Guided by voices: This is what I have learned from having OCD for twenty years
This year marks an inauspicious anniversary for me: I have had OCD for twenty years. No, I am not going to hold an ironic party in the hope that VICE Magazine covers it. Neither am I going to use it as an excuse to make a toast and drink a litre of Tesco House Merlot by myself. What I am going to do is write about it, fail to it get it published anywhere, but then publish it myself in the hope that it helps other people in a similar situation.
My OCD seemingly came from nowhere when I was about eight years old. I can’t remember the exact moment that a sinister, compelling and ceaseless voice entered my head threatening me to perform bizarre ritualistic behaviours to stop a family member from suddenly dying, or a friend from getting hurt.
Nothing traumatic had happened in my life at that point, but maybe I was particularly susceptible to developing the disease due to my shyness and unshakeable feeling of nervousness towards everything when I was a child. Obeying obsessive compulsive urges is also an efficacious way of tricking your mind that it can exert control over its deepest or most abstract fears. It becomes an unhealthy addiction, and then ultimately a crutch.
I started my interminable and convoluted OCD odyssey by exhibiting all the classic symptoms; continuously washing my hands, walking in and out of rooms a certain number of times, touching objects and surfaces until I was happy with the mystical ‘vibes’ given off by the contact, the list goes on.
My mum took me to the family doctor who quickly weighed up that I had textbook OCD, but in this textbook there didn’t seem to be a chapter on treatment, and I don’t remember much professional follow-up after that. Nonetheless, my mum filled this vacuum by secretly studying several self-help books on OCD and helping me to manage my symptoms. She was also largely successful in gently discouraging me from exhibiting them in public, or at school.
OCD can behave like a virus itself in the way that it can mutate into different forms, manifesting itself unaccountably into a smorgasbord of progressively quirky symptoms. By early adolescence, I had finally quashed the urge to perform the aforementioned ritualistic behaviours.
I remember the moment when I believed I was beginning to win the battle against my OCD, when one night, I summoned all my willpower to ignore the threats of the shadowy, malevolent voice in my head. With an antithetical mixture of relief and expectation, I realised later that nothing bad had happened to anyone, despite the fact I hadn’t turned the light switch on and off exactly 23 times or walked up and down the stairs at least eight times.
The sense of victory didn’t last long. I soon came to realise that I had only internalised the disease, and without a physical outlet, the incessant and futile battle with my own swirling thoughts only intensified. My extreme repulsion towards germs, certain numbers and foods eventually dissipated and was replaced with overwhelming feelings of guilt, self-awareness and social anxiety surrounding generally banal situations.
It is very difficult to definitively describe or capture the characteristic ‘voice’ of OCD. Perhaps it is futile to even try. Without saying anything of much substance, it is certainly ineffable, toneless, and spectral. It can take the form of abrupt and abrasive intrusive thoughts, or subtly interweave itself in the seemingly innocuous background noise of your quotidian thought patterns and then strike as if by stealth in a moment of mental vulnerability.
Up until adulthood, I had always felt confident that I could adeptly manage my OCD symptoms. I was able to keep them hidden and only my close family members and my incredibly patient girlfriend were aware of my idiosyncratic mental health issues.
However, in my early and mid-twenties, things started to take a darker turn.
There were months where I was haunted by very unpleasant and repulsive intrusive thoughts. I felt like an irredeemable and amoral person. I also developed something called ‘false memory’ where my mind would try to manipulate my recollection of something innocuous and trick me that I had done something terrible.
One cathartic night, I got fed up and confessed all of this in detail, first to my mum and my long-term girlfriend- fearing that I would swiftly be dumped and ostracised. In the immediate aftermath, I remember feeling an immense and almost numinous feeling of liberation and I was lucky enough to be met by nothing but understanding and empathy. In the following weeks, I found that I could quickly bat away the intrusive thoughts and self-destructive false memory.
Years later, after getting prodigiously drunk at a friend’s party and then falling off the stage during an indie night at The Lexington, I tried to seriously hurt myself (or worse) by running in front of a car on the way home. Luckily for me, the driver applied the emergency brakes on time.
On a few occasions after that, after further heavy bouts of drinking I would have further dark and self-destructive thoughts. I knew that OCD was behind all of these episodes as much as the seven pints and miscellaneous spirits in my bloodstream, as it is something that grinds you down at a glacial pace and suddenly attacks you in your most vulnerable moments.
I decided to do the only thing I could, and I reached out to someone. Without going into detail, I met this person for a life-changing coffee, albeit unbearably hungover, in the Liverpool Street branch of Leon.
Following this meeting, I significantly cut down on my drinking and went sober, for months at a time, and I started to run and exercise more, losing over a stone in weight in a year. Managing my OCD and acute flashes of depression gradually became a lot easier.
Perhaps most significantly, I finally took the advice of my eternally supportive ex-girlfriend and went to see a therapist.
Now, I am writing a drawn-out and verbose monologue on my experiences for anyone bored enough to read during lockdown.
I shouldn’t have let it get that far, before taking action.
I find it impossible to clearly conceive of what it would feel like not to have that constant nagging and presence, luxuriating like a perennial unwelcome guest in the spare room of my head. However, with help, I am beginning to turn the tide on it.
Sadly, not everyone has the same support network that I have been very fortunate to have, and not everyone will encounter the same level of sympathy and understanding from their family and friends. This is why it is essential that mental health services are properly funded by the Government, especially so they can be more effectively targeted at the most vulnerable communities.
Accordingly, this is not a sob story, but a paean to all those people who have helped and supported me. Also, this is a crudely didactic, and bordering on platitudinous cadence to this piece, but fellow OCD sufferers need to hear it: having a healthy sense of perspective does not mean you should not seek the help you need. Talking about it works.
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