My mental health story starts at the age of four with my older sister´s death – I went from a happy go lucky child to one who couldn´t bear for any objects in her bedroom to be touched. If I could just make everything in my room “perfect”, then I felt I had some sense of control and the feelings of anxiety wouldn´t overwhelm me. I would stand at my door and not be able to leave because it didn´t feel “right” and I felt scared – but of what, I couldn´t put into words.
As I became older, schoolwork became a way of transferring my obsessive behaviour into something not only “acceptable” but encouraged. I began to make never-ending, lists and if I didn´t constantly check them, I felt something terrible would happen. I would not stop until I had it all done, and they sucked the joy out of everything. I dreaded losing a list so much that once I even retrieved one from a public bin– putting my hands in a dirty bin paled in comparison to the fear of not having the paper. OCD is not all about keeping clean. The lists blocked out the intrusive thoughts I could sense were knocking at the door, and if I allowed myself to let in some of the sadness and unresolved grief, I thought I would fall over the abyss. Pushing myself with ever longer lists was the only way to survive.
I could feel the tight feeling across my chest and sense of doom approaching, like a runaway train. I knew I needed help, but nobody talked about mental health then, especially not at uni. Looking back, I know drinking myself into a coma once was a serious cry for help, but it was laughed off as “typical student behaviour”.
When I was 28 and started a high-powered job, I ignored my instincts that life in the fast lane constantly “doing” and “achieving” would damage my health. One day I was so tired that my car clipped the kerb. I ended up sobbing and felt like crashing the car would be better than going into work. I finally fell into that abyss that I had been tip-toeing around for years. I couldn´t stop crying, felt terrified of opening my work emails (I was signed off and never went back), I didn´t care if I slept or ate. Sometimes having a shower and being alone with my own thoughts was an ordeal and I would put them off as long as possible. I was petrified of going outside.
My mum got me an emergency appointment, on medication and I had a CBT assessment. I shall never forget the faces of the psychologists when I told them my OCD was so bad I´d be up making lists until 5am every night. Even though I was agonizingly tired, I was terrified of going to bed- The only way was to ensure I would collapse with tiredness and not have to think or feel.
Little by little, with medication and counselling, there were a few moments of clarity and compassion, starting to unpack my sister´s death. At times I felt I couldn’t breathe. But by allowing myself to feel, my intrusive thoughts started to get slightly quieter. Finally, at the age of 34, being able to allow myself to feel pain and self-compassion was a breakthrough. Mostly talking about my OCD and joining a support group has been the biggest weight off my shoulders.
I know if I tell people about my OCD it´s like the gremlin loses his power. No one has abandoned me or laughed when I´ve told them. There´s still a long way to go, especially when people trivialize it by saying they are “a little bit OCD”. I will try to gently explain that for me, lists and tidying was not about being organized, it was control over suicidal thoughts.
Now I know that finishing a list won’t make me feel at peace. That´s about getting enough sleep, medication, and asking for help if things start to feel they are sliding again. And just by accepting that, I feel much more balanced. I can say “It feels real, but maybe it´s just my OCD”. And by doing that, the anxious feelings and then my compulsions subside. When I think that it´s something physical, it helps me to see myself with compassion and someone who needs medical support.
I have to challenge myself not to slip back into my default state, where intrusive thoughts and compulsions try to trick me. I will always have to battle against that imbalance, but I´m proof that you can turn down the volume on your OCD and turn up all the rest of the wonderful things life has to offer.