I was frail, sick, far too slim, exhausted, and lifeless
My life didn’t change that day. It didn’t happen like it does in the movies, where time slows down, voices fade to nothing and everything falls silent as what you’re being told slowly sinks in. As a matter of fact, it kind of went in the opposite direction. Everything seemed normal, my senses were fully alert and I heard the doctor say the words loud and clear. It was just a sentence, just a diagnosis, but the weight of those words would sit on my shoulders for years to come.
Four years later…
Looking up from the bed where I’d spent the past nine months of my life, I was frail, sick, far too slim, exhausted, and lifeless. It was just my dad and I in the room, and I could feel in the air that something was wrong. Before my dad even said it, I knew what was coming. He had been my anchor, my rock; heck, he had been pretty much the only thing keeping me alive, which is why what happened next was so incredibly tough to be a part of.
My dad broke down in front of me. He told me there was nothing more he could do, that he didn’t know how to help me anymore. He was crying, I was crying, and the saddest part was that we couldn’t even hug or comfort each other. It is a desperately sad memory. That was the day my life changed, the day when the penny dropped. I was sick, and that was the first time that I was acknowledging it. More than that, I was slowly dying and that was why my Dad couldn’t help letting his emotions out. And I don’t blame him either, because a parent who can do nothing to help but stand by and watch their child become lifeless is bound to hit breaking point somewhere along the line.
Now you’re probably reading this and without realising, you’ll be wondering what physical illness could have caused so much pain and suffering. Cancer perhaps? Or maybe some form of heart condition or rare illness? Let me just tell you that if we were playing a game of hot or cold, you’d be sub-zero. I wasn’t suffering from a physical illness at all. I was and still am a survivor of obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental illness.
I fully understand and appreciate that some people hyperbolise mental illness and in particular obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). If you think I am making this up or exaggerating my story then I suggest you find out a lot more about OCD and speak to people who suffer. OCD is not a personality quirk or a ‘good’ trait to have, as is so often portrayed in the media. OCD is a debilitating mental illness (one of the top ten according to the World Health Organisation) and it destroys people’s lives, strips them of everything they are, and impacts family and loved ones in the process. Life with OCD isn’t enjoyable or fun and filled with happy memories and unforgettable experiences. It’s about fighting everyday to keep a sense of who you are and not let it drag you under the waves. It’s about struggling to complete daily tasks or activities because the thoughts in your head are screaming at you to behave in a certain way or carry out a particular compulsion or ritual.
I suffer with contamination OCD, or at least I thought I did until recently. I’ve been having intensive CBT and ERP therapy (privately because NHS waiting times are far too long and I needed help immediately) and whilst undergoing treatment, I have discovered a multitude of underlying factors that form the structure of my OCD. It is both complex and yet very simple, much like a labyrinth. You know the rules: you have to start at the entrance and find the middle, but once you’re down there, in the twists of it all, it seems an awful lot harder than it looks. The same can be said about OCD. I thought I knew why I had it, but once I delved into myself, it turns out that the cause and effect of my OCD has become a lot harder to identify.
For anyone slightly confused, I’ll give you a few examples of some of the things I feel I have to do (because OCD lies to me and makes me believe I must do them to survive and feel comfortable). Whenever I go out (albeit very rarely), I have to wash my clothes as soon as I get in and take a shower, making sure that when I wash my hands no water splashes out of the sink and touches me, otherwise I would have to shower again. If I put something in the bin at home, put the washing on, do the dishwasher, answer the door or lock up, I have to go wash my hands, knowing that if water splashes on me, I’ll have to shower again. If the bed sheets fall to the floor at night or when I wake up, the bed will have to be stripped, I would then shower, make the bed and then shower again. These are just but a few of the examples of some of the behaviours, compulsions and ‘rituals’ I carry out on a daily basis, and believe me, these are just a few of the myriad of things I do because I listen to my OCD.
However, help is at hand. Due to the dedicated work of charities such as OCD Action, OCD-UK, Mind and Rethink, there are places you can go to for information, advice, advocacy and most importantly, support. They can provide you with knowledge regarding your illness, help with securing key financial support, advice on where to go to get help and/or treatment… but above all else, they’re there for you. They will listen to what you’ve got to say and do their best to improve your quality of life. In addition, the support I have received from many people across Facebook, Twitter and the like is just astonishing and I strongly believe that talking to other survivors helps. For all mental illnesses, it really makes a difference talking to someone who knows exactly what you’re going through, someone you can relate to. Reach out to someone and tell them what’s wrong. Talk to them. Find someone who will listen, because there are plenty of people out there who will. I never thought I’d be the one saying it but my dad and nan’s words hold true: a problem shared is a problem halved.
I will also add that seeking therapy or treatment is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of great strength. You are actively going against your greatest fear and trying to seek help to make yourself well again. Don’t forget that! And the therapy really does help. I was adamant that it would do nothing to improve my mood and aid with my battle against OCD and ultimately myself, but it really does work. Knowing that someone is supporting you and giving you methods to regain control of your life really is empowering and liberating. Don’t be afraid of help, because it is out there. I’m not saying you can be cured, because I personally struggle to believe that there is a cure for OCD at all. What I do know is that you can learn to manage your thoughts and feelings in a way that they do not consume your every waking moment, so that you are able to lead the life you deserve; so that you are able to be free.
I know I’ve struggled and I’ve got a long road ahead of me, a life-long fight against this, but I can’t give up hope. I can’t stop fighting. Too many people have invested so much of their lives trying to help me and make me well again. It would be wrong to throw all of that love and support away by giving in to this illness. But I also want to fight for myself now. I get glimpses now and again of what my life can be like, the cracks in the wall where the light shines in. I’ll have to walk through my fears to feel the sun on my face again but deep down, I know it’ll be worth it. To live again and laugh freely, to hug my dad and nan and feel the hope in my chest that I can find peace.
If you’re reading this and you’re a survivor like me, please don’t give up. You deserve to have a life and to be happy. You deserve to have hope. Never give up on that.
Richard first published this story on CultNoise Magazine
Categories: The Wall