OCD is something that I’ve battled with throughout my life since the age of five. It’s gone through stages of not being there at all to not being able to do something without counting to a certain number or washing my hands immediately after I had completed said task. And when you feel like nobody else that has it, it makes you feel stupid, idiotic, ridiculous, isolated, mad and bonkers crazy at times. And I know the reason I’ve hardly met anyone with it – because most probably, like me, they keep it a secret and behind closed doors so that they don’t get carted away kicking and screaming and put on the first train to the loony bin.
I know constantly washing my hands, turning light switches on and off and avoiding certain numbers is ridiculous; I can laugh at myself for how silly it is. I can tell myself that it is just in my head and I can see why people find it strange, a source of attention seeking or difficult to get their heads round but there is nothing I can do to control it. Ultimately it’s a fear. A fear that if I don’t do something, such as wash my hands, then there will be consequences. My fear is death and the unknown. My brain connects this fear to illness, dirt, germs, being unclean, anything known to be toxic or anything that I don’t know where it came from or what it is and I stop myself from going near it and most certainly stop myself from touching it. However if I do brush past something I am scared of accidentally chaos ensues, and I spend the rest of my day by a sink, with multiple bottles of soap, rubbing the skin of my hands.
The term ‘mental illness’ always makes me feel slightly nauseous. Why? There’s not just one reason. Firstly, mental illnesses are not just inside your brain, there are physical symptoms – I hated showing the broken, red skin on my hands to anyone for several years. Secondly, the word ‘mental’, although it defines something related to the mind, to me it brings up connotations of psychiatric hospitals, straight jackets, men in white coats and padded cells. The stereotype or caricature of mental instability. A laughing stock. A cheap joke. One thing that OCD and mental health is not though is a joke. It is becoming more widely talked about and today, thankfully, it is widely recognised. Whether it is widely accepted or understood as being as damaging and important as physical pain and illness is another argument. Mental Health Week and Day obviously bring a lot of attention, especially media based attention, to the subject but OCD and mental health problems do not exist for just a week or a day. They can be there for years and they may never go away completely, just be controlled.
However, I feel OCD is often the joke of the mental illness gang. Anxiety is seen as Green Day and Depression is seen as The Beatles whilst OCD is still the Coldplay or the Nickelback. We’re the punch line.
This image is it’s I’d love to change, as having it feels like a daily battle. I’m scared of the world around me and that simply terrifies me. How do you interact with a world where you are petrified at touching anything or anyone?
I first recognised what my hand-washing problem was after reading an article in a magazine about a woman who washed her hands over 40 times a day. Alongside this article on the right hand side of the page was a separate column of celebrities who suffered from OCD – Obsessive, Compulsive Disorder – and looking down the list, there he was, David Beckham. The most famous footballer in the world had the same problem as me. At least my claim to fame was sorted. Although ‘having the same mental illness as David Beckham’ wasn’t something I’d be bragging about at school.
Having OCD whilst being at school is one of the hardest things in the world to deal with. Because kids ask questions, kids are cruel and kids single out differences. I have largely managed to avoid being bullied or publicly ridiculed for my OCD, which is something that mainly consists of excessive hand washing. I used to wash my hands till they were raw so the E45 cream, drawn on my hands by my Uncle in odd patterns to make it more fun, stung my hands when he applied it.
I do always remember one girl laughing and pointing at me, saying something along the lines of “She’s weird. She washes her hands all the time” And what she was saying was true. I used to hide my hands all the time at school from everyone, as they were red and cracking. After the end of every science lesson whilst everyone else was too busy packing away, I’d sneak off and be at the back by the sink or run straight to the bathroom. The worst lesson was Chemistry. Even if the Chemistry lesson consisted just of using a textbook, with no acids or metals involved, you’d still find me scrubbing the skin off my hands. My actions then questioned, ridiculed and side eyed by a group of teenagers.
The bane of my life was carrying and touching my Chemistry textbooks and exercise books, as were the science classrooms, as they would pose the most risks due to acids and I would dread the cross contamination. I was worried the ‘acid’ would spread from my textbook to my other books, to my hands, to my bag, to my pencil case. The list is endless and it would make me scared to touch anything because of the risk of being contaminated myself and not knowing if anything was on my books or bag.
Most of the acids I didn’t like due to the hazardous, irritant and toxic symbols stuck on the bottles and in my mind touching these would result in death or illness, which was something my OCD was telling me to avoid at all costs. My Chemistry books had to be picked up using folded pieces of paper or other books; I’d become quite skilled at this by the end of the five years of high school. My love of science, especially Biology, was always ruined by my worrying, overthinking and anxiety in the classroom so much so I didn’t want to study Science at A- Level. Something I now regret. Chemistry classrooms and experiments also involved my biggest fear, thermometers, or more specifically Mercury.
