The Steps up Mount Feel Good

Hi. In my first post I gave a brief overview of my OCD whilst discussing the disorder as a whole. I thought this time it would be useful to look at how my OCD came about and the gradual steps I took to get to where I am today. Today I feel good which is great to write! OCD is referred to as the “doubting disease” and a common fear is whether you will ever feel happy again. A real motivator for writing this blog is to help people suffering with OCD to start believing in all that good stuff again. I admit this is hard to think possible if you are in the thick of the “worry-go-rounds” (what I call the worst periods of the disorder). So, with that in mind, here’s how my story came about.

“Shit! I’m not evil!” Smiley face.
Growing up I used to worry a lot. About everything. I never told anyone though. I’m not sure if this was because I thought ‘If I don’t say it its not real’. Or maybe I didn’t want to seem weak? Or perhaps I didn’t want people to worry themselves? Probably all of those. It does not matter too much now. The fact is I had a load of anxiety taking a ride on never ending waltzers in my belly and, despite having a wonderfully supportive family, I never felt comfortable vocalizing its existence.
So where does this anxiety go? How is the pressure relieved? Unfortunately the natural mistake any child, teenager or adult can make is to try to work that feeling out. To try to think themselves out of that feeling. It can work briefly. But if that anxiety pot is always on the verge of brimming you have to keep thinking of more ways to reassure yourself that everything is going to be okay. Throw a frightful “intrusive thought” into the mix and its not too much of a jump to see what can happen next. The individual starts to dedicate their whole lives to convincing themselves that thought was not real. But the issue is the anxiety made it FEEL real. And so the cycle continues. OCD is born
I remember in my early 20s I used to say to myself “I will NOT have that thought today” and manage about 5 minutes at best. That track got stuck more than the NOW 54 CD that I used to use as a tea coaster and frisbee. And was even shitter. I was so desperate to have a ‘pure’ brain without ugly thoughts. But anything from a pair of scissors to a dark BBC News story would be enough to set me off into dreadful doubt and reflection. Of course all of this reassurance, coping and avoidance made things much worse. I had got to the point of planning how to ‘hand myself in’ (for crimes against the thinking world I suppose) and researching online to see if I had the same brain as the Moors Murderers. All was not well.
Then, whilst training for a new healthcare role at the age of 24, a little miracle happened. The woman taking the group mentioned “some people with OCD have repeated unwanted thoughts about hurting people”. I sat bolt upright. Straight after I raced home and jumped on Wikipedia and started reading about OCD, intrusive thoughts and compulsions. The relief I felt that day is still something I marvel at fondly. That there could be a reason for all this confusion and fear felt something close to being reborn.
I went to see my GP a few times over the next week or so. They were confused as I made long winded attempts to tell them the problem (I still had intense fear that if I uttered the nature of my thoughts I would be locked up instantly so it took me a while). Their almost nonplussed response to my eventual confessions was music to my ears! I learnt how common these thoughts were. How I was (relatively) normal! I just had an anxiety disorder. I was put on the waiting list for CBT.
My GP also started me on Prozac, a common antidepressant. Prozac, or to use its medical name Fluoxetine, is mostly known for treating depression but it can also be effective for anxiety disorders. A lot is said about the dangers of taking tablets to “feel better”. Critics say medication does not solve the problem but only masks it. To a certain extent I agree. Medication is not the answer with a full stop. Real therapeutic work and healthy lifestyle changes are necessary to bring about lasting change. I must add though that I believe at the right time, in a planned way, medication can be valuable for people when they need it most. Within two weeks of being on a relatively small dose of Prozac I felt much less anxious and was actually able to start enjoying everyday activities.
A major benefit of medication for me was that the tension of my disorder was eased whilst I waited for therapy. I was on a waiting list for CBT for over a year. This is a common phenomenon in the UK mental health system and is an issue that needs addressing. There are patients who are a lot more unwell than I ever have been who continue to wait on similar lists, which is a huge shame on our society and points towards our under resourced healthcare system.
Whilst waiting for CBT I learnt a lot online about ways to improve my interactions with intrusive thoughts. I learnt ways to “watch” them pass by and to let them go. I was also greatly helped by the online support forums on OCDUK where it can be so useful to speak to others going through similar experiences. I would recommend checking these out here if you are interested: http://www.ocdforums.org/
By the time CBT came around that first time a lot of the material actually felt like more of a helpful refresher than any new groundbreaking approach. There are two ‘levels’ of CBT offered by the NHS, the first being more basic and the second an advanced version. I completed the first and did not feel, at that time anyway, as though the advanced therapy was necessary. I understood OCD so much more. Medication had helped. All seemed well.

