I originally wrote this revised version of an earlier blog post for The City Projections Creative Writing Showcase. You can check it out here.
Before we get started...
One thing I want to make clear is that this is not a blog post containing advice. I am by no means a healthcare professional and I'd strongly advise you to contact these charities if you need help. It's nothing to be ashamed about, and people will do their best to help. OCD is also a Mental Illness that can take many different forms. My experience will not contain the definitive list of symptoms. Please see your doctor if you're unsure if you have it!
What is OCD and why am I writing about it?
When I became a teenager, I began to struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Most commonly known as a disorder that just makes people tidy, OCD is actually so much more. I say this because I myself am guilty of having this mindset. Even when I was struggling to live a happy life with it, I didn't realise what I actually had. I remember googling different thoughts and compulsions I was having, desperately looking for others like me. Then one day: everything changed. I realized what OCD actually meant... and I had it.
In reality, OCD doesn't just make you a 'neat freak'. Instead, it's a complex and devastating mental illness that manages to affect every aspect of your life. It's a disorder that weaponizes your thoughts and your mind and turns you into its puppet. It's also incredibly flexible and affects everyone in different ways. Some people will develop compulsive traits that are barely noticeable and others will be completely controlled by them.
Like most mental illnesses, it's not straight-cut, similar to the way that anxiety can take hold of people in drastically different ways. I don't speak for everyone with this illness, but hearing people who are obviously just a bit tidy describe themselves as OCD can be incredibly disheartening. Not because I find it offensive, but it makes me realize just how misunderstood the illness actually is.
Here is the official NHS definition of OCD (via. www.NHS.co.uk):
'Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is a common mental health condition where a person has obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours. OCD can affect men, women and children. Some people start having symptoms early, often around puberty, but it usually starts during early adulthood. OCD can be distressing and significantly interfere with your life, but treatment can help you keep it under control.
If you have OCD, you'll usually experience frequent obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours.
An obsession is an unwanted and unpleasant thought, image or urge that repeatedly enters your mind, causing feelings of anxiety, disgust or unease.
A compulsion is a repetitive behaviour or mental act that you feel you need to do to temporarily relieve the unpleasant feelings brought on by the obsessive thought.
For example, someone with an obsessive fear of being burgled may feel they need to check all the windows and doors are locked several times before they can leave their house.
Women can sometimes have OCD during pregnancy or after their baby is born. Obsessions may include worrying about harming the baby or not sterilising feeding bottles properly. Compulsions could be things such as repeatedly checking the baby is breathing'.
In this piece of writing, I would like to give a detailed insight into my own battle with OCD and spot the similarities in habits we have gained during the pandemic.
My experience: Let's start at the beginning...
For me personally, I struggled hugely from a fear of contamination. Writing that in 2021 suggests I was scared of catching a virus, but in 2014 I was scared of my mind's own creation. It's hard to put into words but essentially I created something in my head that I was terrified to spread or touch.
This resulted in me:
Washing my hands 50+ times a day if I felt it was on me.
Timing myself every time I did wash my hands, and starting over if I lost count.
Having constant showers to de-contaminate myself.
Washing taps after washing my hands.
Cleaning objects such as my phone and constantly washing bed sheets and clothes.
Opening door's with my feet and turning on light switches with my elbow.
Flicking light switches on and off until it felt right.
It sounds ridiculous, but the thought of not doing these things scared me to death. For example; if I was at school and someone touched me, I'd trace in my head if that person could have been contaminated in any way. This could have been from something as simple as their shoe touching mine. I'd then be unable to think about anything other than washing myself until I got home out of fear of spreading it. I'd sometimes make excuses to leave class and wash my hands or face.
A variety of other symptoms arose from this such as;
Terrible Anxiety resulting in me overthinking everything.
Forcing myself to not sleep out of fear of my dreams.
Avoiding social interactions and going outside.
Generally feeling like a terrible person.
A lot of the time, this wasn't because I wanted to protect myself. I believed that without taking these actions I would hurt someone I loved. In my head, I was constantly making deals such as:
If I wash my hands 30 times OR if I turn the light switch on 10 times = everyone will be okay.
