As you probably don’t know, what with everything having a day, week, or month assigned to it, this is OCD Awareness Week and in the interests of promoting education about this frankly horrific condition, I am being brave. This is the first time I have ever written at length about what my experience of OCD has been like. This is all true, and a lot of it makes me deeply uncomfortable to think about/admit. However, this is bigger than my worries, because there are several people I know and love who are still, to borrow a metaphor, ‘closeted’: they live with the condition, but hide it, refuse to admit they have a problem – in some cases to themselves – because of the appalling social stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and, sometimes, a deep personal shame.
That’s completely unfair.
So. The article’s about me, but this isn’t . I haven’t really told anyone about any of these things before, and honestly? I’m REALLY worried about what people might start to think. But I am being brave. I hope you find it interesting, and if you’re one of the people I know who suffers from this but hasn’t talked about it, then this is kind of for you.
*takes a VERY deep breath*
So I had my first, actual OCD freakout at the age of around twenty four.
If life was like those horrible TV shows where OCD simply means you’re a charming, quirky individual who simply likes things to be clean and orderly, the scene would have been played for laughs. I’d be saying something charming and quirky until, oh no! A black pencil in a tin of red pencils! And because “I’m a little bit OCD”, I’d do something charming and quirky, like shuffling them around, maybe making some kind of ‘never bet on black’ pun or something, and we’d be done. My charming quirkiness established, my condition would never be mentioned again, except for the occasional throwaway joke, and that one Very Special Episode in season three, where the actor looks sad, to show us he has range, and is deserving of the Emmy win.
Yeah, so it’s nothing like that, and my freakout wasn’t anywhere near so whimsical nor remotely so pleasant. There were no delightful escapades with differently coloured pencils, no excessive hand-washing, no avoiding cracks in the pavement or, indeed, any of the nonsense they tell you is OCD in TV land.
What happened was: I saw a craft knife. That was it. Not even a unique or meaningful one; just a bog-standard, nothing-special-about-it-at-all craft knife of the kind regular people use for cutting carpets, and the kind that nerds like me use to cut up Space Marines for our Warhammer armies (#NeverAshamedAgain). One of my housemates had used it for some chore or other, and, job done, simply forgotten to put it away. And the moment I saw it, I knew
that this was the knife which I was going to use it to slit my then-girlfriend’s throat.
Not that I wanted to, you understand. Our relationship wasn’t bad (though by now, it was far from good). And the last time I hit anyone was in 1987 – back when, at the age of nine, I knocked out another boy’s front teeth in an act of violence I found so horrifying, I’ve never been able to raise a fist – even in much-needed self-defence – since then. In every fight since, my tactic has been to fall to the floor, bleed, then cry. Oh, I may love violent films, but in real life? Never. I may love to make jokes about hitting people (for the same reason I love ‘Tom and Jerry’) but, actually? I just don’t do violence.
I hadn’t even argued with my then-girlfriend. And I don’t mean I hadn’t argued with her that day; I mean I hadn’t argued with her ever. Because, basically, our relationship was the kind of perfectly serviceable, hideously mundane making-do that people get into in their early twenties, when there aren’t any other options and neither can find anyone better.
But still, looking at that £2 from Wilkinson’s craft knife, I just knew: this was the blade I would use to slit her throat. I didn’t think this. It wasn’t like thinking words. The image of her neck splitting open just sort of fell into my mind, a bit like a bag of broken bricks dropped from a three storey window and about as painful. One moment, nothing, the next, bam! There, in the centre of my imagination, I could see the two sides of the wound I would inflict: thin, translucent, something not unlike a paper cut, only with a thicker flow of blood. The picture was so vivid, so utter, that in a moment, there wasn’t space inside my head for anything else. And the details…
Because the blood wasn’t red of course; flow from a gash of that size would be too thick for any colour but black. It fell from her, like midnight fabric thrown over a balustrade, all the while my fingers holding her jawbone tight enough to silence her screams… Possibly tight enough to crack the bone. As I slash, perhaps the tip of the blade grates against the interior of her neck bones, maybe nicking the cartilage deeply enough that, one overzealous shake later, her head might even threaten to fall off.
