It’s funny to try and tell your story, when you’re not sure when the story started. There are many different theories out there about the cause and effect of Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Like any medical factor, type it in to Google and you will quickly drown in text, blogs and Podcasts of pretentious patter. So, with great appreciation of irony, here I am, adding to the pile.
Last year I began cutting together footage of my grandfather’s old home movies as a surprise for my grans birthday. I laughed. There it was, a child with OCD who had the illusion of a kid who was just “peculiar”. Behind the camera, picked up on the microphone, was my mother discussing the fact I was hoarding my dirty underwear. I was six.
It is believed that OCD is the result of a combination of neurobiological, genetic, behavioural, cognitive, and environmental factors that trigger the disorder in a specific individual at a particular point in time. Whether it was a blurred but traumatic childhood experience that triggered my OCD, or whether I genetically inherited the condition, or whether my chemical balance just birthed it, I don’t know and I honestly don’t know if the origin answer would be helpful.
What has been helpful was the realisation that there is no recovery. I don’t mean that to be disheartening to anyone looking for answers, I am just being honest. I know now that there is no cure, no solution, no quick fix. What I do know, is that it can be managed.
Everyone has different levels of resilience, and that applies to me too. Literally, depending on what day you get me on, depends on what level of resilience I have. That used to irate me, more than I could perhaps describe but I’ll try. Imagine, not knowing what you’re waking up to: one day you are like superman, can carry any weight without breaking a sweat. The next day, you are so weak you can’t even lift your head off the pillow. You’re stuck, no explanation, no understanding and no solution for that day. Imagine how infuriating that would be? The element of surprise, knowing it could be weeks or months before you get to fly in your Cape. Lying in bed, going to sleep, terrified of what you may wake to in the morning.
That’s the best explanation I can come up with and, from my experience of supporting people with poor mental health, I don’t think my little analogy applies only to OCD.
Stress is my trigger. Its ironic really, knowing that, it causes you to stress about being stressed. That’s the fun and games of OCD though isn’t it? It is irrational. Whether it is thinking that something awful will happen if I do not complete my routine or over- thinking things which plummet my confidence and feelings of self-worth: if you explain it to someone, as the words come out of your mouth, you think “I sound crazy”. Knowing you are being irrational is even more infuriating, and stressful because you can’t stop it. It’s a cycle, an Obsessive cycle of self loathing and frustration.
I preach to others and advocate about breaking the stigma and talking openly about their mental health but it is a challenge. With Obsessive compulsive disorder, I might be extremely bias, but I think it’s harder. You are trying to make sense of the irrational. You are trying to make someone who may never have had a “bad brain day” in their life, understand why you act, say or think the irrational way you do. It is also a medical disorder whose name is thrown around and misused to the point of complete misconception or to commonly describe anyone that actually keeps shit tidy. The casual joke of mental health, causing a underwhelming reaction and misunderstanding from most you choose to be open and honest with.
I went six years. Six years with only a subtle undertone of Obsessive compulsive disorder, having perhaps just one or two crippling days a year. For anyone who has OCD, you’ll know I should have some kind of Guinness World Record for that. This said, in October 2017, I was made redundant. The stress of facing unemployment, of disappointing those under my duty of care was overwhelming. That stress broke me. In October 2017 I relapsed.
I would like to say it lasted just that one month but unfortunately it is still going strong. My sensory issues have amplified to the point I have to keep my headphones in all day at work. My attention to detail and having everything accurate means I am working late nights and doing work on my days off. My Obsessive negative thoughts are killing my happy vibes and making me more sensitive to discomfort and low self esteem. Most painfully, as I feel weaker and weaker, I lose the energy to fight it and feel all sense of resilience and self-confidence slip through my fingers to the point where, some days, you’re left wondering if Superman will every fly again.
Since I was made redundant, I have used OCD Support groups and am now a big advocate for peer-support. As a child in Fife, I was unaware of anything of that form of support but as an adult in Edinburgh, I am very thankful to say there are options. I won’t sugar-coat it, entering a support group for the first time was intimidating. Intimidating but inspiring. That first time, I sat in that chair in a circle of strangers and declared my name. I’ve seen enough movies about groups like alcoholics anonymous to know the score. Knowing the score doesn’t mean you know how it plays out though does it? I sat there, quietly, taking in the bravery and raw displays of flawed humanity as one by one, complete strangers made eye contact with the new girl, stripping back all pretence and nicety’s as they spoke boldly of their day to day struggles, suicidal thoughts and the struggle of isolation. As each person spoke, others nodded and sighed in agreement and gave genuine smiles and small head tilts of sympathy. That, I discovered, is the hidden beauty of support groups: it is a room full of relatable strangers who know exactly what you are trying to say and can practically finish your sentences.
Walking into a support group is intimidating but it is a step of bravery. Studies say accomplishing things helps raise your confidence which, in effect, builds up your level of resilience. Amongst other emotions, I feel proud when I step into my support groups, and when I walk out. Whether I’ve gone and sat in Silence, just listening to like-minded people or whether I’ve taken advantage of the understanding ears, I’m proud I stepped up to the plate and participated.
Achieving goals was how I came about my “bucket list”. Every new years eve, I set myself the challenge of ticking one if not two things off my list. This is not a fun game that I play, it is a game of survival. Ticking something off on that list, whether it is doing a sky dive or just watching all the Harry Potter movies back to back, assures me that I am in fact living. Though some days it may not feel like it, I am alive, I am well and I am capable. Naturally, I have to actually work to afford to live so its not all aeroplanes and movie marathons, but I do write a to do list out when I get in to work and highlight my tasks as I complete them. A visual reminder that on that day, no matter how bad my morning may have been, I am alive, I am well and I am capable.
I hate to be a broken record – irony again really by using that cliché – but there are certain steps I take that usually help. There is so much information and tips already on the Internet but sharing is caring, right? (Christ, all the clichés now.)
1. Take literal steps. 10,000 steps a day. It’s good for the heart and good for the soul.
2. Sleep. If you sleep, your brain will rest and help you get set and build energy for the day ahead.
3. Eat well and regularly. If you already feel mentally exhausted, you do not need to worry about being physically exhausted too.
4. Surround yourself with good eggs. Not literally, surround yourself with people who bring positivity and laughter to your life. Avoid the negativity.
5. To do lists. They help you to focus on priorities and distract yourself from insecurities. Just make sure you are allowed to carry things over to the next day if you can’t complete it -the last thing you need is a sense of failure.
6. Take deep breaths, as patronising as it sounds. Deep breaths. Centre yourself.
7. Find someone who is a good listener. Whether it is professional, on a website, an app, in a circle of strangers or over dinner with friends. Find and appreciate an outlet. It does not help to bottle it all in.
8. A change of scenery can bring a change of mind. Get fresh air, walk, explore, shake it off.
Most importantly and perhaps the most difficult of all: remember there is only one you. Your imperfections, logic, irrationality and failures make you, you. Forgive them and do not resent your brain. The five stages of grief end with acceptance for a reason. You need to get there, you need to accept that you have OCD and progress. Accept that you can’t change it but that you can live with it and harmonise with it. Maybe not everyday but some days. Choose to try. Make today a “some day”, lift your head of that pillow, put on your cape and fly.