A few weeks ago I was at a combat reenactment. The anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. Watching the actors clashing swords, I likened the event to my fight with OCD. On the one side – under the foreboding pennant of the Crow, snarling like orcs and goblins – we have the mixed ranks of intrusive thoughts, paranoid delusions, false memories, compulsions, anxiety, and depression. Facing them over a shield wall, we have the defenders of my sanity – fighting under the flapping banner of the wise owl – the battered regiments of rational thought.
I imagined the weapons of the Crow army to be fierce and medieval – all spikes and pikes – but struggled to picture the arms of the defending force. How and with what do I fight back?
I used to take a high dosage of Clomipramine and a lesser measure of Risperidone, but I found that it interfered too much with my personality. Mentally and physically I was like a floating ghost, not to mention the effects it had on my sex drive. I didn’t fancy living the rest of my life as a eunuch, so decided to come off the tablets. Of course, it wasn’t easy, and I tumbled into a pit of despair, but I survived.
I slowly built my own defences, brick by brick – most of the time I didn’t realise I was constructing a wall at all. I was often crushed under the weight of my troubles, but I persevered, and my tolerance for OCD began to grow – like a snail climbing up a wall.
But what of my armoury? The weapons I took into the badlands? I made a list. It looked quite hopeless on a scrap of paper. I’m certainly not suggesting anybody else use these tactics, and I’m not sure any of it would have helped me in the dark ages of my mental health, but here it is anyway:
Giving My Disorder a Face: It may not be wise for someone suffering from mental illness to give their problems a personality, a face, but it worked for me. I had a psychologist once tell me, in her opinion, that it wasn’t a good idea, but she ultimately went on to say that it was up to me, and if it helped, then it was (kinda) OK. So a Goblin was born, transforming into the Crow, occasionally becoming a swarm of flies or an ominous cloud. Giving my OCD a face enabled me to look it in the eye and challenge it. I feel that I know my enemy a little better now.
The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword: I was told to write my issues down on paper; I was told to NEVER record my intrusive thoughts anywhere, EVER! I tried both tactics and learned that the former works better for me. It helps to settle my attention when I can see my faulty thinking in black and white. Now, when I’m struggling to make sense of the spikes, I scribble them down or punch them into my mobile phone notebook. I focus better on the written word, losing where I am when relying on memory alone, regularly misplacing the details of what it is I’m thinking about in the murky trenches of my mind. It initiates confusion, and I end up remembering other issues or creating bogus problems to deal with.
I use shorthand or cryptic form, clues only I can decipher, security against my words falling on the wrong eyes.
Fighting the Fear: When Crow whispers murder in my ear, realising it’s a fear and not an urge is a giant leap forward. Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so describes situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off.
One of my first fears was to bite off the ends of the guns of my plastic toy soldiers. Of course, this was never a matter of life or death or any great horror, so I would do it, and spit the bits of plastic into the bin. When the fears became much darker, I’d say to myself, “No way, Yan, I’m not doing that…it’ll kill me, or him, or her,” or whatever it was presenting itself in my mind.
“But you ruined your toy soldiers,” came the voice from within. “And if you did that, then you’ll do this. Go on, Yan, kick her in the shins. What do you think her expression will be when she realises that you’re not going to stop?”
I couldn’t think of anything else.
“You chewed the plastic with your teeth, Yan. You couldn’t help yourself. This is the next step. It’s inevitable!
The only way to get the image out of my head was to mentally ritualise, to think about every bone-crunching blow. It could take days, weeks if it was a deep spike, obsessing over the same gruesome action until I could smell the violence in the room.
I use this tactic today, but if the horror is not out of my head after a few minutes, I’ll focus on the consequences. What would happen after the event?
‘He or she would die horribly, and I would go to jail, or kill myself.’ I picture myself plunging off a cliff, and continue with my day.
Unfortunately, when I think that I’ve got an incurable illness, or that someone wants to do me harm, or a myriad of similar delusions, I cannot turn my back so easily, and it may take weeks to distance myself from the obsession. I keep telling myself what it is, an obsessional thought and hope that a necessary part of me listens, or that other tactics reinforce my waning rationality. When the obsession of a fatal disease refuses to budge, then my next tip is…
Realising I’m Going to Die One Day: Yep, that’s right, I’m going to die, and so is everybody else in the world. Some peacefully, others more brutally – annihilation is inevitable, there’s nothing anyone can do about it. I still fear death, but not as much as I once did. I recall many compulsions attempting to keep the world alive. But people continued to die, and these days I recognise that tapping my forehead mumbling a mantra doesn’t stall The Reaper. My rituals never saved anybody but have killed many hours.
Routines I performed over the years to stop cancer or AIDS vary from imagining blinding white lights to tapping my fingers on my forehead to walking back and forth through doorways. But nobody lives forever, and as soon as I came to terms with this indisputable fact, I felt better.
Five hundred years ago, my chances of dying were a lot larger than today. Smallpox; malnutrition; butchered by a warrior’s axe fighting a barbaric war across Europe. Death by Cholera at thirty-one? Not me. I was drinking rum in Ecuador with new friends from around the world. I was lucky, I was born in an affluent country in affluent times. But nothing lasts forever.
