As I explained last time, the experience of OCD is massively varied. Not only does it vary from person to person, but within one person’s experience it changes too. This is an important point to emphasise – as next time I’ll discuss how it is not the content of the thoughts that is important, but the process. Today, to provide that discussion with some context and to demonstrate OCDs variable nature, I’m going to take you on a tour of the earliest years of my illness. Believe me – this is deeply uncomfortable.
14 -16 years old: Contamination
It began with a problem at school. Bullying? Girls? Long division? No. Acid.
I don’t mean acid as in LSD or late 80s dance music (‘this is aciiieed!’). I mean hydrochloric, sulfuric… whatever acid as used in chemistry class. Although I believe that acid tends to announce is presence on skin quite proudly, I felt deeply uncomfortable after science class. What if the chemicals were on my hands? On my clothes? On my school bag? Within no time at all, just going to school resulted in a feeling of entering a contaminated environment. And I mean feeling: I experienced a highly sensitive physical discomfort, like walking in to lukewarm, dirty, water. My home life and school life were wrenched apart – I had to keep them separate. Anything associated with school took on this irradiated quality, humming with a stale warm glow, like the halo around people who had eaten porridge in the old Ready Break adverts (showing your age Baz – tell them to look it up on YouTube). When I got home I would remove my uniform, store it, my school bag and books in an isolated location which could not be touched, then go straight into the bathroom to thoroughly wash. While my school work went to shit (I didn’t do any homework) and social life was affected, I managed the situation up quite well, I thought. When I went into the sixth form, which was safely separate to the rest of the school, the problem faded away. It was not until years later, that I told anyone about all this, or associated it at all with what was to come.
16-22 years old: mental imagery
Gradually over these years OCD properly took hold, and took the form of bizarre mental images that intruded upon my minds eye like a waking nightmare. Polluting and infecting all other mental imagery, they’d twist and distort my imagination. This is still the most common form of the illness I experience to this day, when I have relapses.
The problem would come and go, be more manageable sometimes or worse others, and last varying lengths of time. The frequency, duration and severity gradually increased over a few years, until by the age of 21 it was near constant and having a severely distressing impact. I responded to the images with compulsive feelings of disgust, repulsion and severe upset. Their presence was feared and delivered an extreme sense of discomfort and wrongness, accompanied by apparent physical sensations: similar to the irradiated contamination I described above, and a warm sickly sensation in my head like a lumpy ooze bubbling under my skull, or rock jammed in my brain.
I was also stricken by a guilt – a responsibility, a need to seek reassurance from myself that I could fix this this. Try to restructure the mental images, arrange them all as if solving a puzzle to get back to normal. To have a ‘clear’ or ‘clean’ head again. I tried to avoid physical or topical stimuli that may trigger the images. My reaction to encountering such stimuli was as if to an electric shock, or an alarming, explosive sound. They commanded my attention, demanded reassurance and resolution.
The form that the images themselves took changed every couple of years after they started. First it was cigarette butts. I’d be reading a book, picturing a scene – and there was a mound of cigarette butts. Thinking of nothing in particular – there was a rotting cigarette butt floating in my head. That changed as the problem intensified, both in frequency and severity. The first change came when I’d poked my hand down the side of the armchair to retrieve a dropped pen, and recoiled in disgust at feeling food crumbs that had escaped and gathered there over time. Now thoughts and images invaded my head with a force I’d not experienced before – ‘imagine that mess mixed with cigarette butts; imagine all little things in the world dropped and mixing with that mess; imagine that mess is the rubbish everywhere, all around us choking the world; imagine all chairs, all homes, all safe places you snuggle into… you are snuggling into that disgusting mess!’ Comfort, safety – they felt stripped away. I felt exposed to a terrifying mass, surrounding me, closing in.
In turn this too changed. For a long time the images were of a specific food stuff – a gooey, horrible dessert, which, I’m sorry, I’d rather not describe. But really it doesn’t matter. As each image changed, what used to upset me no longer did. I could often deliberately think of previous images and they didn’t bother me, or if they did, the thought passed out of my head. But the distress remained, and worsened.
22 years old: Conceptual crisis
In 1993 I was in an utter mess. To this day I have a difficult, anxious, OCD relationship with the number 93. Some weeks I couldn’t operate at all, and was bedridden, wishing I could just not think at all. The images had gone after one day the foodstuff image took the place of something else as a punchline in a joke. My response was devastatingly strange. My compulsive, defensive instinct was to try to stop the image being associated with the joke, so as not to ‘contaminate’ it. But then this other thought smashed everything away. What was funny about the joke anyway? How does it work? How does any joke work? What is humour? Why is humour? How is humour? I scrabbled mentally to explain, and with every explanation opened up a trap door – what did I mean by this? What did I mean by that? What is enjoyment? What is beauty? Why do you like things? Explain and justify these things!!
Within a week, all the unpleasant, upsetting mental images had gone. But they were replaced by this non stop, howling, abstract storm in my head, which carried with it all the feelings of physical discomfort and exposed wrongness that used to accompany the images, and which I knew could not go until I lived up to my responsibility, and solved these unsolvable abstract riddles. Consciousness was exhausting. All I wanted was this crap out of head, or just to be dead.
And then help at last
The diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and subsequent psychiatric help late that year saved me (see earlier posts), and until a little over a year ago, management of my illness has been pretty successful.
But see how varied it can be: an irrational fear of the contamination by chemicals. Upsetting, stubborn mental imagery. A compelling need to justify my own thoughts at the cost of despair. All parts of the same illness, and none of them as funny as arranging my pens by colour. What is it about these thoughts that makes them so disordered?
Well, the answer is – nothing. They are, no matter how weird, just thoughts. It isn’t the content of these thoughts that is the problem in OCD. It is the mental interpretation of them. It is in this, and the response, that we find the disorder. As I shall discuss next time.