I have felt inspired to share my story about OCD, in part because I have finally realised how much it helps me to share and listen to others’ stories (while trying to fight the guilty feelings which surge up when my OCD tells me that I should not be using my problem and others’ to gain relief, but instead I should be looking out for others’ safety and well-being). So hopefully my story might resonate with someone out there, whilst getting it out in the open will be cathartic for me!
I am 51 years old and have struggled with OCD since age 13 (though I now see I showed signs of it way before). I remember the exact moment when I first had extreme anxiety: at that time, my Mum was the most important person in my life and she had suffered from poor health and had been in and out of hospital quite a lot while I grew up. Anyway, this particular time, my Mum had just got out of hospital following an operation. I overheard a conversation which basically said how lucky my Mum had been and if she’d waited much more she’d be dead. My world fell apart and the first thought that crashed through my head was: “How could I have been so selfish as to be having such a good time at school and all this was going on?!! I am one bad person.” The compulsions began immediately. I began to draw imaginary circles around my waist with my hands and my index fingers of both hands had to touch. I would hold great store in numbers, and odd and even steps. I would never step on the cracks in the pavement and I began to touch objects once, twice, three times, four times…. And I would say to myself: “Ok, one more time”, but it never was one more time – it was never enough.
Did anyone notice? Yeah, my Mum did. As a Mum today, I understand why she reacted how she did – I would do the same – but it really didn’t help. She got frustrated and angry with me and she would tell me to stop. I felt bad. I never felt angry – I understood why – but it made me feel even more guilty than before. So, now, I realised I had to hide these compulsions, which I think I did quite well – nobody else seemed to notice.
When I was 14, I discovered that my Mum had suffered from post-natal depression after having me – a very traumatic birth experience – (I have 2 older brothers) for some months, which meant she couldn’t hold me, and I remember thinking: “Wow, you have caused a lot of trouble for your poor Mum!” I also remember being very young (no older than 5 or 6) and seeing my brothers in a room with my parents as I walked in, thinking: “That’s a nice family – I am not adding anything good to it”. When I was about 9 years old, I saw a programme about the holocaust and I couldn’t stop crying, in part because I was so frustrated at not being there to stop it – I felt guilty. This period became an obsession with me as I grew older, and I couldn’t bear thinking about all that human suffering, yet images of it would plague me over and over again. I recently made the connection that bad news for anyone that I hear about is a trigger for my own worries and OCD obsessions and compulsions – no wonder I avoid watching the news!
School was a little tricky at times, but because most of the obsessions and compulsions were intrusive thoughts (I would argue – I still do – in my head about how absurd or wrong these worries were and then I’d get respite for 3 seconds, 5 minutes, sometimes even hours, until the whole cycle started again) nobody seemed to notice too much. I felt I had to go without in order to make sure everyone was ok, so I didn’t sign up for any play auditions at school (though I loved the idea of being in a play), I chose to not eat something I really liked, or I would stop myself from joining in a fun activity. I also developed a writing obsession: certain letters had to be written just so and if they weren’t I had to cross the word out and write it again. I always remember aged about 15 or 16 my French teacher gave me back a short translation I’d done for homework with the comment: There are over 50 crossings-out here! I think it was the exclamation mark that hurt me the most – I was embarrassed and I tried very hard to hide that piece of work from colleagues as we spent an excruciating 40 minutes going over it!
Then, I went to university, had a ball, and in my second year met Dave (my current partner of 31 years – wow, he’s been very patient!). And, I transferred my worries about my Mum onto him. So, now, I would worry about him travelling anywhere (quite difficult because the following year our respective studies meant he was going to live in Vienna and me in Paris!). So, when I knew he was travelling back by train to Vienna from Paris or from the UK when he’d been visiting his Mum, I would sit in the most uncomfortable position I could find repeating phrases and numbers etc for the 16 or so hours it took him to get to his destination, until I received a call from him and I knew he was ok…. for now, my ocd mind would not hesitate to remind me. This worry would get bigger and bigger until I would lie, manipulate, do whatever I could to not be in the position of him travelling without me (and the lying and manipulation fuelled the guilt and my feeling that I was a bad person).
At age 23, Dave and I embarked on a new life together in Barcelona (where we still live) and in 1997 we had a son, Oliver. And, while pregnant, I transferred my worry from Dave to our son. Oliver is now 21 years old and, though I have thoroughly enjoyed being a Mum to a wonderful son, I now realise I could have enjoyed it a lot more, and I feel guilty for not having sorted this out sooner. That said, Ollie is very cool about it, and I thank both Dave and Ollie for their support in all of this. And last October, Ollie went to Cambridge University to study History of Art, and we are still in Spain. I don’t really know what made me buy that book about OCD last summer, but I bought it on impulse and began to avidly read it. I told Dave about it and he and I began to realise that I had a recognised problem, that this wasn’t me being weird, or weak, or a nuisance. That my checking and checking again and again and again the gas, the doors, the heaters etc (It has sometimes taken me up to an hour to get out of the house and always, that: “Ok, look, this is the last time!” and it rarely is) was not my fault – that was my first breakthrough: Sharon, this is NOT your fault! I felt liberated for the first time I could remember.
I had been to psychologists before but none had mentioned OCD (maybe, I managed to hide it from them so well, though I do wonder sometimes how few professionals knew about it in the 1980s and 1990s, as my tics and compulsions were quite apparent to me, at least. That said, since I have come out into the open about my OCD to some people, nearly all have shown surprise that I have it, so I must hide it quite well!). Anyway, in October, I found an English-speaking CBT therapist – thank God for Chris! – and I have come a long way since then. I am still in the middle of therapy and a long way off a “cure” but I now see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I have managed to stop some of my compulsions (though my main worry about the safety and good health of those I love is still an anxiety producer – just writing this now and my anxiety is apparent) – I even managed to leave the house the other day and just lock the door and not check it, not even once! I make myself go in glass lifts when I get the chance (another thing which sets off anxiety) and I have stopped rewriting words if the letters are not just as they “should” be. I am still panicked and I do feel I’ve been thrown into another planet (a non-OCD one) but I am aware that I do have OCD and that I am the one helping myself (with the help of others, of course).
I also recognise that, despite 38 years of suffering in silence, my OCD is nowhere near as debilitating as other cases. My sense of responsibility and guilt (which still seem quite normal to me, except when Chris points stuff out to me which makes me question that) are part of the insatiable monster and now I have to recognise that. Has it been hard living with OCD? Yes, of course – the anxiety, panic, guilt, sense of responsibility with no way out is excruciating, and the sense of being alone didn’t help. But, I’m getting there.