It can always be treated now. There is always great hope. The last few years have been the best years of my life.
I was 7 years-old and it was the first time I’d stayed over at my Grandma’s on my own. The evening was great – it’s a lovely sort of hazy memory of childhood happiness, having fun, being cosy and happy at your Gran’s.
But suddenly, as she was hugging me Goodnight, the thought shot into my head that if I strangled her she wouldn’t be able to stop me because of being too frail. It terrified me. There was no thought in the world that could have appalled me more.
Looking back now I can see that the circumstances conjured this up in my mind. It was an involuntary thought – intrusive. The problem was that the thought didn’t go in one ear and out the other. I obsessed about it. I was a growing boy, shocked to realize that I was already stronger than my Gran. In the nightime stillness of her bungalow I glimpsed through childhood eyes the vulnerability of an elderly person that I loved dearly.
I couldn’t find a way to explain to her why I was suddenly upset. I just shut myself in my room and prayed for morning to come quickly. But when the same thing happened with my Mum in the months that followed, she did manage to get me to say why, in the middle of a normal hug, I was in floods of tears and she reassured me.
I was diagnosed with OCD at the age of 35. I thought the therapist was crackers because I’m hopeless at cleaning and very untidy. But as the therapy continued and she also recommended books by Veale, Willson, Clark, Salkovskis, etc., I learnt about OCD and cried again but with overwhelming relief this time.
Following those incidents aged 7, what I now know to be OCD escalated continually and into my teens. Reassured by my mother these first times, the intrusive thoughts always locked onto something new to terrify me – suicide, and what a cruel thing that would be to do to my parents; fears about stealing; fears of harming people; fears of a sexual nature …
Aged 12 I had a breakdown and missed 3 months of school. Doctors were perplexed. Four weeks in hospital under observation followed, with multiple tests for possible illnesses coming back negative. I didn’t dare talk about the thoughts underlying the depression, and wasn’t referred for counselling.
Care for children psychologically was far more variable in quality in the 1980’s, at least at the point of access. I’m writing my story because I hope parents now will seek help with far more confidence. OCD is infinitely more likely to be diagnosed and correctly treated now. It was little known then, and CBT therapy, currently the one therapy known to work for treating OCD, has only become prominent here in the last 20 years or so.
I gradually managed to cope at school again, and lived a life that looked normal to everyone around me until I was 35, apart from several periods of ill health that we never quite got to the bottom of.
Unfortunately, however, from the time of that early incident at my grandmother’s onwards, and with increased intensity from the age of 12, I was experiencing what I now know to be compulsions. In some ways these were the reason why on the surface I seemed healthy and was apparently doing ok in life. It is however the compulsions in OCD that sustain and intensify the obsessions and that necessarily become the focus of treatment when you receive CBT therapy.
It’s hard to explain the compulsions I felt as a child to tap walls, repeat tasks a “safe” number of times, return to rooms to “unthink” the awful thoughts that had happened in there … They somehow reassure you briefly that your obsessions aren’t true, but the relief they bring is increasingly short-lived. So you need to do them more. They multiply and become very complex.
By my mid-teens the compulsions were all mental rituals. The physical things were so embarrassing – they gradually become internalized so that they’re not visible to the people around you. This is where the frequency and complexity of the internalized compulsions becomes a mental torment that is nearly as distressing as the obsessions that they’re unintentionally sustaining. Certain words in the correct order repeated silently over and over again; counting; constantly checking your memories to be reassured you haven’t done anything wicked (in the old sense of the word); having to think of certain images, patterns, memories …
Reviewing memories of thoughts to rationalize or “unthink” things so as to assure yourself you’re not a bad person, quickly becomes, in OCD, trying to remember if you did anything bad yesterday that you’ve somehow blocked out of your mind, for fear of becoming a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. Before you know it, the compulsion is to try to remember every moment of yesterday, so as to be reassured that there are no gaps in your memory of the day – you don’t want to leave even the possibility that there are any gaps in which it’s theoretically possible that you went crazy and did something bad with no recollection of doing it. The compulsion has become something impossible to satisfy.
Like we all are, I am far from perfect. But I’m a very normal, and, I hope, a moral, and law-abiding person. The intrusive fears were always that it might somehow be possible to end up doing things that I would never do – the very things I most abhorred even imagining doing.
Those fears of becoming, or of having somehow already become, a really bad person, peaked in my late teens. Various ways in which I was supported in my teens and early twenties helped me. As an adult OCD has had a very adverse impact on my health, family life, and work, with multiple obsessions and compulsions largely related to issues of self-esteem. There was no diagnosis or therapy in my early twenties, but thanks to the help that I did receive, the OCD has no longer been irrational fears of doing something insane. The adult periods of depression have been caused both by the ongoing OCD and by the memories of those childhood and teenage obsessions, and intense guilt through an inability to comprehend how I could have had those fears.
I’ve mentioned the age of 35 a couple of times. That was 5 years ago. Finally I had a second severe breakdown, but this led at last to facing the need for psychotherapy.
That is my reason for writing my story. To encourage parents to seek help if their children display signs of OCD. And to raise awareness of the nature of OCD, in case somebody is reading this who is suffering from OCD, but not knowing what it is and not knowing they can be helped. People typically wait years before daring to seek help. I, like them, could have avoided years of suffering.
It can always be treated now. There is always great hope. The last few years have been the best years of my life. I’m in remission from OCD, and know what I would do and who I would go to if ever I had a relapse.
I’d like to encourage people to be in touch with OCD Action and OCD-UK through their websites, Facebook and Twitter. There are many blogs and chats – and publicity about whole books – full of hundreds of encouraging stories, both to show us that we are very far from being alone, and that quality treatment nowadays leads to recovery. OCD Action and OCD-UK will guide you to the means of accessing that quality therapy – the CBT therapists with good experience and understanding of treating OCD.