It’s incredibly difficult sometimes to ask for help, or to admit that we aren’t, actually, okay. Most of the time when it comes to our physical health, whilst we may not enjoy it, we are relatively comfortable with going to the doctors or asking a loved one for advice. When it comes to mental health, we seem to be far more reserved in seeking advice or intervention.
According to the Mental Health Foundation, in the UK 20% of adolescents may experience a mental health problem in any given year. In 2013 there were 8.2 million cases of anxiety and 6,233 suicides among people aged 15 plus. They found that whilst 10% of 5-16 year olds have a clinically diagnosable mental problem, 70% had not had appropriate interventions at an early age. What is clear is that a lot of people aren’t okay, and nowhere near enough people are vocal about their issues. Stigma is an incredibly powerful force, and can have immense control over someone who is already feeling isolated and alone, preventing them from seeking help.
What compelled me to write this post is my own first hand experience. I am sat on a train, wracking my brain for the best way to put my thoughts and experiences into a legible and easily understandable piece of writing, but at the back of my head I can’t help feeling slightly on edge about writing this. However, I feel I’m not only at a point where it is healthy to open up, but at a stage where my experience could potentially benefit others.
Anxiety manifests itself in a huge array of forms and behaviours and results from various different fears: anyone who suffers from anxiety will have a different experience with it. Some people have debilitating panic attacks, some cannot cope with social situations without crippling fears.
I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and that is how my anxiety manifests itself, which I only actually came to understand recently after seeking treatment. I think previous to that I knew I had OCD, but in my mind did not connect the dots between that and the same ‘anxiety’ that I saw panic attack sufferers, for example, dealing with.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an extremely misunderstood condition and is frequently thrown around as a quirky trait (nothing of which frustrates OCD sufferers more). It’s not uncommon to hear someone say ‘oh my god, I’m so OCD about this’, ‘I’m so OCD about that.’ In reality it is a serious disorder that can have an immense impact on the day-to-day life of someone suffering with it, on their mental health, and in turn sometimes their physical health too.
Largely, OCD is a process of nonsensical and repetitive behaviours or thought processes that come about as a result of a heightened perception of fear, and a sense of responsibility to prevent harm coming to something or someone. It can be split into obsessions and compulsions, both of which usually feed of off each other and create a cycle whereby they reinforce one another too. The diagram below is a simple summary of the process that makes OCD so engrained and such a hard cycle to break for someone who suffers with it.
Throughout my academic life I have always coped relatively badly with stress and pressure, and it was when I was 15 and revising for my mock GCSE’s that it manifested itself into something more noticeable. My first noticeably OCD tendencies were things like counting the words I would write on one line when making revision notes, usually having to be 8 plus 3. The numbers 8 and 3 should hold no relevance to me, but now, as stupid as it sounds, they are part of my daily life. I would put the toilet seat up three times, and would count how many times I had touched something to make sure that also ended on 8 or 3. If I was travelling on the tube with my mum I would make her say certain things like ‘I love you’ or ‘promise it’ll be okay’ to hear the word promise repeated three times so to make my anxieties about the situation subside for a period of time. These patterns started to manifest themselves in more and more situations as I went about my daily life. If I felt uncomfortable or unsafe in a situation I would rely on counting mechanisms to neutralise the situation and make it feel ‘ok’ in my head. When saying goodbye to family members or even just before going to bed, I had to have ‘I love you’ said 3 times between us, if it went over 4 it had to go to 5 because four made me uncomfortable, as did 6. Over time it became 3 and 5 that I used to count and track things I said, did, thought or touched. Years later I have found that these rituals of counting are called ‘magic numbers’, and whilst it probably sounds absurd to most, it is a relatively common trait amongst a certain group of OCD sufferers.
Writing this is incredibly difficult for me, because it is upsetting to admit that your brain is working against you and documenting these things reinforces to me that it was, and to a degree still is. It is not nice not to be able to control or calm your own thought process: it is frustrating, scary and incredibly tiring.
When it got to the point where my parents were watching me cry in frustration, I eventually went to the GP. For various reasons (including being at an awkward age for NHS mental health referrals), all I left with was a book on ‘handling OCD’, which was little to no help for me. So my GCSE’s came and went and on the whole, so did the more tiring and obvious aspects of my OCD, with smaller counting habits remaining but on a far less noticeable scale.
