I was a prisoner of my mind: Julia's story

By Julia Harrison,
updated on Oct 22, 2020

I was a prisoner of my mind: Julia's story

Terrifying thoughts of violence tormented Julia throughout her life – until a diagnosis of OCD, and the love of her husband, enabled her to finally banish the fears

Thinking back as far as possible, I can only count the number of truly happy, anxiety-free days in my life on the fingers of one hand.

I was an anxious child, a worried teenager, and a screwed-up adult. It seemed to me that I was responsible for everything that went wrong around me. I was a perfectionist and an overthinker. But it was more than that. I was different, and I didn’t want to be.

Like so many people, I had a difficult childhood. I grew up not knowing who I really was, and feeling that I didn’t really fit in. I know now that these were the ideal conditions for my illness to take root and grow.

My thoughts were my downfall. From the age of 14, I began to experience thoughts of harm towards those I loved the most. I would watch a news story about murder or abuse, and would be gripped by a very real and sickening anxiety. “What if I were capable of this? Would I do such a thing?”

I had an overwhelming fear that my thoughts were me. I carried this false belief for more than 40 years, and it threatened to endanger and contaminate every loving or kind instinct I had.

I married in 1983, and followed my vocation to teach. I know that I was, and still am, a natural and gifted teacher. I was popular with my students and I genuinely wanted to help them fulfil their potential. I thought perhaps I had arrived in my own life at last!

Then the accusatory thoughts would begin. “Could I be trusted in a position of such responsibility?” This destroyed the joy I experienced in my job. My dysfunctional brain told me I was a bad person – at times my false sense of guilt was overwhelming.

Julia and her husband at their wedding

For Julia, telling her husband about her illness, and being accepted and loved unconditionally, was the key to her rescue

This is fairly typical of the experience of people with obsessive compulsive disorder intrusive thoughts, sometimes called ‘Pure O’.

OCD contaminates and dismantles the lives of ordinary, decent individuals. There are many strands of OCD – contamination OCD, religious OCD, relationship OCD – and they are all, without exception, cruel and destructive.

Unfortunately, I had never heard of this mental illness, and 30 years ago doctors were probably unaware of it, too. Then, in my late 40s, I was researching something on the computer and came across the term “intrusive thoughts”. I began to read. On the screen I saw a description of myself and my life. I felt an enormous relief, and an outpouring of emotion. I had an illness. It had a name. I was not the evil person I’d feared I might be.

You would think that following such an epiphany everything would be sorted. I would seek help, have treatment, and be ‘cured’. I would finally be rid of this big, ugly monkey I had carried on my back for so long.

Think again.

My intrusive thoughts continued and intensified. I was too afraid, perhaps just too weary, to seek help. My son had his own problems with anxiety and depression, I had gone through a painful divorce in 2006, had little money, and was busy coping with day-to-day survival. Looking back, I was at the bottom of my own list of priorities.

When my close friend Pamela died from cancer in August 2014, something made me realise that this was the time to take action. I had a meltdown. I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t stop crying. I had reached my limit. It was grief, but it was also the fear that I was wasting my life. Pamela loved her life, and had lost it. I had to find mine. I owed it to her.

The therapy was tough – but I was determined to give it everything I had. It was gradually helping me to see the real me

I was still tormented by OCD when I met my second husband. If ever I could be happy it would be now. I had a loving, equal relationship with a man who valued me. But I did not tell him about my illness until after our marriage. I think I was too afraid to risk another rejection.

We visited Paris shortly after our wedding in 2013 – something I had always wanted to do. This holiday was full of new experiences, sights and sounds. These are powerful triggers for my OCD, and it wasn’t long before the fear and doubts began.

I was in the Metro and began to think: “What if I pushed someone on to the tracks in front of the train?” Of course, this thought is followed by the compulsions stage – checking mentally that this could never happen. What is even worse is the follow-up question: “What if I did that, and can’t remember/didn’t realise I had done it?” This is a gut-wrenching feeling. It never gets any easier to deal with.

I think telling my husband about my illness, and being accepted and loved unconditionally, was the key to my rescue. I began to value myself and believe that I deserved a chance of a good life.

I walked into my GP’s office in May 2015 and said: “I have OCD. I need help. I want a diagnosis.”

The final barrier was broken, and three months later I received a diagnosis of OCD Intrusive Thoughts. The sense of relief was enormous. I was given the right medication for my illness, and I agreed to therapy.

My therapist was great. As the weeks went by, I felt more and more comfortable in the sessions. I opened up more, and realised that he had heard it all before, was not shocked or horrified at the things I described, and could reassure me I was an OK person, and was not a danger to anyone.

Julia smiling

The therapy was tough – but I was determined to give it everything I had. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating, it was gradually helping me to see the real me. I liked what I saw.

I faced my worst fears and realised that my anxiety would decrease, that it was possible to walk away from an OCD experience without compulsions, without thinking again and again about what happened, or what might have happened.

My life since then has been so different. I still have intrusive thoughts (as we all do from time to time). I still have bad days. I still wish I didn’t have this illness. I’ve been able to talk about it to my family, my friends, my colleagues, and the responses have been positive and supportive.

I will never be OCD-free. But I am a free person now. I am no longer imprisoned in my own mind, by my own thoughts. I turned 60 a few months ago, and I am looking forward to the best days – which I believe are still to come.

A few weeks into my therapy I decided to write a book about my life with OCD, my therapy, and my new life after therapy. I self-published this in January 2017, under the pseudonym Martha Jane Middow. Apart from the birth of my amazing son, this is the greatest achievement of my life, so far. It helped me so much to write it, but my main motivation was to help others who have OCD. To point to the possibility of help, health, and hope for the future.

‘Stuck in the Loop: My Showdown with OCD’ (£4.60 from Amazon, or free through Kindle Unlimited)

Rav Sekhon | BA MA MBACP (Accred), says:

Julia’s inspirational story truly overcomes adversity. Her strength drives her through the process, striving to work through her personal challenges and accept them as part of herself, with the support and love from the people around her. Through her experience, Julia is able to bring her authentic self to the world, and she is clearly shining.

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