Written by Josephine Helen, 25. Please note this writing will include themes of mental health.
When I first decided I was going to write a piece for this great new platform, I was filled with ideas of topics I’d like to talk about. I’ve always been a chatterbox and I was raised to speak up for what I believe in, although I think this took a slight backseat in my teenage years. I’m a very confident person; I dress for myself and not others gaze, I follow trends I like despite if they’re ‘cool’ or not, heck! I was the tin man in my secondary school musical and dressed fully in a tinfoil like suit! But let’s face it, what teenager doesn’t want to fit in? I was no different, so there were times I’d keep my opinions to myself in fear of being shamed by my friendship group, but in my final year of University in 2016, and from having quite a tough year with my mental health, I decided to start a blog.
I created that platform to share my own experiences with my mental health but also for others to have a safe space to offload too. I wanted to be the person that I needed most when my mental health was at its worst. For someone to say, ‘hey this is SO normal, and you WILL be okay’, and so, that’s what I did. So here I am, a few blog posts and some children’s stories later, I’m here to ramble away to you about my life and my struggles living alongside OCD. I hope not only that it may help you, but it might also bring you some giggles too. So, welcome to my diary and let’s get started! (Please note, this is all based on my personal experiences with OCD, this disorder is varied and comes in many forms).
OCD is not my friend, although it has taught me such a lot
The first thing I would like to point out is that OCD is not an adjective. It is a debilitating disorder. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder... say it aloud, it doesn’t sound cute or fun, does it?! So why is it perceived that way? Why when you walk through Camden market there are numerous stalls that have signs for sale reading ‘Obsessive Cat Disorder’ or ‘Obsessive Christmas Disorder’. Why do people, when referring to their cleaning habits at home say, ‘oh I’m so OCD with my cupboards, all the tins have to be exactly where I like them’ and why do people then respond with ‘oh yeah, me too, soo OCD!’ These things are exactly what OCD is not, so I’m here to tell you a little bit about my experiences living alongside OCD.
I’ve been living with OCD on and off since I was about 11 or 12, at times it has had such power over me I’ve been unable to leave the spot I’m stood on. It has left me abandoning the activities I love, and led me to create white lies to justify my behaviours. OCD is not my friend, although it has taught me such a lot. It’s taught me that I am in control of my brain, not the other way around. It’s taught me empathy, and it’s taught me strength. I’m now going to refer to OCD as ‘Brian’ (no offense to any Brian’s out there, it’s the first name that came into my head, sorry)! This way, it’s easier to imagine how hard it is living with OCD, as we can visualise it as a person’s actions - sorry again Brian!
This is how OCD works. You have an unpleasant and unwelcome thought enter your mind and alongside it is a little voice that says to you: “in order for these things to NOT happen, you must do this action”. Once the brain demands you must do this action, in order for the unwelcome thoughts to vanish, the brain finds performing these actions is the only way to cope with any future unwelcoming thoughts. These demanding and strong-willed thoughts cause the brain to get stuck in an obsessive and repetitive cycle, until the brain finds, new healthier pathways to walk down.
So: obsessive thought – compulsive action – repetition
My first real memory of Brian having complete power over me, was when I was 12 and leaving school after an extracurricular activity. I was walking to meet my mum in the car park down the road but I couldn’t get there. Brian had suddenly told me that a family member would pass away if I didn't walk on certain parts of the pavement, and if my foot hit these parts of the pavement and it didn't feel 'right' or 'safe', they couldn't be saved. I was then forced to continually repeat that process over and over again until eventually it felt 'safe'. Unfortunately, that never came - and I was left standing stuck on one spot, unable to move. You see, if I’d just have ignored it and left – then the negative and nasty compulsive thoughts in my head (ones of family members dying) would come true, and it would all lie on my shoulders. Essentially Brian told me I HAD to do these things, or else I’d have blood on my hands.
As a dramatic 12-year-old I thought I was going to end up in a mental institution
It sounds silly doesn’t it? Why didn’t I just tell Brian to shove it?! Where had he suddenly come from anyway? I was just an ordinary 12-year-old girl, trying to cope with starting a new school and making sure I wore my hair in a cool way. Eventually my mum found me standing alone in the street, and after some time explaining my thoughts and feelings she thought I may have OCD. This has always been a vivid memory for me, I was even more scared than I had been before. I remember saying to my mum: “I thought I was an Alien! I don’t know what’s going on in my head, and what’s OCD?!”. As a dramatic 12-year-old I thought I was going to end up in a mental institution, which had been portrayed as a negative situation – after all, this was all I’d ever seen portrayed of Mental Health on the television, and no one had ever told me what OCD was.
Isn’t that sad? A young girl going through mental ill health, which I would like to reiterate is completely normal, and yet I thought I was from outer space (only me, the classic drama Queen). Not once in primary OR secondary school had I been taught about mental health. I was also guilty of using words such as depression and OCD as adjectives, and if someone was mentally ill – they were strange people that ended up in horrible homes. This is the picture I was painted by society and this is why it’s SO important to educate our young people on mental health. After all, school is meant to set us up for life, isn’t it? So why was I never taught about tax returns, getting a mortgage, the real truth of slavery, and mental health? The list goes on.
Brian pops into my life now and again, he’s really rather rude!
I’m now 25 and have been to see three counsellors since I was 21 (the stigma surrounding Mental Health had stopped me from going until this point), paid to go on a mental health First Aid course, and spoken out as much as I can about mental health and the stigmas still attached to it. Brian pops into my life now and again, he’s really rather rude! Honestly it doesn’t matter where I am, I could be in the bathroom, a nightclub, or on the bus. I believe Brian will be with me for life. When I have a big event coming up, an audition, a long flight, or an interview-boom, Brian comes along as my coping mechanism. Until, of course, I kick my butt into shape and remember I don't need him to help me cope. I can do this alone.
Brian has had me doing all sorts of things over the years in order to keep my loved ones ‘safe’, from climbing up and down the stairs till 2am until the right foot placement felt ‘safe’, to turning light switches on and off, and using a certain amount of toilet paper. As a result, these compulsions almost had me missing trains and stopping me from going to the cinema for years because something bad ‘may’ happen. Brian is beyond awful to live with at times, and at one point in my life he made me quite ill, and this is why it hurts such a lot when people think he’s cute and quirky. He’s not. He’s an utter, utter bastard! But I can tell you from a person who has had Brian alongside her from age 12, that you’ll be okay, you’re not alone, and you too can find the strength I’ve eventually found in telling Brian where he can shove it!
I hope this has given you some insight into what OCD really is, I didn't want to chatter-on too much, I could go on for days! I hope, that if you're struggling alone with your own Brian, that you can see that you can grow your power over him. You'll be okay. Look at me - I'm proof! I remember in my darkest days searching the internet to find someone who had ‘beaten’ their OCD, I felt as if I’d live in this darkness forever, but you won’t, you’ll be okay and the sun will shine again. You’ve got this.
Until next time,