When I look back now at the grand old age of 23 I can pinpoint aspects of OCD lingering throughout my childhood. In my bedroom I had a box of toys near my door where some plastic dinosaurs resided. Each night I remember feeling very uneasy and not totally trusting that these dinosaurs wouldn’t come alive and eat me during the night. As a result, I would spend my time before bed turning the dinosaurs around to face the wall, truly believing that by doing so would prevent them from manifesting into real life monsters in my childhood bedroom in my cul-de-sac house in a quiet, suburban village.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve realised that this belief was silly; dinosaurs can’t magically evolve into real creatures from plastic toys! And by turning them around each night, I can see now that I was wasting time and performing some sort of ritual that ultimately achieved nothing. However, even though I can see that this child-like fear is unreasonable and irrational now, it hasn’t stopped my OCD evolving over the years and latching onto all kinds of worries.
I was fourteen when I went to my doctor for a diagnosis. I remember having terrible stomach ache for days on end and knew that it was because I was spending the majority of my life on high alert and incredibly anxious. I don’t know how I knew what OCD was at the time but I just knew that it matched exactly how I was feeling. But it took me to experience the physical side effects of OCD to actually do anything about it which to this day I think is very sad indeed. We pay so much more attention to our physical health and neglect our wellbeing. Both are just as important as each other.
After I received my diagnosis, I was referred to CAHMS: a mental health team for children and adolescents. I liked my therapist, she was friendly, kind and listened to me. She taught me mantras that I can still remember today: “OCD is a habit and habits can be stopped.” But the OCD never entirely went away. Things did improve, sure, but its presence was always there in the background.
Over the years, I have had a very up and down relationship with my OCD and have been able to manage it better on some occasions more than others. When I went to university, although I knew it was part of me and still existed, it was very quiet. This was especially the case when I was dealing with depression after a relationship break down in my third year of university.
When I cast my mind back on this period, I could sense that something wasn’t right. They always say that being at university is supposed to be the best years of your life but I always felt slightly odd and I wasn’t enjoying it as much as other people. It felt as though something was building inside me and this seemed to erupt in my last year when depression took hold. It has been said to me before that anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin, something I totally agree with. Whilst OCD took a back seat at university, my anxiety wasn’t being controlled and maybe this eventually took its toll.
After taking a course of antidepressants and having one-to-one counselling sessions, I was free from depression. In fact, I felt better than I had in a long time. I finished my degree (my biggest achievement to date) and moved back home where I was surrounded by familiar surroundings and people I loved. I felt calm and comfortable. But this soon changed.
I started working in a nursery, a job I found extremely stressful, which aggravated my OCD. I started to spend most of my life on high alert again, unable to relax and constantly panicking about doing something wrong and getting in trouble for it. As a result of these intrusive thoughts, I started to perform more rituals which for me, includes doing things a certain number of times until it feels “just right.” Giving into rituals would make me feel worse because I would feel torn about whether or not I should do them. I’d always been taught that this was a bad thing, that I should fight the urge but I had no idea how else to get rid of this overwhelming anxiety that was taking over my whole being. I could be stuck in my head for hours at a time and nobody would have a clue what was going on.
I would describe my OCD as being similar to a pinball machine: I experience an intrusive thought such as: “I’ve done something wrong, even if it’s accidental, and I’m going to get in trouble for that.” This bounces off the next thought that “I’m a terrible person” to the next thought that “Everybody will hate me” to even extreme thoughts such as “I’m going to prison which will mean my life will be over.” And ultimately, I think it comes down to the fact that I worry I wouldn’t cope with doing something wrong and having to deal with the repercussions of it. I think this stems from regarding my depression as my experience of not coping with life and it makes me terrified that this could happen again. It fuels my OCD into overdrive.
Since OCD reached its peak, which was a couple of years ago now, I have gone back on antidepressants and have received Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the recommended form of therapy for those who struggle with this anxiety disorder. I would say that both have helped me immensely and, although I am very aware that OCD is there, I can manage it better now.
It feels like walking on a tightrope. At the moment, I can control and manage my OCD to a comfortable level. It doesn’t run my life right now but that doesn’t mean it’s not there every single day of my life. Every day I experience the urge to carry out a ritual or experience an intrusive thought that I can’t dismiss, causing me distress and anxiety. But for me, what has been the most important thing is learning to accept my OCD is a part of who I am. I have always been anxious and carrying out rituals is a way of calming this. I worry about everything that goes wrong but this is the only way I have ever known and it makes me the caring, compassionate, careful person I am.
By seeing OCD as a part of who I am and learning to live alongside it as opposed to fighting against it, my life has become a lot easier. Some days I do perform more rituals than others and can get stuck in my head agonising over a thought but I let myself off the hook, tell myself that I’m not going to be on top form every single day and don’t fear that that will mean it’s taken over again. I no longer wake up wishing that its presence will be gone because, quite honestly, hating part of who you are is so exhausting!
In fact, I am proud of who I am. I am proud of what OCD has helped me to achieve including training to be a counsellor and raising awareness through writing pieces like this. Our own ways of thinking are what makes us unique. OCD just so happens to be mine. And you know what? I’m ok with that.