We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
One of the key factors in masculinity can be seen in the social ‘game’ men play, when jostling for ‘alpha’ position – whether that be at work, down the pub or just in a group of mates. This game is played out in a number of ways that fall within a spectrum of banter on topics that include sexual conquests: how ‘gay’ someone is, or whether they’re just a bit of a pussy. Invariably, the fella with the most chalk-marks against them when being judged on the aforementioned considerations will be the one who gets a lot of stick.
No one wants to be that guy, right?
When I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) at the age of 14, I realised that I had yet another major issue to deal with on top of everything else that made me socially unpalatable.
OCD is often associated with the idea of being a ‘neat freak’ but this, in itself, is a failure to grasp what is a hell of a condition that, at its worst, can prevent the sufferer from functioning in any ‘normal’ sense of the word. The added complexity with OCD is that, admittedly, it can come across as an amusing issue by virtue of how bizarre it is.
Everyone gets little worries and intrusive thoughts from time to time but they are mostly silly and easily dismissed. What if they weren’t so easily dismissed? That’s when you have OCD.
Here are some examples that might make you laugh yet, to someone with OCD, they can be paralysing in the fear they provoke:
I quoted a line from a movie to someone without crediting the movie. What if the people who made the movie find out and sue me for appropriating their content?
I may have got some semen on that toilet seat. What if a family member sits on the toilet seat and gets pregnant?
I downloaded a song from the internet without paying. What if the FBI track me down and take me to court and I’m jailed?
Those were the kinds of anxieties I had at the age of 14 and, looking back on them now, I can see that they’re ridiculous – but each of them has the thinnest scrap of logic which feeds into the big WHAT IF? that lodges itself in the mind of an OCD sufferer like a tumour.
As a kid with these inescapable concerns, you become withdrawn and the thought of doing anything with friends goes right out of the window. The idea of being any kind of alpha in your group is absurd and this perceived weakness in you is sniffed out and exploited mercilessly if you let it show.
But I didn’t choose to have OCD so why should I be ashamed of it? Two of the key factors that hold anyone back – especially a bloke – from disclosing what is very personal information about themselves are as follows:
The fear that it will be taken as a weakness and you will be attacked or treated differently for it.
The fear that it will not be understood.
Thing is, I and millions of other dudes all have the same diagnosis so, logically, if we’re all open about it then we will realise that it’s not a weakness because it doesn’t diminish who we are as men, and our combined voices can create understanding. It is only through challenging entrenched perceptions of masculinity that we can actually re-define what masculinity itself is.
For me, masculinity isn’t about being a beer-swilling, chiselled high-flier who is so heterosexual that women become pregnant just by being within proximity of them.
It’s not about going to the football and yelling a torrent of abuse at the referee. It’s not about lamping another fella in the face if he knocks into you on a night out. And it is definitely not about looking at a woman and seeing a piece of meat who should be looking after the kids and in the kitchen cooking sausage, egg and chips. In a G-string.
I’ve noticed a theme in all these ideas about masculinity: self-absorption. This form of masculinity places undue emphasis on a man’s position in the world and his importance in it.
What’s the alternative?
Well, for me, masculinity is about self-awareness, humility and taking responsibility.
With my diagnosis of OCD, I recognise that I am not any less of a man for having a differently-wired brain and I am not so self-absorbed that I don’t see there are also many others like me. There’s no reason to hide it. It doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t make me a ‘pussy’.
If I try to pretend it isn’t there, shut it off and lash out at the mere suggestion of it, then that would be a problem. I can’t keep going all by myself and, as I have a wife and two daughters, I can’t afford not to ensure I get help. Even if I didn’t have a wife and two daughters, my life would still be all the poorer for not seeking out support.
Several years ago, I attended a support group for people with OCD and there was a real mix of characters there.
One person caught my attention though. He was an old man – maybe late sixties – and he told us all that he had sat on his OCD for more than forty years (since he initially realised something “wasn’t quite right”), because it wasn’t the “done thing for a geezer to talk about what’s going on in their head.”
He felt it was a relief to finally be diagnosed and to get support and he wished he’d done it sooner. So, this guy waited half a lifetime before opening up. That is how one might define ‘toxic masculinity’.
It is not worth letting your life slip by just to satisfy some meaningless, harmful notion of masculinity.
OCD is particularly vicious as a mental health condition. It’s almost like having a malevolent intelligence inside your skull constantly working out the best way to upset you. It does this by playing on your biggest fear, or the thing that disgusts you the most.
Working in children’s social care, the thing that upsets me the most is the idea of harming or abusing a child. I find that unpalatable. So, let’s have some more examples of how OCD plays on that with me:
I imagine one of my children showing me a picture they’ve done for me – smile on their face – and me taking that picture, ripping it up and telling them that I do not love them.
I get an image of picking up my own three-year-old daughter and throwing her down the stairs. A very vivid image that immediately makes me wonder if I really want to do that and that I’m a terrible person for even thinking it.
Or, how about this: an image comes into my mind of me a child. And then I think I have to be a paedophile for thinking such a thing.
I want to be candid with you about what are, often, shocking thoughts that would make most people shrink with nausea, and I assure you I’m no exception. I know that these thoughts are my OCD and not me, because when they come into my mind, they distress me enormously and I feel sick. Where there is absence of enjoyment there should be the presence of reassurance – reassurance that you are a good person and you would never want those things.
And that is my experience of OCD: a waking nightmare.
But imagine being a man and disclosing any of those intrusive thoughts in your average pub.
I’m sure we’ve all just had exactly the same image come into our heads of what the reaction would be and that is why it is often difficult to speak openly and candidly about these unsolicited, intrusive and outright horrid thoughts that are borne from my OCD – it is why, if yours are particularly uncommunicable, I recommend seeking help from a trained professional.
But that said, there are many other thoughts, less shocking, more ‘standard’ in their subject matter, and the reduction of my condition into ‘flicking the lights on and off 20 times’ is painful, and it only serves to stop me from communicating about my condition. As mentioned previously, the added pressures of being a man – the pressure for banter; to appear in control, and capable; to not be the runt of the pack – mean that I could very well be opening myself up to mockery for something I can’t help.
However, one way to fight this is to find the courage to be open about what you are going through, to the right people. If I had sat on my OCD like the old fella I spoke about earlier, I am not entirely confident I would even be here, to be honest. It has only been by making myself vulnerable through talking in a GP’s surgery, in a therapist’s room, at a pharmacy counter and on the sofa with my wife that I have made any progress.
Whatever may be affecting you, it’s okay not to be okay, but it’s not okay to think that you’re the man and you’re going to be okay through sheer force of will.
Accepting that you need help does not just happen overnight, but whatever the nature of your condition, there is support available.
For OCD sufferers in the UK you can get in contact with OCD Action, the UK’s largest OCD charity, and book yourself in with your doctor.
For me, I’ve got to the stage where I am now comfortable talking about what goes on inside my head and have even written a children’s book, that I’m hoping to get published, which addresses the issue of OCD in minors. My journey to reach this stage of life has been long and it has not been easy, but I did not do it alone. Don’t make your journey alone either.