something bad will happen to a loved one, so they find that by flicking a light switch three times will prevent the awful thing from happening – or at the very least, make themselves feel calm for having addressed the thought. The obsession and the compulsion often go hand-in-hand this way, with complex overlapping and a chicken-and-egg scenario playing out. Suffers are fully aware of what they’re doing and logically know that it isn’t right but they feel trapped in a cycle.

Sometimes obsessions and compulsions don’t go hand-in-hand and this was how my OCD presented itself in the form of Intrusive Thoughts.

It was a year since my mum died and I wasn’t coping. I was seeing a bereavement counsellor and in an exercise to help, he asked me to write a letter to her, to talk to her as if she was around. That night, feeling a bit silly at first, I wrote a letter and imagined that it was just going to be posted the next day, as if she was going to read it. In it (and not being the overly religious type) I wrote that I hope she was at peace, that wherever she was that she looks out for my family and I. I found myself writing for some kind of direction; what am I supposed to be doing with my life? Where? Who am I going to be? Help me do the right thing. And then a thought – what if I become a paedophile?

Where did that come from? This wasn’t me. It isn’t me. My stomach knotted instantly and I broke a cold sweat. Does this mean something? I almost laughed – but it wasn’t funny. I’m not a paedophile. Don’t be daft. Come on. This is sick. Of course you’re not. I jumped out of bed, jumped on the spot a few times to shake off the slow waves in my mind and physical feeling of disgust. I peed. Went back to bed. I peed again. Back to bed again. I did this a few times before I eventually fell asleep.

The next day I was OK and managed to forget about “the thought”. I didn’t tell my counsellor the following week – I was terrified he wouldn’t believe me and assume I really was a paedophile, when all I had was a weird unshakable thought. Looking back on it, there and then, I absolutely should have told him.

Four months later my life was picking up and I was dating someone new too. I had erased that night with the letter and “the thought”. I was in Montreal now, it was winter, the snow was falling, the heat was on – it was picturesque. I had the house to myself and I was so utterly content – paedophile – the word popped into my head. Then the waves, the nausea, the rolling feeling of unease. What? No. Not this again. This is silly. This means nothing. Come on, you’re happy here. You’re in a happy relationship, in a new country – children. No. No… What if I harm children? Do I want to harm children? What if I have sex with a child? This can not be happening to me… Of course, these thoughts read like sentences but in my mind they were firing almost successively and it wasn’t just phrases of thoughts and my own internal dialogue; trying not to think of a big pink elephant, I tried a million times harder not to think of the image of having sex with a child.

It spiraled.

For weeks my mind would not give me a literal minute’s peace and I was trembling, shaking with fear. I was on high-alert paying attention to every – single – thought. I had to check each and every one making sure that it was OK, that it didn’t mean I would become a peadophile or child molester. Well, I’m neither of those, nor have I ever been, so this probably won’t happen – relief. I figured it out. I solved the problem. I was never so relieved. I was thinking so much about this happening in the future that I forgot about the present – well, what if I’m a peadohile now and don’t know it?

My Intrusive Thoughts did a very typical thing that day that sufferers experience; when I found a way to block up the stream or find something reassuring to think about (and I counted twenty minute’s worth of peace that day), it found another way to flood and torment me again. I’m a peadphile now because I looked at that child walking past me in the street, did I look at her for too long? I’m having these thoughts in the present tense now, that must mean I am one. I made conclusions, but logically, I knew it still wasn’t right. This whole time I knew who I was, where I was, what year it was. I didn’t identify or derive pleasure in any of it. So why couldn’t I just pull myself together and snap out of it?

Because I couldn’t. The word “paedophile” filled me with fear. I couldn’t reassure myself enough that this wouldn’t happen. When I had a thought or image flash in my mind, I’d scan my body, checking to see if it aroused me – I’d sit and wait as if listening to a ticking clock across the room. Checking like this filled me with relief and anxiety in equal measure because I was so relieved that none of this was obviously arousing me, but that I had to scan my body in the first place to just even check and make sure, made me feel like a monster.

I didn’t want to eat any more and began losing weight; I didn’t deserve food. I was scum and I hated myself. I hated the world for this happening to me. Did I do something bad in the past – was this punishment? I didn’t ask for this and it wasn’t fair. OCD Intrusive Thoughts is a painful illnesses to go through. It’s silent and no one around has a clue. I was so alone on this road not even knowing at the time that I was experiencing OCD – in my rationale at the time, having the thought meant it was as bad as the act itself so I thought I really was “turning”.

By now, I couldn’t tell my boyfriend. I was in a new country, without my friends or family. I couldn’t go to prison in a foreign country. Each day I was filled with dread, waiting for the thoughts almost, anticipating their next move. I’d project scenarios and see myself each and every time going to prison and being murdered in a dank cell. This image filled me with so much terror that I had my first panic attack in the shower, I fell to the shower floor feeling like I was dying or having a heart attack – I begged any god that was listening to just take me there and then.

One day I was sitting on the platform seats at Beri-UQAM station waiting for the Metro. I knew that if I went close to where the train came out of the tunnel, that it would be quicker and less painful – hopefully I wouldn’t feel a thing. Were these Intrusive Thoughts too? I knew I was thinking it, but no, looking back on it, I know this was real suicide ideation because a part of me wanted to end it all that day. I thought my only way out was the end.

I peeled myself off the plastic seat, backed up against the wall and left the station. I always remembered my mum’s advice about suicide; had it came up in the news, she’d say, “It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” In the back of my mind I had to have been thinking this because I still don’t know why I walked away that day.