Eventually, it all just became instinctive, and I became deeply depressed. Any sense of reason, such as to protect others, disappeared. The compulsions made it impossible to live a normal life and I began to dread each coming day.
Here is 15-year old Rowan's morning routine:
Wake up. Because I have been in bed, my whole body is contaminated. I must avoid touching anything.
Wash my hands (and taps) so I can touch my towel. Take my towel into the bathroom.
Shower for 20 minutes, making sure every part of me is de-contaminated.
Wash my hands (and taps) again because I just touched the shower lever.
Get dry and then put my boxers in the laundry.
Wash my hands (and taps) again because the laundry basket is contaminated.
Clean my phone. Wash my hands (and... taps).
Clean my phone again because the first time didn't feel right. Wash my hands (and the bloody taps).
Put my shoes on. Wash my hands because they felt contaminated (Yep... taps).
Leave the house without breakfast because all of that took the whole bloody morning.
I think It's also important to highlight that away from physical compulsions, OCD can have a huge mental strain on a person. This can be even more specific to how the illness affects individuals, but here's how a simple thought can affect me.
A random thought I don't like pops into my head.
Unable to stop thinking about the thought.
Why did I have it?
What does it mean?
Guilt takes over.
I must be a horrible person.
This must be what I think.
I punish myself by not doing anything for the rest of the day. Essentially writing off the day (this happened pretty much every day).
The next day I'll see sense.
Obviously, that was just a random thought.
I'm not a horrible person.
That was just an OCD thought.
Until a couple of minutes/hours later... the next thought takes over.
It can also affect you in quite unexpected and random ways such as obsessing about buying something.
After a few years of this getting worse and worse, I snapped. I finally sought help from my parents who had no idea I was suffering from this. I can't speak for other OCD sufferers but I was extremely good at hiding my anxieties.
I got a doctor's appointment and was referred to a therapist who was amazing at setting out exactly what was happening in my brain. I learned what OCD was and how it worked, and through this learned how to control it through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Because no matter how hard I try I can't get rid of it, it's part of me. So all I can do is control it.
I don't want to go too much into how to cope with OCD in this post. As I mentioned previously, everyone is affected differently, and no single way of dealing with it will help everyone. However, it's extremely important to find happiness in the little things. Whether it's going on a daily walk, playing with your pet, or even just a hobby. Small amounts of relief can make the world of difference as well as any therapeutic treatment.
My experience: Having OCD in a pandemic.
So, how does OCD affect me now?
I originally wrote this blog post in May 2020. Here's what I wrote in answer to that question then...
"In 2020, it's still very much a part of me. My compulsions still exist, but they don't control me. Sometimes I have bad days or bad months but overall I am enjoying life again".
Unfortunately, I feel like this answer no longer summarises my current experiences with this illness. I think it's safe to say that the past year has had an impact on everyone's mental health. Whether that's down to feeling isolated, missing friends/family or through grief. While we are more divided than ever on how the pandemic has been handled, we seem united in the uniquely Human feelings it has exposed.
When the coronavirus outbreak began in the UK back in March, I travelled from my university home in Manchester to my parent's house in Cornwall. There was a lot of hysteria at the time around panic buying, a potential lockdown and rumours such as the army shutting down major cities. It seemed logical to travel home for a few weeks to save some money and allow the panic to calm down. I can't help but laugh at how innocent and clueless we all were back then!
A few days later, the first lockdown was announced and I was stuck at my parent's house until October. My village literally sits in the middle of nowhere surrounded by Cornish moorland and fields with no shops and barely a pub (it shuts down like 4 times a year), so it's always felt pretty isolated. But during the first lockdown, this feeling of isolation was obviously taken to another level.
At first, my OCD changed only slightly. In May when I first wrote this post, I began to notice that every time I went outside I was massively aware of not touching anything and washing my hands relentlessly when returning home. But this is simply what we were told to do. What became more worrying was how terrified I became about passing on the virus to someone. If I walked past an old woman on a daily walk I'd be unable to stop thinking about the possibility of giving them Covid for a few days.
As the year drew on and winter nights closed in, my mental state began to change massively. I moved back to Manchester and for the first time since I originally moved to University, felt very aware of how different it is to my home village. Ways of old began to emerge as I noticed myself constantly worrying and overthinking details around everything I did. Being constantly trapped inside only made this worse as I had little motivation to distract myself. I've started washing my hands on a regular basis again, cleaning my phone and surfaces, and my anxiety has begun to spiral.
