“If you live your life avoiding pain, it is always right behind you”David Veal, Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
Towards the start of this year, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). This was a bit of a shock to the system for me; I am someone who has always been pretty in tune with their brain and performs relentless self-analysis. In fact, over the years, both therapists I have seen have said it’s odd to treat someone who clearly thinks very irrationally, but is incredibly self-aware. So you can imagine it was strange for me to be diagnosed with something I had never really considered. I, by default, analyse everything I do. I’m not really sure why that is, but it has meant I’ve also always been very honest about how I feel, hence previous YouTube videos and blog posts about general mental health. Over recent years, I have absorbed the negative energy that many people seem to radiate when they talk about mental health and I became scared to open up anymore, even though I have always gained great comfort in doing so. But the van trip back in August was an amazing test for me to let go of control and allow the windy Scottish roads to guide me instead, which is why I’m speaking again.
I knew I had depression, I knew I had anxiety. OCD was a bit of a plot twist. Like many people, until 2020 I did not really understand what OCD was. It has become such a common phrase; almost on a daily basis I hear people say “I’m so OCD!”. A lot of people feel comfortable slinging the term around as though it’s an adjective, and yet it is still one of the most stigmatised disorders in the UK. Because of society shutting their ears to it, OCD now carries a whole lot of misconceptions along with that stigma. Most of the British population hear the term and immediately associate it with cleanliness, order and neatness. People tell me that surely it’s a good thing to have OCD because everything in my life is so organised. But all you really have to do is think about the term. Obsessive. Compulsive. A disorder. Does that sound like something someone would choose? People who clean excessively due to OCD don’t just love cleaning – they feel compelled to do so and it exhausts them.
When I was diagnosed, I was pretty confused. Yes, I do love organisation… and some would argue that’s a massive understatement because I make about 100 lists a day and become anxious when plans change or something minor goes ‘wrong’. But I’ve never needed to wash my hands until I empty the soap bottle or scrub at grapes with a toothbrush before I eat them (thanks, Emma Pillsbury), so I concluded the diagnosis must be wrong. But it was then explained to me that OCD is far more complex than what society has masked it as. As I said, the problem is that there is so much shame surrounding mental health and being able to speak out about it – so no one does. I still see people belittling others’ experiences and trivialising mental health with seemingly no awareness of how harmful that can be.
As my first little way of trying to help reduce the noise surrounding this topic and add something valuable, I compiled a list of helpful tips from the book ‘Overcoming Obsessive Compulsive Disorder’ which was recommended to me by my doctor. The book is about £5 to buy and I would highly recommend it to anyone who suffers from or cares for someone who suffers from OCD. Though it focuses primarily on OCD that centers around cleanliness and order, it does talk about lots of other forms of OCD and I personally found it incredibly eye-opening. So, here are my 5 favourite takeaways from the book (not including the quote at the top of this blog post!)
This is something David Veal repeats throughout the book. The idea is that you draw up a cost-benefit analysis of your OCD, and for me, this was focused on repeatedly checking various things. This analysis forces you to think about the most serious costs of not giving up your OCD and the benefits of combatting it. When you feel your motivation or perceived ability to change dwindling, you revisit this and remember why you are fighting it in the first place. The long-term benefits e.g. a happier life will always outweigh the short-term costs e.g. heightened stress while you acclimatise.
Tolerance of Uncertainty
It seems obvious once you know, but I only realised OCD is completely based on uncertainty when I read this phrase. The higher your tolerance of uncertainty, the less able OCD is to affect you. If you gradually try to increase your tolerance for uncertainty, you will slowly train your mind to stay calm when things don’t go the way you think they were going to, and accept what you don’t know for sure. This does not mean jumping in at the deep end and buying a one-way ticket to Australia with no plan (although that sounds pretty fun) – ease yourself into it and increase your tolerance over a period of time. When you break it down, OCD feeds on the fear of the unknown, and in return gives you compulsions to try to stop bad things from happening. If you take away the source of its power (fear), you starve it and it finds it harder and harder to return each time.
Be Angry at the Bully that is OCD, No One Else
This was another pretty mind-blowing concept for me to begin with. Growing up with anxiety and depression, I was always an advocate for seeing mental health issues as a part of you that you had to accept in order to help them improve. But the problem with this is that you start to see them as an immovable part of you that is in the driver’s seat and there’s nothing you can do about it. While it’s important to remain kind to yourself, especially when trying to overcome a serious mental health disorder, it is important to remember that your OCD is not in control, and not a part of you. It’s a bully that lives permanently inside your brain, and you have to kick it out! When you accept that you are not at fault and no one else is to blame either, it’s far easier to see OCD as a tenant overstaying their welcome.
What Would Your OCD-Free Twin Do?
David Veal blows me away! Again, such a simple tactic but one that has helped me so many times. Often, if you’ve lived a lot of your life combatting a mental health issue that has an effect on your rationality, the lines between what is logical and what is not become blurred. You may find yourself reacting to things in a different way than others do or behaving in ways that you don’t see your friends or family displaying. When you feel a bit of doubt creeping in about whether you are behaving reasonably, ask yourself what your OCD-free twin would do. This person is your identical twin – exactly the same as you, but without OCD… What would they do? Do that.
Your Mind is a Garden
To finish off, I want to talk about a metaphor used in this book. Of course, with my undying love for mother nature, this was always going to appeal to me! David Veal proposes the idea that your mind is a garden – a garden that you must tend to with love and care. Obsessions and compulsions are the weeds, and each time you give in to a compulsion you are allowing your garden to become crowded. At the moment I’m pulling these weeds up with the help of a weed killer (medication) but they may grow back so I will have to keep an eye on the garden and keep weeding. Apart from the fact that I don’t like to use the word ‘weeds’, I absolutely love this metaphor and it brings me a lot of comfort.
Look after yourselves x