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My life with obsessive-compulsive disorder

It’s a common refrain heard in offices and public spaces across the land:

“I’m a bit OCD about that.”

It’s typically used to justify meticulousness, which is a major rival to instant gratification, the opiate of our modern world. The phrase is usually accompanied by an exaggerated giggle, a guffaw of middle class insouciance obscuring the true meaning of the abbreviation.

“OCD” has become a distasteful metonymy for pedantry, precision or dogmatism, characteristics that seemingly require an apology in contemporary society. Some people aren’t even aware that OCD is a mental illness. We need to move beyond the cultural connotations of “OCD” as analogy, debunking archaic symbolism to reveal the stark realities of this condition.

OCD stands for obsessive-compulsive disorder, which affects one in ten people throughout the United Kingdom. That is not something to be trivialised. Just as mocking or misappropriating physical disability is now condemned, we must fight for equality with regard to OCD. This is a real mental disorder. We can’t belittle it anymore. The pain is too raw for those who suffer. We deserve better.

Your throwaway uses of “OCD” as a byword for quibbling or fussiness are outdated and insensitive. More importantly, they are inaccurate.

Just think about when you last used the phrase. We all use it. Perhaps you wanted a document printed in a certain way. Perhaps you asked a colleague to reword an email, micromanaging to ‘perfection.’ Perhaps you rearranged the wardrobe or kitchen cupboards in a sudden burst of inspiration. In some cases, such activity can be attributed to genuine OCD, but if those tasks have no real debilitating impact on your life and mental wellbeing, your use of the phrase is incorrect. You’re doing this wrong.

Life with obsessive-compulsive disorder is a constant, irrepressible fight. There’s a voice inside, or perhaps more accurately a force, that urges us to do a certain thing, or things, repeatedly in pursuit of satisfaction. We cannot rest until we have completed those tasks, those actions, those rituals. We want to rest. We want to experience relief from the oppressive obligation. But we can’t. This is a disorder of the mind, forcing us to think in particular patterns, and that’s what separates OCD from the transient trait of being pedantic.

Our minds trick us into believing that satisfaction, contentment or happiness can only be attained in one way, through completion of a certain process, by accomplishing the same tasks, regardless of external factors.

It may seem like we have all the accoutrements of satisfaction – house, wife, car, money – but our definition of satisfaction is different. Our definition is confused, distorted, broken. It’s often buried in something obscure or seemingly meaningless. We’re hyperaware of the bigger picture, planning and analysing and worrying, but we somehow can’t appreciate it. Maybe we can’t even see it. We have everything we could possibly need to be happy, but we become obsessed and preoccupied with the most innocuous things, sometimes losing it all literally in the process.

It’s a ruinous condition, and we must do more to understand it.

Untreated OCD mixed with persistent anxiety and sudden loneliness rested at the very genesis of my depression. From the earliest age, processes have besotted me. As a kid, I kept notebooks and journals, scribbling memories and ideas through fear that they would somehow tumble from my mind, lost forever. I’m possessed of a voracious ambition, with oh so many goals, and designing blueprints to achieve them, right down to the granular minutiae, is a constant fixation.   

I don’t switch the lights on and off twenty times before leaving the house. I don’t wash the toilet twice a day or hoard random objects. But I do have spreadsheets, timelines and flow charts for everything – household bills, career trajectory, cities I would like to visit. Everything.

I write notes to remember things. I store processes for the simplest activities. I plan and plan and plan some more. The strive for contentment never ends.

This certainly has practical benefits, leading me to be highly organised and immensely driven, but sometimes that exhaustive foresight drives me to dark places. Taking a break and switching off can often feel impossible. My mind won’t stop fizzing with concepts and projects, ideas and dreams, attempting to fit them all together in the swirling vortex of this thing we call life.

Sometimes I become a prisoner of to-do lists and roadmaps, timescales and deadlines, often of my own creation, typically comprised of things that don’t really matter.

