Therapy is nothing like it is in the movies.
There’s no chaise lounge for me to stretch out on and deconstruct my distant relationship with my father. There’s no psychiatrist in a flannel blazer with a scratchy beard telling me to “go on”. There’s no doctorate degree mounted on the wall.
There’s just Zoe and there’s just me and we’re sitting in a suite in Marylebone that could be any office in any city in the world.
Zoe is soft-talking, with mousy blonde hair and a caring looking face. Zoe’s my Cognitive Behavioural Therapist (CBT) and she’s also the first person who’s ever actively attempted to cure my OCD, something which even I have never done. Or, at least, never achieved.
She asks me to tell a story. Not a fictional one, not an elaborate one, but something that’s real and raw. She asks me to tell me of a time when my OCD hit a solid ten on the Richter scale.
I knew instantly the story I would tell, because it was the trauma that tipped me into therapy in the first place.
I was in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was the summer. Local businessmen and mothers with their kids and tourists from the world over had come to St. Petersburg to walk along the flowing canals that coursed through the ancient city. The sky was a dome of blue. The trees glistened evergreen. And I was there to soak it all in.
The receptionists at my hostel told me that I must see the city’s Hermitage Museum, an 18th century chocolate-box looking palace of white and green, the epicente of local culture and art. So I walked eastward up the Embankment on the River Moyka, traipsed under a Romanesque archway, crossed a hundred yards over Palace Square and made my way into the pristine palace.
I stayed there a while, even having a photo taken by the cantilevered staircase, before heading out of the main entrance and walking back over the square, back under the archway and back into the Embankment.
And then it happened.
I couldn’t remember if I had left the Hermitage Museum by the same door or a different one. To most people, this wouldn’t even be an afterthought. To me, it meant everything.
Ever since I was a child, my mind was fixated on thresholds. If I walked through doorways or under bridges or past mirrors, I had to avoid doing so an unlucky number of times (usually two or six) and instead I had to do so a lucky number of times (one, three, four or a lucky number multiplied by four).
And it wasn’t just the number of times that I walked past thresholds that touched on my neuroses, it was also the way I did it. For certain buildings, if I walked in through one entrance, I had to walk out of the same one. If not, my whole universe would feel off-kilter. The feeling could last an hour or it could last weeks, but the feeling was real.
You’re probably wondering what “made” me have to do this. My OCD did. The lack of serotonin in my brain did. The gnawing, biting, hurtful, obsessive feeling that all was not right with the world, that all was not right with me, did.
So now I’m standing on the Embankment on the River Moyka on a beautiful summer’s day on what was meant to be a dream trip and I’m obsessing. I’m obsessing over whether I walked out of a different door and obsessing over whether I can even remember.
So I walk back under the archway, back over the square and stare at the two entrances that lead into the Hermitage Museum. Door A or Door B? Door A or Door B? I decide that I got it all wrong before and walk back through Door B and out of Door A. A momentary relief. I feel right again.
I walk back over the square, back under the archway, back into the Embankment.
But did I get it right? What if I was right before and now I’ve made things worse? And didn’t I realize what I had just done? I’ve walked under the archway twice and over the square twice and into the building twice! Twice is unlucky! Stupid, stupid, stupid.
So back I went, under the archway, over the square, inside Door A to come out of Door B. But now I feel guilty again because I don’t know if I did it right and the thresholds I’ve crossed (the archway and the doorway), multiplied by the number of times – three – comes to six and I can’t land on six. Six is a plane crash!
But there are also two doors. Two doors times three times is six! Why must everything be six?!
I walk back over the square and under the archway. My head feels like it’s drugged and squeezed and confused. The tightness at the back of my brain that is my OCD Bat-signal is flaring up. I’m feeling hot and alone and scared.
I check my phone and look at the photo of me by the cantilevered staircase, back when I was happy. I curse that old me for not being more careful when I left the museum. Why was I so blasé about whether I left from Door A or Door B? Do I want to torture myself?
I resolve to leave because I'm going nowhere, but that night, I knew I wasn't going anywhere. I knew that come the morning, I'd have to go back to the Hermitage and sort this out.
So the next day I walk across the city avoiding a million OCD landmines (better not touch anything twice, better not walk under any more thresholds). I walk back under the archway, back one hundred yards over the square, back up to the Hermitage and then, dammit! It’s closed! I check my phone, closed all day! The universe is spiting me now. The entire history of this museum is a conspiracy to ruin my holiday.
I go back over the square, back under the archway, back to misery, back to black. I told myself I’d sort this out and now I have to wait twenty-four hours. The day is ruined. I am ruined.
Next day, I’m back. Back under the archway, back over the square, back inside the museum. The sweet relief of walking into the doorway that has plagued my mind gives me a momentary thrill. I walk back out ensuring not to touch anything, walk back over the square, back under the archway.
But how many times has it been now? Was it four of each or five? Do I add everything up cumulatively or together? Do I even feel right again?
I still feel off-balance so back I walk. Back under the archway, back over the square, back into the Hermitage. What the hell do people think of me? I don’t even care. I need to get my sanity back. But somehow it’s not coming back.
I’m now up to nine times. Nine multiplied by a two hundred yard round trip is a mile. I’ve paced back and forth by myself for a whole mile and still it’s not enough, it will never be enough.
So back and forth I go. Over and over again. Back and forth, back and forth. Thirteen times. Fifteen times. A hell of my own making. A hell of OCD’s making. Over and over the square I go, under and under the archway. There’s no beginning to my journey and no end. It’s all middle and I’m trapped and I want this over with but it will never be over. Even if I get over this episode, there will always be another one and another one forever and ever. This is my life.
Zoe listens. She says nothing. She makes no expression – no tilting-head sympathy look, no recoiling in disbelief. She writes something down. “Now tell me about another episode.”
I have ten sessions with Zoe. I divulge everything. Secret stories of my past I haven’t told anyone. Stories that mortify and haunt me. Stories that I never want my mum to know.
She teaches me that I struggle with uncertainty. That I want that elusive sureness that doesn’t exist. That my issues are deep and painful but curable.
She tells me to start purposefully walking through thresholds in a disorderly way. To embrace the chaos. To taunt the beast.
In later sessions, we go out together and walk six times through a train station and then … stop. Not walk back. Not make it to seven. Just land on six. Land in the danger zone and stay a while. Stay forever.
An OCD graph is like a mountain range where each slope is smaller than the last. The first time you confront your demons, the brain pain hits a ten. Then you recover. The next time may be an eight. Then you recover. Then a six.
Pretty soon, you can relive every one of those old traumas, every place or threshold or moment you’ve tried to hide away in your mind’s eye, only now it doesn’t hurt anymore. The pain stops coming. You can just be you.
I’m 95% cured. I live my life now. I stop living for my OCD. Now I live for me. I have more time. More pleasure. Less pain.
I have been to hell and back. I know what each and every OCD sufferer is going through. I went to CBT. If you’re suffering in silence, please do the same. You won’t just get the poison out, you’ll get your life back.