OCD Can Be Beaten If You Let Yourself Go
The hard part wasn’t telling people I had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The hard part is dealing with it. Two years ago I wrote an article for a magazine about living with OCD and how my fear of the number three had started to take over my life. My friends all congratulated me, and my parents bought copies to show my relatives. Everyone kept on saying how brave I had been to put my problem “out there” and raise awareness.
But in truth, I’d only hinted at what I feared most. The magazine editors took away the nastier bits I described my face being bashed against a swimming pool wall and watching my teeth bob away from me amid curls of my blood. I’m guessing they probably didn’t want to know about the replay of my boyfriend crashing into a van that gets put on a fast-forward loop I can’t get out of my vision every time he leaves the house without me. No one wants to hear those parts. They like the kooky checking and the eccentric mannerisms and how funny it is that I’m always so damn early for trains.
If I had thought writing about OCD would be hard, therapy has been much harder. Two years on from that article and OCD had me on my knees. Last Christmas I couldn’t leave the house for more than a few hours for the fear that my rabbit would kill herself. I had to sleep with all the lights on at the end of a 40-minute ritual to ensure my boyfriend, staying with his own family 200 miles away, would live through the night. I cried every day, sometimes non-stop, sometimes in secret, sometimes just straight up at the dining table. Wordless tears, no reasons to speak of. There’s a set of passport photos I had to have done the following January, and I knew I looked bad at the time but seeing my face now, my eyes hollow with those constant tears, really scares me.
The outward signs of OCD are relatively easy to brush aside in a day-to-day manner because the way a lot of obsessive habits manifest themselves can look harmless. But by spring this year, their total effect on me was becoming exhausting. I wrote all of mine into a diary and signed up to a course of cognitive behavioural therapy through my GP. I thought this would be the beginning of the end of the struggle, but the CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy) sessions that began three months later left my brain frazzled. I would walk home, trying again and again not to start crying as I played it all back in my head.
My OCD was a great way to order my anxiety. I slotted everything I was worried about into compartments where things could be ritualised, ruminated or thought over for hours to make sure I’d never been able to let go of a single throwaway comment. But after a few weeks of CBT, there were also things I was able to start putting an end to – habits my fingers sometimes return to quicker than I can stop them: light switches, phone alarms, door locks, plug sockets, Oyster cards, bunches of keys, my neck. I began to realise what I was doing wouldn’t help the many calamities I was trying to protect myself against. After you’ve unearthed all of those, you start to see where the roots of OCD took hold.
It has now been two months since I finished my course of CBT. My daily life looks the same to an outsider, but to me, something fundamental has shifted away – is no longer pinning me down – and the change I feel in myself is unbelievable. It wasn’t easy, and I have to work at making sure my checks don’t start to seep in again. But the change is there, I’m empowered by it, and cannot believe just taking six months out of my life to focus on getting a grip on my anxiety and depression could pay off so quickly. I’m beginning to spot when I need to ask for help and when I am worth more than putting myself through hours of agonising anxious thought. I’ve had to continue to push myself, continue to come home late alone, not check that the house is locked (and sometimes even leave a window open as a treat), allow things to be messy, untidy, undone because it can also feel good.
A year ago I wouldn’t have been able to separate my life and outlook from my illness. I had no idea how deeply I’d internalised all of my fears, and when you’re not opening up to anyone around you, no one else gets to see those times either. Inside, I was miserable. I wouldn’t have believed anything could have changed this outlook. But I told myself I needed to do the CBT for me – and I stuck to it. I went to every single session and came out the other side.
Words by Ava Szajna-Hopgood