For potentially as long as five years, but most definitely for at least as long as two, I have lived with the fear that everything around me is going to make me, or someone close to me ill. I’d ask whether food was cooked properly. I’d ask if it was hot enough. I’d watch what I touched. I’d watch how I touched it. I’d think my hands were dirty. I’d think single or double washing them every time wasn’t enough. I’d believe a surface was dirty. I’d need to clean it even if I just had. In short, my brain would look for danger at each and every turn making day-to-day life exhausting, overwhelming and frustrating. But I never really thought anything of it.
Sure I noticed everyone else around me would just cook food and know it was fine to eat. Sure I noticed everyone else around me would just exist without watching their every move. And sure I noticed everyone else would instinctively know their hands and the surfaces around them were clean enough to use. But I just couldn’t accept that if I did all those things, just like everyone else, I would be fine too. And it was this lack of acceptance, as well as the impact it was having on myself, my wife and my family that caused me to seek help late last year.
I remember the initial phone assessment. It was really hard and while I had had CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) a couple of times in my life already, it was never for this sort of thing. I also never expected to hear the letters O C D mentioned in the conversation. Yes I was aware of the term, and yes I was aware that I was doing things differently to other people, but I thought that was just my routine.
To be fair it was my routine, but reflecting on it now most routines don’t include an unrelenting combination of stressful thoughts, uncontrollable actions and moments that are truly terrifying. Moments that would see me shouting the house down. Moments that would result in me throwing things across a room and then storming out of the same one. And moments that would see me scrubbing my hands until they bled with water that was so hot steam would be coming off them. All because I had the slightest thought that something may be unclean, or would potentially make myself or those around me ill.
I would notice a little bit of dirt on on the kitchen and have wipe the whole worktop using huge amounts of cleaner. I would wash my hands before eating and then, if I thought I’d touched something on the way to sitting down, would have to go back and rewash them. And if I wanted to eat at my desk using my fingers, I would type with one hand and eat with the other. Even with these examples – and I could give many, many more - I didn’t really expect for OCD to be confirmed. But, a few weeks later my routine was confirmed as exactly that.
Just like I remember that initial phone assessment and that confirmation of OCD, I also remember the update phone call to say that I could start remote CBT. Right in the middle of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, a national lockdown and my wife being instructed to shield due to a pre-existing condition, it was already a weird time. Add to this the emphasis on hand washing that everyone was being told to do, and it was a real juxtaposition of being the perfect and the worst time to start the process. However seven weeks on, I am so pleased that I did.
As those of you who have had CBT, or like me may be having it now will know, it isn’t a quick fix and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. It is really hard work and you don’t really know how much it is actually going to work. You have to try these things though as it is the first rung on the ladder, that first step on the journey. You also have to have the want to change. To be completely open to what it involves, to be completely open with those around you and be completely accepting of the ups and downs it brings.
Focused around accepting the OCD rather than accepting that what everyone else was doing was fine, the first session was tough, emotional and truly brought home the affect it had been having. It was also, like the OCD itself, completely exhausting. However, by simply starting the process I knew it would, in time, get better and with the unending support of family and friends both in person and remotely through engaging with my initial video diary, early progress was being made.
In the initial couple of weeks after that first session, discussions were had with my therapist, monitoring tasks were set and my own mindset began to change. Not to the extent that my OCD was disappearing – it was far too soon for that – but rather my mindset about the sessions themselves. Whereas for the first one I was incredibly nervous, a couple of sessions on I was not only less worried about having them, but was looking forward to them. An hour of my week to help make the next one easier was a very small price to pay for the long-term benefit I knew it would bring.
With each task I not only gained a better understanding of how OCD affects the brain – something that I really enjoyed in itself – but glimmers of potential progress began to show. For me, it was the occasion or two in a week where I didn’t feel the need to wash my hands multiple times. It sounds small but when you have been so used to doing triple washes – if not more at times – it was a massive challenge. Then suddenly I caught myself out.
I know now it was too early in the process, but when I tried to push myself and it didn’t work I exploded. Back came the aforementioned shouting. Back came the aforementioned throwing. And back came the aforementioned scrubbing with even more force than before. In the space of six days this happened three times. It was so hard to control. On the worst occasion I re-washed my hands around 10 times in one go. Even writing down the analysis of it afterwards didn’t seem to help when it returned. I felt completely helpless, and so did my wife.
You see while the process is hard for the person with OCD, what I didn’t really recognise until a week or two after those incidents is how the process impacts those closest to you. As I mentioned earlier, the OCD was causing countless tricky situations at home, but with my wife having tried so hard to stop me doing certain things prior to the diagnosis, she was now having to re-learn how to react. It’s so ironic that in trying to help and be so caring that it actually had the reverse impact. However, a few weeks later and things are different. Incredibly so.
As I write this personal story, I am seven weeks on from that initial session and to be completely honest, I barely recognise the person I have just been writing about.
For the best part of two – maybe three weeks now – I have been doing single hand washes. I have only in that same period of time had one outburst like what I described earlier. Sure it was a huge, horrible one, one that I in fact thought it would be disastrous to my progress. But it hasn’t been. Instead it has actually spurred me on. Right after it happened I said to myself ‘I am not going to let this one-off send me back to where I was before.’ I couldn’t let it undo the work that I had already done and ruin the progress already made.
Now a few weeks on from that, it’s even more the case because if you had said to me seven weeks ago that seven weeks later my hands would have no cuts, no bleeding and no soreness I would have thought it impossible. If you had said to me at the same time that I would now be feeling relaxed about cooking meals I would have thought the same. And if you had told me that I would be not only doing single hand washes, but actually reducing the frequency as well I would have thought the same again. But that is what has happened.
It is safe to say that I am now a completely different person to the one I see in the first of my video diaries where I was depressed, overwhelmed and almost embarrassed about it all. But as I watch through the others, and share my journey each week, much like the sessions, I look forward to sharing the progress. Progress that hopefully helps others and proves that OCD cannot only be reduced, but ultimately scrubbed away.