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My OCD Experience
In my battle with OCD, one moment in particular stands out to me. It was a Friday night in March 2012, and I was in the study, playing a Professor Layton game. It might seem like a regular moment, but I remember it fondly. For most people, this day would have been a cause for despair. My OCD had got so severe that I had just dropped out of university. I had just had my first meeting with a psychologist. Even playing a relatively tame video game had taken a huge amount of willpower, as my OCD left very little room in my head for anything else aside from horrible thoughts and unfounded worry. But as I sat there solving puzzles, I suddenly noticed the light at the end of the tunnel, however faint. I don’t know if the tunnel had become unblocked or I had just never noticed the light before, but I caught a fleeting glimpse of it and realised, you know what? I might have a chance of beating this after all.
My OCD took a form known primarily as Pure-O – obsessions without overt compulsions. I never washed hands or checked door locks. In fact my OCD never had “actions” at all. Instead, my head was full of horrible thoughts that made me sick with worry. Every moral fibre in my body cried out against these thoughts, but despite this (or perhaps you could say because of this) the thoughts become more prevalent, more detailed, more abhorrent to me. Pure-O can take a few forms, but for me, involved violent thoughts – thoughts of me attacking other people. These would never leave my head, despite how much I detested them. Now when I explain my story, this is normally the part where people take a couple of steps back. But let me explain. Despite how scary these thoughts sound, these thoughts, intrusive thoughts, are thoughts that everyone has. For most people, they are shrugged off as a random misfire of the brain (and rightly so). But Pure-O sufferers react with alarm. Where did that thought come from? Does this mean something about me? Am I an evil person? Could I act on these thoughts? These questions will ring a bell to most Pure-O sufferers. And like all OCD sufferers, they will have compulsions to attempt to get rid of these thoughts. I tried to rationalise against them, and figure out where they were coming from. But attempting to stop them only led to them getting stronger, as I gave them “negative importance”. As my OCD got worse, I lost three stones in weight in three months, I was getting as little as 45 minutes sleep a night, and it got to a point where leaving the house caused a huge amount of anxiety due to the thoughts that would trigger every time I walked past someone. It was a huge issue.
OCD can be beaten. A full recovery is possible, but even if not, you can still live the life you want to with the right help. Never lose sight of this.
My OCD began in my final year of university – I was a Computer Science student. I had stayed on to do a Masters, and there was a lot less work to do than the previous hectic Honours year. This left my brain with more time to ruminate, and all it took was one intrusive thought to set off my OCD like a match in a flour mill. My degeneration was surprisingly fast, and I quickly went to my doctor to get to the bottom of it. While not diagnosing me with OCD, he was very understanding and sent me to the community mental health unit for a more expert opinion. There, over a number of generally unhelpful meetings, I was misdiagnosed, underdiagnosed and anything in-between. At one point I specifically asked if I had OCD, but told that as I “had no compulsions”, it wasn’t OCD. I was finally diagnosed with OCD by a clinical psychologist, three months after seeking help, and was put on the waiting list for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). It was at this point I was at my absolute lowest. I had been seeing a number of student and charity counsellors who were determined to treat me for depression, even after I got my diagnosis and explained depression wasn’t the issue. Frustrated by the waiting list and a lack of progress with the counsellors, I reached out to a private therapist. This was the turning point in my battle. She was gentle and understanding, and after a joint meeting with her and my mum, we decided dropping out of uni was the right choice. I already had a graduate job starting in four months, and my university had very graciously agreed to put forward an appeal for my degree. So I made the risky choice of leaving university, and started therapy.
While working with my therapist and the psychologist, I came to a better understanding of what these thoughts were – meaningless, and no indication of my character. Through a variety of exposure exercises designed to trigger the thoughts – such as doing DIY, gardening and cooking – I learned through practice that these thoughts led to nothing. I began to rediscover joy in the simple things, often even more that I had before. Things, such as having a meal with my family, that OCD previously sucked the happiness out of. I had lived without them for a while, but now that I could experience them again, I loved them even more.
To my surprise, the university appeal came through, and I got a distinction, alongside an award for the best Masters student! And I started my job, as a software engineer. Two years later, I haven’t looked back. I know this is a cause of many heated online debates, so I say this with some apprehension, but I believe I have beaten OCD. While I still have intrusive thoughts (as everyone does), I can’t remember the last time I was bothered by them.
If you are fighting OCD, I have no magical cure – CBT is the way to go. But I would give three pieces of advice. The first is this: make sure your family understand what you’re going through. Once my mum understood she was my biggest supporter. If you can’t find the words to explain it yourself, arrange for a joint meeting with a doctor or therapist. Secondly, don’t give up your hobbies. It’s easy to do as OCD takes over your entire being. But fight to reintroduce these things, as they give relief, and help train your brain to think normally again. And when you’re caught up in something you love, you become blissfully unaware of your OCD. Thirdly, find something that makes you laugh. It’s difficult to avoid laughing at something you find funny, even when you’re in a pit. I attribute a fair bit of my recovery to watching old episodes of The Muppet Show, or Vic and Bob. Laughter is a positive emotion that can be hard to control – the perfect counterbalance to OCD.
OCD can be beaten. A full recovery is possible, but even if not, you can still live the life you want to with the right help. Never lose sight of this. It’s easy to think things will never change if you have spent months, even years as a slave to OCD. But they do change, and you can live a happy and rewarding life. As someone at the other side of it all, I can assure you it is a life well worth fighting for.