I have lived with OCD for years.
It first started when I was a lot younger, and I became obsessed with the number four.
There was something about the number for that made me feel at ease. Comfortable. Like if I did everything four times, things would be okay.
My obsession with the number 4 occurred because of my fear of the number three.
I was so used to hearing people say ‘Third time lucky’ that something in my head said ‘But what if it’s actually unlucky?’ and alas, every time I did something in threes – be that wash my hands, turning off a light switch or something as minuscule as brushing past something, I felt unnerved. I had to escape this feeling by repeating whatever I’d done a fourth time – to know I’d escaped my imaginary curse of the number three.
As I grew older, my OCD worsened. I started having intrusive thoughts.
They were awful. They left me feeling like the worst person in the world. They made me feel evil.
My intrusive thoughts included awful things about my loved ones. Thoughts about them being hurt, attacked, abused. Disturbing images of mutilated people. Wishing it on others.
Even writing this now terrifies me, as though putting my thoughts to paper makes them even more real than they already feel in my head.
Of course, these thoughts aren’t real. I would never wish bad on anyone – let alone my family. But the thoughts can be so much that they leave you feeling like the most horrendous person in the world.
These intrusive thoughts are the ‘O’ in OCD. The obsession. They’re unwanted, debilitating thoughts or images that trigger intensely distressed feelings.
That’s how they make me feel, distressed. Angry. Frustrated. And often, they trigger further outbursts because they make me feel so awful. As though I’m a disgusting person; a bad person.
The only way I can combat these thoughts is with compulsions. And that’s where the ‘C’ of OCD comes in.
Compulsions are acts you play out in attempt to rid yourself of the obsession – aka the intrusive thoughts.
Often, these compulsions are acted out in fear.
‘If you don’t wash your hands four times, you are going to get sick from contamination. And then whoever you go near will be contaminated too. And then you’ll get sick. They’ll get sick. So sick that they’ll develop an infection, which will lead to septicaemia and they will lose all of their limbs’, is one of my most frequent, horrendous thoughts.
When I read it back I know my thoughts are irrational. I know that someone can’t develop septicaemia from me not washing my hands more than once. But the thoughts are so overwhelming that at the time, it’s a struggle to believe they won’t do harm to anyone else.
And so you act out the compulsions until you finally feel at ease.
And you can feel at ease, for a while. Say if you’re sitting in front of a film for an hour, distracted. But there’s no escaping them coming back when you’re put in a situation where you feel you need to wash your hands again.
Perhaps I flick a light switch that someone’s touched beforehand. How do I know their hands aren’t dirty? How do I know they’re not contaminated? How do I know it won’t make me sick? And so I wash, and wash again.
Sometimes I wash so much that my hands bleed from the rawness. They sting and they’re dry, but it’s often worth it to know I’m not hurting anyone in the process.
But my obsessions don’t just come in terms of washing my hands.
In fact, all in all, they take up a lot of my time.
When I go to leave my car, I will walk back and check, and check, and check over, and over again that my doors are locked. Because if they aren’t, someone could break in and steal my belongings.
I have to take a memorised photo in my head of my bedroom before leaving it, to know I haven’t left any plugs plugged in, that none of my medication has fallen on the floor or that my straighteners – which I haven’t touched in days – aren’t plugged in. It doesn’t matter that I know in my heart I don’t want to cause a fire. I haven’t even used my straighteners – there’s the risk that maybe I have used them, and I’ve just forgotten.
I can’t leave my house without running back to the door several times to check it’s locked. Going back in to check the oven’s off, that the taps aren’t running or that the windows aren’t wide open. Sometimes I end up not leaving the house at all, cancelling plans because the fear is simply too much.
OCD makes me feel on edge at all times. It’s like I’m constantly waiting for something bad to happen. And even if nothing bad does end up happening, my thoughts will tell me otherwise. I spend a good few hours a day just trying to do everything I can to escape my thoughts, because more often than not they’re intensely overwhelming.
I wish people knew how debilitating OCD can be. It has caused me to self-harm, hurting myself, feeling as though I deserve it because of how disgusting my thoughts can be. it has triggered awful episodes of anxiety and of the bipolar disorder I’m also diagnosed with. It has left me spending evenings crying because the thoughts and images in my head are terrifying. It prevents me from going about my normal day-to-day life without panicking and avoiding situations simply in hopes of not worsening the thoughts any more so.
I wish people understood how serious OCD is. That it’s not arranging your cupboards or liking things colour-coordinated. That choosing a colour-scheme for your entire house does not make you ‘OCD’.
If people knew this, and stopped using the term to describe their everyday personality traits, I feel it would be taken more seriously – as the serious mental health condition it is.
In fact, it’s so serious that the World Health Organisation once ranked it in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of loss earnings and diminished quality of life.
I love that it’s 2017 and people are becoming more aware of mental illness, reducing the inevitable stigma surrounding it.
But I feel we still have a long way to go in terms of understanding OCD. And this is because we have this silly misconception that OCD is an organised personality trait, and not a real mental health condition.
I hope this posts starts the conversation, and spells out to people who don’t understand just how severe an illness it really is.
Because hopefully by just educating a few, they can go onto educate others.
It’s important that we do so, not just in terms of exposing the condition, but to show other sufferers of it that what they’re living with is very real. That it’s very serious, and that they’re not bad people. They’re just ill people, who with the right support, can learn to control and stable it.
But to tell them this, first we need to understand. We need to listen. Starting now.