We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
I first began to experience Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) when I was around 6 years old. I quickly began to realise I didn’t think the same way as the other kids around me. I wasn’t as care free, or able to just enjoy being a kid as they were. I had a constant racing in my head, a constant checking for signs of anything that could go wrong (literally anything), and how I could stop these catastrophes from happening.
When I became older I began a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), provided by the NHS, and a very talented young therapist explained the problem to me in-depth. For me, personally, the route of the problem was that I needed constant reassurance every time I would worry about something; this is a common occurrence for OCD sufferers and is well documented in modern literature.
The issue was that If I could not ‘neutralise’ a worrying thought by finding reassurance it would not happen, my anxiety and ability to cope would completely spiral out of control, often leading me to days at a time in bed, suicidal thoughts, missing work, alcohol abuse – you name it, I have done it and I have been there… I first received CBT around the age of 19; I am now 29 years old and essentially the nature of my problem has remained the same.
During the last ten years, what I worry about happening – and when I say “happening,” I am referring to myself acting on a worrying thought, or being directly responsible for it becoming a reality – has changed, and developed in a direct contrast to my morals. Allow me to explain: I now suffer from a particular string of OCD known as “Pure O.” This variation of OCD is increasingly well documented, and to explain it simply I will offer you a little thought experiment…
So, let’s say somebody says; “Try not to think of a pink elephant.” Give it a try… I can guarantee the vision of a nice big pink elephant will pop in and out of your head numerous times. Fact is, as humans, we cannot control our thoughts – in fact, attempts to do so often lead to the contrary.
So what does this have to do with OCD? Well, to put it bluntly, if you suffer from Pure O, throughout every day you begin to experience intrusive unwanted random thoughts, kind of like a pink elephant... only the content is far less friendly.
Here are some examples of “intrusive thoughts” for OCD Sufferers, where there is a genuine, persistent anxiety that they will act on or make true that which they fear;
Thoughts of self harm
Thoughts of harming others, in particular those that are vulnerable
Blasphemous Thoughts – (depending on if you’re religious, and again on the religion)
Sexually inappropriate thoughts.
For a non-sufferer these thoughts occur too, but a they will simply not attach meaning to them and carry on with their day – they probably don't even notice them. Whereas if you have OCD you are subconsciously sensitive to these thoughts and feel like you have a duty to make sure whatever the atrocity you are worrying about does not happen.
OCD sufferers end up going around in circles in their head trying to ‘neutralise’ the worry, trying to find a logical reason why they will not act upon it. The problem here is that you can never be 100 percent certain of what will happen in the future, which is fine for a non-sufferer because they will fancy their chances that they'll never murder someone in the future (to pick an extreme example of many).
For an OCD sufferer, 100% certainty is needed to stop the worry cycle, and if it cannot be found then what is experienced is what I have struggled with for the last 4 years of my life.
You begin to feel as bad as you would if you knew for certain you were committed to acting out your worse worries. Naturally, there are many side effects that come with this, including sleepless nights, complete loss of appetite, and no interest in anything other than solving the unsolvable problem in your head.
When this situation happens, it becomes almost impossible to get out of bed in the morning, because the second you wake, your adrenaline immediately kicks in and burns away at your stomach for the rest of the day. Imagine waking up every morning to do a ten-minute swim with a Great White Shark...
6 weeks ago, from writing this article (July 2018), this is exactly what I was experiencing. The reason for these feelings was that I had a trip abroad on the immediate horizon. Now, I know from experience that OCD finds a way without fail of being at its worse when you really want to enjoy something.
I have had graduations, holidays and family weddings all ruined by worry for no reason or fault of my own. In 2011, for instance, I flew all the way back from a trip to Vietnam as I was so consumed by worry that I just couldn't find any joy in the experience, even though I knew how amazing it was. Travel is something I truly love, so this was a particular low point.
Back to 2018 – I had planned 10 days in Japan, finishing with climbing the iconic Mt. Fuji. There would be a 2-day stopover in Hong Kong en-route, with a further 10 days in Indonesia after climbing Mt. Fuji and leaving Tokyo. Part of the reason I chose Japan was because it has commonly referred to as one of the most unique cultures to be experienced.