Little details have also re-emerged such as opening doors without touching door handles, avoiding leaving the flat on certain days, and overthinking absolutely everything. As well as this, new habits have sprung out of no-where such as panicking every time I open some mail or a parcel. Oh, and it turns out that hand sanitizer is OCD's new best friend. Washing hands isn't as trendy as it once was...
Here is 22-year-old Rowan's routine when going shopping:
Put on shoes and coat.
Wash hands because Covid could be on them from my last outing.
Pick up my keys and wallet.
Wash hands because they might also be contaminated.
Exit the flat, avoiding touching any door handles / light switches.
Exit the building.
Use hand sanitizer.
Go shopping. Only touch what I intend to buy. If I touch it, I'm buying it. Don't touch my phone or any part of my body while I'm there.
Upon leaving, use hand sanitizer.
Get home, take off my coat and shoes.
Avoid touching anything I've bought for a few days. If I do, wash my hands after using them.
One thing that hasn't changed is how much I show my OCD. Like in my teenage years, I try and keep my symptoms on the down-low. I don't really know why this is... Sometimes I feel embarrassed (it's hard not to feel like a melon after washing your hands over and over and washing your phone). Sometimes I just like to keep it hidden to avoid bringing it up. However, I do realize that this isn't massively healthy and something that I should address.
It's very hard to write this and give an explanation of how I've let this happen. Surely I know how to stop this from happening after going through it before? For years I've felt in control. For years I've felt like I could spot a relapse and sort it before anything too bad came of it.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the case.
So while my original blog post felt like a pretty complete story of my experience with this mental illness, I'm afraid there are several chapters yet to come. Yet to be written.
I'm hoping that as lockdown measures in the UK ease, I will be able to get back to my old self. The smallest details of normality such as going for a walk on a sunny day help me massively. So who knows what a trip to see my family could do? Or simply having a drink in a pub? As well as this, I'll 100% try and seek help once again. I have had therapy sessions a few times throughout my life now and I'm not ashamed that I'll probably need them again. If not this time, probably sometime in the future.
I hope to write another blog post in a few months and share some more positive news!
OCD is part of me. It makes me who I am. Sometimes it's manageable. Other times it gets worse and takes control. But I've taken back control before, and I can do it again.
The threat of OCD during the pandemic.
So how does this all relate to the current pandemic? Well, all of these compulsions are now performed every day by everyone trying to avoid Covid-19. Washing your hands and clothes after going into public places can be sensible in keeping safe. Worrying about passing on the virus to family, friends, and strangers is now common anxiety for most people. Thinking about what you touch at the shops and tracking what you touch when returning home is seen as a uniquely '2020/2021' problem. But I would warn people to realize when it's beginning to overlap with anxiety and instinct, especially once normality resumes. I must reiterate; if you are struggling, seek help! You might not have OCD, but if you feel that something isn't right then someone will be able to help you!
I've always said that mental illness shouldn't be seen as a weakness, and instead as a superpower. It's what makes us unique, and it's what makes us Human. No one should be ashamed of it. The reality is, mental illness is a part of us all.
Again, I'm not a medical expert so I can't give any real guidance on the issue. But if you are struggling, please talk to someone. Even if it's just discussing it with a friend or family member. That's the first step. And if that helps, consider seeing your doctor for further guidance. No matter how minor the issue might seem to you, there are people who can help.
One thing I wish I could have told my younger self if this:
You are not alone.
Thank you so much for getting through that (sorry it was so long)! It really means a lot that anyone is interested in learning more about OCD! If you want to learn more there are plenty of blog posts and articles out there sharing stories about all types of mental health problems. There's a lot of big problems in the world right now (and a lot more important than mine), so I'd encourage everyone to listen to each other now more than ever. Everyone is struggling, and everyone should be listened to.
Before I finish, I'd just like to say thank you to my girlfriend and all of my family who has always been incredibly supportive about my struggles with OCD. I am very lucky to have you!
Please do stay safe out there, and again, if you want help regarding your mental health check out this page or see your Doctor!