Most people when they think of OCD think of behaviours focused on organising things and obsessively cleaning but my experience with OCD couldn’t be further from this. Here I am going to tell you all about my experience with OCD – it’s hard to open myself up like this to the internet, but I think that if it helps at least one person then it’s definitely worth it.
First off, what the heck is OCD?
OCD is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, it’s about compulsions, intrusive thoughts and rituals – it’s a form of anxiety. The inability to escape these intrusive thoughts is what we find the most distressing as we feel obliged to engage with these thoughts because we can’t get them out of our head. The worst thing about OCD – in my opinion – is that the more often these thoughts are engaged with, the more likely they are to continue to crop up – even though at the time it seems to be the best way of seeking reassurance. What is really happening here, is that the individual goes over things repeatedly in their head to argue with their own mind that the ‘intrusive thought’ is wrong. Whilst you can be confident at first that you’ve done something or not done something, the more you profess this within your mind, the more you begin to doubt yourself and the anxiety increases.
You might be wondering why I have referred to survivors of OCD as “we” and “our”, the explanation for this is simply because I have reached a point in my journey whereby I understand that I am not alone – there are other people just like me out there and it was this realisation whereby my road to recovery began…
Before we get there though, I guess I should explain my OCD because each experience is different from person to person. As a child I was always a worrier, I always worried that something would happen to the ones that I love and despite getting older and developing the capacity to rationalise concepts, this fear never went away. In 2010 I started my Criminology degree and moved into halls 4 hours away at a university in Manchester. At first I never noticed anything to be a problem, my checking of doors/windows etc just seemed to be ‘normal’, sure I’d check a couple of times more than I should but I didn’t really think anything of it. For the first year of university I was blissfully ignorant – I was conscious that I was checking things a bit too much, but it wasn’t causing me any distress or affecting my daily life so I never bothered to challenge these behaviours. Little did I know that these ‘habits’ were the beginning of a debilitating mental health illness.
Sometime during my second year, I noticed that my flatmate in halls had left the electric hob on for goodness knows long – it was bright red and she was nowhere to be seen. After this I always made it my business to do a routine of ‘checks’ before I could finally settle down to sleep each night. I’d check that the hob was off, the plugs were switched off, the taps were off properly and that my door was locked. Sometimes I’d have to complete this routine a good handful of times before I felt satisfied enough that I could sleep. I’d have the same nightmare when I had to leave for lecturers, even though I knew it would make me late, I’d still sometimes go back to my room to check again. I dreaded the moment when I had to leave, because I knew that one check would never be enough and I’d stress myself out trying to find that elusive peace of mind. Hair straighteners were my worst nightmare, as a teenage I’d read an article about a girl burning down her house because she’d left them on. I became obsessed with making sure they were turned off, stood up and not touching anything. You might not think that this little ritual sounds like a big deal, but once you’ve done this about 10 times, it gets upsetting and feels weary because no matter how many times the ritual is carried out, the anxiety keeps you going back for more. A lot can change in 10 seconds, right? RIGHT? At least that’s what I thought. This carried on throughout my third and final year, I’m not sure how but I still didn’t realise that I had OCD, I thought I was just a worrier and that ‘that is just the way I was’.
OCD was not the only thing affecting my mood. I realised that I felt anxious about everything else too: failing my assignments, losing the ones I love or something bad happening to them. I’d worry like crazy when my partner when on the occasional night out on the town to the point whereby I’d not be able to sleep until he’d text me that he was home safe. I’d always say to him to “be safe, don’t stand too near the platform, don’t lean on the train doors”, sounds daft doesn’t it? As a then 27-year-old, he’s old enough to look after himself and has more than enough common sense. Yet still, I couldn’t stop worrying or stop myself from giving him the same schpeel. It felt like an urgent need that I had to obey because if I didn’t then something bad would happen. Thankfully he had A LOT of patience and continues to be an epic boyfriend after 5 years together.
I thought i’d found a cure, or at least a method of coping and saving my sanity. I’d take a picture on my phone to reassure myself later that everything was ok. At the time I thought this was a sensible – and it did work sometimes to ease the anxiety. But the problem was that I’d just added another layer – another dimension that would have to be torn down in order to truly beat this mental illness and banish the rituals that haunted me. This period was by far the most difficult of my life, I was 23 and instead of enjoying life, I was trapped in a cycle of misery and anxiety. By now I’d graduated with a 2:1 in Criminology and was studying Social Work at postgraduate level and was having the worst experience with the university who were dreadful and didn’t seem to give two hoots about its students (I’ll do a separate post for this because that’s a story in itself). I’d realised now that stress was the primary factor that worsened my OCD and made coping with it on a day by day basis unmanageable. The rituals continued, the intrusive thoughts continued and I remained oblivious to the real perpetrator.
A discovery, a label, A BREAKTHROUGH
For some people, a label is a means of oppression. A means of segregating an individual from society and highlighting that they are different, worse – abnormal. Up until this point I had no idea why I felt compelled to obey these compulsive thoughts in my head and I was afraid of researching my symptom through fear of what I might find. What if Google confirmed that I was in fact, a freak? Eventually, with butterflies in my stomach, I typed in my symptoms and waited for the results to load. Let me tell you, when they did, it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders, for the first time in a long time, I felt hope. Finally I had an explanation, I had answers for the years of misery I’d suffered. Even better than this, I found that I could be treated. Not cured, but treated – that was enough for me.
I began researching online forums for like-minded individuals, hoping to gain insights into the stories of other people and how their daily lives had been affected. I was not disappointed by what I found. I found that ‘those people’ were just like me – their symptoms, thoughts, experiences were just like mine. Finally, I wasn’t alone, the reassurance I got from knowing this was immense. I learnt that most sufferers were prescribed some form of anti-depressant and referred for a course of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). Admittedly the positivity rate was very low, the majority of forum users claimed that the treatment had not improved their symptoms and they had felt that it was a waste of time. I felt different though, I found an inner strength and determination that it would work for me – it had to. For the first time in a long time, I actually felt that I could ‘get better’ and I promised myself that regardless of how hard that first step was towards the doctor’s office, I would do it.
And I did.
I’ll be posting part 2 – the recovery very soon!