I Skyped a friend a few days later, told her that I wasn’t thinking clearly, wasn’t feeling like I was myself but didn’t give her the full picture. I then managed to tell my sister the same.

My dad saved me when I got home. He rang my doctor and demanded that I be seen to immediately. I hadn’t slept in four days – the thoughts were keeping me up and I was chomping the bit falling apart.

It was a slow healing process.

I went back to the same bereavement counsellor and told him a little bit of what I went through. I couldn’t tell anyone exactly what I was experiencing – not yet. I was too ashamed. As a gay man, I thought people would put that part of me, and the thoughts together and assume I was some kind of danger, that I wasn’t suitable to be around children.

Over two years, it took four doctors and four separate therapists before I accepted that I had OCD. Finding reassurance from anything or anyone was the hardest thing. The French used to call OCD the “doubting disease” and I explicitly understand why. I was asked embarrassing questions from doctors about my sexuality and what I was like around children – this flared my anxiety because I was so afraid people wouldn’t believe me – that was my biggest fear, yet I fully understand their need to do so. I was so determined not to let this beat me. I still knew who I was and perhaps I had stubborn streak back me up. I found strength in my family, friends and boyfriend, from their support, I gradually told them little bits of what I was experiencing all this time.

I had more than just thoughts about harming children – an entire spectrum of violent acts filled my mind; stabbing pregnant women in the belly, pushing old men off their bicycles, pushing people in front of a car, raping the next person I seen in the street all the while laughing at people as they walk by, slitting someone’s throat, having sex with animals, then killing that animal… My mind was more anarchistic and vivid than I could ever have imagined with so much overlap. And that was the frightening thing, I thought things I never thought I could. And these were thoughts around my own actions which made them all the more confusing. Were these underlying desires dying to burst through? No. The whole time, thoughts around paedophilia dominated the most and filled me with the most anxiety. Intrusive Thoughts commonly arise in the suffer with the thing they find the most repulsive. I wasn’t attracted to children so why was this destroying me?

I had to make it clear each and every time that the distinction of having the thoughts was not of pleasure or fun – it was pushing me to the limits of sanity. I knew logically it wasn’t right but couldn’t wire that up to the gun in my head firing off thoughts and images without my permission. I was at the mercy of it. My mind was supposed to be on my side, yet it had turned it’s back on me.

After a year or exhaustive self-reassurance, that I was OK after every Intrusive Thought, going over the same mantras, positive-thinking, self-affirming, rational, counter-balancing techniques I could, I gave up. That nondescript day in the summer before the London Olympics I said to myself, “That’s it. I don’t care any more. I can’t keep going on like this. Do your worst.” I put my mental-hands up and “let” my mind do whatever it wanted. It wasn’t immediate, but in a couple of weeks, I noticed the frequency of my Intrusive Thoughts dropped but not the severity of them.

I thought I was getting better, but I somehow kept reaching new lows. One day a thought appeared, “I want to kill my boyfriend.” I broke down. This was it, it was happening. My thoughts were now happening in the first-person and this terrified me because everything previously was a what-if kind of thinking, a future thing or present what-if. In my mind it was always my own voice/internal dialogue. I didn’t hear voices or hallucinate so naturally I thought this was something I really wanted; to me, having the thought was as bad as the act itself.

A year and a half of antidepressants weren’t helping by this stage and I wasn’t naive to think pills would erase thoughts. I asked the doctor at the time that I needed real help because I couldn’t take it any longer.

Having now been through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which I should have been offered as my first option from my first doctor), I was told at the time, that day I “gave up on my mind”, I was doing a technique in which I observe my mind, that I become “the watcher”. Whatever troubling thought I have, I acknowledge it’s presence and let it pass without judging or labelling myself. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural but after a couple of goes the physical feelings of dread and anxiety would lessen. My CBT therapist helped with this as well as giving me exposure techniques to relax my fear of the word “paedophile” itself. I had to write the word over and over, line after line, page after page in a book until it meant nothing. By page ten, I was getting annoyed with the word and the homework started to bore me. In this way, the technique worked a great deal. That therapist had a huge part to play in getting me back to some kind of normality and I don’t think I can stress the importance of talking-therapies enough.

It’s been seven years since I developed OCD and I’ve accepted that I’ll have Intrusive Thoughts for the rest of my life. When I stopped trying to fight the thoughts, by way of giving up and accepting them, this feeling of freedom came with it – probably the only time in my life giving up counted for something.

Right now in the world, this exists; A father who fears he’ll lose control of himself and would willingly swerve the car off the road killing his daughter and her friend. A teenager afraid he’ll become a paedophile or sex offender for simply having a random thought. Or a mother with thoughts of harming her new-born baby, a sad but common condition. I’ve met these people myself, and none of them should be feared, suspected, ridiculed or bullied. Therapists and doctors know that sufferers of Intrusive Thoughts are less likely to act on their thoughts because so much distress is caused by the thoughts themselves.

To this day I still get Intrusive Thoughts, but I’ve learnt to pay them less attention. A part of me is saddened and relieved in equal measure. It feels like the me before it all started was a different man – that I’m a different man now and I’ll never see that version of me pre-OCD. But having been helped and supported by loved ones, doctors and, importantly myself, I’ve learned that I can get past monuments. There will be always be other monuments on my path, and perhaps the occasional big pink elephant.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Scott September 12, 2017 at 11:29 am

    Dear Liam,

    This is such a fine piece. Thank you for sharing your experience.

    I’m in the midst of a terrible struggle with Harm OCD. Your story has encouraged me when I really needed it.

    Scott

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