OCD is not just washing your hands.
OCD is ruminating on all the ways you can die. All the ways you can kill your family.
OCD is not just protecting yourself from germs.
OCD is doubting your own sanity. Losing yourself in the darkest corridors of your mind.
OCD is not just arranging the ornaments on the shelf.
OCD is living alongside your greatest fears. The key to room 101.
I am caught in a tangle of loops. The most recent was envisioning the humiliation of someone I dearly love. I’m an OCD veteran, and I should have put up a better fight, yet no matter how hard I tried, I just could not leave that terrible circle. That f**king abhorrent loop.
I’m back house sitting in East Sussex and the quality of life is good here, but good things attract the OCD sharks – bad thoughts are insects, good times are a candle in the dark; pleasure is a magnet pulling metal teeth.
I listened to the lies and slander, the cawing of the crow. I wasted a lot of time ruminating; obsessing; throwing myself against walls. I was hopelessly distressed, performing countless rituals in my head. I had fallen into the familiar trap and was trying to climb out the usual way – upside down, inside out, with my eyes looking into the back of my skull. I had temporarily accepted the twisted reasoning that if I had thought it, I must obviously want to go through with it. I had forgotten my own mantra – that it’s a fear, not an urge.
My stomach was in knots. I was spiralling toward catatonia. Then I got lucky with a mental compulsion, the ‘feeling’ snapping into place, and I managed to pull myself out. I was thankful for my lucky break, yet disappointed that I had returned to such cheap tactics. Smaller, bothersome thoughts continued to buzz around my brain – they’re always there – and that night I stared into the mirror, reminding myself that I would never be free of this suffering. It’s true that I’ve known this for a long time, but that doesn’t make it go away.
“Indeed, Yan,” says the crow. “A fireproof jacket won’t save you when you fall into the mouth of the volcano.”
The triggers are out there, landmines on every road, in every possible direction, waiting for my footfall like exploding snakes sleeping in the grass. Immobilising me for the day, maybe two, longer if the thought resonates – digs deep. I flashback to the bad old days, cringing at my slumped body on a messy bed, ritualising until I collapsed into a deep sleep. Those spikes were long, stretching into the sky for a hundred miles. The crow was a Tyrannosaurus Rex with wings, swallowing months of my life with every bite.
It isn’t always violent images or gloomy pessimism, fear of deadly diseases or paranoia with Little One. Sometimes it can be the power of words, the fear of saying hurtful things to someone close to my heart or a stranger in the street. How easy it would be to open my mouth and utter such hateful, repulsive comments – poison dripping from my lips in strands of yellow ooze. We have the power to ruin someone’s day so easily and I find it terrifying that the people we love are undeniably more exposed. I imagine familiar eyes glazed with tears as noxious words fly from my mouth like fighter jets. “How could you say those things, Yan?” Like a surprise punch to the stomach from your grandad.
Recently, as one particularly nasty thought subsided, I thought that maybe I should tell the person beside me how close I was to spitting vile words into their face? Prepare them for future offensives. But if I chose this strategy, should I warn everyone I love about the sickening comments I often think to shout? Tell them not to worry if I ever open up with a barrage of oral abuse, because I don’t actually mean it. Should I Inform them all of the finer details of my OCD? Maybe I should come clean, hand them binoculars and point them to the crow in the sky.
I had a meltdown during my last week in Spain. I was spinning in a loop, tired and frustrated, getting nowhere but back to the beginning. I lost an evening but thought I’d seized the next morning until something failed to click into place and I broke again. Little One hadn’t deserved what she’d witnessed the previous evening, and that morning, as we returned from feeding the pig, I lost control again and ended up running from the car into the wilderness, screaming as I fled. The attack didn’t last long, and I managed to pull myself together, but I was ashamed that I’d entertained Crow like that, inviting him into the kitchen, serving him flesh from my own thigh. My head hung low as I returned to the house. I was full of apologies and self-hate, face glowing red like the setting sun.
I’d been doing so well.
Crippled with anxiety the rolling hills had been nothing but a smear on the window. If England had won the world cup, or I had won the lottery, if aliens introduced themselves on live TV, it wouldn’t have mattered. My eyes were looking inward, focused on the insects scuttling inside, laying eggs in my brain. It could have rained diamonds and I wouldn’t have wanted to know.
Every day Crow whispers murder in my ear. But the day I realised it was fear and not an urge was a giant leap in the right direction. Crow doesn’t want me to be happy, so focuses on situations that I dread the most. Many people get these thoughts – OCD sufferers struggle to shake them off. As I said before, one of my first fears was to bite the ends off 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.”
“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. Imagine the expression on your Grandmother’s face when she realises you’re not going to stop?”
I wouldn’t be able to think of anything else.
The only way to get the image out of my head was to mentally ritualise, to think about every bone-crunching blow in meticulous detail. Scrutinising those phantom bruises under a microscope. It could take days, weeks if it was a deep spike, obsessing over the same gruesome act until I could actually smell the violence in the room. I use this tactic today, but if the horror is not out of my head after an hour or so, I’ll focus on the consequences instead. What would happen after the event?
I answer as truthfully as I can. “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 relevant part of me listens, or that other tactics reinforce my struggling rationality.
Another way I fight the fear is to try to come to terms with death. Seeking to accept the fact that everybody in the world is going to die. Some peacefully, others more brutally – annihilation is inevitable, there’s nothing anyone can do to prevent it. Certainly, I still fear death, but not as much as I once did. I recall performing countless rituals attempting to keep my loved ones alive. But people continued to die, because tapping my forehead while mumbling a mantra doesn’t stall the Reaper, even for a second. My rituals never saved a single soul, but certainly killed many hours.
Routines I performed over the years to stop cancer or AIDS varied from imagining blinding white lights to drumming my fingers on my forehead to walking back and forth through doorways. But nobody lives forever, and coming to terms with this indisputable fact was beneficial in my fight against OCD. 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.
Admittedly, the fears or spikes seem infinite, falling from above like acid rain, or rising from the ground like hands of the undead. But, as I’ve said before, acknowledging this can sometimes have a positive impact on my life. Occasionally, the number of intrusive thoughts vibrating in my head becomes so great that the tooth factory spewing out all the negativity shuts down – somebody presses the ‘stop’ button and suddenly I’m in the eye of the storm, three cows and a tractor spiralling about me.
“There are just too many thoughts; this is ridiculous,” says the line manager, and throws his spreadsheets on the floor, hurls his spanner into the guts of the machine. In a way, I’ve created OCD walls that actually protect me.
I suppose in this chapter I’m trying to reaffirm to people that I’m not dangerous or lazy, incompetent or a waste of space. Yes, physically I may be staring at the wall, but mentally I’m wrestling a f**king Grizzly Bear. But it’s a fear not an urge – although no easier to negotiate. Fighting bears is demanding, and although OCD doesn’t define me, it has certainly led me to this field in England.
OCD is not just looking for patterns, doing things in threes.
OCD is a constant battering of the senses. Encouraging you to f*ck everything up.
OCD is not just checking that the front door is locked.
OCD is the worm that burrows deep into your bones. An unscratched itch in the back of your eye. Ceaseless in its pettiness. Cruel in its intentions.
OCD is never “JUST” OCD.