When I was eighteen, I started this relationship with a plucky, punky, quite typically teenage angst fellow eighteen year-old. Like a lot of teenage relationships, it was a questionable match, we had little in common and it was short-lived, the pair of us calling it quits shortly before I moved away to London for university.
Coincidentally, brought on by the unfamiliar surroundings of a daunting new environment, and having moved four hundred miles away from my home town, it was in these initial months that OCD began making a cameo in my day-to-day life. By the start of my second year, it had a leading role in my story.
However, after a few years of reflection, it’s finally occurred to me that the source of my OCD was not solely a substantial social, or academic shift; the people we meet and the interactions we have with others through our “outside lives” play a huge part in how we process, perceive and think about ourselves in our “inside lives”.
Around two to three weeks before I moved away for uni, I get a text. It’s from a close friend, we’ve known each other for countless years throughout school and college, and she’d been encountering her own severe issues with mental health for a number of months. As a rule of thumb, if a friend with mental health problems contacts you at one o’clock in the morning and says that they’re feeling “a bit off”, you should give them your full, undivided attention. We agree to meet up the following evening to have a chat about what she’s going through, and after a few drinks, she makes a tipsy, ill-advised pass at me. I tell her that, even in my own woozy and blurred state, it’s a terrible idea, we both in turn laugh it off, and I leave.
The following morning, I woke up in what felt like it wasn’t my body.
It was a psychological feeling of pins and needles, this uncomfortable sensation that I had missed something. It was like the wince of walking up your staircase in the dark and thinking that there’s one more step that there is, only for your foot plummet through a few seconds of insubstantial, empty space before you touch the floor again. There was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
For virtually no discernable reason, a good friend – a childhood friend – with no romantic, sexual or emotional interest in me had disregarded a set of solid criteria in her mind (that I was a mate, that nothing should happen, etc.) and had made a pass at me. As an adult, this doesn’t pose the same psychological conundrum for me now as it did then: she was drunk, I was in the immediate vicinity, nothing more.
However, as an immature, inexperienced late developer, I kept replaying the evening, and digging into meaning that did not exist, was not there. Had I said something to make her think that we should spend the night together? Had I made a subtle suggestion that I was feeling the same way?
In my confused, anxious teenage mind, I came to what seemed like the only logical conclusion: clearly I must have somehow given the impression that this was what we should do, and while I later made my intentions crystal clear that this was unwise, surely it was through my interaction with her that she had decided to act? In blaming myself, I subsequently broke up with my girlfriend at the time, not explaining the reason why, because I felt guilty about something that a) did not happen and b) was of no fault of my own.
The associations we make as children affect the connections we make as adults. For example, if as a baby you see a beautiful, glowing candle, you may try to touch it. After feeling a surprising burning sensation and realising that touching candles is unwise, you are unlikely to do so again. OCD is so peculiar, so bewildering, because of the bizarre nature of some of our associations.
For example, if I make sure that all of these knobs and leavers are symmetrical, I can keep a loved one safe from harm. Similarly, if I don’t perform this ritual, and a loved one coincidentally does come to harm, the fault is my own. A friend and fellow OCD sufferer found that her own battle with mental health issues began shortly after her mother unexpectedly passed away, and it was only after this event that germ phobia and a repeated desire to ensure that everything was clean and disinfected began to take over, perhaps as a result of trying to regain control over something that was not within her power.
I wrote an article a number of weeks ago about how OCD is a superpower. The message of this was meant as both a positive and a negative point. As an OCD sufferer, I feel like I have control and influence over my surroundings. In some ways, this is a brilliant, pro-active and inspiring thought: my destiny is my own, only I can control the path that I take and provided that I do nothing short of my best, I can achieve my dreams. In other ways, this is a claustrophobic, terrifying responsibility: if something goes wrong in my life, the only logical assumption is that the fault lies with me. This, however, is absolute rubbish.
It can be hard to unlearn this cycle of negative thinking, which is why a therapy such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy can be so beneficial in helping you to question, and eventually disregard, this idea. Sometimes, however, life can deal you a hand of tough love: what if your worst fear comes to fruition, and your obsessions and compulsions did nothing to stop it?
Perhaps you wash your hands over and over, under the impression that this will prevent you from catching a certain disease. What happens if you then catch this disease even so? Maybe you check that your house is locked ten times before going to work in the morning, but what happens if this does not prevent a burglar from invading your home?
Don’t misunderstand: I’m not promoting the deaths of relatives, the infidelity of your husbands or the loss of your possessions as a positive psychological experience. However, the terrifying key to realising that your compulsions will in reality do nothing substantial to stop a negative obsession from coming true, can often be if the worst happens regardless. If everything goes wrong, despite you trying your best and making every preparation, then what was the point of you making those preparations in the first place?
Sometimes, in order to let go of the illusion that we have any control over elements of life that we in fact do not, things need to go wrong. Afterwards, you can begin to rebuild in a healthy, rational way, safe in the knowledge that certain repeated acts did not, and will not, prevent it… so why bother fulfilling the compulsion?