OCD has been such a big player in my life. It has taken much. As I recover, I realise it has also given me much. This is my story!
Ah man, where do I start. I’ve had OCD since I was 7 years old (or at least, in hindsight that is my earliest memory). I remember being on holiday in Florida. There were two key instances on this trip that stuck out to me. The first was the night we landed my Dad wasn’t well. So he stayed in the hotel, while my brother, Mother and I went out to get some food. I remember being at the restaurant and feeling anxious about my Dad being bitten by a tarantula. My visions would go in all weird directions, like him dying from the bite or us coming back to the room to find him in that state. I just remember going over and over these scenarios in my head – involuntarily. These visions stayed in my mind, and I remained anxious until I saw my Dad. Of course, my dad did not get bitten by a tarantula. The second instance I can remember is being by the swimming pool. I was petrified to go in. Why? Because I was certain there were ‘sharks’ in the pool. And as soon as I went in I would be attacked. Deep down, I knew this was rubbish. But something in the back of my mind told me ‘what if’. I would jump in and swim across a corner going diagonally. I was swimming about 2 metres, I would then propel myself out of the water and away from the edge, making sure no sharks could reach me. My family and everyone around me found this hilarious. For me however, being in that water shot my anxiety levels up. In hindsight, I see the funny side.
OCD has always had its strongest grip on me when it comes to ruminations and mental compulsions. My earliest memory of physical compulsions however was when I was 8 years old. I’ve always been ‘weirded’ out by old objects i.e. paintings, decorations and buildings. There was this old metal teapot on our landing. I remember for quite a few months (could be longer) whenever I walked past it, something wouldn’t feel right. I would have to go back and forth until it felt right. When I would refuse to do the compulsion, I would clearly get messages in my mind telling me if I didn’t do it someone in my family would die, or some poor person in Africa would die. As a caring kid, this was very traumatic. Eventually I would walk past it ‘just right’ and I could go be a kid. By the stairs was an old’ish painting. I remember one time walking past it and it ‘really not feeling right’. I felt that I was in another dimension and if I didn’t walk past it just right I would never see my family again, or not in the context I currently do. It took me ages to walk back and forth until it felt right. Before it did, I remember getting so frustrated I started to cry. I couldn’t understand why I ‘had’ to do it. I knew this couldn’t be the normal human experience. But at the same time, I was terrified to tell anyone in case I was ‘mental’.
All of the above went on and (in some sense still does, but in a much milder form) until I was 17. I was of enough maturity that I wanted to see if my weirdness was normal or in fact there was an issue. I did that thing Doctors love their patients to do, I consulted Google. After reading up on OCD I couldn’t see it being anything else. I was terrified to call the doctors. After all, what if I went and he said I was insane? How would my family react? Would they out cast me? Of course, all ridiculous concerns. But that didn’t stop them from feeling real.I talk in detail about this experience here (How do I found out if I have OCD?). The doctor referred me to the mental health service which is part of the NHS (National Health Service in the UK). I had a couple of sessions of assessment with a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist did not want to diagnose me at that time. She didn’t want to give me the clinical label of ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’ as it may be stigmatizing. The main reason was because OCD wasn’t causing me, at that time, intense discomfort that was crippling my day to day life, or at least that’s how it came across to the doctor. I was and still am a ‘sugar coater’. If I am struggling I will sugar coat the situation as to not allow people to see my pain. I am seeing a psychoanalyst at the moment for non-OCD issues to figure out many things, but also why I hide the truth in these contexts. So if the doctor asked me a question like “on a scale of 1-10 how much pain are these thoughts causing you?” I answer “6-7” when I really want to say 9, it’s hard for the doctor to see the whole picture. The other issue I faced when presenting to the doctor was that I was only aware of physical compulsions. I didn’t share mental compulsions with her. Mental compulsions were taking up considerable amounts of my time, and this wasn’t shared with the psychiatrist. She wanted me to go away and try some self-therapy. She recommended a few books. Of course, being 17 and not a reader (at that time) I purchased the books with good intentions, and then let them sit on my shelf collecting dust. The fear of reading, and going into the depths of OCD alone was scary. I just told myself “I’ve survived this long, I can continue”. The psychiatrist did say after reading those books, and applying them to come back and she can reassess me. I of course never did this. Later in life, when I needed therapeutic intervention I went privately.
After initially seeing the psychiatrist I told my parents, in the middle of a non-related argument. Not the right time, but I was sure glad to release this information. It was weird for a while, because mental illness is not something my family ever talked about, or had to deal with. To be honest I don’t think they believed me. It’s taken 10 years for my mum to actually believe me. This is due to me talking openly about my therapy with her. This made it real I think. The key learning from this, was when I openly talked to them without ego or anger, they started to relate back with a sympathetic ear. OCD can be such a painful thing to discuss for those with the disorder, I think we can sometimes get caught up in the pain and therefore relay that emotion in our conversations. The right approach (in my opinion) is to talk about your OCD from a point of vulnerability, and love. This allows the other person in the conversation to return in love. Thus speeding up the healing process.
