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When OCD Traps Me Inside My Own Mental Blocks

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When I was younger, I used to daydream about a world where everyone wore “sandwich boards” when they went out in public. Each board would outline their various mental health conditions, in descending order of significance. At the time, this seemed like a great (if potentially cumbersome) way of shattering the stigma around mental health that has plagued me – and most of the people I know – throughout my life.

Hi, my name’s Neil, and I have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Despite a lengthy career as a writer and journalist, I’ve never actually admitted that in public before. Tacit acknowledgements with close friends, perhaps, or throwaway asides with strangers. But openly declaring that there’s something fundamentally wrong in my head – well, people don’t do that, do they? Talking about mental health feels inherently unnatural, like running a red light or calling a police officer a tosser.

Until last year, I thought my OCD would remain eternally buried under the weight of British reserve. But then my wife had a breakdown, which was even less fun than it sounds. As she tumbled down a bottomless rabbit hole of fear and self-loathing, my own condition worsened in sympathy. And as she clawed her way back to sanity, organizing lunchtime mindfulness classes for her colleagues and writing blogs to challenge public preconceptions about anxiety, the lightbulb of realization began to flicker above my receding hairline. Why had I spent 15 years becoming a walking encyclopedia of architecture and cloud computing, when I could write about my own head – something I already knew inside out?

And so, dear reader, here we are. This is the first time I’ve ever admitted what OCD does to me. To be blunt, it’s a pain in the arse. It’s waiting for me when I wake up in the night, greets me warmly as the alarm clock begins to warble and finally lets go of my hand as I fall asleep. In other words, it’s always with me and it’ll only die when I do. Every waking moment is spent battling subconscious voices demanding that I move certain muscles for no particular reason, or process irrelevant thoughts at the expense of living in the moment. Illness subdues it somewhat, but that’s akin to knocking five minutes off a life sentence and spending the extra time sneezing.

Having been twitch-shamed by my parents at an early age, I gradually learned to internalize my OCD. Today, we could sit in a pub for hours and you wouldn’t know I was plagued with compulsive thoughts and nervous energy. You might notice my feet tapping to whatever song is playing on the jukebox (which is a useful distraction technique), or you might spot a momentarily distant expression crossing my face (usually because I’m counting something). I do this a lot. I can tell you how many slats are in my vertical blinds because I’ve counted them a thousand times. After a teenage addiction to Scrabble, I’m constantly calculating what words and phrases I’ve read or heard on TV would score on a Scrabble board. Sounds ludicrous, but it’s a staple component of my daily life.

The medically qualified among you will be aware that there are tablets I could take, if I asked my GP (general practitioner) nicely. However, they’re not really designed for OCD, any more than aspirin is designed for a severed limb. SSRIs have a numbing effect on the brain that helps to dampen down OCD’s more ludicrous excesses, but they can also neuter your emotions and dull your creativity. As a freelance writer, dullness is not conducive to a good month’s invoicing.

I’ve long since accepted OCD as the price I have to pay for my creativity, consoling myself that things could be worse. Van Gogh was a bloody good painter, but it cost him an ear. My wife informs me that Sylvia Plath was a genius, but her cocktail parties probably weren’t a barrel of laughs. At least I can shake someone’s hand without spending ten minutes in the bathroom with a Brillo pad, and I’ve been lucky enough to make lifelong friends who accepted my youthful twitchiness without comparing me to Tweek from “South Park.” As far as I know.

Writing this article has been a strange and unsettling experience, but I hope it will resonate with anyone who feels trapped inside their own mental blocks. When people start discussing their issues, they often realize how many other folk are experiencing the same things. The teenage girls afraid to acknowledge the gnawing depression that stifles their potential; the new fathers crushed by fear yet compelled to project joy to the world; the silent millions who battle their mental demons every day but greet inquiries about their well-being by saying “I’m fine, thanks, and you?”

I am not fine, thanks. Never have been, never will be. But I’m not the only one, and neither are you. If we can’t wear those sandwich boards, at least we can start a national debate about mental health in an attempt to destigmatize it. This is my truth — now tell me yours.

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Unsplash photo via Iz Zy

Originally published: October 16, 2017
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