The 18th to 24th February is OCD Week of Action. It’s all about committing to do just one simple thing that will help make a difference to those suffering with OCD. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental health issues, and OCD is no exception. While more awareness of the condition is being raised, that stereotype of it being all about being tidy and obsessed with cleanliness is still in circulation. But, those of you who have been watching Pure on Channel 4 recently will know that it’s much more complex. And if you haven’t, I strongly recommend you give it a watch, or at least read the book it’s based on.
Put simply, with OCD, your brain is your worst enemy. OCD doesn’t always come in the form of compulsively washing your hands or repeatedly checking if the door is locked. More often than not, it comes with intrusive thoughts and obsessions that are majorly unpleasant and distressing. Thus, the sufferer engages in compulsive behaviours or rituals to counteract them, which while in the short term can help to ease the thoughts, but ultimately they do more damage than good.
One thing that has persistently pissed me off over the years is the fact that OCD is still made into a joke. We’ve all heard “I have CDO, it’s OCD but how it should be spelt” and the classic “I’m SO OCD” – hahahaha. You’re so funny. But let’s be clear – OCD is a mental illness. It is not a joke and it is not a quirky personality trait. For each time you make a joke, or use OCD as an adjective, I am strongly resisting the urge to punch you in the face. So what is it like to live with OCD? The short answer: it’s exhausting and annoying AF. Over the years I’ve done a huge amount of stupid stuff because my brain has convinced me that I need to. As it’s OCD Week of Action, I thought I’d share a few of them, just to give you an insight.
Having emetophobia meant I was always cautious of catching stomach bugs. I’d think “I don’t really need to wash my hands after touching that door handle,” but then my brain would say: “yeah, but what if someone with a tummy bug has touched it?” Fuck you, brain. But I’d go and wash my hands anyway. But as things progressed, it basically turned into a fear of every illness you can think of. I’ve already talked about my fears around cervical cancer until I finally was old enough to get a screening, but one more example? A few years ago, a friend and I went to a pub that wasn’t exactly the cleanest of places. I went to the toilet, which was probably the most horrific toilet I have ever used, and for the rest of the night, what did I convince myself I’d contracted? HIV. I stayed up til 3am Googling my predicament, and despite reading MANY articles from various credible sources, I still couldn’t silence that part of my brain telling me that I was some sort of rare exception. This lasted for several weeks and on numerous occasions I considered paying a visit to the STI clinic for a blood test.
Stay Away From Sick People….and Everything They’ve Touched…Ever
The obvious thing I avoided would be sick people. When I could help it. Unfortunately a lack of sick pay in your job and just a general selfishness of the general public meant I couldn’t always get away with it. But there were other measures I took to avoid getting poorly. At the more severe end of the spectrum, I was given a cheque for a large amount of money from a family member as a wedding gift. At the time they gave it to me, they told me that they had been suffering with a tummy bug. Said cheque then spent over a month in the glove box of my car before I had the courage to take it to the bank. In my mind, that was a sensible thing to do. That cheque could have been written out while their symptoms were at peak, or perhaps they’d not washed their hands when they wrote it. I had done enough research into stomach bugs over the years to know that it would have been virtually impossible to catch it from simply carrying a cheque to the bank, but that didn’t matter. My brain had an answer for everything.
Let’s also remember the shared cutlery at work. We all had our own mugs at my last job. And a dishwasher. But for a solid 6 months, I wouldn’t even use my own mug for fear of catching something. It didn’t matter they were being cleaned properly in the dishwasher, because the water wasn’t hot enough to kill the germs. Even if the water was hot enough, the person emptying the dishwasher may have been ill and got their germy hands on it… You get the idea. My progress in my CBT meant that I was eventually able to have a cup of tea at work again (sometimes I’d even use a different mug!) and to use the cutlery, thankfully. But if someone had been ill, it would be a different story.
Oh contamination. You’re still a constant factor in my anxiety. And you’re the reason I’ve spent a ridiculous amount of money on replacing belongings that I’ve broken through Dettol wiping them. I wish I was joking when I say I’ve broken two phones through the constant Dettol-ing. I have boil washed and ruined 2 coats, along with numerous items of clothing because they’d been worn into the house of people who had suffered with tummy bugs. I’ve thrown away several handbags for the same reason. I’ve thrown away parcels after they’ve been left in my black recycling box, and I’ve thrown away several items of cutlery after I dropped them on the floor. Let’s not forget all the showering – after cleaning the bathroom, cleaning my cat’s litter tray, and going to the doctors. All because after doing these things, I could physically feel the germs on me. No amount of distraction or acknowledging the thoughts could get rid of them, and they would spiral until I eventually gave in and had a shower.
Are You Sure?
In addition to doing all of the above, the intrusive thoughts I had would also lead to many checking rituals. Leaving the house would take forever where I would need to check taps were turned off (they could flood the house), the oven was off (it could catch fire), the toaster was unplugged (it could also catch fire), the fridge was shut (the food could all go bad and give us both food poisoning) and any plugs or wires were out of the cat’s reach (she could chew on them and get electrocuted). Then it would be time to lock the door. You get the idea. Even though I would try and put all of my attention into putting the key into the lock, it was like there was some dickhead in my brain pushing the delete button on that memory. On the days where I’d try to fight it, that same dickhead would say “But what if on this occasion you really haven’t locked it? What if someone just walks in and steals all you stuff and kills your cat? It’ll be all your fault and you won’t have a leg to stand on because you didn’t lock the door.” Half the time, it would just be easier to give in.
It wasn’t just leaving the house either. Getting out of my car was the same story. Checking the lights were off, the gears were neutral and the handbrake was on. Not to mention driving itself. Every time I would overtake a cyclist or drive past a child, I’d become obsessed over whether I’d hit them. Any time I hit the kerb or a pothole (and I’m not the best driver, so it was A LOT), I’d question whether I’d hit a person. There were multiple occasions where I’d drive back through places to make sure I hadn’t killed anyone. Obviously I hadn’t, but at the time, even a physical video of me not hitting anything or anyone wouldn’t have been enough to quiet those thoughts.
I appear to have come up with yet another long, dark, fairly depressing post. So apologies. But, thankfully, as I said in my last MH themed post, I’m doing much better. Thanks to a long course of CBT, a high dose of medication and the support from my family and friends, I’m doing alright. I still have major wobbles, as this past week has shown (more on that later), and I’m not quite where I want to be with regards to things like washing my hands and breaking out the anti-viral gel (because anti-bacterial doesn’t kill viruses – I’ve researched this crap). I still won’t use my phone when I’m out and about unless I’ve used my hand gel, but the alternative was that it wouldn’t even come out of my bag when I was anywhere else but home. And if it did, it would be thoroughly Dettol’d. For now, I’m not doing too badly. And, despite my OCD often getting in the way of them, I’ve still managed to get a degree, hold down a job working with the general public, and plan an entire wedding. So, you know, I’m okay.
If you or a loved one is suffering with OCD, or you just want to find out more about OCD Week of Action, visit OCD Action, where you’ll find plenty of support and information.