When I was younger I was the biggest hypochondriac. I was also the biggest exaggerator.
Now that I’m the ripe old age of 25, I realise that nothing has changed. I still fear I’m dying whenever I get the sniffles or a slight cough, and I pretty much fear everything around me.
I don’t like touching things that are too soft, it makes my skin crawl. I don’t like touching things when my nails are too short, the rule is that my nails have to touch the surface of an object before the skin of my fingers do, otherwise I start cringeing and will refuse to touch anything. I don’t like the word f**l. I dislike people standing too close to me. I get scared when doors close too slowly. And most of all, I hate sneezes.
Ignoring the hypochondriac and exaggerator in me, I’ve suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since as long as I can remember. I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that I went to the doctors when I was 11, with a self diagnosis of OCD. They laughed, said I was young, and that I had nothing to worry about. Little did they know…
OCD is a serious anxiety-related psychological condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, often followed by repetitive compulsions, impulses or urges.
The doctor said that everyone has some sort of OCD tendancy, because everyone worries, it wouldn’t be healthy if there was nothing to worry about. I understand that everyone’s a little weird. I get it when people have to keep their pens in order on their desk, or straighten paintings and photos hanging wonky on the wall, even those who have to pick up only the third Metro newspaper in the pile every morning. But it gets serious when these tendencies and thoughts affect your day to day functioning.
When you start turning up late everywhere because you haven’t turned everything on and off again three times, and then checked everything is off one last time, or when your ‘night time routine’ takes more than two hours to actually get into bed, you know it’s time to see the doctor.
They say that people who suffer from OCD suffer from obsessions. These are thoughts that recur and persist despite efforts to ignore or confront them. People with OCD frequently perform tasks, or compulsions, to seek relief from obsession-related anxiety. An intrusive thought might be the image of themself or someone they know getting hurt if they don’t perform a particular task. Or for example, during an exam they performed well in, they had five pens and a ruler. So they associate the pens and ruler with the good results of the exam, and want to repeat the good luck in life, so they’ll always carry five pens and a ruler with them, wherever they go.
Sometimes, there doesn’t have to be a reason to perform a task. Sometimes the intrusive thought is just a feeling. To perform a task until ‘it feels right.’
I realised something was seriously wrong when I started getting bruises. I used to hold tightly onto plugs or light switches after I’d turned them off, just until ‘I felt it was right’ to let go. This often got to the point of my knuckles and finger tips going white from the pressure of holding the object. At other times, I’d have to lean on a door frame or chest of drawers every time I passed them, until it ‘felt right’ to stop. There’s no point asking why I did those things. The only reason I can give you is so that nothing bad would happen. If the feeling was wrong, I’d have to repeat the action until it felt right. Otherwise, if something bad had happened that day, I’d know it was my fault for not concentrating enough on my task. I’d kick myself for causing that bad thing.
I began Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) sessions, a talking therapy that claims to help the individual manage their problems by changing the way they think and behave. The therapist makes it very clear from the get go that CBT will in no way cure your problems. It is there to help manage them in a more positive way, encouraging you to examine how your actions can affect how you think and feel.
After a very hesitant start, I began confiding in my therapist. In one session, she asked me to pick a daily routine and break it down into the order of actions. I was then asked to rate how hard each step would be to stop. This I found the hardest. The thought of having to stop one small action in a routine overwhelmed me with all the negatives and what ‘might’ happen. It felt almost like a domino effect, thinking about removing a step in the routine made me shudder.
She suggested a different approach to thinking. As mentioned, images of negative outcomes persist in my mind, so I need to perform an action to stop the image from actually happening.
But, she said, how likely is it that my actions have an effect on life? How does my switching the light off and on 20 times a night actually stop bad things from happening? How does it have a physical or mental effect on anything – apart from tiring out my arm? Is the light switching going to save the world?
As much as this makes sense, how can you stop your brain being stubborn? When you’re a child, you don’t like being told you’re wrong and you don’t like it when someone takes something away from you. That’s what this felt like. When someone tells you the things you do aren’t necessary, they have no use and they’re don’t have any effect on life, that inner child screams out and you throw a tantrum.
You understand that you have a problem and that what you do doesn’t actually make any sense BUT you’re still not so willing to give up everything you believe. Something’s there holding onto you and acting like a barrier.
The therapist asked what would happen if I thought of a positive image? She asked me to imagine myself winning the lottery, and see if my actions towards this image had any effect on it coming true. She suggested I buy a lottery ticket.
If the action of buying a lottery ticket, spawned from the image of winning, led me to winning the lottery then it meant I was right, and my compulsions had an effect. And, that I had magical powers, she added.
But, if I didn’t win the lottery, then it proved my actions don’t have an effect on my thoughts coming true.
Turns out I didn’t win the lottery BUT I did get an unexpected cheque in the post for a £200 tax rebate that week. Did that count? I argued that there were lots of factors that could have affected that outcome. I know things were getting silly at this point but it’s what I believed. What if it depended on the day I played the lottery – would I have won if I played on the Wednesday instead of the Friday? What if it was because she came up with the idea of winning the lottery? Would I have won if I’d thought of it?
Did it make a huge difference that I was confiding in her with my secrets? I hadn’t revealed these before to anyone, which may have been the key reason I was still ok and the bad things I actioned against hadn’t happened.
But, no matter how hard I try and keep everyone and everything safe from harm, bad things are always going to happen. Then again, good things are always going to happen too. CBT didn’t cure me, but it helped me approach new ways of thinking. I still compulsively act on intrusive thoughts, but I’ve come to realise that my actions don’t necessarily have an effect.
According to life’s bible, Wikipedia – it is said that despite the irrational behaviour, OCD is sometimes associated with above-average intelligence. After reading this, would you honestly agree with that? Pah.