This year will be nine years since I started experiencing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (and six since I started doing something about it).
I think a lot of people who knew me when I started college are aware of this but I’m choosing to write about it now, nearly a decade on from the first instance of it (during my Junior Cert!), and six since I sought help, as I have a much better perspective of my experience than before.
There are two days in my life that could categorically be dubbed ‘the worst days of my life’.
The first one was when I was 18 on a family holiday in France and the other when I was on a trip to Achill Island in 2013.
But before I go into those details, if you’ve never suffered from OCD or any form of obsessive thinking, I’m going to show you what it was like to be inside the mind of someone like me at that time. I will say however, that my experience of OCD is mine alone. There are thousands of people out there who will have different experiences of OCD, whether it be different worries, different obsessions or different coping mechanisms. I only speak for myself here.
Imagine yourself doing something completely benign – like watching TV or reading a book – and a thought occurs to you, let’s say you think “what if I am a pink elephant?” Bit ridiculous, isn’t it? But what if being a pink elephant is your worst fear. To others, it may seem completely irrational but to you, becoming a pink elephant or being one without knowing is something that absolutely terrifies you.
Imagine thinking over and over again that you are a pink elephant and your entire mind and body is revolted. You get a sinking feeling in your stomach, dry throat, you try desperately to shut it out of your mind but you can’t. You can’t focus on anything. Your brain starts to think of several reasons as to why the thought is true, finding evidence in previous thinking or feelings you may have had in the past – let’s say, your skin looked pinker in the mirror yesterday or you’re pretty sure you almost wanted to search for trunks online yesterday but you can’t quite remember. Oh my god, I can’t remember – wait that means I must definitely have wanted to otherwise I would have remembered thinking a firm ‘NO’ at the prospect of searching online…
This goes on and on and on. Every feeling, thought, word is analysed until you can’t think clearly anymore. Everything is wrapped up in this one fear, a battle in your mind of “this is totally irrational” and “what if it’s totally right”. You spend every waking minute trying to drown out what’s in your head. Soon, the idea of becoming a pink elephant consumes you to the point that there is no worse thing in life than becoming a pink elephant and you should probably just give up life now.
That was my OCD.
Sub in ‘pink elephant’ for anything – suicide, hating my boyfriend, anything. Things that aren’t necessarily end of the world things – like breaking up with someone – my OCD made me fear them until they became the worst things I could possibly imagine. And the only way to get rid of each individual thought or feeling was to indulge in a compulsion.
For some people their compulsion would be to switch off the lights five times or pass by the water cooler in even numbers. My compulsion was confessing. It would start with “I thought X and didn’t feel anything when I did, does that mean Y?”
For an extreme example, let me use this one real one:
“I thought about killing myself and didn’t have gut-wrenching reaction to the thought – do I want to die?”
Or a tamer one:
“I thought about breaking up with my boyfriend and didn’t feel repulsed or upset at the thought, does that mean I want to do it?”
Now, 23-year-old me knows that thoughts aren’t facts, they pass through your mind like clouds in the sky. Not all thoughts are true and not all thoughts need to be analysed. And just because you don’t have the reaction you wanted to have doesn’t mean that you are going to do that particular thing. But for six years before I begun treatment, I didn’t know or believe that.
All I knew was that my brain must have wanted me to kill myself and I was fighting with myself everyday to tell it no. I was scared that if I didn’t tell someone, or ‘warn’ them about this one particular thought, that this thought would be the one to change everything.
And one day when I was on holidays in France, I was so worn out with battling with myself that I just accepted the thought, that yeah, maybe this is what I wanted, maybe I did want to die. And I was at peace from the torture of “what if”. But only for a little while.
Mere hours later, I begun to panic – why was I at peace? Did that mean I was going to do it? Did that mean that this was what I wanted? I began to overanalyse every thought, feeling, lack of feeling, everything until I couldn’t think or breathe anymore. I don’t remember anything from that day other than the constant slams of anxiety whilst trying to read on the beach. I felt as though I was drowning.
The same thing happened when I was with my first long-term boyfriend – someone I loved so much but pushed away thanks to my OCD.