Ditching God: I don’t believe in a God, or any supernatural force at all. I believe there are things that science cannot yet explain, and maybe never will, but as far as the paranormal goes, I’m not convinced. If you believe in a god yourself, whichever one it may be, then that’s your prerogative; I’m not telling you He or She doesn’t exist, simply that I don’t believe that they do. You may suppose there are many gods, or you’re spiritual and hang a dream catcher over your bed, or you believe in fairies or ghosts or vampires in Eastern European castles. There are legions of supernatural ideologies to choose from – I hope they bring you joy or give you hope at the very least. But they don’t for me, and admitting to myself that I didn’t believe in God was especially empowering. I no longer had to worry about going to Hell, touching my palms together in prayer a hundred times a day, ritualising until I burned with frustration at getting the words I was mumbling mixed up. More importantly, my dark intrusive thoughts were not being judged, because there was no one there to judge them.
I fear that searching for God, or even finding Him whilst suffering from OCD makes things far worse. One minute I was telling myself that my compulsions were ridiculous – “Of course I needn’t walk through the doorway fifteen times,” the next I was on my knees begging forgiveness to an invisible entity that had created the Universe in six days – whose son could walk on water and cure leprosy with a click of his fingers.
Anyway, I ditched God and felt better for it. If I go to Hell for not being convinced of something there is no proof of, then so be it. I’ll not be bullied into believing something that genuinely doesn’t make any sense to me and only made me feel worse when I did submit to its dogma. I don’t want to offend anyone or trigger an attack, but there are particular bigoted paragraphs in those ancient texts that are plainly offensive. I truly believe that leaving God has made me a better person.
The irony is that I still imagine a sweeping white light that I use to quell an obsessional thought. I call it ‘The Blinding’, and it has followed me around the world for years. I believe The Blinding stems from growing up in a Christian country and is heavily influenced by the notion that white light is good and darkness and shadow are evil.
The Hurt Locker: These days I prefer to imagine hurting myself, instead of physically doing it like I have in the past. I sometimes lay down, picturing Crusader knights chopping me up with medieval weapons – swords and axes and maces and flails and…you get my point. Precise details of skin hacked open, bones crunched, organs pierced – a relentless attack on a terrible loop, over and over and over… As soon as the blade is withdrawn from my body I instantly heal and then the axe comes crashing down, followed by the mace and the spear and whatever else I care to imagine. I don’t know if it calms me down, or if it simply consumes the time that I would instead use for punching or cutting myself.
The Size of the Universe: The sheer scale of the cosmos, although terrifying – and let’s face it, unimaginable, gives me strength. I realise that Earth is nothing but a grain of sand, and therefore everything that exists upon it is infinitesimal to the rest of the Universe – chaos theory aside of course; remember those butterflies?
What people think of me, what they say, what I fear will happen – none of it matters. I’m an ant struggling up a hill, fumbling a leaf. Other ants cause a fuss, their antipathy towards me is palpable. Suddenly the world is cast in shadow…and thirteen ants are crushed under the sole of a boot.
We are seven and a half billion ants, and I think that it helps to know it.
Infinite Spikes: They keep coming, falling from above like acid rain, or rising from the ground like hands of the undead. I hope that each one will be the last, but the spikes are infinite, and coming to terms with this had a positive reaction. Sometimes the number of intrusive thoughts flapping in my head becomes so great that the factory inside me spewing out all the negativity shuts down. The wise owl inside me pulls the ‘stop’ lever and suddenly I’m in the eye of the storm, three cows and a tractor spiraling around me. “There are just too many thoughts; this is ridiculous,” says the owl, and throws his spreadsheets onto the floor.
I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.
These days, ninety-five percent of my ritualisation is in my head, which can be difficult to walk away from. I’m forever going over words, phrases, and situations in my mind, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve said to myself, “This will be the last spike!” while cracking my knuckles and maintaining the current compulsion.
Don’t be fooled, there is no such thing as one more spike. It’s another OCD lie.
Use the Blues: Memories of opportunities wrecked by OCD burst into my head like fireworks exploding in the night sky. It puts a bad taste in my mouth, like sucking on a metal spoon. But I try to use these bitter pills to my own advantage. I use them to propel me forward, to continue in my quest to get more out of life – urging me on like a terrible spur in the side of a horse. I have missed so much that I have nothing to lose.
Alcohol and Other Drugs: I’m not condoning it, and certainly not the harder stuff that I took in my younger years – some of the things I snorted and swallowed made my OCD a hell of a lot worse on the night, and for a while afterward. L.S.D fried my brain, Cocaine turned me into a paranoid ghoul. Alcohol created a monster, and I’ve hurt more than a few bones in booze-fuelled skirmishes – with walls and windows as well as with people, and thank God (irony), I was always the one that came off worse. It has to be controlled because too much alcohol can prove fatal for someone suffering intense mental stress. The right amount can chase away the Crow until morning, one too many and he’s screaming in my face. The golden rule is simple: Know your limits…
Marijuana, however, helps me to relax, because it calmly carries me away from the here and now. It dilutes the black OCD mist, but I totally recognise the negatives too. It took me a long time to control my thoughts under the influence of marijuana. It’s a balancing act, and I smoke far less than I ever did. It’s not for everyone.
I Can Leave When I Want: This sounds extreme, but it’s the truth. If things ever got TOO much, then I can leave this place in an instant. I have complete control. It is this control that helps calm me down. I can leave whenever I choose, so why go now? I said in my last entry that finishing it all would be the final full stop, but trust me, I’m not planning my last chapter, let alone my final word – I’m hoping that I’ve barely started the second half of the book! I’m NEVER going to do it, but when I’m having a torturous day, I tell myself that I could. I don’t know why, but it helps to know that I have control.
That’s all I could think of today. There may be more, or some of these may not actually be helping me at all, therefore there should be less. After all these years, I’m still not sure how it all works.
It’s funny, but the thought I’m having now is deleting every word that I’ve written today. And then emptying my computer trash file.
I’m making another copy.
F**K OFF, CROW!