If that description makes you feel uncomfortable, trust me: it was worse to experience. I didn’t want to be imagining this.
No-one would want to be imagining this.
At first, I simply tried to blink the horror away. I mean, it’s not like this was the first time a horrible image had come into my mind, unbidden. We all think horrid things some times. But this was the first time I had an image that stayed. An image that thought, ‘Hey, this guy seems vulnerable; let’s mess with him’, and decided to hang around, play with me for a bit.
Then the words came, and what had been merely sickening got really nasty: You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife.
You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife.
No. I’m not.
You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife. You’re going to kill her with that knife.
On and on it went, and like a child who walks in on his parents watching the finale of a late night horror film, I couldn’t do anything to turn it off. It just played and played and played, in horrible, full HD – because just like Willy Wonka said, there is no life I know that can compare with pure imagination – and I just had to take it; a horrible thought, stuck in my head like the world’s worst pop song. (Incidentally, my OCD is also why I have always hated pop music. Just hated it. Because when it gets stuck in my head, it really gets stuck. After three weeks of hearing ‘Wannabe’ play through my mind on a loop 24/7, the Spice Girls’ debut hit had become almost a literal, physical pain. Even just writing that title word brings it back. Literally, right now, it’s trying to play in my head over the music I’m listening to. I’m having to force the sound down and away from me, focusing on the words I’m typing, the song I’m listening to.)
When my then-girlfriend came upstairs with a cup of tea, asking me why I was under the duvet crying because I’d seen the kind of craft knife I use most days to make every kind of toy plastic soldier, I’ll be honest with you: I really didn’t want to tell her. It wasn’t just the shame of being a man crying. It wasn’t a fear that I’d actually do it – with OCD, you have no loss of control; you always know when it’s the condition talking.
No, I was crying because, seriously: what kind of fucking pussy cries just because they get an unpleasant image that pops into their mind?
Well, apparently, me.
Eventually, after (what felt like) fifteen minutes or so, she managed to get me to explain what was up, and, give her credit, she was terribly kind about it. She didn’t call me silly; she didn’t laugh; she didn’t report me to the police. She just told me that it was okay. That I was going to be okay. That just because I’d imagined something horrible, that didn’t mean I was going to DO something horrible.
But of course I felt ashamed – and I still do. And of course I felt sick. And like there was something terribly, horribly wrong with me. Because what kind of person imagines such a thing? What kind of person?
I didn’t know then that the answer to that was ‘Someone with OCD’. Actually, I didn’t find out until literally two years ago, at the age of thirty six (and roughly fourteen years after this incident) that when you have OCD, these kind of intrusive, unwanted ideas are a very, very common experience. That imagining awful, horrible things is part of the condition. That apparently, if you’re a parent, these images are even worse. 69% of female OCD mothers and 51% of OCD fathers have experienced similar ideas, but instead of it being a partner they hurt, it’s their child.
I didn’t know, because I didn’t have any information. I didn’t know, because they never show you that on TV.
In my years of reading about the subject since, I’ve discovered that for many OCD sufferers who experience these intrusive ideas, they often take a sexualised form. That they combine, sex, violence, murder and death in the worst ways imaginable, just because that’s how the condition expresses itself. I’m very thankful that I haven’t experienced that yet. I hope I never do, but, well. I know it’s something that’s inevitably on the way.
OCD is not a cute character quirk. It is not charming. Whatever TV might tell you, there is no upside to this piece of shit condition. No silver lining. No bright side. It doesn’t make you cleaner, or tidier, or better at paying attention to detail, or any of that Hollywood nonsense.
