When I was seven, my parents bought a half-built house on a brand-new estate. It thrilled me to think we’d be the first people to live there. Everything would be as it should be; no yellowing circles on the ceiling, not crunchy stains on the carpet, no rotten fence posts. It would be a show house; a perfect house.
Thinking back, it was obvious I had OCD even then. My mum showed me a plan of the upstairs rooms on a sheet of paper. There were three bedrooms left after hers, and I was to choose which one I wanted. There was one huge room, with two windows and space for a double bed and sofa, one medium-sized room and one box room. I chose the box room. My logic being that it would be the easiest to keep tidy. My mum eventually convinced me to take the medium-sized room, but the huge room I left for my younger sister. Sure enough, it became the ‘play room’ and was forever a mess. I congratulated myself for making the right choice. I didn’t even let friends sit on my bed for fear of creases or my soft toys falling into the wrong order. I wanted my world to be small and manageable so that I could maintain full control over everything in it, which is what OCD means for most of us – the greater and more vague the boundaries, the less likely things will be ‘perfect’. I was a seven-year-old perfectionist.
Thankfully, as a teenager, my OCD manifested itself as wanting to be the best at everything. The silent competition I had with myself actually helped set me up for life, so the condition has its pros. It never hindered my social life and I loved going to school. In my late teens, my ODC switched to food. I was always conscious of eating the perfect balance of food groups. Carb-on-carb or meat-on-meat was a no go. If you’d given me a chip buttie I would have cried. Again, this seemed to work in my favour. I was slim, healthy and knowledgable about food.
At Uni, it was superstitions. I was always seeing ‘signs’ and thought there was a meaning behind everything – a typical OCD trait. Reading into everything comes part and parcel with doing an English degree, so my natural thought processes made for excellent critical thinking and literary analysis. OCD to the rescue once again.
I suppose I never bothered to have my OCD diagnosed because it never really hindered my life. In many ways, it was a personality trait that had helped me be the successful young adult I am. I was always aware of my need to have things a certain way and the discomfort I felt if they weren’t, as well as the fact that I lived very much inside my own head. It wasn’t until I was 25 that OCD stopped being silly little habits and quirks and turned into something much darker. I was so used to it being a positive part of my life that it felt natural to believe that when my OCD convinced me leaving the house would be unsafe, it must be right.
My OCD turned on me, and just like my seven-year-old self, I made my world as small as I could to keep things under control. It wasn’t tidiness, food or balance that evolved, but my obsession with seeing signs. Everything became a terrible omen to something unimaginable happening. I felt like I was going to die every time I left the house. So much so, that the images of my fate played out in my head. Night terrors in the middle of the day. I was being shot, stabbed and run over in my daydreams, and couldn’t seem to wake from the horror. Things I loved doing started to scare me, and before long I dreaded getting the tube or even walking down the street. Adrenalin pumped through my body every second of the day and relaxation became a myth. Anxiety, panic, ringing in my ears. All day, every day. I did my utmost to hide how I felt and yet I still wanted to be the best at everything, which tired me out beyond belief. The best thing I ever did was ask my GP for help.
A year later, I’m so pleased to say that I’m back to ‘normal’ thanks to 12 sessions of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). I still felt wary of the world, but the more I faced up to it the better I felt. In a pledge to myself that I never want to feel too scared to live a full and exciting life again, I decided to say a massive a ‘fuck you’ to fear, and to OCD, and jump out of a plane in Queenstown, New Zealand. As far away from home and safety as I could get. It was the best (and most terrifying) thing I have ever done. I no longer feel as though OCD dictates my decisions. It’s still there at times, sure, but I’ve learned not to rely on its authenticity. I have learned that fear is nothing to be afraid of, because it’s so imperative to living that we actually feel alive. Stuck in the house and hiding from the world, I felt terrified and close to death. Jumping out of a plane took my existence to another level. I felt oddly calm and accepting. I was in control of my decisions and yet completely out of control. I took a chance, and felt liberated at last.