The danger of Mercury, which I even struggle writing without rushing to a sink, made me feel sick inside. Even the thermometer we have in our hallway is something that I won’t go near and have to walk along the side of the opposite wall to get past it. Using the plug socket at the bottom of the wall underneath the thermometer? Practically impossible! Ironically, I was the one who bought it for my mother on holiday ten years ago. It shows how my OCD worsened and developed and how the triggers for my hand washing have changed – they constantly do. I had that thermometer in my suitcase next to my clothes and now I can’t bear to look at it or let alone hold it.
The problem with Mercury is that my mother dropped and smashed a medical thermometer containing that exact substance in our kitchen and I’d only just learnt about its danger in science so, for me, all hell was breaking lose. Our kitchen, where food that I’d put inside my body was made, was now home to the killer called Mercury. My brain couldn’t cope when it linked the two together so I always had to wash my hands to make sure they were clean after I went near that area of the kitchen. Going near the cabinets in our kitchen still fills me with dread knowing I may still be touching it even though it’s ten years since the incident happened. To me a little bit of the counter could still contain mercury so I could touch that part of the counter then get the m-word on my hands, lick my hand and then, well you know the rest. Even naming the planets in our solar system brings a lump to my throat.
I have a similar issue with bleach. When I was younger I hated showering as I could see the bottle of bleach hidden behind the toilet from inside the shower. What if it was bleach and not water I was showering in? Ridiculous I know but that’s how my mind worked. From then on the shower was a danger zone. More recently and after moving to university to live with housemates, mainly boys, and needing to keep the house clean, I have become fairly good friends with Mr. Bleach. I even touched kitchen roll soaked in the stuff to clean the walls after my housemate had dyed both his hair and the house bright, Smurf blue. The landlord was showing people round the next day so my bravery and want to keep my deposit overcame my fear of bleach. I also felt that next year’s residents weren’t fans of ‘Bear In The Big Blue House’ that they wanted a recreation of the set.
I tried to watch a documentary on OCD; I managed half of it before having to change the channel, someone mentioned not knowing who had touched items in a shop before you and that thought struck a very real cord with me. If I watched any further I wouldn’t have been able to step inside the likes of ASDA or Tesco for several years. My mum understood and she grabbed the remote faster than she had ever done before.
What does OCD feel like? It feels like there’s something, often the thing you fear so in my case Mercury, crawling all over your hands and skin. When you touch something you spread the thing further and having either extremely dry or extremely wet skin doesn’t make it easier, it just amplifies the feeling. Having dry skins makes it feel like this thing is inching it’s way over your skin, crawling, smothering you and slowly killing you. You can feel it move and feel it spreading. This panic of having your biggest fear touching you makes you panic and sweat. The sweat makes your skin damp and in my case, it doesn’t feel like sweat. The liquid feels like Mercury and it’s alive and on me until I wash it off. It’s horrible. Take me to a Haunted House anytime; I’d cope better.
I know a lot of people don’t understand OCD or misuse the term. OCD is not being a perfectionist, colouring in the lines or liking things to be in a certain way and put away. Yes, you arranged the cushions nicely on the sofa but that’s not OCD. OCD would be rearranging the cushions multiple times whilst counting to a certain number then checking them every few minutes, hours etc. And then doing it again the next day, and the next, and the next. You get the idea.
I make connections quickly in my head that take a lot of explaining so it can be difficult to keep track of my thoughts. Some people have thought it’s an attention thing. To control my OCD I used to ask questions all the time. “Is this safe?”, “Is that locked?”, “Can I touch this?” “Will I be alright if…?” They weren’t attention seeking, they were for reassurance. If I asked this question or that question and someone I trusted answered it then I’d feel better. I wouldn’t need to wash my hands. For that brief moment I’d be cured. As time went by my people would get snappy or someone wouldn’t answer my question after being asked a few different but similar ones or they’d take too long to answer and I’d have to wash my hands. I’d get angry when people didn’t answer as it seemed no one wanted to help. I was alone and of course, feeling angry about my question being left unanswered led to me stood by the sink taking the angry out on my skin with another bar of soap.
My mum’s boyfriend, as lovely as he is, didn’t understand it either. He’d find it amusing. A joke. Something it most definitely isn’t. He didn’t suffer from it, he couldn’t hear the thoughts inside my brain, and it didn’t affect him. He’d tie the thermometer to my door handle and I couldn’t get into my room. I wouldn’t be able to touch the door handle to get through the door. Similarly, if he finds a thermometer in a shop he’ll follow me round with it. Hilarious. My Uncle once joked that when he barbequed meat, he was “like Nicola” when it came to washing his hands because of the raw and cooked meat being in close proximity. I had become a simile.
