Abi Crossland-Otter describes how she took control over a condition that had been dominating her.
Despite society's tendency to create romanticised and trivialised portrayals of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it is not cute, it is not quirky and you probably don’t have it just because you like things to be clean, colour-coded, or in their rightful place.
OCD is defined as, “the presence of obsessions and/or compulsions. Obsessions are recurrent and persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are […] intrusive and unwanted, […] compulsions are repetitive behaviours or mental acts that an individual feels driven to perform...” (DSM-5)
For me, the OCD that I’ve had for the last ten years is marked by a voice in my head that tells me something along the lines of, “your death or the death of someone you love is probably imminent from any given and harmless situation unless you do x, y and z."
At the peak of my OCD I had 15-minute-long rituals to complete before I could put my head to pillow and call it a night. It was exhausting. I couldn’t even describe the rituals to you because they were so strange and particular, just lots of little actions and phrases I’d have to say or do before I could sleep peacefully.
"On days where I’m feeling particularly anxious, the voice pipes up again and I don’t always manage to refute it."
At university, I’d often be running late to lectures because I wouldn’t be able to leave my room without folding my pyjamas to absolute perfection and puffing up my pillows a certain number of times. Whenever I read something, if I had a bad thought whilst doing so, I’d have to keep going back and re-reading it until I did so without any negative thoughts. Anyone who knows of the ‘ironic process theory’, that is, how impossible it is to actively try not to think of something, will understand how unfeasible a task I was setting myself here.
Of course, there is no magical force to these rituals, but, in performing them and seeing your anxieties temporarily ebb away and nothing bad result, you can find yourself beginning to believe and rely on their illusive power. Except, there are bad things resulting: an absolute disintegration of your own personal mental health, wellbeing and happiness.
So, how did I free myself from the shackles of OCD?
Unusually, and perhaps unhelpfully, it wasn’t a long and laborious therapeutic journey of transformation.
One day I simply said no...
Ironically, it was a couple of weeks after beginning the therapy I was receiving for my anxiety. Speaking aloud about my OCD and how it was contributing to my anxiety was the catalyst. It was humiliating to admit to myself and my therapist that I, an intelligent and rational being, was being driven by this fictitious and, ultimately, powerless voice in my head. I finally realised, as scary as it was, I could just say no! So no I said.
Each time I did this and nothing terrible happened, I gained a little more strength to ignore the voice in my head that was tormenting me.
It’s like standing up to a bully. Eventually, the voice gets bored and, with increasingly less efficacy, the threats become less and less too.
Don’t get me wrong, on days where I’m feeling particularly anxious, the voice pipes up again and I don’t always manage to refute it. And, there are still some compulsions that I can’t quite shrug off. For example, every time I leave my parents, I always close with, “see you later feeling great”. To my anxious mind, this confirms that I will see them again, and, when I do, we will all be well and happy.
So, although I've managed to reduce and control the majority of my OCD tendencies, some of them are so simple to perform, a couple of spoken words, that it doesn't seem worth the risk of not doing them... I guess in that sense obsessive compulsions are a bit like superstitions: sometimes, for illogical reasons, we'd simply rather not test fate.
Not many people know the truth about OCD. It is a disorder of courage in the face of vulnerability. Battling against your own mind and the cruel thoughts that you are responsible for can feel impossible. It can feel like a huge, even life-or-death, risk to stand up and reject the voice of OCD, but it's one of the best things I've ever done. The only thing that stood a chance in subduing the monster in my mind was bravery.