I’ve had it as long as I can remember, back so long ago that I didn’t even know it had a name… And after that, when I knew the name, but didn’t know that not only did I have it, but I pretty much had it at the disorder level, and was coping – badly – entirely on my own.
But how could I have it? I’d think. I’d come from a good, middle-class family of Nice, Normal People. Nice, Normal People aren’t insane. We’re not crazy. No, good God no. Other people are crazy. Others. Those different, weird, Not-Us people you imagine in padded cells, screaming and giggling. People like me, we simply don’t get mental health issues. After all, how could we? We’re Nice. Normal. And that’s how the world works, isn’t it? Everyone knows that. The Nice, Normal People aren’t dealing with anything. That’s why they’re so Nice.
Of course, I wasn’t ignorant of the condition’s existence. I’d seen those sad BBC documentaries – the ones with the crazy people on. But they were in hospitals, washing their hands every day, paranoid about germs that weren’t there. I wasn’t like that. I didn’t need help. I wasn’t suffering. That wasn’t me.
I mean, sure, I may have had the ‘no stepping on cracks’ thing. And the ‘touch everything with both hands to make sure its balanced out’ thing. And there was that time I had a song stuck in my head for three years (Soundgarden’s ‘Postman’. It started around 1995, and finished some time in 1998 or so, after I’d discovered Metallica, when it got replaced by ‘The Memory Remains’, which lasted until around 1999).
And sure, sure: maybe I do like to keep my hands clean… But I didn’t wash obsessively. So I wasn’t insane. To be insane…? Well, that would mean I was weak. Shameful. A sign of failing. And I was okay. Everyone knew my strangeness was just an act I was putting on. I was normal, and all the weird stuff I did was just attention seeking. Best to just ignore it, or he’ll only keep doing it.
Of course, I did have OCD, and I had it really, really bad. It wasn’t because I was weak, or because I was attention seeking, or because my parents hit me (my parents were never anything but lovely), or because I was picked on at school (all that gave me was two decades of depression). No, I just had it, the same way I have short-sightedness, or prematurely grey hair. In my case, I’m 90% sure it’s an inherited trait. I’ve had OCD all my life.
I just didn’t know, because no-one told me.
The thing about my OCD is that people who don’t have it, just don’t get it. The clichés about handwashing, all that bollocks… OCD isn’t like that. It definitely can be, but it’s not limited to that. It’s a chimerical beast. A creative one; after all, it uses your own creativity against you, always thinking of new ways to mess with you. It changes, evolves, adapts. Overcomes. Every time I think I’ve got it beaten – and believe me, I have to try literally every day – it re-emerges in a new, even more virulent form.
From 1998 to 1999, it was mostly quiet. I was generally happy then – enjoying Uni, in a happy, stable relationship – and so it had no anxiety to latch onto. Of course, it was still there: I had to do certain things (sleep on one side only, always; hug my girlfriend only with my right arm; take my glasses off in exactly the right way; tap and whistle at certain times), but they were only small.
By 2000, after having been dumped for the first time and not having seen another human being socially for nearly six months, I had gone totally off the deep end. By the end, it would take me twenty minutes to turn my light off at night; I had to stand on exactly the right floor tile, flick the switch just right, and then get into bed perfectly, or get out and repeat the whole procedure.
You have no idea how wonderful it was when I finally got a carpet and didn’t have to see that fucking floor tile any more.
Then there was that time from 2005 to 2013 when I couldn’t listen to music. I mean, I could… But only until my OCD decided that ‘now this song is unlucky’, and once that happened, well, that was it. Cut and pasted into the music folder on my PC labelled ‘archive’, where I could lie to myself, tell myself I’d listen to it again one day.
Of course, if I did, terrible things would happen. Shapeless, formless, terrifying things. Family members getting cancer, maybe. Or simply dying. Or myself being caught in a car crash, limbs and genitals amputated, the horror never the wound of course, but the smooth, featureless leftover stump. You don’t want to know how awful it was the day I decided to be brave, listen to a Bryan May song I loved as a teenager, then get a call from my dad the very next day telling me he had cancer. I knew it wasn’t my fault, but there was the OCD, telling me it was.