The decision to visit Japan was partly curiosity, partly to recover self- esteem lost in Vietnam, but more importantly it was a form of Exposure Response Prevention (ERP). Widely acknowledged as the “cure” for numerous forms of OCD, especially Pure O, ERP aims to overcome fears by facing them. Naturally, to an OCD sufferer this can be seemingly impossible.
My fear was that something atrocious would happen whilst I was away in Japan. As mentioned, this would include acting on an intrusive thought completely against my morals. My OCD knew how much I wanted to enjoy this trip to Japan, and hence it intensified during the 2 weeks leading up to it.
In the run-up to departure I experienced extreme anxiety: finding myself in tears most mornings, struggling to concentrate during a busy period at work, not communicating with my girlfriend – or anyone else close to me, for that matter. I began “coping” in the evening by drinking alcohol and taking up smoking again for the umpteenth time.
I knew from the books I had read that the only cure was to hang in there until the trip came around and go and face my fear. In my head I had reached a point in which I had no self-confidence to challenge the intrusive thoughts any more. I was so worried that I would go to Japan and act on a horrendous intrusive thought, that I had started to believe for the first time in my life it would actually happen.
So, what would you do if you had the choice?
1. Go on the trip being almost certain you’re going to do something horrendous that would ruin the rest of your existence.
Or 2. Cancel the trip and wait until you were “better?” Or at least in a better state of mind...
I would bet most of the readers of this article would go with Option 2. If this was a physical illness we were referring to – say, for example, a long-term disease or infection – then it would make perfect sense to delay the trip: correct. However, this is no physical illness, this is purely psychological.
However, unlike many physical illnesses there is no magic pill or surgery available from a doctor to “fix” you. Add to that the lack of resources for the U.K. health system, and its limited understanding of mental health conditions, your recovery ultimately comes down to you and your attitude.
In modern society there is a common misconception towards mental health perpetuated through the ever-lingering stigma surrounding it. As medical science advances and people begin to understand more about the brain, I can only hope that mental health sufferers begin accessing resources and the attention that other physical medical conditions seem to benefit from. The more mental health is covered by modern media, the more we can emphasise the need to talk, and the sooner we can challenge the ignorance surrounding mental health.
Many may argue and state that the health system is adequate, but in my experience the brutal reality of living with a mental illness in Western societies means that a large amount of your recovery does depend on you.
So, given that my options leading up to the holiday were considered rather scarce, I sat through 2 weeks of anxious hell leading up to Friday 3rd August 2018. I recall walking down the corridor to board the flight to Hong Kong, admittedly after some Dutch courage, thinking “What an achievement it is to have the bollocks to even get this far.”
Five days later I was stood in the centre of the famous Shibuya Crossing experiencing rush hour Tokyo in a record heat wave, holding a flag for the leading OCD Charity in the UK – I had reached out to OCD Action to see if I could use their flag to post some pictures on social media to raise awareness. I had felt so shit before the trip that I wanted to show other people that if I could do it, then so could they. OCD Action agreed and even shared my posts on their social media account.
Fast forward 7 days, I stood alongside my girlfriend Rebecca and one of my best friends Patrick at the summit of Mt. Fuji. As I sat at the summit with a cold can of Asahi (yes, there is a vending machine at the summit!), I knew that I had achieved something more amazing than simply climbing a mountain.
Something that my OCD and all the anxiety, all the doubting could never take away from me. All my life I have envied people: close friends, celebrities – those that seem to always be happy, or at least never seemingly experience the low states that I have. But then I realised, looking down from the Summit that day, that unless you have been to the trenches of hell like I and all those with mental health conditions have, you will never have that same feeling of fulfilment that pushing yourself, and overcoming, your mental limits can bring. I will always have that.
I guess the underlying message from my experiences is that until the last 6 weeks I had always held back from taking the plunge into the abyss of doubt that ultimately paves the way to recovery. Although my experiences are all specific to OCD, I have also felt the lows and symptoms that come with many other mental illnesses, and I completely sympathise with those who are having a hard time.
If you really want something enough, you will make it happen. Maybe it took me 10 years to take the complete plunge into ERP, but the path to success is often paved with failure.
Maybe it took me ten years to realise how much I want to be free of OCD? All I know is when I landed back in Manchester seven days before writing this, I promised myself one thing; I will never allow myself to take a step backwards into the OCD cycle of worrying.
Trip of a lifetime, Japan 2018
If you or someone you care about is affected by OCD, you can find out more information and support at www.ocdaction.org.uk