Between the ages of 5 and 10, I had two phases of being controlled by OCD. The one I remember the most seemed to be triggered by the misinterpretation I made about what my Sunday School teacher had told me. I am sure these weren’t her words, but what I took as the meaning went along the lines of “If you don’t like everyone you are a bad person… and bad people go to hell”. There was someone at the time that I did not like. I cannot remember for the life of me who that person was, but it clearly concerned me greatly that I had bad feelings towards someone and was therefore doomed to join all other bad people in the devil’s fiery pit.
Over time, this concern began to plague my thoughts and actions and resulted in obsessive hand washing and daily rituals. The OCD I experienced was unfortunately not the tidying type – I lived in a very messy room with a ‘floordrobe’ of clothes, but rather I had to tighten all the taps before I went to sleep to stop the house from flooding, and I had to say good night to each member of my family in exactly the same way. I suspect the hand washing was an attempt to cleanse myself of the bad thoughts, the rest an attempt to control everything around me so that I wasn’t a bad person who could cause the world to crumble.
If something got in the way of me carrying out my daily routine, it would be the trigger of an emotional meltdown. I vividly recall around the age of 7 being at a friend’s house for a sleepover. Over the evening the fear of not being able to carry out my routine bubbled inside me, until the sun went below the horizon and I burst into a state of panic. My friend’s mum kindly let me call home so I could talk my family members through the routine to carry it out for me (as if they didn’t already know, having watched me do it with growing concern over the preceding weeks). I did not last the night at that sleepover.
As many people who suffer with OCD find, overtime it managed to convince me that if I didn’t complete each step of my carefully crafted ritual, something bad, very very bad, was going to happen. Now when I look back I wonder what it was inside me that made me feel so important in the world that my actions could control it. If I think about it for long enough I can still get that knotty, tight feeling in my stomach that was the trigger to carrying out some compulsive action to protect my family and friends. It was exhausting, and a lot of pressure for that little child to feel responsible for keeping the planet together. My amazing family did everything they could to honour what I felt I needed to do, whilst keeping me safe in the process.
Despite how intensely this OCD took over my life, it was simply a phase that I grew out of. I broke out of the routines, the sense of overwhelming responsibility diminished and I learned that there were greater forces at play in world peace than how many times I turned the lights on and off. Something inside me decided I had punished myself enough for disliking that person and normal life resumed.
I had almost forgotten these episodes had happened, until I was out for dinner with my mum and the conversations about my childhood brought it to the surface. The stress and worry that must have put on my parents, and confusion I must have caused friends and siblings makes me feel regretful; I am lucky they sought advice of experienced people who coached them through the phase and helped me get out the other side. And I look back and feel so sorry for that child who made one miscalculation and then the whole world became a different place in her mind. And yet now, as a Cognitive Hypnotherapist, I can see exactly how it happened, because so often in my therapy room as I take my clients through an exercise of regressing to the first significant emotional event connected to their problem, they find a simple miscalculation that their still rapidly-developing mind made, that planted the seed of a problem which grew into their adulthood. Not being given a leading part in the Year 2 nativity = I’m not worthy as a human. Parents getting divorced = I’m not lovable. Being given an inappropriate complement as a child = I should not let myself be seen. As children, we are very self-involved and think that everything happening around us has something to do with us. We take learning from an event, process it using the limited experience and knowledge we have at that time, and then that learning stays there, in the background, in our unconscious mind, manifesting itself in our adult life as fears, phobias, habits and limiting beliefs.
I thought I had fully overcome my OCD by the time I hit my teenage years. I didn’t think it had any impact on me as an adult. And yet, over that dinner, as I took my mind back to that time and that sense of responsibility I had as a child, it dawned on me that there was still a little glowing piece of that OCD left in my belly. It became the fire that made me become a therapist. It’s the part of me that feels a sense of responsibility to help people, which in turn will help the world become a better place. I still, in a more positive and controllable way, have a need to make things around me better. It’s as if my OCD became my superpower, and now as an adult I know how to use it for the greatest good. I need to keep tabs on it and ensure I don’t allow myself to become too attached to, or indeed responsible for, my clients (I work in a very self-empowering model of therapy, so it simply cannot be me alone that makes them better). I need to ensure it remains a healthy little glow of passion, and not an unhealthy compulsive blaze. And I know I now have the tools and techniques to keep it in check. OCD has not controlled my life since I was a child, but it has changed my life for the better.
If you are battling through a problem or issue at the moment, I hope this gives you hope that you can get to the other side, and that on the other side you may well find your life has been enriched by the experiences you’ve been through. Reach out to friends, family or a therapist to help you get to a more positive place and then see what direction you want to take your life in when free of what used to hold you back. It might be the exact same life, just minus the problem, or it might be a new inspired existence which only became possible with a fresh new perspective.
I have never shared this story of my experience of OCD before. I’m not even sure what compelled me to share it today. But as I walk through Muswell Hill to my therapy room tonight, I know I’ll connect with that little glow and it will ensure I serve my client in the best possible way I can.