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By James Poultney
My troubles with OCD began from when I was around ten years old. I began to experience obsessions and compulsions; I felt that if I did not shut the window twelve times or turn the lights on and off, then something terrible would happen. I couldn't figure out exactly what would happen, but a feeling of dread overcame me if I held off the urge.
I remember vividly at the time members of my family saying “Oh, James is doing his OCD thing again”. Little did we all know that it would develop into a more sinister and over-bearing mental illness. I coped with my anxiety and OCD the best way I could throughout my teens. I had no idea what OCD was and didn't really believe that I had it. I felt alone and thought that I was the only person in the world who had these 'silly quirks'.
Throughout my college years my OCD developed into checking things were correct and counting in my head 'until things felt right'. I became increasingly anxious and at times became incredibly introvert but did my best not to show it to anyone else for fear of being seen to be weak. I visited my doctor but was told there was nothing wrong with me. This only confirmed that I was the only person in the world with this problem and to just try to forget about it. Impossible!
At university I really developed socially and was happy and confident around campus in my first year. However, anxiety and OCD soon worked its way back into my life and I began to use drugs and alcohol as a way to cling onto my new found confidence. All I knew was that something was not right. Again I visited doctors and had some counselling, but no diagnosis was made. I would wake from vivid and disturbing dreams in cold sweats, heart pounding and feeling an intensity of despair that drove me to thinking that living like this was unbearable. Yet I continued accepting that this was how life was from now. To get through social events I would drink or take cocaine in order to appear confident and to suppress my anxiety.
This is not to say that I have had a bad life. It is just to say that I feel if I had the awareness of my condition then I could have enjoyed life more and felt more comfortable knowing that I had a manageable condition.
October 2012 was the time when anxiety and depression hit me like never before. I felt on a constant level of high alert and began to have extremely disturbing and repetitive thoughts. These thoughts never left – apart from that few seconds in the morning before I realised that the torture was to start again. The flashing images and words I could see in my mind before me: 'Kill' 'stab' 'murder' 'kill yourself' 'today is the day'. I would have constant images and urges to jump off bridges or cut myself, or worst of all, hurt someone I loved.
For fifteen years before I had lived with this unnamed monster. Now it had a name. However, I was sceptical about how therapy could work.
I began to hide knives and to try not to look at any that came into view. My OCD became torture. Every day was a nightmare for a year and a half. I was in tears every day and my family felt just as in the dark as I did. I did see a counsellor but there no mention of OCD. Looking back, it seemed so complex and I felt that I must have a serious psychiatric disorder. I was thinking perhaps I should go to hospital and beg for help before it was too late.
It wasn't until I went to my third doctor that I was sent to Trent PTSfor Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It was here that I made progress, with my general anxiety the main focus. It wasn't until the last session of this therapy that I emphasised the lack of focus on the distressing images, thoughts and urges I was having. It was here that the breakthrough was made. The words said aloud; 'It may be connected to OCD, perhaps you should read this book'. I went straight home and ordered the book. I think it was calling 'Overcoming Obsessive Thoughts'. I read the first few pages and a huge smile came across my face. Tears of relief came and the weight of the past year and a half seemed to dissipate. It talked of 'harm thoughts' being a relatively common symptom of OCD. It was a relief to read the case studies of people who had similar urges and thoughts and internal compulsions.
I booked back into PTS and began work on my OCD. I was at long last diagnosed and now knew what I was facing, OCD!
For fifteen years before I had lived with this unnamed monster. Now it had a name. However, I was sceptical about how therapy could work. I just saw OCD as something that had become a part of me and it was here to stay. I began Exposure Response Therapy (ERP). It was challenging but I knew that I had to give it a shot if I had any chance of overcoming these obsessions and compulsions. Months and months on I was still having repetitive intrusive thoughts going round and round day in day out. I thought that if I could resolve the thought and keep over-thinking it I could come to a conclusion and that would be that. This just makes it worse, you will never win that way.
I began making daily visits to a bridge over an A-road in Derby and looking down. This was facing my fear head on! I would walk up and down and measure my levels of anxiety. I was told by my therapist to face up to my intrusive thoughts. Reassuring myself was the way back into OCD's hands. “Yes, okay, I'm going to jump, I'm going to kill myself”. The same with the knives; “I'm going to cut myself, I'm going to hurt my partner or someone in the street”. Here, the support of my partner was invaluable. He allowed me to do my ERP tasks with knives to myself in front of him and to him too; on his wrist and around his throat. It was incredibly frightening but I did it!
This is where ERP really helped me. I became less and less frightened of my thoughts. Eventually my brain habituated to these 'dangers' and in turn began to face them with very little anxiety. I now use knives without batting an eye-lid. Its second nature!
It would be a lie to say that obsessions have left me. They are there but I can recognise them now and use the cognitive tools I have acquired, whereas before I thought that they were telling the truth, they were there for a reason, but I no longer think that. I am on medication and feel much more on an even-keel. I can enjoy the things I used to, I can wake up without dreading the day ahead and things look much brighter.
OCD-UK has supported me all the way. The Derby OCD Support group and the incredible people there mean I have found a place where I can talk to and learn from others. These amazing people know exactly what I have been through and can relate to the torture OCD causes in the sufferer. I now also volunteer for the charity in raising awareness of the condition.
I am open about OCD and I am no longer ashamed or embarrassed. I am proud of the struggles I have been through and survived. Likewise, to all the others who have battled through the days and months and years with this condition. It shows what strong people you are and I wish you all the best in your recovery.