Sitting in a room full of people who are describing their obsessions and carrying out exposures is like being in a nightmare from which you cannot wake; in your heart you know that nothing you or anyone else is saying makes sense, but all you can hear are the words of your OCD.
Some sufferers cannot bring themselves to touch anyone or anything, and sit with fists clenched in front of their chests. They cannot open doors with their hands or touch their body or clothing, for fear of contamination. Believing that they will be responsible for the death of loved ones, I have heard hospitalised young women plead for visits from home to be cancelled. Many feel so unclean that no amount of washing can ever cleanse them. To be told to touch something or not to wash their hands (with taps in some cases turned on by elbows) can cause terrifying anxiety. But like all of us, they can only work towards recovery if they face their fears head on, and learn not to be afraid of fear itself.
The rituals associated with OCD are usually quite bizarre, but most sufferers feel certain that bad things will happen if they fail to carry them out. To witness somebody being told not to carry out a compulsion is by no means easy. You can be watching a young person who truly believes that his family have just been killed in a car crash, because he has not followed an uninvited thought with an action, such as banging a table with his knee. I have met some for whom external rituals occupy up to 20 hours a day, with lives dominated by compulsions such as counting, reciting, checking, perfecting, ordering, cleaning, touching, or not touching as the case may be.
Each person’s illness bears its own trademark, although there are usually common themes. Some people, like me, can function in the real world (most of the time) because the obsessions and rituals take place in their heads, but others cannot. I have spent a lifetime being terrified of unwanted thoughts, with the early years spent trying to replace them (an impossible task). When I am very ill my thoughts do not flit from one to another, instead the one I fear the most at that point in time just gets bigger and bigger. I become convinced that I am so bad that I will go to hell, and that my thoughts can make things happen.
As for reason, that does not come into the equation because rationality cannot begin to compete against irrationality; I feel as if these two areas of my mind are too far away from each other to interact. If a person’s OCD takes the form of body dysmorphia there is no point in telling them that they are pretty, because they will not believe you or the other hundred people who have told them. On the contrary OCD feeds on the reassurances of others, because they discourage the sufferer from seeking the strength we all have within us.
For me the last few months have brought new experiences and feelings, because I am confronting more of my OCD and learning not to seek the reassurances of others. The medication has also played a very big part, and I am thankful that I finally gave SSRIs a chance. Although I believe that the illness will always be a part of me, I hope that I can continue to grow in strength and learn to believe in myself.
My father died almost 33 years ago, but I am still a vicar’s daughter who was taught that we should spend our lives seeking perfection, even though we can never attain it because only God is perfect. I am only just beginning to find my own conscience and discover the world for myself, and I have realised that we live in a very beautiful place. I truly believe that we should look after it, and each other, and that is enough for me to believe.