When I finally managed to beat that trick (to the point where now I’m able to listen to nearly 90% of the music I like now, unimpeded, though Skunk Anansie is still off-limits, and I’ve had to skip past three ‘unlucky’ songs while writing this), my OCD returned to the ‘horrible mental image’ trick.
After I started to cope with that by including anything it showed me in my horror story writing, it evolved again, and its current favourite trick is to wake remind me I’m going to die. Maybe once a week, I’ll wake up, normally around 3am, with the absolute, certain knowledge that one day I’m going to die. This current trick is proving very difficult for me to fight indeed, because, well, it’s true, isn’t it? Waking up in a cold panic knowing your life will end and nothing you accomplished will ever matter? Just not a lot of fun to think about.
And, of course, not easy to talk about.
The OCD doesn’t like it when I talk about it, because then I find it easier to resist. As with everything awful, admitting there’s a problem helps fight the problem. Admitting there’s a little voice constantly shouting obnoxious stuff at you makes it easier to ignore.
Of course, saying it’s a little voice is an imperfect metaphor to describe how OCD feels. Mercifully, Pixar have released ‘Inside Out’, which I love for two reasons. One, because it’s a wonderful film, and two, because it’s given me a really useful way to explain how my OCD works. In the film (which you should absolutely watch, BTW) a little girl’s personality is expressed in the form of the five cute emotions that live inside her head. There’s Joy, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Fear. They all interact with one another, and they’re all useful in their own way.
If the film had been about me, instead of just five cute characters chattering away, there would be six. OCD would be there, and you would hate him. He would turn a cute little film into an 18 certificate nightmare.
See, OCD – for me, at least – is like an emotion in a lot of ways. If disgust tells you what to avoid, joy tells you what to enjoy, fear keeps you safe, then OCD? He does nothing… Apart from try to ruin everything about life. He shouts random, horrible stuff. He burbles a constant stream of horror, misery and annoyance. He demands you do/do not do things on a completely arbitrary basis. Of course, he’s not in charge, and he serves no purpose. He just never shuts up. EVER. His voice is a constant drone, an omnipresent background radiation of toxic emotional waste.
Now, while you might think that means he’s easy to ignore, oh, my friend: you would be so wrong. He is utterly exhausting, because he never tires. There are no days off for good behaviour. He’s always, always there.
And of course, you ALWAYS know what he says is bollocks. When he says ‘If you listen to this song, your family will die’, I know he’s lying. I’ve always known everything this dumbass has ever told me is completely, patently false. But because he’s more like an emotion than a thought, I still have to listen to him.
Now if that sounds strange, think of it like this: could you switch of the feelings you have for your mother? Just by deciding to, could you will yourself into not loving for her? Could you turn off all your feelings like a tap, or a lightswitch?
If that’s too much, maybe this comparison will help: could you make yourself stop enjoying your favourite food? Not stop eating it: stop enjoying it. It’s difficult. You can’t make yourself go against your emotions. Oh, you can control your behaviour – you don’t have to eat the cake – but that doesn’t stop the feeling. Just because you don’t eat the cake, doesn’t mean you don’t want the cake.
Now if it seems bleak, it kind of is, but there are things you can do to cope. Strategies. One of mine, is that I actually named my little OCD voice. He’s called Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition a while back, to remind myself that my OCD isn’t me. That whatever it says, it’s not saying it with my voice. That it’s no part of me.
Whenever Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition sends out an instruction, and if I’m feeling brave enough to resist him, I’ll tell him to shut up. I will call him his full name, then tell him to go away. That I’m not going to do what he tells me.
I usually have to do this about twenty times a day. Sometimes, it’s as few as five. Others, it’s a lot more.