Not you again.
The next few months rolled by nicely. It felt like life was flourishing. I loved my new job in substance misuse and the purpose it gave me every day. I was far more at ease with any thoughts of harm that came up which in turn made them arise much less. I learnt that when you show your brain that you are not going to react to thoughts it eventually stops bothering to throw them at you. What a wonderful revelation.
But then something changed. At night I would start to be very aware of my heartbeat. I would have the thought “Perhaps I’m having a heart attack” followed by intense anxiety. This would speed up my heart rate and I would check my pulse (compulsion). I would feel so anxious that I thought something must be wrong (obsession) so I went online to check symptoms for cardiac arrest (obsession). I would convince myself mentally that nothing was wrong (compulsion) and finally get to sleep. But then the next night it came back. So I went to the doctors with lists of symptoms (compulsion) and felt relieved when they said I was okay. Then thought came back again. And again and again and again. I had a new “theme”.
So I was anxious all the time once more. I could not understand it. I thought I had pretty much conquered anxiety!
I tried to reason with myself that maybe this time was different. Maybe it had been a bit far fetched fearing I was evil, but anyone could certainly die at any time in an instant…maybe I was critically unwell? Perhaps all this checking and ruminating was healthy? I am not the first person who has ever excused their OCD or felt it had some use. Unfortunately that is another way the insidious disorder sticks around, by convincing you of its importance to your safety. “If I keep washing my hands at least I won’t have germs and there’ll be less chance I infect people…”, “If I keep checking my pulse at least I’ll know if my heart beat is irregular and I can call an ambulance if I need to…”. Tricky little bugger is OCD.
My fear of becoming unwell and dying spread to cover all parts of my body. I would become aware of my breath and then feel like I could not breath. A stomach ache would instantly be stomach cancer. A sneeze could send me to the doctor asking about Ebola. Poor bloke. Along with these fanatical health worries I was also experiencing existential trauma about the size of the universe, my place in it and whether I actually believed in anything. Dark times. I was exhausted by the obsessions. I swallowed up my pride and asked to go back on the waiting list for the more advanced CBT.

A New Dawn
This brings me up to last year. I had waited 5 months this time for therapy. My therapist was fantastic. She was consistently firm with my reassurance-seeking behaviour which was incredibly helpful. She taught me how strict I needed to be with my brain. Concerning my existential fears I would ask “So maybe all this worrying about the universe and meaning means I do really care about things?” She would shrug her shoulders and say “I’m not going to answer that question and what are you doing by asking me that?”. I was performing a compulsion of course!
For my health fears we did some Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy to great affect. This is where you simply expose yourself to a fear and do not respond as your brain is screaming out for you to do. One example was when I was instructed to breath very deeply and aggressively for a minute which provoked tons of anxiety. But then (because I did not die, as expected) I have not worried about breathing since. In another exercise I had to continuously spin round on a chair until I felt sick. Again a horrible experience but fears of stomach cancer have reduced dramatically since that day. If I had still been terrified of hurting people at the time of ERP I would have most likely been slicing up vegetables and raw meat next to my therapist. Hats off to anyone going through that right now you are soldiers!
So in January this year I was discharged. I felt fresh with a whole new toolkit at my disposal to keep those OCD demons at bay. I have kept my CBT ‘homework’ from therapy to look over. I will go over some of that in future posts. After therapy there was still one more psychological banana skin waiting to trip me up. But that ‘slip’ and the beautiful realisation that followed it is for my next post. In the meantime here is a lovely video featuring Alan Watts that reminds me to not always follow the mind when it asks me to walk down paths that lead to nowhere.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Share this with anyone who you feel may benefit.

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My OCD and why do a blog?

Me and My OCD

Hello. My name is Matty. I am 28 years old and live in England in a city called York. I am a student mental health nurse, have wonderful friends and family and I like to have a laugh and smile. I also have an anxiety disorder most commonly known as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). My particular “form” of OCD is sometimes referred to as primarily obsessional obsessive compulsive disorder or “Pure O” due to the lack of obvious compulsions that are visible to other people. Basically my obsessions and compulsions are all nicely compacted in my head like two noisy neighbors trying to scream the house (me) down.

In this first post I won’t go too deeply into the mechanisms of my OCD (I will in future posts) but as a brief overview I have ‘intrusive thoughts’ that give me severe anxiety. These are my obsessions. I then ruminate and try to prove these thoughts wrong by arguing in my head as to why these thoughts aren’t true. Some intrusive thoughts I have had over the years that have stayed to party in my mind are: “What if I kill my friend right now with this knife?”, “What if I throw myself under that train?”, “What if everything I believe in is bullshit?”, “What if no one really loves me?”, “That feeling was definitely  a heart attack, I am going to die in seconds”, “If I don’t sip in even numbers a demon will force me to shove this pint glass into that person’s throat”, “I am a psychopathic, empty, chronically ill peadophile – fuck me this is bad!”.

