I have a new obsession at the moment, her name is Bryony Gordon and she is brilliant. I am in the middle of listening to all of her Mad World podcasts (the one with Mandy Stevens had me in tears), and am midway through her fantastic book, Mad Girl. I almost woke my daughter up with laughter late one night after reading her birth story. There are also some very dark moments though. She has basically suffered with OCD since her teens (as well as an eating disorder), and describes in detail the thoughts that used to enter her head and the things she had to do in order to make herself feel safe. A few pages into her book and a lightbulb appeared above my head…holy fuck, this is what I’ve been through!
When I was a child I remember not being able to step on the cracks in the pavement, having to reach the lamppost at the end of the street before the red car did, and also counting my thoughts. To this day I have never questioned it, I’ve always just thought that it was normal and part of who I was. It never controlled me nor did it have any detrimental effects on my day to day life. When I got older and had my first panic attack however, that’s when the really weird thoughts started.
Bryony says in her book that one of her intrusive thoughts made her think that she was a paedophile. A few weeks after that awful night with my thoughts racing 100 miles per hour, I was in Asda one day when I just happened to glance at a little girl. A thought immediately entered my mind – why did I just look at that girl? Am I a child abuser? Cue even more anxiety symptoms and me racing home in absolute floods of tears. What a fucking awful thing to go through. I knew that it was due to my anxiety though so didn’t investigate it further (nor did I want to to be honest).
When I used to think about OCD I, like most people, imagined someone having to check that the doors were locked a certain amount of times before they left the house, or that the tins in their cupboard were all facing the same way. What I didn’t realise, however, was why they did these things. Being plagued day in and day out by these horrifying thoughts, they perform certain rituals in order to alleviate the anxiety that accompanies them. It is an absolutely horrendous illness. According to ocd.org:
“it can be so debilitating and disabling that the World Health Organisation (WHO) once ranked OCD in the top ten of the most disabling illnesses of any kind, in terms of lost earnings and diminished quality of life”
I have heard the term ‘Pure-O’ in the past, but never really understood what it meant. I do now. Pure-O is so called because there aren’t any outward signs of compulsive behaviour, but the intrusive thoughts are still there. However, this name can be misleading as the compulsions can take the form of unseen mental rituals. This struck a chord with me as sometimes, especially in tims of stress, I count. I count the walls, my thoughts, DVD’s, anything, but all in my head.
Those who suffer with Pure-O are completely normal, high functioning people, but will spend a great deal of time ruminating, trying to solve or answer any of the questions that cause them stress. This was me in a nutshell. When I had extreme post-natal anxiety especially, I would go over and over the distressing thoughts and images in my head for hours (I used to call this being locked in), but inevitably this would just make things worse. Trying to reason or bargain with the thoughts only gives them more power. You can find out how to deal with them here.
OCD can be triggered at times of high stress (like having a baby), and with the ridiculous level of hygiene that inevitably comes with looking after a newborn, it’s no wonder. It was bad enough thinking that other people could hurt her or pass germs on, but when I started to think that I might hurt her, that was just something else. Although I know now that it wasn’t actually me thinking these thoughts, it was the OCD, at the time I have never felt so frightened. It would have been so reassuring to me at the time to know that everyone has weird thoughts from time to time, and that the symptoms of Pure-O can include the following:
- Recurrent intrusive thoughts or mental images of physically assaulting or killing one’s spouse, parent, child, self, friends, or others (this happened to me after I had Molly)
- Repeatedly worrying that one has or will run over a pedestrian while driving a vehicle
- Excessive fears that one might accidentally cause harm to other people (i.e. burning down the house, unknowingly poisoning others, inadvertently exposing others to toxic chemicals)
- Persistent fears of molesting a child (these were my most terrifying thoughts)
- Recurrent fears that one might be a homosexual, when in fact he or she is not
- Excessively worrying that one does not actually love his/her partner, or is not with the ‘right’ person (I get this sometimes)
- Repetitive thoughts that one has said or written something inappropriate, such as swearing at one’s employer or writing hate-filled letters to a friend (I sometimes get this with Facebook, I have to keep checking my profile page to make sure I haven’t posted anything bad)
- Persistent intrusive thoughts or mental images that one considers to be sinful, sacrilegious or blasphemous
- Repeatedly thinking about benign somatic issues such as breathing, swallowing, blinking, eye floaters (I had that for years), ringing in the ears (I once had to have an MRI scan for this), digestion, where one’s eyes are looking, physical sensations in a specific body part etc
- Recurrent thoughts questioning the nature of the self or reality (I get this sometimes)
So while I always tell people I suffer with anxiety, now I realise that the anxiety is just the physical manifestation of the OCD. While I haven’t been formally diagnosed, it is quite obvious that this is what I’ve got going on. Luckily, through years of managing intrusive thoughts through CBT, exercise and mindfulness, I’ve got it under control so don’t feel the need to go to my doctor about it. I’m nowhere near as bad as I was, and now that I know exactly what it is, it doesn’t bother me at all (if you can name it you can tame it!).
It winds me up when I hear or read people saying ‘they’re a bit OCD’, as if it’s something to be laughed at. Yes the compulsions may seem strange to those on the outside looking in, but being trapped in an endless cycle day in and day out with the most horrendous thoughts that you have no control over bombarding your brain is no fun at all. After all, you can’t run away from yourself can you?
It can be difficult to open up about this condition (how can you try to explain to someone that you keep thinking you’re going to harm your child without them thinking you’re insane?), and I know that my partner just calls me a control freak at times (I might let him read this blog post). It’s taken me years to actually realise that I might have a problem, and there’s probably thousands more people out there suffering in silence. Please don’t! There is help, and with a combination of medication and therapy, there’s no reason why you won’t make a full recovery. As most people who write about mental health will tell you, we need to end the stigma that surrounds it. So keep sharing, retweeting, commenting and blogging…the more we talk about it the better.