Anything can trigger it. When I was eleven my Grandma had cancer and, not knowing fully what cancer was, I thought it was contagious so I washed my hands after going anywhere near to my Grandma. Sometimes I didn’t want to go into the same room as her because of my fear of catching this cancer that was killing my Grandma. Again, the fear of death and unknown took over my brain.
Once I remember being at my Grandmas, before her cancer, and not only feeling that my hands needed washing, but also my arms, shoulders, elbows, everything. And I also felt my clothes were dirty. I was in and out of the shower for about an hour and changing outfits like I was at London Fashion Week. By the end of the whole caboodle I was wearing my second pair of pajamas I had at my Grandma’s. I’d of kept going too if there was more clothes available, even if it meant wearing an Oompa Loompa outfit.
Death, as mentioned before, and the fear of it is my main trigger. I’m scared of bleach, toilet cleaner, mercury, rat poison, weed killer, slug pellets and all the bottles under the sink.
I can’t carry the bleach in the shopping bags in from the car.
I can’t touch a picture of a thermometer advertised in a paper Argos catalogue.
I won’t go near plants that have the obvious blue pellets on the soil.
I am still cautious of the attic, as that was where the dreaded rat poison was a decade ago.
I need to wash my hands now after writing all this down….
I have to admit my life has revolved around this disorder. I’ve avoided things, not bought things, not touched things for several years even though I’ve forgotten the reason why I didn’t like it and even avoided certain people because my brain won’t let me rest.
One of my clearest memories about OCD involves being sat by the bar of a pub in Anglesey when I heard two waitresses laughing. One looked at me when she saw me listening to them and said, “It’s okay love, were just talking about this girl who works here”. Apparently, this girl they were talking about had reorganized the packets of sauces, or something of that nature, to be alphabetically correct and colour co-ordinated.
“She’s got that DOC or something“, the other smiled.
“OCD“, I corrected, knowing full well what this waitress was suffering from. It tore me up to think I was one of those ‘weird people’ that these ladies were laughing at. I was the source of their laughter, the butt of their joke. But, I gave a smile to them and joined in with a small laugh, I disguised the fact I was a ‘DOC’ sufferer.
“Yeah, it stands for Obsessive…something…something“, she said
“Compulsive Disorder“, I added, knowing only too well what it was.
She told me a little more about this girl’s OCD antics before I smiled and went to rejoin my table wondering if they laughed at every single thing this girl and her OCD did. If only they knew. If only they suffered from it.
Why do I think I suffer from it? If only I knew. Truly I don’t know. It can be in your genes, brain abnormalities such as increased blood flow or activity in some parts of the brain, life events such as bereavement. My OCD was put down to grief. However, it’s not grief. My Grandma died when I was eleven, the first death of significant importance in my life. My OCD started when I was five. It increased when my Grandma died, yes, I was upset and OCD was my safety net. It started when my Grandma died? Never.
My brain continually works and is, I feel, over-active. I worry and I always have several things or to do lists running through my head. The ‘Notes’ section on my phone is quite simply a lifesave. My mind needs to be kept busy, kept focused, kept active. The need for something to constantly occupy my mind and the need for something for my mind to do is when my OCD comes into play. It gives me something to always focus on.
Now I’m older and at university I have become a lot happier than I was at high school. I hated high school between the ages of twelve and fouteen; I was heavily bullied, so therefore I have to avoid the numbers twelve, thirteen and fourteen. I have become better at managing my OCD and I rarely need to excessively wash my hands except when cleaning or cooking. Even my mum understood “my condition” when I didn’t want to help clean out her late friend’s house. Her friend had been a large hoarder, there were boxes of Corn Beef from 1996 and 20 years worth of calendars and newspapers, and touching anything with my bare hands in a house with no running water would have set me back an awful lot. I’d have done it if I had worn an Ebola Protection Suit. My mum even through away the thermometer in a hallway to help reduce my anxiety when visiting. It’s moments such as that that make me feel we are moving towards a world where mental health is becoming more recognised and understood. A broken leg is easier to spot than a broken mind.
My OCD still gets worse when I’m stressed, tired or hungry and I’ve identified this so am trying to control it. I know I am in control of my OCD; it isn’t in control of me. Remember, OCD is curable. CBT Therapy is what helped me as I slowly worked with my therapist to tackle the triggers (cutting chicken, bleach, lightbulbs) and my safety nets (washing my hands, taking a shower, changing clothes) and it took several months to reduce these. I understood that if washed my hands when I didn’t like touching something I reinforced the trigger it was dirty, even when it wasn’t. Surprisingly, she even got me to hold a thermometer and use the door handle I’d been scared of for the last ten years. I’m still tackling little things, like the questions, but it’s going to take time to reduce them, as they’ve become a bad habit over seventeen years of dealing with what’s in my brain. But I’m getting there and that is the best feeling in the world.
Now excuse me whilst I go and wash my hands…