I remember when I was younger, I would often take myself off somewhere and spend some quiet time writing lists. It was all fairly innocent — a list of my favourite songs or ranking my favourite football players, and I found it a nice relaxing task I could do by myself. I didn’t feel guilty or strange about doing it and I found it to be a very normal thing, just in the same way that I enjoyed playing football or listening to music. I carried this on into my teens and it was more of the same, just writing out lists of albums I wanted to buy or places I wanted to visit, although I recall that amending the list was never an option. If I wanted to add or remove something to the list then I would need to re-write it, as neatly as possible, and throw the old one away. I did this religiously, sometimes writing new lists every day. It didn’t consume much time, but I did feel a lot better for doing it. When I was about 18 or 19, I remember I developed this habit of double and triple checking things, like I suddenly became less certain of myself and needed to check. For example, I’d read about some music online and I knew that I owned the albums mentioned but I needed to go and check my collection just to make sure. I did find it a bit odd I was doing this, but I’ve always been a bit quirky, so I didn’t dwell on it, I just compulsively did it.
I remember clearly in 2006 I was eating at a restaurant with my girlfriend. On the table next to us there was a man who was going through this incredible routine before taking a bite from his food, eating it so slowly, repeating it over and over and over again. I said to my girlfriend “is this a joke? What’s he doing?! Are we on candid camera or something?!” It was just so strange to witness. Keep in mind I’d spent the last three years working with SEN children during Easter and summer holidays, so I was used to dealing with behaviours which may have been considered “different” but even for me this was really odd. My girlfriend said to me it was possible this man was suffering with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I’d spent the last three years becoming well versed in SEN and understanding things like autism, cerebral palsy, and downs syndrome but I’d never even heard of OCD. All I could think of when she explained to me about this, albeit in fairly limited detail, was firstly, how bad I felt for thinking this guy could be pranking us and secondly, how on earth does he live like this? How does he ever manage to get anything done? I just felt so sorry for him and it was agonising watching him go through this process before every mouthful. It must have taken him hours to eat this meal. Never in a million years did I link this behaviour to the things I did.
I’ve always been through obsessive interests. When I was a toddler I was obsessed with cars and knowing everything about them. I grew out of this when I discovered Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet, and this became my focal point for a few years. When I was about 7 or 8, I got into football and this became my world. I was just completely consumed by it and it’s really all that mattered to me. Then at about 12 or 13 my passion for music kicked in and has never really been replaced. Football is still a passion too, but music took over and has remained the interest which I obsess over. In 2010 I remember reading a hip-hop forum online and one contributor seemed to always write lots of lists. He got mocked for this and I remember it was pointed out to him that writing lists is very much an OCD trait. In that moment, for the first time ever, I suddenly wondered if all this list-writing, this compulsive checking, the obsession of knowing everything possible about something could actually be a more serious matter than I’d ever considered. I mean I’d never considered it to be anything, I’d never questioned it, I just did it and was very happy about it. In that moment though I felt uneasy about it and I quickly googled ‘OCD traits’. I went through the characteristics of obsessive compulsive behaviour and I certainly ticked a lot of the boxes. It was broad though and there were elements that didn’t apply to me at all but the things that did really resonated. I thought back to when I was a toddler. My parents told me that I could name every single make of car. They’d take me for a walk, and I’d name anything on the road that they asked me. I honestly have no recollection of being able to do this and have had absolutely zero interest or knowledge in cars since I was about four years old.
I felt a bit ashamed that I might have OCD so I didn’t tell anyone until 2012 when I revealed to my girlfriend, who was becoming increasingly frustrated with my behaviour, that I thought I may have it. My habits had increased and therefore I was neglecting her, instead spending time on tasks and routines which to anyone else would have seemed pointless but to me felt absolutely essential and I couldn’t concentrate or function on anything else until I had done these tasks and routines. I had started to realise that the innocent obsessive and compulsive behaviours were dictating my life — I had a disorder. It wasn’t until 2013 that I went to see my GP and told her about my suspicions, so she referred me to have a telephone interview with a therapist. The therapist asked me lots of questions and I finally felt I could be totally honest about how I was living my life. The results suggested that the possibility of me having OCD was high based on my responses. It was during this time that my job had become increasingly stressful. I was in my fourth year of teaching, working with some extremely challenging young people, and the response to this stress was that my OCD behaviours just became amplified. I was staying up until the early hours to complete tasks and routines and making myself physically unwell. Eventually, in January 2014, I was signed off work while I sought help and I now look at this period as a pivotal one in my life. The shackles were off, and I finally didn’t have to hide this behaviour or feel ashamed of it. My parents knew about it, my work knew about it and I opened up to some of my friends about it. Perhaps I sugar-coated it to some people, but I still put it out there and I felt such a relief.
