My journey with mental illness started with mild OCD when I was 9 years old. My OCD has taken so many forms over the years that sometimes I find it hard to believe they all fit under the one diagnosis. It started out fairly simple, with my mind obsessing over strange topics that it seemed to choose at random. The first obsession was with death. It was my final year of primary school and it had just occurred to me that I was going to die one day. I shared this concern with my parents and they told me it was normal to worry about death, but not at my age, and just to forget it. But it was all I could think about. My obsession with this sudden realisation brought such great worry that I lost my appetite for weeks. Another obsession I remember was with getting my first period. Everywhere I looked I would see reminders of this scary and unknown experience that was bound to be on its way soon – the letter P, the colour red – and with each reminder came uncontrollable anxiety. At this point I was too young to know that my worries weren’t normal, and I think my parents figured I was just a highly-strung sort of kid.
Around the age of 11 I became obsessed with symmetry. Every action I carried out with my right side I would have to carry out with my left. I was very specific. If I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear on my right side, I would do the same on my left; only if I wasn’t careful, the line that my finger drew on the left side of my head wasn’t quite the same. So I would have to repeat it, the original line on my left side followed by the new line on my right. It went on like this with movement I made. I struggled immensely with writing and eating, tasks my left hand simply couldn’t do as well as my right. Most of the time the compulsions were harmless, until the day I accidentally burnt the back of my right hand on the glass of our woodfire. The pain was unbearable, but I knew what I had to do. I stuck the back of my left hand onto the glass and with tears in my eyes, I realised that these obsessions were taking control of my brain.
“Most of the time the [symmetry] compulsions were harmless, until the day I accidentally burnt the back of my right hand on the glass of our woodfire. The pain was unbearable, but I knew what I had to do.”
As a teen, my anxiety mostly concerned my friends and social situations. I would worry that my friends didn’t like me and were talking about me behind my back. Of course the content of the thoughts at this point was not unlike what any young girl is thinking at this age; however the way my body reacted to these worries was far from normal. Every night I would get into bed and have panic attacks, shaking uncontrollably, sweating, and having to get up constantly to use the bathroom. I wrestled with my thoughts and tried my best to calm myself down, but the only thing that made the anxiety subside was getting up and talking it out with my mum. Some nights I would go to her up to five or six times, telling her everything that was going through my head and needing her to tell me it was all going to be okay. Some nights she listened for hours, patiently shutting down each of my fears, one by one. Other nights after the fourth or fifth appearance she would get frustrated and tell me to snap out of it, to go back to bed. Ultimately it didn’t matter because regardless of her reaction, as soon as I was back in bed the panic resumed. I didn’t realise it at the time, but nobody was going to make the anxiety go away, nobody but myself.
At the age of 16, it got much, much worse. I began suffering from what is commonly known as ‘Pure-O‘ or Primarily Obsessional OCD, which takes the form of intrusive thoughts of a distressing nature. These thoughts pop into your head constantly, and “typically centre on a fear that you may do something totally uncharacteristic of yourself”¹. This often involves actions of an aggressive or sexual nature, and you become convinced that you’re a danger to yourself and/or those around you. To this day I’m not comfortable talking about the specific nature of my thoughts. Pure-O will choose to punish you with the thoughts that will be most disturbing to you as a person, that tie in closely with your values. It chose the thoughts it knew would haunt me, terrify me, and cause me to doubt who I was. I had done my own research by this stage, knew about OCD and how it worked. But this didn’t stop the doubts from flowing freely. What if I was just telling myself I might have this disorder to justify the thoughts in my head? What if these were indeed my thoughts, my desires? What if these thoughts became actions? As much as the content of the thoughts horrified and disgusted me, I would think about my symmetry compulsions, and how I had felt compelled to carry them out despite my better judgement. Could the same thing happen here? Am I a danger to those around me?
“This disorder took over my life, my every thought, my dreams. If you were talking to me I wasn’t really listening, I was trying to process the horrific thoughts in my head.”