Sometimes it works. If I’m in a good place emotionally, there’s a good chance of success. If I’m worn down after a week of teaching, or if we’re coming up to a Performance Management review (which is usually the period from June to October, not including August), I can expect Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition to win much, much more often. He’ll get me doing all kinds of pointless crap. I won’t be able to listen to songs I like. I’ll have to open a cupboard with one hand, close it, then use the other. I’ll have to jump through his hoops, dance to his tune, or Something Terrible Will Happen.
Now, I have had counselling, so I know that ignoring Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition will work. It actually is the best way to deal with him, because OCD only grows stronger the more you give into its stupid demands; by ignoring it, you forge new neural pathways – literally reshaping your brain – so that in the future, resisting his commands becomes easier.
Never easy, you understand. Just easier.
It’s OCD Awareness Week. I’ve got OCD, and I know enough now to know I’m never going to be rid of it. It’s just going to be something I have to fight every day until I’m in the grave. Which, you know, is better than some problems I could have; those of you who know me, know I’ve had many friends with serious disabilities, and for me to make out that I’m in some way seriously impaired by comparison would be deeply insulting to them. Please understand: I’m not after a sympathy cookie, a pat on the back, or anything like that. I’m actually pretty good as far as OCD sufferers go. I flatter myself that I’m high-functioning because
- It makes me sound like Sherlock and
- For all its unpleasantness, my OCD doesn’t actually make my life unliveable.
I mean, it has in the past. But as I write this, I’m pretty okay with it.
No, the reason I’ve written this is because it’s OCD awareness week, and when I was growing up? Neither I, nor anyone around me, was aware. And because of that, my OCD was free. It festered. Gained experience. Levelled up. If I’d known, I could have begun to fight it earlier; had a better set of emotional tools to deal with it. Maybe them I wouldn’t have cried under a duvet, at the age of twenty four, sick to the stomach with a queasy mix of horror, shame and embarrassment because Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition decided to torment me with something horrible, just for giggles.
I’ve written this because I know other people with OCD. Most of them are ‘in the closet’, so to speak, because as a society, we still haven’t cracked that awful stigma around mental health. That sense that mental health issues are somehow shameful. Or our fault.
Not to mention, that disgusting myth that some people? They’re just ‘nutters’ who are likely to go kill crazy any second. And the act of me simply talking about how sometimes my mind makes me imagine pouring acid in someone’s eyes in graphic, horrifying detail, well. That might be enough to make some people wonder if perhaps I am dangerous. Until I knew about OCD, I was sometimes one of them. I was genuinely worried, because I didn’t know enough. I wasn’t aware, not like I am now.
I am not Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition. Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition is not me. He’s just a sixth little person in my head, only unlike the others, he’s absolutely worthless. And he’s not going to make me do anything violent. He’s going to make me open the cupboard door twice. He’s going to make me switch the lights off just right; he’s going to make me do that seventy eight times, until I’m crying and begging, please Greg, You Piece Of Shit Condition, please, just let me sleep. He’s going to make me stop listening to System of A Down because otherwise I’ll fail my Performance Management.
He’s going to stop me playing F.E.A.R. because otherwise I’ll in trouble with my head of department. Or the head of my school. Or my family will get sick. Or I’ll be mutilated. Or any one of a thousand other torments.
If you know someone with OCD, you don’t need to be scared of them. Just, you know: be nice to them. Maybe occasionally check if they need any help with turning the light off, or whatever their personal bete noir is.
God knows I’d have thanked you for that back in 2001.
Thank you for reading. If you want to know more, here’s a link to some useful further reading. http://www.ocduk.org/ocd
The NHS is also a good place to start; you can discuss it with your GP, and they can recommend counselling services, although you WILL have to pay, because despite how debilitating mental illnesses are, that stigma is still there, and as a culture, we refuse to accept that mental illness is as significant as physical.
Which it is.