I have a gift for writing, a skill that should be used, and within my busy mind, that creates a cauldron of self-expectation, a pressure cooker urging me to fulfil my potential. That compulsion never goes away, my own personal demon demanding more, more, more. It’s a fine blessing and a damned curse, my making and occasionally my breaking. It’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I’m not ashamed to reveal it. 

Spontaneity plays a huge role in happiness. Obsession stifles spontaneity - disrupting it, detesting it, denying it. By planning and scheming, coordinating and plotting, the obsessive-compulsive mind strangles spontaneity and, by extension, limits happiness.

Pretty quickly, the lights go out, leaving a confused and rudderless void where once structure lay. Everything is black, anxious and tense. Everything is stressful, mundane life dressed as ubiquitous torment. Everything is wrong, dissatisfaction thy only friend. 

When I hear somebody misuse OCD as a comedic device to defend fastidiousness - a very common occurrence - the extent of continued ignorance surrounding mental health saddens me. Aren’t we better than that? In this age of supposed enlightenment, where we boast of improvements and advancements across the board, how was OCD left behind? Why are we still laughing at this condition?

Perhaps the more pertinent question is ‘why do we feel the need to justify ourselves to other people?’

Why do we explain away our values and caveat our approaches?

Why do we conform to social norms, the arbiters of which are people we don’t really care about anyway?

Stop living your life in somebody else’s context. Be yourself, and don’t apologise for it.

Other than avoiding insensitive uses of OCD in conversation, there are certain ways in which you can help those suffering with the condition. Being patient with an obsessive-compulsive is crucial. When we take forever in the bathroom, please understand that preparing for another day, getting ready to face the world, can be an obstacle course of unending frustration. Things that are innocuous to some people, such as choosing an outfit each morning, can be treacherous triggers for the obsessive-compulsive. Please bear with us; we’re trying our best.

Our minds are a hive of activity, of ceaseless rushing thoughts. When we seem to miss parts of a conversation, or when we appear inattentive, please don’t take it personally. Have some tolerance and try to engage us. Ask, don’t dictate. Please understand that our minds are often full of pressures, fixations and enforcements, so when the most basic request - such as getting ready quicker or completing a household chore - appears to overwhelm us, we’re not lazy or selfish. It generally takes us longer to process requests for our time, which can have a damaging impact on relationships in this era of instant gratification.

A dwindling attention span is one of our most shameful legacies as stewards of the human race, and that’s a particularly precarious reality for the obsessive-compulsive, whose inherent indecisiveness is met with increased hostility.

My mind is like a glass that, at minimum, is constantly three-quarters full. The tedium of everyday adult life - doing things I don’t have passion for - drips into that glass, filling it up. The most minor hiccup, inconvenience or frustration can then make the glass overflow, causing a mess that is often hard for other people to understand. They see the puddle on the floor, causing disruption in their path, but they don’t see how it was created. They don’t appreciate the constant volume and relentless trickle of water – of ideas, worries, and thoughts – that results in a spillage.

My advice to fellow sufferers of obsessive-compulsive disorder? Firstly, keep going. You’re doing great. There’s a whole community that can relate to your struggles; a whole community that shares your pain; a whole community that will provide support when you need it most.

You’re never alone in this crusade. Speak out. Ask for help. Share coping mechanisms and treatment routes. Don’t fight your diagnosis just because it isn’t compatible with the distorted moral compass of somebody else, no matter how much influence they appear to wield. This is your life, and you will find relief. Stay hopeful.

Rather than restraining your passions, try to compartmentalise them. Create boundaries and natural stopping points. Introduce incentives to rest. Try to use mindfulness techniques and relaxation methods. Above all else, create dedicated spaces for each activity you undertake – write in one room, eat in another room, sleep somewhere else; work at work, rest at home, attend social events only when you have the time and energy. Try to do one thing at a time.

