Before I start this (and I feel like I begin most pieces with some sort of caveat), let me say that this is a big one. A seminal post that needs to be written as much as it needs to be read and as it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, I can’t help but feel that now is the right time to finally open up, to share my problems in the hope that others will feel encouraged to do the same.
It started in childhood. Small, inconsequential things crept into my daily routines almost without me noticing them. I would have to touch certain objects in my room at night before I went to bed – a poster on the wall, the corner of my dressing table. I used to wedge my bedroom door open with a slipper at night and that slipper had to be at just the right angle otherwise I’d move it and then I’d keep moving it until it felt ‘right’.
(Perhaps you’ve already guessed what my problem is. If anyone ever told me that they had to repeatedly do something until it felt ‘right’, I’d instantly recognise their issue. But I’ve been there, I’ve suffered with OCD and I know that to some people it’s a problem that’s difficult to understand.)
As a teenager, it didn’t really occur to me that these small habits (I never considered them rituals) were a problem. They had to be carried out if I didn’t want anything bad to happen (you’d think a statement like that might set alarm bells ringing, but strangely it didn’t) and as they weren’t particularly time-consuming it never really occurred to me to stop.
By the time I left university, my habits were a handful of minor inconveniences that were slowly starting to change. I no longer had a specific nighttime ritual, but the fear that had led me to create one was still very much alive. Now, I was touching pieces of furniture – corners, edges – with increasing regularity and I’d also taken to repeatedly crossing and uncrossing my fingers.
The trouble really started when I entered ‘the real world’ (quick side note: isn’t it annoying when you leave university and people keep saying that? As if life up until that point wasn’t hard enough?!). I started my first full-time job, I moved in with my boyfriend. I had responsibilities that my brain, for some reason, struggled to take on board. I became increasingly anxious – had I left the oven on? Was the front door locked? The lights off? I started furtively watching the ground as I walked – was that a needle on the floor? Did I step on it? Am I contaminated?
Somewhat strangely (although, of course, it all seems strange now) germs weren’t as much of a problem for me as cleaning products. I became petrified of bleach, anti-bacterial spray, carpet cleaner. I diligently washed my hands over and over, ridding myself of anything potentially harmful that I might have come into contact with.
They tell you in therapy (because eventually I had to reach out for professional help) that your compulsive behaviours (hand washing, checking) are driven by your obsessive thoughts (in my case, fear of causing harm to others) and that in constantly easing an obsession with a compulsion, you’re creating a vicious cycle, essentially compounding the problem. Of course, it makes absolute sense, but by the time I started cognitive behavioural therapy I was in a hole so dark that sense and reason had become alien concepts to me.
Every time I checked a door handle or a plug socket my certainty wavered just that little bit more, until eventually I’d be unable to say whether a door was locked or not. My brain became paralysed with fear and even the most innocuous things became unimaginably dangerous. For the first time in my life I felt completely unanchored, as if my mind wasn’t my own.
I’d like to say that after CBT I was cured, but that wasn’t the case. Even now, over a decade later, my mind still occasionally travels to those scary places where I’m convinced something awful is about to happen and I’ll be to blame. Thankfully, CBT gave me the tools I need to cope with my OCD and although those dark years were scary, my awareness of my own mental health means that, unlike my younger self, I’m now able to recognise and respond to my obsessive compulsive behaviours if and when they arise.
Why am I telling you this? Because my close friends and family were an incredible support to me once I opened up to them. You may think that your mum/dad/sibling/best mate/work colleague is okay, but they could be struggling with a problem they’re too frightened or embarrassed to talk about. As it’s Mental Health Awareness Week, make sure you reach out, if you haven’t already, to let them know you’re there. Remember, you don’t have to fully understand their problems, you just have to listen.