This debilitating condition persevered into my late teens and continued throughout university. This disorder took over my life, my every thought, my dreams. If you were talking to me I wasn’t really listening, I was trying to process the horrific thoughts in my head. I lived with an overwhelming guilt that made me physically sick and took away my appetite. I would force dry toast down my throat while my parents watched, just so I could say I’d eaten something that day. I avoided children, animals, elderly people, family members, anyone vulnerable who I thought might potentially be harmed if I ‘lost control’. Looking back, I often wonder how I made it through each day, how I managed to go through the motions and maintain the façade, family and friends none the wiser.
You might wonder why I never told anyone about the horror that was playing out in my head. Imagine you had constant and persistent thoughts about carrying out acts that were not only illegal, but truly heinous, that would make you the scum of society. Would you tell anyone? I was terrified that if I disclosed my thoughts that I would be reported to police or sent away to be locked up. I was convinced people wouldn’t hear “I have OCD”, but would hear “I frequently imagine myself doing this horrifying act” and jump straight to the worst possible conclusion. Sadly, I did seek professional help, in all the wrong places; the responses I got were devastating (and I now realise, as a professional myself, completely unacceptable). One doctor suggested I find God to cure my brain of its evil. Another guessed the thoughts were coming from repressed feelings, and suggested I find a more healthy outlet. None of them taught me how to manage the thoughts. So the thoughts remained.
“One doctor suggested I find God to cure my brain of its evil. Another guessed the thoughts were coming from repressed feelings, and suggested I find a more healthy outlet.”
I was also obsessed with my education and determined not to let my condition get in the way of my ambitions. I was always worst during exam period, and remember times where I was so weak that I’d lie on the couch barely able to move while my mum listened to me revise lecture notes out aloud. Managing my thoughts when studying was my biggest challenge, and the intrusive thoughts would run rampant. At that point in my life nothing made the thoughts go away, but watching television or having a conversation would distract me slightly from the feelings that came with them. When studying it was just me and my anxiety. At the end of that year, I decided that enough was enough, and scoured the internet to find an OCD specialist who would understand what was happening in my head and how to fix it.
My search resulted in the discovery of an absolutely brilliant OCD specialist who changed my life. As I mentioned above, I’d seen a myriad of health professionals over the years who only reinforced my beliefs that I was some kind of monster. Emily was so different. I told her every thought in excruciating detail, and cried rivers of tears as she sat nodding, saying things like “yes, that’s very common” and “I’ve heard that one before”. She told me that these thoughts did not reflect me as a person. I still remember the sentence that finally convinced me this was true: “If these thoughts were yours, if you truly wanted to carry out these acts, they wouldn’t be making you so anxious, would they?” After seeing Emily for a few months, I was astounded at how quickly I began to get better, considering how long I had been plagued by this condition. It felt as though the weight of 14 years of intense suffering had suddenly been lifted, and I guess it had. I had never imagined I could live a normal life free of the thoughts and guilt, and yet suddenly here I was, doing just that.
“It felt as though the weight of 14 years of intense suffering had suddenly been lifted, and I guess it had. I had never imagined I could live a normal life free of the thoughts and guilt, and yet suddenly here I was, doing just that.”
Despite the profound impact of my treatment, my condition still has an impact on my life. In this blog I will share my life ‘after’ mental illness – I use the word ‘after’ very loosely, because mental illness is not something that is cured, it is something that is managed. Accepting this is what enabled me to beat my thoughts; I learned to accept that they would come, but to place them to the side and get on with my day. Eventually, once I was no longer afraid of them, they stopped coming altogether. Many of my milder obsessions returned when the severe thoughts disappeared, and tend to pop up occasionally when I am bored or vulnerable, just to remind me that I still have to do a bit of work every now and then to keep on top of things. I can live with this, which is a whole lot more than I could say previously. I am now a fully functioning human being whose anxiety is, for the most part, under control. However there are many facets of my life that are affected by the remnants of my OCD; in particular, big decisions regarding my future. Here I hope to share my story and my experiences with others, and with any luck, overcome each of these hurdles to live a life I can truly be proud of.
I hope you’ll join me.