Things You Only Know If You Have OCD

Thought OCD was all about hand-washing and making sure you’d turned the oven off? Think again…


by Molly Boswell |
Published on

My lucky number has always been ‘4’. As a child, I’d touch the wall four times before leaving the house, and give my mum four kisses before she dropped me off at school. These were the first signs that I was suffering from OCD. Twenty years later, I’m still battling it.

There have been times when my head was filled with nothing but a torrent of obsessive thoughts, and socialising was nigh on impossible. The intense self-loathing brought about by these thoughts was a major factor in the breakdown of a long-term relationship, as sex became an impossible chore. I couldn’t stop obsessing even during intimate moments, meaning the experience was basically reduced to me fighting an internal battle while my then-boyfriend just happened to be in bed with me, fruitlessly trying to distract me from the torment in my brain. At work, I’d have to take toilet breaks every half an hour just to sit, breathe deeply and try to calm my racing mind. In short, most aspects of everyday life were overshadowed by persistent obsessive thoughts, and it’s only over the last year that I’ve properly regained control of my own head.

Fellow sufferer and writer Rose Bretecher has penned a whole book on her experiences, and I salute her. I, like Rose, am lumbered with a particularly nasty form often referred to as ‘pure OCD’. I don’t have any physical symptoms like washing my hands 50 times a day; in fact, that might be preferable to some of the absurd rubbish my brain’s thrown at me over the years. But here’s what I do know about the anxiety disorder:

It isn’t about checking the door’s locked

The stereotypical view of OCD is of someone who can’t stop checking stuff, but a neat freak is not necessarily an OCD sufferer. All forms of OCD are equally troubling, but ‘pure OCD’ is one of the most insidious.

I used to envisage stabbing strangers in the street. Although the idea greatly troubled me, I couldn’t shake it off – after all, why would I be imagining it if there wasn’t some kind of deep-rooted desire to murder innocent bystanders? Somewhat gingerly, I told my mum what was going through my mind, and asked her if she’d ever thought anything similar. To my great (but short-lived) relief, she said that she had, on occasion, had the odd strange or troubling notion enter her head. ‘Everybody thinks weird thoughts sometimes,’ she said, flapping her hand as if to swat them away. ‘Just don’t take any notice!’

Weird thoughts. Yes, they were weird alright. Googling ‘weird thoughts’ was a long shot, but it did bring me to a forum where I found people discussing worries similar to my own. It was there that I first saw the term ‘pure OCD’ being bandied about, and hoped that this – rather than being a homicidal maniac – was my problem.

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You’ll feel like a terrible person

When I first began therapy at 15, my lovely psychologist, Zoe, explained that everyone has intrusive thoughts, but the OCD sufferer is unable to dismiss them. While some sufferers’ obsessions will manifest in physical behaviour – compulsions – like repeated checking, others, particularly those with unwanted thoughts, remain locked in a cycle of mental torment where no physical action can ‘help’. In this case, the compulsion is not to do something, but to think something that will neutralise the obsession. Only it doesn’t really work, and you end up basically arguing with yourself constantly. In a nutshell, that’s ‘pure’ OCD, because it’s confined ‘purely’ to the mind.

When you consider what subject matter these kinds of obsessions tend to cover, it’s actually fairly ironic that some clever dick decided to call it ‘pure’. Wikipedia will tell you that intrusive thoughts can have ‘aggressive, sexual or blasphemous’ themes, and ‘sexual’ is one I know all too well.

Friends, my parents, children, pets – I’d imagine having sex with them all. When I say ‘imagine’, I don’t mean I’d sit back and revel in these perverted scenarios. I mean they’d bombard me, uninvited, every waking hour of every day. I couldn’t tell Zoe what I was thinking, because I was terrified she’d say that I wasn’t suffering from OCD, I was just a depraved sicko who needed locking away. Even when she told me, unfazed, that she’d previously treated a boy who thought about having sex with his mum, I couldn’t tell her the contents of my obsessions.

Arguing with your obsessions is the worst thing you can do

Zoe was a child psychologist, so I had to stop seeing her when I was 18. The antidepressants she gave me did the trick in helping me not to stay in bed for two weeks, but the obsessions continued relentlessly. I tried to quiet them by forcing myself to think, in horrifyingly graphic detail, about shagging all the animals/parents/children in my thoughts to remind myself I didn’t enjoy these ideas.

I’d estimate that I had to do this over 100 times a day, because the obsessions just kept on coming back. It was only after I was carted away by the police for hanging around a level crossing, on the verge of throwing myself in front of a train, that I realised I should get some more help.

This time, I didn’t hold back. Sobbing, I told my therapist every disgusting detail, expecting him to have me slapped straight onto the sex offenders’ register. Instead, he just nodded and smiled, and told me that the things I was thinking were quite common in the world of OCD. Neutralising the thoughts by engaging with them, he said, is the worst thing to do. ‘If there was an evil monster in your cupboard, would you keep feeding it to make it stronger, or would you leave it to starve?’ he asked.

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Relationships are a living hell

Relationship anxiety is the one area of my OCD that I still haven’t managed to conquer, but in all honesty, it feels trivial compared to the mental torture of the obsessions.

If my last boyfriend (not the poor, sex-starved guy I mentioned earlier) didn’t text me back within half an hour, he was either dead, bored of me or meeting his ex. I lived in constant fear that he’d dump me, and sometimes I even considered dumping him, just so I can get in there first (in the end, he got in there first. Bastard.).

He’d given me no reason to distrust him, but every time he left the room, I’d have to fight the urge to check through his phone. When I told him about this, he was confused, and slightly incredulous. Predictably, he also chortled about the old ‘all women are psychos’ adage, which wasn’t altogether helpful, and I had to explain that it wasn’t me who thought he was up to no good, it was the OCD. He didn’t pretend to understand, but he was mildly reassured by the fact that I trusted him, it was just my obsessions that didn’t. When we did break up, it had nothing to do with my mental health, and I was mildly reassured by the fact that it hadn’t completely put him off me.

There’s no quick fix, but therapy is a massive help

OCD can take many forms, but each is as catastrophic as the next to the sufferer. I used to wonder why my obsessions couldn’t be over something ‘easy’ like cleanliness or my appearance, but the truth is that these would have been just as devastating, because the effect is the same.

It’s important to remember that whatever you’re thinking, someone else has probably thought the same, or worse. No experienced therapist is going to have you arrested for the content of your obsessions; the whole reason you’re seeking help is because you don’t want to think about, let alone act on them. Realising this takes time and it isn’t easy, but the longer OCD is left unchecked, the more you’ll end up unwittingly feeding the monster. Sometimes I still feel the compulsion to throw it a tidbit, just to check. But slowly, I’m learning to let it starve.

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Picture: Getty

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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