Charlotte is the co-founder of a new non-profit organisation called Mad Millenials. Here she share's her experiences of OCD and why she is looking forward to future collaborations between Mad Millennials and OCD Action:
For as long as I can remember I have feared the worst – the worst being harm coming to my immediate family. All possible scenarios tormented me. When I was young there were little tasks, checks or amendments I would make or think, which were seemingly not too impactful on my life at the time but now in reflection played a role in shaping the way my brain learnt how to deal with perceived danger and distress.
At 17, I was first diagnosed with GAD (Generalised Anxiety Disorder), my level of worry was extremely high and my self-esteem was extremely low. At 19, I then went travelling with my best friend for 4 months, where a month into our trip we arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. We went to a restaurant recommended by other some backpackers to have a pizza. Cambodia have a delicacy (bafflingly) popular with travellers, called ‘Happy Pizzas’ (pizza with cannabis on it).
In all honesty, it is quite a blur, I couldn’t categorically say we didn’t think our pizza would have cannabis on it but whatever was given to us was not safe (we suspect a strong concoction of hallucinogenic drugs) and beyond unexpected. I do however remember a couple of male staff in a corner looking and laughing at us. We were later informed when speaking to locals what was given to us was just about safe/passable between 10 fully grown men.
That night I went on to experience an intense drug induced psychotic episode. Whilst my friend was also affected by what was in our system, her mind responded to it entirely differently and even more so in the aftermath of this experience. For hours I was stuck in a horrific trip I couldn’t get out of. What also made the experience more terrifying was that we were in a very busy city and the only thing I could think to do at the time was to make a trip back to the restaurant, in a deluded state thinking that it would somehow it would reverse what was happening.
When we got there our restaurant was the only one in a line of others closed and shuttered up. After a lot more distress we finally made it back to our hostel but things didn’t get better and I spent hours with excruciating pain in my chest, which now I can only assume was a severe panic attack. The next morning, I truly felt as if my brain had changed, I felt lost, I felt dead and I was pretty convinced I was. I couldn’t make any sense of what had happened the previous night. My friend and I, did what I know I could never do now and that’s ignore it, not talk about it, we tried to just move on but the problem was, I couldn’t. What I had hallucinated in the trips, felt like memories, I couldn’t really be sure of what was real and what wasn’t. In all honestly this is something that can still frighten me today.
Each day I thought, I’ll just sleep and then I’ll wake up feeling, ‘back to normal’ - but it never happened. The distress and confusion grew more and more every day and it was getting unbearable. I assumed for so long that the drugs must have still been in my system but deep down I knew there was something different going on, I just didn’t yet know what. I started having intense intrusive thoughts and I did what I thought I needed to do (later knowing this is counter-productive) and that was, fight them (push them away). However, this was exhausting and I just didn’t have the energy to know what to do so I became numb and even started praying to be 95 on my death bed. I had no idea that it was OCD, Pure O, I was experiencing. The thoughts were so horrific in nature that I began to believe I was capable of acting on them. Bryony Gordon writes about this in ‘Mad Girl’, a book that didn’t exist yet. She describes how her OCD made her think she was a, psychopathic murdering paedophile, of course she wasn’t any of these awful things and neither was I, I just couldn’t believe it at the time.
My intrusions were like leeches, latching on to what were some of my biggest fears. They took hold of me and made me question everything about myself and my identity. The only thing I could think to do when one ‘theme’ of thoughts i.e. violence were getting impossible to cope with, was to do everything I could to ‘mould’ them into another theme. A theme of equal distress but what felt like a much-needed, short-term break from the previous set. My brain through at me every possible thought and fear under the sun and there was next to no respite. The occasional 3 seconds (and I mean 3 seconds) silence from the noise, abysmal but it was the only thing that got me through, dreaming of 3 seconds becoming 3 minutes, hours, days...
I started searching google when I realised my mental distress wasn’t going anywhere. I needed answers. When I first read ‘Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’ I remember thinking, like many people, well that’s not me because I don’t repetitively wash my hands and my travelling rucksack certainly isn’t organised. I read on and then saw ‘Intrusive Thoughts’. The website was basic and doubled up as forum, mainly consisting of other distressed people discussing their intrusions and how they’ve “still got it 10 years later”. Fantastic, just what I needed to see at that time. Nevertheless, it was a site I would refer to like a bible and use to show my friend as well as my mum back home, what I felt I was experiencing.
When I got home, I received therapy for OCD, I know this definitely helped me in understanding more about what I was going through and that it wasn’t a reflection on me but I still felt extremely broken at this point. I started University (Psychology) and I was having panic attacks constantly, I didn’t feel right at all and about 3 weeks in, it was my bodies time to catch up with my mind and I contracted glandular fever (GF). I tried my hardest to push through but I was just too ill. I came back home and remained in bed for months. Everyday was a battle of panic attacks and intrusions. From initially feeling like I didn’t want to be alive, to, once the panic attacks took hold, feeling the total opposite – terrified of death.
Whilst I was exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. My brain was not going to let me. I was in complete fight or flight and so sleep seemed like the ultimate danger. Even when I almost nodded off, I then experienced agonising night terrors and a sharp pain that coursed through my head and body leaving me in a constant viscous state of panic. Total fear of imminent death in every moment. That fear still sticks around too often. I had an ambulance called out, 111 calls, trips to out of hours and I was somehow managing to take myself to the Doctors many times a week. Now I can reflect this was severe health anxiety but at the time it was whatever life-threatening illness I believed I was about to drop dead with. It took far too long for the dots to be joined together and after a crisis call out, which neither myself nor my family would wish to repeat, I was put on medication. I was also set up with a therapist for when I felt better and safe enough to go back to University.
Through medication, therapy and support from some amazing people in my life, I started to feel less like my brain was on fire and more able to tolerate distress. I think it is important to also acknowledge the things that have helped me manage my OCD. Educating myself has probably been the biggest factor. Once I understood more about what Pure O in particular was, I felt more understood. Books! Some fantastic books; Rose Cartwrights - ‘Pure’, Bryony Gordon’s - Mad Girl and Bella Mackie’s - Jog on, have all expressed so profoundly what it can be like and made me feel far less alone. For me a combination of medication and therapy was most effective. In therapy working on self-compassion and desensitisation really helped. This isn’t to say I don’t still have OCD, when my anxiety levels are higher this usually exacerbates but the difference is I now have much more knowledge and acceptance that means I am now also able to help support other people through Mad Millennials, from the experiences I have.