As part of our ongoing series on less-discussed mental illnesses, an anonymous writer shares their experiences of OCD/Pure O
Content warning: this article contains references to overdose, suicide, and mental health issues including depression, anxiety and OCD.
I have this recurring dream that I can’t seem to shake. It’s 10pm and we’re in my living room; maybe it’s raining outside and the music’s just a little too loud so you have to strain to hear anyone, but no one minds, we’re all talking away and in the corner of the room someone laughs over the hum of conversation. My phone rings in my pocket. As I go to pick it up, the name on the screen sends my heart to the pit of my stomach, one I always expected but never wanted to see - his brother. It’s happening. I scramble to think of some other reason he’s calling but I know it’s a useless effort so I answer, defeated. The voice on the other end tells me my friend has overdosed again but this time, he was successful. His family thought I’d want to be informed and they’ll be in touch shortly with funeral details.
This scene plays out as more of a waking nightmare, over and over for maybe half an hour before I finally snap out of it. I’ll spend far too much time staring at the wall letting the dialogue play out in my head, picturing every reaction and expression and tone of voice until it is "just right" and if not, the slightest slip, I must start over. Sometimes my mind likes to switch it up to different situations, a flashback from traumatic childhood events (classic), or maybe a car crash and when I look closer it’s my friend’s mangled body on the road. For a good few years, it was a torture sequence with me tied to a chair and various instruments poking into my flesh, which was a decidedly weird one now I think about it.
My sister first noticed the signs when I was around 6 or 7. I’d shut the door several times, retrace my steps, arrange and rearrange cushions before I could sit. Early signs that as a kid I thought nothing of. To me, it was just a quirk. To my family, it was just annoying (“Can you sit down already?!”). Of course, we had just immigrated from a country where mental illness is not recognised as a Real Thing, so I don’t blame them for their attitude at all. I remember for a while I couldn’t watch TV until I’d swiped the chair enough times in a premeditated pattern, and even if I knew everyone was watching me, I’d only oblige for 5 seconds before it took over me and I had to get up and do it again but do it right this time. I was the slowest reader because every word had to have the right intonation in my head or I’d restart the page.
There was even a routine of blinking at points around the room - who knows where that came from. I think about all the wasted hours these actions cumulatively took up. Closing the door took a minute. Sitting down took a lifetime. I’d be fixated on the same scene over and over until the panic attack struck or the tears came. I’d be up until the birds were singing because I hadn’t completed my mental routines in time to let me sleep. When it was at its worst, even blinking at something the wrong way or brushing it with my fingertips caused me to turn back and do it again.
Despite this, I did absolutely nothing about it. I’d resigned myself to these disruptive patterns until eventually the "quirks" (which were, of course, the compulsion aspect of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) slowly reverted from physical acts to mental obsessions. “It’s Pure O”, my old therapist told me at 18, which was a completely new phrase to me that sounded like some weird sex position. He gave me a 3-in-1 diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and OCD.
However, in his words, “you seem to have found your own coping mechanisms to manage the OCD by this point, so we can leave it and go ahead and tackle the others because that’s all we have time for." He said this as though it was an accomplishment I can put on my CV: "I’ve successfully repressed one of my mental disorders to the point it’s no longer externally visible, just internal suffering - where’s my gold star?" He was right though; the system I was referred to simply didn’t have the time or funding to tackle more than one. The combined effects had led to self-harm which is why the depression was a more pressing concern. It’s an odd feeling to assess which disorder plagues you the most, but that’s why we need to keep pushing for improved mental healthcare so patients can receive the full treatment they need.
Nowadays, I’m so much better than I’ve ever been and have reached a stable state – in fact I’m generally, dare I say it, happy. But a few symptoms still linger. It seems like the simplest thing to control your thoughts, to just switch it off as soon as it enters, and to be honest most of the time it really is that easy. But sometimes, my brain won’t quite obey. I distract myself, switch activities, go for walks to shake off the feeling. When it works, it works, but when it doesn’t, it’s far worse being out in the open. I head home swallowing tears. Fear of panic attacks returning as a result have left me stewing in my room for days. A friend once tried to drag me out while in this stage, oblivious to how this simple task of going outside could evoke such fear. After a heated argument, I obliged, making it all of 30 seconds before being overwhelmed and turning back. I felt pathetic, scrabbling for clarity, some sense of just how the fuck everyone else seems to manage the outside world, control their thoughts, just… live.
I will say it’s not always so dramatic though. Another symptom is just a minor inconvenience now, whereas before it had taken up large chunks of my time and disrupted my day-to-day routine. See, I had this mental process in my head, a ritual or a mantra of sorts, that needed to be done before certain activities: every meal, every time I left the house, every time I was to interact. Sometimes I got it right third time lucky (never in my life has it been the first, done and dusted, move on). It’s hard to describe how it worked in detail, but the implications were tangible. At times this ritual would repeat incessantly, no matter how hungry I am, until my food goes cold so I have to reheat it, but when I go to eat, the cycle begins again. There were times I’d step out the door, put my headphones in but the ritual must be completed before I play any music (music is a distraction so it’s impossible to get the whole thing right whilst listening). But it takes so long, endless repetitions, that I reach my destination before I can play the first song, feeling like an absolute idiot when I realise I’ve just gone the entire journey with silent headphones. Often I came off as distant, been told I’m either reserved and shy or cold and bitchy but in my head, I was just trying to finish the damn process so I could be present and actually talk to people. It took a good few years before I confessed to my closest friends that this was the truth of what was happening whenever I disassociated. They were wonderfully understanding, even if they couldn’t quite get their head around it, telling me I could take as long as I need and when I’m ready to join in again, come back to them, though I’d be there the whole time.
The thing about Pure O is it’s pretty much unheard of. The version of OCD we all know from TV, movies, or casual jokes, is the image of obsessive cleaning, order, counting, constantly washing your hands and turning the light on and off. These are very real and disruptive symptoms for many sufferers, but the disorder takes many, many forms because, well, you can be obsessed about many, many things. Cleanliness and order compulsions are the stereotypical portrayal - the face of the disorder shall we say. But OCD is divided into subsections of obsessions and compulsions, of which you can have either or both. The compulsions often act as "checks" in response to the obsession, which in turn stems from a fear (for example, "If I don’t do X, Y will happen"). This can take the shape of intrusive thoughts that disgust you or worries that you can’t dismiss, most commonly concerning harm, contamination, relationships, sex, or religion. Talking about the myriad of ways that OCD presents itself is important to establish a fuller understanding of the disorder from a societal perspective.
For me, it’s always been something I’ve hidden because it seems so futile, so ridiculous (It’s just your thoughts, surely you can just… not think that? Close a door like a normal person? Eat your damn food and sit down on your first try?! Trust me, I see the absurdity too). But now we are starting to understand that mental illnesses don’t work like that, irrationality is often part and parcel to the process. Unless we expand the discourse to include these less commonly discussed disorders, those suffering will continue to do so in silence.
If you've been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article you can contact the University Counselling and Psychological Services for information and support:
0141 330 4528