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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

IN WHICH I COME OUT ABOUT MY OCD

I have had OCD for as long as I can remember. Only very recently, however, have I started to recognise it for what it was (and is). As a young child people had me down simply as a ‘worrier’, and as a teenager and young adult, when the intrusive thoughts and associated compulsions began to get me seriously down, ‘depression’ is what I was diagnosed with. But the main issue all along has been OCD.

When I was eleven I sat lots of exams to get into posh secondary schools (which I passed), and when my parents and I decided on my destination, my mind was beset with ruminations on the perceived pros and cons of each of my options. I constructed elaborate mental lists, and I couldn’t eat, sleep or otherwise function until I had run through these lists in my mind and ‘figured them out’ to a degree which would satisfy me in the moment. (The key phrase here is ‘in the moment’; OCD has a tendency to constantly up the ante such that ultimate satisfaction is painfully and perennially elusive.) At the time, of course, I had no idea that what was going on in my mind was in any way weird. It was painful, sure, but as far as I was concerned it was just the way things were.

In secondary school I developed an obsession with playing table tennis. I did not enjoy playing table tennis, note – I was obsessed with it. In a way I actually hated it, for it was a source of pain. For some reason, and bizarre as it sounds, my whole sense of identity became embroiled with my aptitude at this sport. And here is the irony: I wasn’t actually very good. I had the potential to be good; I practised a lot, and mastered the techniques, but my anxiety, which was focused obsessively on my performance, had the counterproductive effect of hampering it. My arm would turn to wood as I attempted to play a winning shot. Whilst technically adept at the sport, I ended up losing to inferior players.

I had no idea what was going on. I thought I was going crazy. I couldn’t get to sleep or get on with my day until I had watched, over and over again in my mental cinema, footage of the perfect forehand smash, from a plethora of different angles. It was weird, debilitating stuff. Thankfully, my obsession with table tennis abated abruptly when, aged fourteen, I discovered girls.

The most pernicious tendency of my OCD has been its proclivity to attach itself onto my intimate relationships. I have not had a serious relationship which hasn’t been totally racked by ruminations and doubts. The proximate cause for my diagnosis of depression, aged eighteen, was the breakdown of my relationship with my first proper girlfriend. Again, I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I knew was that, paradoxically, I both loved her and was beset by intrusive doubts about loving her. My unfamiliarity with the machinations of OCD meant that I was neither able to conceptualise this in my own mind, or to articulate it to her. Obviously the relationship didn’t work out, and I fell apart when she started seeing someone else.

At university I was obsessed with my academic performance. My entire identity became bound up in my grades. If I didn’t achieve a first-class degree I was literally nothing. If I didn’t go to Oxford, I was practically an amoeba. If my brother outperformed me academically, I may as well be dead. This is all warped stuff, and I can see that now, but at the time it felt terrifyingly real. Thankfully none of my fears came to pass, but given my mental state at the time I genuinely dread to think what I would have done had they been realised. I don’t think suicide was or would ever be an option for me, but a full-on mental breakdown would have been a likely outcome.

When my dad pointed out, aged 22, that I was thinning a bit on top, it sent me into a tailspin of anxiety. I started to indulge in some classic OCD behaviour: I couldn’t leave the house until I had photographed my head from multiple angles and found one that made my balding look non-existent. I couldn’t pass a reflective surface without looking in it. I couldn’t look at another man without scrutinising the state of his hair, and whenever I spoke to anyone all I wanted to ask was “do you think I’m going bald?” And when they answered ‘no’ that would satisfy me for a bit, until a few minutes later when I took another photograph.

The thing about each preoccupation is that, when you are in the midst of it, it feels like the only thing in the world. It feels like life can’t go on until you have answered this one question, or solved this one problem. And you never can; you can’t outlogic or outwit OCD; you can’t battle it on its own terms. It’s like whack-a-mole – it will shift to something else. Some of these things are under our control but are imbued with an exaggerated sense of importance. For example, we can control how hard we work to get a first-class degree (which I did), or whether we find the right help to overcome the psychological barriers that hamper sporting performance (which I didn’t), even though such things need not define our worth. There are other things, however, that we can't control, and in these cases the job of OCD is to give us the illusion that we can. This is where it is at its most pernicious. In these cases meditation and mindfulness can be helpful in accepting what we cannot change, and directing our energies towards what both (a) matters and (b) is within our control. 

This reads a bit like a sob story. It isn’t. I have a great life, and I recognise that. I am surrounded by a supportive family who love me unconditionally. I have a wonderful wife-to-be who loves me too, although sometimes I fear that if she knew the full extent of my OCD she wouldn’t, especially since she is often the target of it. I have a job that enables me to earn a living through my art. I’m a lucky, lucky guy.

But I also have OCD.

It feels a little bit better now that is off my chest. 

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