Paralysed with worry
Drinking dimmed my intrusive thoughts and held off the anxiety, at least for the evening, but as I approached my 26th birthday, the anxiety that followed the next morning was unmanageable. I was paralysed with worry.
In the words of Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw, I had crossed the line from pleasantly neurotic to annoyingly troubled. Even a glass of wine caused concerning levels of anxiety the next day, at times severe enough to invoke suicidal ideation. And so, after a few false starts, I gave up drinking.
The first year without alcohol was transformative. It was the worst and the best of times. I started psychotherapy with a kind therapist who let me make jokes (the idea of humourless therapy filled me with dread), and realised soon after that without alcohol, my insomnia was impossible to ignore.
Although breakthroughs in therapy were some of the highlights of my days, at night, the rumination would begin. I was overwhelmed with the idea that one of my family would die, and unable to get the thought from my head, became convinced it was something that I wanted to happen, and even that I was willing it to happen.
My heart would pound, adrenaline coursing through my body. These thoughts were not new – I recognised them as one of the themes of my childhood. Certain that my dwelling on the thought would cause the unimaginable to happen, I would binge mindless shows on Netflix while scrolling through apps on my phone.
The combination of the multiple types of media did not stop the rumination but it could drown it out a little and, after a few hours, I would usually become tired enough to drift off, though it would be into a broken and restless sleep filled with nightmares.
After a few months like this, I was exhausted, and the episodes were only increasing in intensity, a cycle made worse by exhaustion. Then six months in, my therapist diagnosed that I had OCD. Although I’d maybe have described myself as obsessive, the words “compulsive” and “disorder” felt new, but as we talked more about the reality of OCD, it clicked.
Pure O, the particular type of OCD I have, has fewer physical compulsions, with sufferers primarily managing their obsessions internally. In my case, one example among many was the compulsion to force myself not to think about my family members dying, rather than to realise that my thoughts alone could not cause a tragedy.
OCD is estimated to affect 1.2% of the UK population (around three-quarters of a million people), but I had never known what OCD really was until my diagnosis; that it could be a crippling and debilitating mental illness that lurked unidentified in many, and that it could come in so many complex forms.
It is impossible to gauge how many people suffer from types of OCD, such as Pure O, without being diagnosed. Its impact is so severe that in 1990, the World Health Organization ranked Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the global top 10 leading causes of disability in terms of loss of income and quality of life, yet its reality and debilitating nature are widely misunderstood.
Many Pure OCD sufferers experience obsessions that make them question their entire being. An extreme example is Pure O sufferer Rose Bretécher, who detailed her experience in The Guardian in 2013, explaining how her OCD caused sexually explicit images of children to flash through her mind so frequently that she became concerned that she might be a paedophile.
She writes: “Pretty much everything about Pure O is secretive, '' and Pure O is perhaps so difficult to diagnose because the content of your obsessions feel impossible to say out loud, thus causing the mind to continue to compulsively self-manage.
“It’s hard to admit that you’re filled with thoughts about how someone might die, or that you’re overwhelmed by the possibility that you could throw yourself from a train platform. It’s hard to identify even that you grapple internally with whether you actually want those things to happen, let alone admit it.”