Admitting I had a problem wasn’t hard. It had become pretty obvious and bloody annoying. Window, laptop, power point. Window, laptop, power point. Window, laptop, power point. Scan the room. Close the door and move to the kitchen. Oven, off, off, off, off, oooooooffffff, repeat, repeat. Lights off. The house won’t catch fire now. Slam the front door, lock, unlock, lock. Push the door to the rhythm in my head until I’m satisfied it definitely won’t open. Nobody should be able to break in now and after fifteen minutes of checking I can finally leave for work. This was just the most noticeable of my obsessive behaviours. They could also be much more subtle within the mind. Without a doubt, it has been the hardest year of my life so far.
Obsessed over thoughts, consumed by fear and crippled with anxiety, my stress levels were at an all time high, yet for quite a long time I struggled alone. At first I thought these behaviours were just a phase I would naturally pass through. I didn’t imagine there was an actual problem I might need help with, or that I could afford help. I hovered on thinking noone would be able to help me anyway, before eventually landing on I NEED HELP island. One phone call to a local talking therapies service and I was assigned a trainee psychologist in just a couple of weeks.
From day one I was very excited to start therapy. I wanted out of the half-life I was living but didn’t know how. The first session was surprisingly interesting and not stressful at all, but as the weeks went on and we dug into my thoughts further I came to understand that my checking behaviours fell into a category known as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD.
That’s when it became harder, about three of four weeks into therapy, when I realised these thought patterns and behaviours had been holding me back my whole life. Lying in Kennington Park I watched all the parties I hadn’t attended, decisions I’d stalled and opportunities missed float further across the sky. I was so mad at myself and others and then just overwhelmingly sad. It was a very strange and unsettling time. The good news was my therapist assured me it was quite usual to experience upsetting emotions at this stage and that things would get better as we continued.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, as I came to understand it, is the way some people develop behaviours or avoidance in an attempt to cancel unwanted or distressing thoughts. A thought pops into your head which makes you feel anxious. To stop the feeling of anxiety you do something which you feel will stop your feared thought from becoming true or you avoid a situation altogether which might trigger anxiety. For example, my sequence for checking the oven made me comfortable it wouldn’t catch fire, and even if it did, I couldn’t possibly be responsible. This is known as a safety behaviour.
The problem with safety behaviours is they make you feel less anxious in the short term, but in the long term you start to feel like you have to perform the behaviours more and more to reduce your anxiety. In reality we all know we can’t stop bad things from happening, but with OCD your actions are a response to how you’re feeling, not your rational thoughts. Stomach deep in worry, logic loses all weight and it seems impossible to pull yourself back to reality, even when you’re watching yourself check the oven three times, in sets of three, and can see it’s absolutely ridiculous.
Clearly thoughts like what I describe aren’t pleasant for most people, so how did they come to affect me so badly? Many significant life changes began to pile up in my second year of life abroad. I’d become very stressed and let my social life slip, so with little other positive distractions these recurring thoughts became the focus of my attention.
In addition to this I was also unknowingly doing something described as ‘thought-action fusion’ or ‘magical thinking’ which you can read more about in David Veale’s article titled Cognitive–behavioural therapy for obsessive–compulsive disorder. This is basically when you don’t see thoughts and actions as two separate things, so if you think about something it could be real. This was one of the first myths busted by my NHS therapist, as we discussed the reality that thoughts just pop into our heads without permission and they only become positive or negative if we assign meaning to them.
The point at which I started to make real progress with overcoming OCD was when I started setting weekly goals for improvement with guidance from my therapist. Each week I would pick a new safety behaviour to tackle and set up an experiment to see what would happen if I didn’t complete my checking behaviours. This was possible because I now had much more background on how OCD operates and what I was dealing with. I came to realise my problem was simply excessively worrying about bad things happening, not that they would actually happen if I didn’t complete my checks. We also discussed warning signs to look out for during the recovery process.
The most important factor in overcoming OCD is really wanting to change, because it’s that desire that gets you through the tough obstacles yet to come. My desire for change came from the vision of the life I wanted to live on the other side. That’s right, this is the point I relate everything back to travel. If it wasn’t for being basically totally alone living overseas, I don’t know if I would ever have been pushed so far out of my comfort zone to seek help. Thanks to my exposure to what the world has on offer, I’d seen the life I wanted and my desire to experience this life to the fullest was my driving force.
See also Travel & Life Abroad Second Year Lessons.
If you know someone who you think might be suffering with OCD, I think the best thing you can do is to encourage them to talk to you about it. Be aware that this can be very difficult for the person, as mental health issues are such confusing beasts that often the individual doesn’t understand themselves, let alone being able to explain it to an outsider. Hopefully talking may help them to clarify some things in their own head though and seek further help. Just so you know, unhelpful comments for me were things like “stop checking the oven, it’s off!”
There are also many excellent resources available instead of or in addition to talking therapies. The book I found very helpful was Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by David Veale and Rob Willson – one of several in a collection on overcoming various mental health issues recommended by the NHS (the UK’s National Health Service). There is also the aforementioned article available online titled Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Obsessive Compulsive Behaviour, by David Veale, which very plainly lays out common components of OCD and briefly discusses treatment using cognitive-behavioural therapy. Plus An Introduction to Coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by Lee Brosan.
Nowadays I am doing a lot better. Because of the techniques I learnt in therapy I am able to identify compulsive behaviours very quickly if they do ever start to resurface, think about the underlying cause for them, and take action before they become a problem. Most of the time this is simply a case of refocusing on something I enjoy.
Finally a GREAT BIG THANK YOU to my therapist who was pivotal to my quick progress, and to the NHS for providing the much needed mental health services I would otherwise not have been able to afford. No overestimation can be made as to the value mental health services provide. I was blown away by the support I was able to access in London and hope one day soon this will be available for everyone.