I continued to struggle but manage my OCD throughout my early twenties. It was annoying and frustrating but it didn’t ruin my life. I would do the usual things like check I had locked the door many times, stare at the iron plug socket to make sure I turned it off, even take pictures on my phone as evidence and not eat anything if it had come into contact with anyone or anything, for fear of contamination. Contamination OCD was always milder for me, however I had a few strong fears. Often around getting HIV. Whenever I had a sexual partner (even with protection) I would obsess and lose sleep over the fact that I had contracted HIV. Making appointments for the sexual health clinic always resulted in anxiety and allowed my mind to ruminate over and over about the odds, and reassuring myself that I couldn’t have got it, which only made it worse. There was this one time I was on the London Underground and this persons bag brushed my arm as they walked past me. I noticed a dot of blood, where their bag had nipped me. It was most likely a paper clip, or buckle however I was flooded with anxiety. Confident I had contracted HIV. My mind was going a million miles an hour showing me all the possible ways it could have happened. My mind concluded that what had hit me was a needle. I obsessed over this for a few weeks. I eventually forgot it until I went to get a blood check many months later. At this time the memory and certainty came crashing back. My blood work was clear – of course.
In my mid twenties I started to struggle more with Harm OCD (HOCD). I would constantly get flashbacks of the past, however they would have added stories bolted on. The OCD saying that I hurt that person, and now their life would be awful and they would kill themselves. I would get thrown into jail and everyone would hate me etc. When I would get those thoughts, my anxiety would rise and I would do my best to prove them wrong, which only made it worse. Like pouring petrol on a fire. Some of my most anxiety fuelled periods have come as a result of HOCD.
Throughout my twenties I struggled with relationship OCD (ROCD) however I only came to realise this recently. When I would date someone, I would get swarmed by anxiety. Countless intrusive thoughts would come rushing into my head “Is this girl right for me?”, “is she the one?”, “she didn’t laugh at my joke, therefore she’s not right”, “she likes museums, therefore we are doomed, and if I don’t end it now I will be trapped in this loveless relationship and feel alone forever”. ROCD sufferers can obsess over not ‘being in love’ with their partner or obsess over their characteristics. For me I have experienced both. Dating has been a very painful experience for me. It wasn’t until I met my girlfriend that I realised it wasn’t me being fussy, it was OCD. I couldn’t grasp how on one date I could be having the time of my life, then the next time I saw her, feel completely lost and that I was in the wrong relationship. After some research I found out about ROCD. Understanding what it was, was the first step to beating it. With ROCD, knowledge really was power. I needed to redefine what love was. I was holding on to this Hollywood concept of ‘love at first sight’, for someone with ROCD this is an awful belief. I read the book ‘Love you, love you not’ which really helped me see what was ROCD and what wasn’t. I committed myself to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which I had learned 18 months earlier. But I have been very on and off with it. ACT in relation to OCD, basically means not questioning or justifying intrusive thoughts but to accept them. Keep accepting them. And over time the anxiety goes, and so do the thoughts. As your brain now knows these thoughts are not important to you, and it will not waste its time showing you. ACT is not easy but it is simple.
Above are some key themes and events that have happened to me over the years as a result of OCD. But more recently I have learned how it just hums in the background of my life on a consistent basis. It could be over thinking the future, and dramatizing it, so the present moment becomes tainted and anxious. I create unhappiness from a medley of false non-existent assumptions. When I notice my brain doing this, I bring my attention back to the present moment. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. But the more I do it, the more I live in the now, and thus enjoy life.
10 months ago I started Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy (ERP) with Mark Freeman. ERP basically forces you to do or not do something so that you are exposed to your anxiety and thoughts. For example it could be switching off the iron, then not checking again and living with the barrage of intrusive thoughts and anxiety. It’s painful, but over time it really works. ERP removed my physical compulsions. I still get the intrusive thoughts, however I have rewired my brain to accept them, they soon go. By far my biggest OCD breakthrough in recovery.
I have recently started Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which has helped me realise some of the past events in my life that have triggered parts of OCD. By understanding the reason why OCD attacks various parts of my life has really helped me stick with ACT.
In the last few years, I have put a lot of energy into finding the healthiest way to live. Nutrition is key for a healthy body, but more recently I found it’s crucial for a healthy mind. I adapted my diet slightly to help reduce anxiety and added in some supplements. This has helped ease a mild depression I have had over the last few years. Removing depression can massively help you beat OCD, as you have more will power and dog eared determination. Check out Dr Mark Hyman’s book ‘The Ultramind Solution’ for an excellent, well researched body of knowledge on this.
Meditation has played a big part in my recovery. Learning to distance myself from my thoughts has been very powerful. OCD uses every trick to get us to believe its bullshit. Meditation helps us see through this.
OCD has taken much from me. It has made me second guess everything, and tormented me. OCD is a bully. It took me many years to see any silver linings. However there are some. OCD has made me a very caring and thoughtful person. It has forced me to get a great sense of humour. And it has forced me to master my mind. I love all of that!
Know your enemy as Sun Tzu once said. With OCD knowledge really is power. Finding out what it is and how to beat it, looking beyond the traditional methods also has played a huge part in my recovery. I have some way to go, but I’m just grateful I’m better than I was yesterday.
So that’s my story. I hope it has given you hope and offered you some insight into strategies for recovery. I hope one day I can hear your positive story.
To your success,