During my A-Levels and periods of time where I felt unsafe or felt that my family were potentially unsafe too, my obsessive compulsive tendencies would return, yet it was at university where it became something that I knew had to be treated. By this point my compulsions and counting rituals had started affecting almost everything I did, I even developed a head jerk when I felt at my most anxious, which I would attempt to count but would never feel like it had ended on the right number. I realised that I was not only mentally tired but physically in pain too, finding it difficult to even calm myself enough to get to sleep at night. I was so busy counting my actions or words or compelling myself to think a certain thought in my head that I was losing focus in my studies and draining myself of energy. My loved ones were dragged into it too, because, on the whole, it was them that I felt anxious for. Knowing my boyfriend was getting on a 12 hour plane journey, or going on a trek up a mountain, or doing something else where I could not guarantee his safety, paralysed my rationality. I would have to have goodbyes on text ending with three words (I love you) and two kisses to count to five. I would count to three as I clicked onto and exited out of a conversation on my phone, I would make him promise that he would be safe and repeat it myself twice more to have that equal three as well. My OCD over time developed from something that I used during my exams to calm my worries about failing, to something that left me thinking that I was personally responsible for the safety of the people I loved the most: I was (and to an extent still am) giving myself a responsibility that no one could ever actually have, using rituals to neutralise situations that I deemed as dangerous for the people who I loved the most.
OCD is a self-perpetuating cycle that only worsens over time as the sufferer becomes more comfortable with relying on the rituals they have developed. The more I relied on these compulsions, in turn the more responsibility my brain felt it had to neutralise situations, and the safer I felt after I had done them. Breaking a habit is hard, especially for someone whose brain finds it extremely difficult to separate realistic worries that anyone would have day-to-day, from hugely unlikely and sometimes absurd fears about situations that are never really going to happen. To me my OCD is a case of ‘well, what if that were to happen…wouldn’t it just be safer to do this to cancel out the chances?’
So after having a mini breakdown with one of my best friends and an hour’s worth of on and off crying whilst I tried to explain to her what I was going through, I decided to go back to the GP. Long story short I was referred and fast tracked through to a specialist and luckily began treatment on the NHS within a week of my referral. I am now just over half way through my course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and whilst I have a long way to go still to undo thought processes I have used for five or so years, I have made significant progress from where I was a couple of months ago. Whilst my form of OCD has and still is an extremely frustrating and tiring aspect of my life, I think it is always useful to have some perspective in life. I know OCD sufferers who have at times been unable to leave the house, entirely crippled with paranoid thoughts about completely irrational fears, that in turn has spiralled into depression – another mental health condition that is often a spin-off from a condition like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
At the crux of this post is that battles with mental health can come to anyone, at anytime, for any reason, and the most important thing I could advise to anyone is to speak out about it. The first thing I learnt with my therapist is that unpicking the habits that I had developed would be difficult simply for the fact that I had grown up with half of them and been reliant on them for years, ingraining them further in my day-to-day life. Sitting in silence is never the answer regardless to what the problem is. If you saw someone being bullied, I would hope that no one would sit by and watch. If you had a health condition that was causing you physical distress, you would seek medical advice. At the end of the day we are human, and as humans we in turn have capacity to feel pain and to suffer, to show vulnerability. We are not built to be robots.
Lastly, it is so incredibly important to surround yourself with people who care about and respect your mental health. When it comes to family – things can be slightly more difficult, but from a friendship and relationship point of view, we are entirely in control of who we surround ourselves by. Opening up to my loved ones about my obsessive compulsive tendencies was hard and at the time embarrassing, and I cried multiple times during the process. Expecting them to get it straight away can also be sometimes asking too much, because at the end of the day my rituals do not make sense and do seem ridiculous, and the easy response is to say ‘well, just stop doing it.’ If they care for you, however, they will make themselves understand over time and support and encourage you to seek help, and if they do not then cutting them out of your life is an absolute necessity.
Three months ago when my OCD was at its worst I would have been counting half of the words that I have just written. My OCD is still very much a part of my life and flares up more when I feel anxious about something, but seeking advice has helped me so much and I wish I had done it earlier: I urge anyone reading this to do the same if you need to, for whatever the reason or condition. Do not be ashamed to admit that you are not 100% okay, 100% of the time, because at the end of the day I think we would struggle to find many people who are.
Take the time to nurture both your physical and mental health, and look after yourself.
Love always, Kirstie x