Since February 2014 I have changed dramatically as a person. My self-expression increased hugely, my willingness to share my passions and interests with others (rather than keep it to myself) increased, I was able to acknowledge a lot of my behaviours even if I didn’t really understand them. I look back at what I was then and who I am now and they’re totally different people. Don’t get me wrong though I have had a lot of challenging moments since then. I’m not really sure how I come across to other people. Humorous, a bit quirky, easy going, passionate, friendly — that’s how I hope I come across and that’s how I imagine I come across. However, in order for me to be at that point isn’t always as straightforward. I’m still grounded by a need for routine and following a formula. The compulsion and obsession remain but I have managed to significantly reduce the time spent on the routines and tasks, although on a bad day they can begin to take over. It’s just in order for me to feel calm, relaxed, able to focus on things and be the person I want to be then I have to have my ducks lined up and checked off. It usually doesn’t take long but I feel like I won’t be able to function until it’s done — or rather until it feels “right”. It can be subtle, and I think only those close to me would really see it. It can be, at times, infuriating for myself and for others around me if I’m having a bad day. I still don’t know if the increased time taken on tasks is what causes it to be a bad day or whether I’m responding to a bad feeling by increasing the time I take on my routines and tasks. Is the OCD causing a feeling of anxiety or does the feeling of anxiety cause the OCD? I’m not sure it even matters really. It is though undoubtedly better and has allowed me to live a life which has been broader and more diverse than I could have imagined back in January 2014.
The problem with mental health issues, and I’m sure many will relate, is the ongoing power struggle in your mind. Does my mind control me, or do I control my mind? Is this really my mental health right now or am I pretending it is so that I can manipulate the situation to my advantage? Is my behaviour selfish to others or necessary for my well-being? In a world where people are starving to death, dying of disease, and suffering in ways I can’t imagine why should a middle-class guy, with comparatively hardly any real issues, even dare to suggest that he has a problem? When it feels as though your thoughts have a mind of its own, practicing mindfulness can help. Read this article from BetterHelp to learn more about how mindfulness can improve your mental health.
I attended a self-development course in August 2018. I had resisted it for years, had one failed attempt at it in 2015, and was eventually persuaded to do it again. This time I got a lot from it. I didn’t write this piece to promote this course — far from it — but along with many insights into different aspects of my life I also had a big breakthrough about mental health. This breakthrough is my opinion, not that of the course I was on, and it is absolutely not applicable to anyone other than myself. My knowledge of mental health is somewhat limited, certainly in medical terms, but I always felt that mental health was either a chemical imbalance or a reaction to circumstances, or both. The breakthrough I had was relating only to my situation. I realised that it didn’t matter if I had OCD or not because the OCD is as real as I will allow it to be. I had lived 25 years of my life displaying obsessive and compulsive behaviours, but I was blissfully unaware. Then suddenly, in 2010, I attached a label to my behaviours. I don’t think that adding the label to the behaviours worsened them, I think they were already worsening at this point due to other factors in my life, but it was like I had a way of bringing them together and justifying them. Why the hell do I need to label these behaviours? Yeah being compulsive and obsessive can be annoying at times but actually when I embrace them and use them differently, they can also be incredible and make my life better. I owe a lot of the best moments and things in my life to those traits. Any personality trait can be a gift or a curse, compulsiveness and obsessiveness are no different. The issue I had, and have to keep on dealing with, is the disorder element. If my life is starting to become overrun with tasks and routines, then that is very different to me doing a few of these to keep me calm for half an hour during the day.
It always annoys me when I see posts on social media titled ‘how OCD are you?’ and you have to spot which of the three pictures is different. That is simply spot the difference. If you spot it you have good attention to detail, a useful skill. It is not, however, obsessive, compulsive or a disorder. That poor man who spent hours eating his food, obsessively and compulsively following a rigid routine before every mouthful, would tell you differently. I hope that he has managed to find a way of shifting those great compulsive and obsessive traits away from a disorder so that he can live his best life too.
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