OK, so here’s the deal. When I was fourteen I was told that I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. When I think about it, I can’t see why people hadn’t noticed sooner. I mean, it’s pretty hard to keep it a secret. At home I would try (and fail) to carry out my compulsions secretively, tapping and rearranging objects before I felt that it was ‘right’ to actually pick up my mug and drink my tea. God knows what my answer was when Mum would look at me, puzzled, and ask ‘Er… you alright, babe?’ Thing is, I wasn’t alright. I knew my behaviour wasn’t ‘normal’ but I was scared to ask for help because I thought, naively, that I would be ‘locked up’ in an asylum. Shockingly, I saw a documentary recently presented by Dr Christian Jessen called ‘Cure Me, I’m Gay’ in which a priest conducted an exorcism on not just gay people but people with anxiety disorders, like OCD. Luckily, this was not the method that my GP chose (I can imagine the look on my Mum’s face if a priest turned up at the door with a cross shrieking at non-existent demons to leave my body: ‘Oh, Kate, what must the neighbours think?!’). No. Fortunately, I was referred to see some lovely clinical psychologists who gave me some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy which helped me to tackle my anxieties and compulsions. So what actually is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an anxiety disorder which causes the sufferer to carry out ‘rituals’, or compulsions, which they believe will stop certain imagined scenarios from happening. For example, some sufferers have distressing thoughts that their loved ones will be hurt. The anxiety that this arouses prompts them to carry out certain tasks (such as tapping objects a certain number of times. Many OCD sufferers like myself have a number that feels ‘right’… I liked 4… I didn’t like 6). Once this task is satisfactorily completed, the sufferer’s anxiety will decrease and they can continue with their day… until another worrying thought occurs. This is where OCD becomes a pain in the arse because, by carrying out compulsions such as hand washing and counting things, the sufferer unknowingly strengthens the urge to do these things. This is because the compulsions initially relieve the sufferer of their anxieties so the sufferer associates these tasks with a feeling of relief. So the next time that they feel anxious they believe that they should use their rituals to abolish the anxiety. Vicious cycle. However, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is extremely effective. It works to tackle the way that a sufferer thinks in order to change their behaviour. The therapist started by asking me to rate each task on a scale from 0 to 10, 0 meaning that I would feel no anxiety whatsoever if somebody told me to stop doing it and 10 meaning that I would be unbearably anxious if I could not complete the task. Then, slowly, we tackled one ritual at a time. I had to force myself to stop doing a task and manage my anxiety. For example, I would pick up a mug just once and drink my tea, which would immediately trigger terrifying thoughts (for example, ‘your parents are going to die’). Instead of giving in, I had to challenge this thought: ‘Whether or not I carry out this task will not affect my parents’ lives’. This is obviously much harder than it sounds. Although the worries and the tasks seem ridiculous and stupid, the anxiety is so real for the sufferer that they truly believe that these things could happen. However, once you start to tackle the smaller rituals you start to realise that nothing terrible has happened as a result of this, therefore it enables you to progress with confidence.
So, what is the point of me telling you all this? OCD is much more common than people realise. According to the NHS website, in the UK 12 out of every 1000 people are affected by OCD, and even if people are not formally diagnosed with the disorder, some people have certain aspects of it, such as checking multiple times that the oven has been switched off and that the front door is locked. I have my rituals under control now, but in times of stress it can be harder to manage anxieties. Moving to university can be stressful and so mental wellbeing is extremely important. I believe that people should speak openly about mental health problems in order to abolish the stigma that is still attached to them. I even questioned whether I should write this article for fear of being thought a freak. But I don’t have tentacles or three heads, I just have OCD and I have learned to deal with it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Speak up.