I may come across as flippant with seemingly shocking material, but I think humour can be an effective device to undermine something as horrid and ridiculous as an anxiety disorder. I also apologise to anyone offended by the rawness of those thoughts. I feel it is necessary to not hold back with this stuff so people truly understand what this disorder is about. These thoughts are not there because they mean anything to the sufferer, quite the opposite. They are especially abhorrent which ironically is why they can keep coming back.

Many people reading through my intrusive thoughts list will have had similar ones of their own, as research shows they are a very normal part of the human experience. I wish I had known this many years ago. People with OCD fall foul of misinterpreting distressing thoughts as being important, thoughts that many other people are able to brush off as silly or irrelevant. For me this is a good reason why talking about mental health should be much more normal, which brings me nicely on to the second part of this post.

Why do a blog?

As I just touched on, intrusive thoughts are incredibly common but spoken about rarely. There are many people around the world who would benefit from knowing they are not “strange” because they had that weird sexual thought about their Aunty Sandra, and not “evil” because they once worried whether they were capable of hurting their baby. They are just people with brains. I would like to point out now that if you do have those thoughts it by no means indicates that you have OCD. At the same time though I do think there will be people, like myself once, who have been suffering in silence for many years with a full blown disorder, terrified of going to their doctor for fear of being locked up forever in a Victorian asylum and not being able to eat their Christmas dinner because of the permanent straight-jacket they have been enclosed in. We have fantastically awful imaginations us OCD types!

A major motivator in starting this blog is the amount of misinformation around OCD as a disorder. I hold no judgement towards people who sometimes utter the words “I am a bit OCD” as that is just something that has crept into popular culture and common language. I feel compelled to help set the record straight however that having OCD is more about hours upon hours spent agonising in anxiety hell over your worse fears, rather than liking the living room to sparkle or preferring Bill Bryson to come before J.K. Rowling on your book shelf. Anyone who knows me is aware I am about as tidy as a teenage woodlouse who is into mud wrestling. There are indeed some manifestations of OCD that lead individuals to clean their houses until their hands bleed, or check the locks repeatedly until they dare not to leave the house at all. These are perhaps some of the more “traditional” forms of OCD but hopefully this blog can start to explain that OCD is all about one and the same pattern. OCD attacks the sufferer’s core values. One person who worries about being alone (obsession) may ask their partner hundreds of times (compulsion) whether they are going to leave them. Someone who fears death intensely (obsession) can start investigating online for days (compulsion) about a tiny mole on their arm. A dude who fears harming his family might start hiding the kitchen knives (one of my own fabulous forays). The odd quirk of OCD is that the more you do to try to avoid and control the anxiety (compulsion) the more it comes back (obsession).

This is an age where many people do “bare all” on social media and I considered this sentiment when contemplating writing a blog. Statements such as “nothing is sacred” do speak to me and I see reasoning behind them. I strongly feel like there is a place for public postings such as these though so as to normalise speaking of mental health issues. Suicide is the UK’s single biggest cause of death for males under the age of 45. The World Health Organisation states that 1 in 4 people worldwide will suffer from a mental or neurological disorder in their lifetime. Yet there is still something taboo about saying “I’m feeling anxious today”. When it comes to tackling obesity, cancer or heart disease there is an open conversation around how to help prevent these issues and have fantastic physical health. The same cannot be said for mental health. Anxiety disorders and mental illnesses feed on shame, stigma and guilt and they want you to keep them secret. This blog is my own shouting out in the face of all that nonsense.

This brings me on to my final point and reason for bothering to do this. In this society, in my experience, I would say our approach to mental illness (and more importantly wellness) is still quite primitive. The main focus of the medical profession appears to be to help sufferers to manage their symptoms so one is just doing okay and back to “normal”. I think every single person in our society, whether they have a diagnosis or not, can benefit from taking care and improving their mental health so it is not just okay but fantastic. I am really pleased to say that my mental health now is better than its ever been. I am rarely bothered by many of the thoughts mentioned above and I feel pretty awesome. Reasons for this include: education, meeting a great therapist, exercise, meditation, medication (at times), changing my diet, the Youtube OCD guru Mark Freeman, finding purpose through work and many other factors. In this blog I am going to share my own experience of OCD and tips of how to conquer it. If you cannot relate to OCD at all the recovery tips should be applicable to anyone wanting to have more peace of mind and happy vibes. Thanks for reading.