The reality of living with OCD isn’t a penchant for tidiness and order, it’s a debilitating condition where intrusive thoughts can terrorise your daily world
If you’ve ever suffered with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and intrusive thoughts, chances are you’ve come across someone who has falsely diagnosed themselves with it. Not in a health anxiety way; someone who is ‘so OCD’ because they like a clean house, or are super-organised. But that’s where it ends. Somebody who’s decided it’s a fun word to describe someone’s silly, slightly annoying personality traits.
When you live with OCD (and I say ‘live’ because it never leaves you, like an uninvited, overpowering housemate, who doesn’t pay rent), you understand it isn’t a passing thought, or feeling. It’s a constant intruder in your mind, affecting your day from the moment you wake, to the minute you close your eyes at night.
I’ve struggled with OCD since I was eight, and launched my blog in late 2017 to raise awareness. There’s something about OCD that makes it seem more taboo than some other mental illnesses. For me, it’s because amongst everything else going on in my mind, this is the thing that makes me feel the most crazy.
With OCD, we experience intrusive and mainly irrational thoughts. A lot of the time, we know they are irrational. But they still terrify us and consume us.
According to studies, it takes most sufferers 18 years to seek help. This hit home for me, as from the age of eight until I was 21, I stayed silent.
My experience started in 1998 after a semi-traumatic event at school – I wasn’t in immediate danger, but it deeply affected me and how ‘safe’ I saw the world.
I developed a fear of breaking things, and was plagued with thoughts that I was going to upset someone I loved. I would touch a door and panic that I had scratched it. I’d build up the worry inside until I broke down, distraught and inconsolable.
This first stage of OCD lasted a couple of months, and then manifested into different things over the next 10 years. OCD has a way of strengthening its power the longer you are silent. Like a monster, it changes form so that it can rear its ugly head when you least expect it.
When I was nine, my obsessive compulsive thoughts shifted into fears that something bad was going to happen to someone I loved. The ironic thing about OCD is that it brings your worst fears to the surface, in the format that you want them to happen. Many intrusive thoughts appear as ‘-insert name- is going to die’. So, guess what your next thought is? ‘You thought it, so now if it does happen, it’s your fault.’
When I had intrusive thoughts, I’d have to perform an ‘action’ to protect the person. I’d touch the wall a certain number of times, or say a sentence in my head for 10 minutes. Before bed, I had a ritual – recite the names of every person I cared about. If I missed anyone, I’d have to start again, in case something horrible happened to them.
Over the years, obsessive compulsive thoughts manifested into phobias and health anxiety.
You deserve support. You deserve a moment of peace in your mind
When I started college in 2007, my health anxiety triggers ranged from using a new beauty product and panicking about a fatal reaction, to having an undiagnosed (usually terminal) illness. The panic attacks took over my life – the feeling of my throat closing up and not being able to breathe made me too scared to sleep in case I never woke up again.
At uni, I even developed a toilet anxiety where I couldn’t go anywhere I hadn’t been before in case there wasn’t a loo. This added to the feelings of shame, making it harder to ask for help. I just couldn’t do normal things people my age were doing.
After I finished university in 2012, the rituals, and constant state of panic had gotten too much to bear. I isolated myself out of fear that something bad would happen while outside. But even at home, I would panic and end up hysterical if someone was late coming home.
I never really talked to anyone about it, and my mind desperately needed an outlet. In 2014, I developed dermatillomania – a form of self-harm which involves the ritual of picking at your skin to generate feelings of relief from anxiety.
The skin picking gave me another excuse not to leave the house, because I felt so disgusted in myself. My self-esteem was so low, I couldn’t find the joy in anything. I was convinced this was all my life would be, and then began to not feel anything.
After reading an article on depression, I understood what the numbness meant. I’d spent years feeling trapped by my mind, but I suddenly had a stronger thought. I deserved to get better.
In 2016, I found a therapist I connected with, started cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and began to feel hopeful. We practised exposure exercises, and I would be in tears, convinced there was no way I could do it. Each session I came back with news of my accomplishments – baby steps in battling my intrusive thoughts.
Counselling genuinely changed my life. It helped me to be aware of my thoughts and not let them define or control me.
For anyone struggling, remember OCD thrives on your silence. It forces you to feel guilt, shame and embarrassment about what’s going on. It controls and isolates you. I was constantly searching for someone else who was going through something similar. I didn’t find anyone for years – so many of us feel isolated with OCD, and the irony is just that: so many of us.
The most important thing to destroy the power OCD was holding over me was talking to someone. Help and support is out there, but you have to believe you are worthy of reaching out for it. You deserve support. You deserve a moment of peace in your mind.
Graeme Orr | MBACP (Accred) UKRCP Reg Ind counsellor, says:
For Suz, her OCD made the world around her feel unsafe and anxious. Ultimately, anxiety and self-harm overwhelmed her and she withdrew from life. Like many people, it took her years to ask for help, but in starting therapy, taking the difficult road did she began to release her from the grip of her obsessive compulsive thoughts. Through therapy, and learning not to be silenced by her experiences, Suz was able to reclaim her life.