I was away in Achill when I first began to think “maybe I don’t love him” and “maybe I should break up with him” and I felt neutral about it which sent me into a panic of “does this mean I should?? Do I feel happy when I think “I’ll break up with him?”” It ruined the entire trip for me. There’s nothing like being in one of the most gorgeous places in Ireland, and just wanting the ground to swallow you up.
The cycle went on and on. I’d confess to either him or someone else that these thoughts were going around in my head, I’d seek assurance that “everyone has these thoughts and feelings and no one is breaking up with anyone over them” and I’d feel peace. My life could resume as normal. Until the next thing came along.
My boyfriend encouraged me to seek help – and if he hadn’t, I don’t know where I’d be today. Because I certainly would never have sought help myself. I was too scared. Every time I used to obsess over something, my brain felt like something was whacking it over and over again. The sad ending was that it was this that destroyed my relationship in the end.
I thought I was the only one who felt like this. And I reluctantly went to the counsellor who sat me down and told me “this is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”. All I remember is crying through it all. There was a name for it, it was a recognisable mental health problem which meant – it could be fixed. I left the office feeling like I could breathe clearly for the first time in over five years – the hit was so much better than the feeling of relief I’d get from compulsing. The end was finally in sight.
It was a very long road, one I’m still on in some ways. I went to group therapy where I learned that I was not the only one – and certainly not the worst one – who had this. I had ups and downs and when the down was at its worst, I sought professional help. I’ve chopped and changed medication many times but in 2015, I found something that worked. And the bottom line is, I’ve been perfect ever since.
I never did want to break up with my boyfriend or commit suicide – my OCD was a self-preserving torture tactic that came from the feeling of being less than adequate. The idea that there had to be something wrong with me because no one could look inside my mind all the time and convince me that there wasn’t. The fear that I was a horrible person, unworthy of anything good in my life. It was a self-sabotage.
A lot of people react weirdly when they hear about OCD. One time I told someone how it affected me and their response as “oh I bet your house is really clean”.
One very close friend – who knew the depths of the disorder – once said “I’m so OCD about putting plates in the dishwasher” five times at dinner. I wish that’s what my OCD had been about. There came a point where it just wasn’t funny. I would be understanding when people who didn’t know about my disorder would make comments to me in an attempt to be humorous or because everyone else said it – and I don’t believe I’ve ever gotten angry at anyone over them (I’d rather just explain calmly that it’s a real problem and not wholly wrapped up in even numbers and perfect organisation). But if it comes from the mouth of someone who should know better, I’m not scared to recount the amount of times I was frightened for my life because “I was so OCD”.
The last year has been the most disorder-free for me. I’ve gone from compulsing almost every day to never. I’m happy. I have a good job, great friends, and I’m doing really well. I do not worry about the things that my OCD used to inflict on me.
Funnily enough, I have a deep attachment to things that used to keep me occupied when the times were bad (like Agatha Christie books or The Muppets) and I often do attribute these things to saving my life. I am as fully-functioning as any other 23 year old. My illness never defined me and it never will. I may have lost friendships and relationships over the period before I got better but the ones that were worth it were mended and the ones that weren’t, were replaced. I’ve met so many other people, both online and in real life, who have experienced the same thing as I have, who have experienced depression and anxiety as a result of horrible things whether it be OCD, PTSD, Bipolar, etc.
The lesson here is that your thoughts are like clouds in the sky, they come and go. Some are dark, grey and hang around and some are light and fluffy and pass through. Sometimes there are none and you can relax in peace. Nowadays, I could think “I’m a pink elephant” and laugh because I know it’s an absurd thought and thinking that doesn’t make it true. I know I can feel anything and it doesn’t make anything more or less real than anything else. In all honesty, it’s very easy to get swept away by the incessant chattering in our minds but every once in a while, we need to remind ourselves that life isn’t meant to be lived inside our heads.
If there is anything here that you relate to, or that has you worried, there is no harm (or weakness) in seeing your local GP or booking in with a counsellor. Don’t assume that your self-torture is how everyone lives their lives – there are ways of overcoming any mental obstacle as long as you have the right support behind you. Please don’t be afraid of seeking help – you will wish you had done so long ago.
PS, they really need to up the teaching of mental health in schools, like COME ON.