I know it can often feel impossible when the black fog descends, but actually taking a moment to look around and breathe can have a positive impact in slowing down the inexorable whirlwind of contemporary life. My mind might be running away, contemplating what I will be doing in 2035, worrying about how I will deliver dreams or mitigate threats, but right here, right now, I’m here. This is my life, and I only get one chance to live it.

When the voice inside won’t shut up, leaving you exhausted and edgy, comprehending the possible benefits of obsessive-compulsive disorder seems violently frustrating. However, OCD does have considerable advantages, in a strange, perverse paradox.

The obsessive-compulsive brain is hyperactive. It literally never stops spinning ideas, creating projects, connecting concepts and analysing opportunity. That often slides into pessimistic or even fatalistic thinking, as the worst possible outcome in any situation present itself with irresistible noise, but if channelled correctly into a creative endeavour, the obsessive-compulsive brain is capable of extreme talent and unknowing genius.

Immerse yourself in something creative. Find an outlet for your boundless energy. Locate a platform for your persistent ideas. Keep a journal. Write a blog. Produce videos, podcasts or artwork. Make music.

With strict boundaries in place to protect you from becoming a prisoner even of your own passions, creating can be one of the most effective coping mechanisms for OCD. Once an obsessive thought is out in the open, shared with other people in a blog or vlog or simple conversation, it often loses its power to dominate your mind and rip out your soul. Find a safe space that will halt the onset of infatuation, and empty your inner dialogue through a medium of choice. You will be surprised at the relief that may ensue.

If you can master the art of patience and imbue it into your everyday operation, the attention to detail and ruthless pursuit of excellence inherent within obsessive-compulsive disorder can actually propel you to greatness. Once you understand and learn how to manage your OCD, you could be truly unstoppable.

I’m not a medical professional, and my writing should never supersede advice from qualified experts, but I would like to advocate at least an openness to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) as part of a holistic treatment plan for OCD. I’ve undertaken CBT and derived some benefits from it. The aim is to identify triggers for depressive or manic episodes and become aware of our instinctive (often-negative) reactions to them, attempting to rewire those intuitive responses towards something more positive. CBT can play a big role in the acceptance and understanding of your OCD, a pivotal step towards stability and recovery.

I would caution against a total submission to CBT, however. In my experience, once a narrative is established in your sessions, it can be too easy to funnel all pains and worries through that bottleneck. Catharsis can all too quickly morph into demonising and scapegoating. The importance of finding a great therapist, one who will challenge you and triage your problems rather than deferring to one generic root cause, cannot be overstated.

I’ve progressed beyond the identification, acceptance and analysis stages, where I found most value in CBT. At this point, I understand my problems and I have earmarked approaches to help me manage them, if not eradicate them entirely.

I’m often happiest during moments of quiet contemplation, acknowledging the racing thoughts and just letting my mind wander freely. That’s what constitutes relaxation for me: just being with my thoughts, allowing them to roam rather than constraining them. Embracing my hyperactivity rather than fighting it. Structured solitude helps me. It allows me to reconnect with my soul, rediscover the real me. It allows me to listento that absurd, brilliant, beguiling voice inside rather than ignoring it into a debilitating catastrophe.

Unfortunately, that which provides most relief from my obsessive-compulsive disorder – creativity, tranquillity and introspection - isn’t totally compatible with the modern world, so loud, chaotic and insecure.

I love writing and sharing my enthusiasms. When people tell me that my writing brings them to tears of happiness or gratitude, that is the greatest feeling in the world. That is what I was meant to do with my life. But our rotting capitalist culture dictates that we must spend the majority of our time doing other things in return for money, with which we must buy certain objects at preordained ages just to survive, just to impress people we don’t really like, just to maintain a foothold on the macho totem pole of vainglorious lies we call society.

That’s a different article for another day. This right here is about improving our understanding of obsessive-compulsive disorder and envisioning a new future of acceptance. If you don’t take anything else from this article, please at least try to be patient with one another, with everybody. What you see on the surface isn’t always what lurks within. Stop and think before making rash comments, judgements or decisions. You might just save a life.

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