Saying No to the Monster in my Mind
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how I (almost) freed myself.
Despite society's insistence upon creating romanticised and trivialised portrayals of OCD, it is not cute, it is not quirky and you probably don’t have it just because you like things to be clean, or colour-coded, or in their rightful place. For me, the OCD that I have had for the last 10 years is marked by a voice in my head that tells me something along the lines of: “your death or the death of someone you love is probably imminent from any given and harmless situation unless you do x, y and z."
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as:
“the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are experienced as intrusive and unwanted, whereas compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform in response to an obsession or according to rules that must be applied rigidly.”
It took me about 6 years to realise that it wasn’t normal to have this malicious voice in my head forcing me to do things by threatening me with the most unthinkable and dreaded of consequences.
At the peak of my OCD I had 15-minute-long rituals to complete before I could put my head to pillow and call it a night. It was exhausting. I couldn’t even describe the rituals to you because they were so strange and particular, just lots of little actions and phrases I’d have to say or do before I could sleep peacefully.
Here are some of the other bizarre habits I accumulated over the years, particularly whilst at school:
Popping my water bottle 3 times after every time I drank from it (dispelling germs).
(This one is SO embarrassing) If a stranger brushed past my arm, I'd have to wipe that arm onto a friend to pass the germs onto them instead.
Not taking the first 3 squares of toilet roll (again, no thanks germs).
Locking and re-locking toilet doors 3 times (fear of getting trapped or someone walking in).
Constantly checking my 6 backpack poppers were closed by creating a perfect kind of click from them (I can't even explain this one).
Of course there is no magical force to these rituals, but in performing them and seeing your anxieties temporarily ebb away and nothing bad result, you can find yourself beginning to believe and rely on the illusive power of them. Except, there are bad things resulting: an absolute disintegration of your own personal mental health, wellbeing and happiness. But, hey, as long as you and your family are alive and physically well, that's all that matters, right?
It wasn't until I got to university that my OCD became entirely insufferable and that I began to see that it was unsustainable for me to carry on this way and still pass my degree, or, more importantly, stay relatively sane.
At university, I’d often be running late to lectures because I wouldn’t be able to leave my room without folding my pyjamas to absolute perfection and puffing up my pillows a certain number of times. Whenever I read something, if I had a bad thought whilst doing so, I’d have to keep going back and re-reading it until I did so without any negative thoughts. Anyone who knows of the ‘ironic process theory’, that is, how impossible it is to actively try not to think of something, will understand how unfeasible a task I was setting myself here. And, as an English student who spent 70% of their time reading, this became a pretty big issue, especially in trying to stay on top of my reading lists.
You can probably imagine how having to perform these time-consuming rituals only added to my stress levels and thus I found myself in a constant and inescapable vicious circle.
So, how did I free myself from the shackles of OCD? Unusually, and perhaps unhelpfully, it wasn’t a long and laborious therapeutic journey of transformation.
One day I simply said no. It was a couple of weeks after beginning the therapy I was receiving for my anxiety, ironically. Speaking aloud about my OCD and how it was contributing to my anxiety was the catalyst. It was humiliating to admit to myself and my therapist that I, an intelligent and rational being, was being driven by this fictitious and, ultimately, powerless voice in my head. I finally realised, as scary as it was, I could just say no! So no I said.
Each time I did this and nothing terrible happened, I gained a little more strength to ignore the voice in my head that was tormenting me.
It’s like standing up to a bully. Eventually, the voice gets bored and, with increasingly less efficacy, the threats become less and less too.
Ultimately, bad things will happen in life no matter the extent we go to try and prevent them. I could take hours out of my days performing rituals with the hope it will somehow, miraculously, stop them, and still suffer their horrific occurrences, thus suffering twice.
Don’t get me wrong, on days where I’m feeling particularly anxious the voice pipes up again and I don’t always manage to refute it.
So, although for the most part I’ve managed to rid myself of the majority of my OCD habits, there are still some that I can’t quite shrug off.
For about 10 years now, every time I say goodbye or goodnight to my parents, I always close with “see you later feeling great” or “see you in the morning feeling great”. To my anxious mind this confirms that I will see them again, and, when I do they will be ‘feeling great’- that is well and happy. It also affirms the same for myself too. Some of my friends might remember that back in school I used to end e v e r y s i n g l e text with that phrase too (lol, I apologise that must have been sO annoying and also sounded like I was always trying to end the conversation?!).
So, although I've managed to reduce and control the majority of my OCD tendencies, some of them are so simple to perform, a couple of spoken words, that it doesn't seem worth the risk of not doing them... I guess in that sense obsessive compulsions are a bit like superstitions: sometimes, for ridiculous reasons, we'd simply rather not test fate.
Not many people know the truth about OCD. It is a disorder of courage in the face of vulnerability. Battling against your own mind and the cruel thoughts that you are responsible for can feel impossible and hugely dismal. It can feel like a huge, even life-or-death, risk to stand up and reject the voice of OCD, but it's one of the best things I've ever done. The only thing that stood a chance in defeating the monster in my mind was bravery. To be able to get into bed after a long day and simply let my head fall into my pillow, ritual-free, and then wake up in the morning without a feeling of dread for the hardship that is to come, is a luxury that most take for granted. But I, as someone who was once inhibited from these liberties by my own fear, can thank my courage for this simple freedom every day.