photo by Niklas Hamann
Is overcoming OCD even possible? When all your compulsions play out in your head?
Writer Jenni Brooks shares her personal journey of primarily obsessional OCD.
How it all began
“When I was seven, I got scarlet fever. I was put on antibiotics and had two weeks off school. After that period was up, I seemed fine. Physically, at least.
After my first day back at school I watched the Guinness World Records on TV. There was a section in which a woman swallowed a sword and then pulled it up again without damaging her organs.
After the episode finished, I wondered what would happen if I went into the kitchen, picked up a knife, and swallowed it.
I remember thinking that thought was strange. I knew I didn’t want to ram a knife down my throat. But the more I thought about it the harder it was to stop thinking about it.
After that, I started getting many other disturbing thoughts. What if I stabbed my sister to death while she was sleeping? What if I gorged my own eyes out? Or if I shaved my head?
And then came my breaking point
I finally reached breaking point while on a family holiday to Greece a few months later. In a public bathroom I saw a bottle of bleach and wondered what would happen if I drank it.
This triggered a three hour meltdown. And afterwards I couldn’t even relax in our hotel room, because I knew there was a bottle of bleach next to the toilet.
Struggling to get therapy
After coming back from Greece, my parents took me to see my GP.
I was referred to my local children’s hospital, because my GP thought I may have a rare condition called PANDAS Syndrome. This is where a strep infection triggers an autoimmune response that attacks part of the brain. It can cause a range of rapid onset neuropsychiatric conditions, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
After one appointment at the hospital, the psychologist decided not to proceed with any treatment. My symptoms were too puzzling. I wasn’t displaying typical OCD symptoms, like excessive hand-washing. Instead, my main symptoms were excruciating intrusive thoughts with no overt compulsions.
I guess there just wasn’t as much talk then, even with mental health practitioners, about ‘pure O‘, primarily obsessional OCD. Where your compulsions take place in your mind. Which is why I’m writing this case study about overcoming OCD. So less kids like me get overlooked.
My OCD symptoms just got worse
After being discharged from hospital my symptoms didn’t get better, they got worse. And I also had the added guilt of believing that I made up my symptoms.
No one told me why I got discharged. I was left to assume that I had put it on for attention. After that I no longer felt able to tell anyone what I was going though.
I kept this up for six years. But when I was 13, I started having intrusive thoughts about sex.
I couldn’t make eye contact with my reflection in the mirror because I was so disgusted by my myself and my thoughts.
I couldn’t take it anymore. Finally I told my mum that I was still getting distressing thoughts. She then took me back to the doctor who referred me to mental health services.
A doctor who finally listens
photo by Humberto Chavez
The doctor was very patient. She asked my mum to leave the room so I could talk to her on my own. She told me that I wouldn’t tell her anything that would shock her, because she’d heard it all before.
At first, I refused to tell her my thoughts because I was so ashamed of them. But after a while, she passed me a notebook
and told me to write them down
. This helped greatly because this way I didn’t have to say them out loud.
This appointment in particular helped me a great deal, because it was the first time I ever really felt listened to.
She told me that I definitely had a form of OCD. Just having a diagnosis made me feel just a little less ashamed
. It meant that I wasn’t alone
and that there were countless other people going through the same thing as I was, fighting against and overcoming OCD.
The wait for an NHS therapist
At the end of my appointment my GP said that she would refer me to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
Trying therapy with the NHS
In the end I had a six-month course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) on the NHS. I liked the therapist, but this sort of therapy focuses on looking at your unbalanced thoughts.
Because I was so ashamed of my thoughts, I didn’t feel comfortable enough to discuss them in much detail.
This was especially the case with my thoughts about sex, because they were so painful and embarrassing to talk about. My therapist didn’t push me to talk about them because they could see how uncomfortable they made me.
Maybe this is why I didn’t get much out of my therapy, because I didn’t open up as much as I could have done.
I tried another three months of CBT when I was seventeen, but it still wasn’t working for me.
Then when I was 19, I also had a course of exposure therapy for 6 weeks. Exposure therapy aims to expose sufferers to triggers, so that they feel more comfortable being around them. For instance, if a sufferer is fearful of germs, they may be made to not wash their hands after blowing their nose, just so that they can see that they wouldn’t catch a serious disease.
I didn’t have any overt triggers that exacerbated my symptoms because my OCD was purely focused on intrusive thoughts. So I didn’t find this type of therapy very helpful. I think you’d need to work with an exposure therapist who was a specialist is purely obsessional OCD to have results.
What therapy works for overcoming OCD?
In the end I decided to save up so I could get private therapy instead. Then I could see someone straight away, instead of going back to my GP to be put on yet another waiting list. I could also pick and choose which therapy was right for me.
In the past few months I have been seeing an integrative therapist. And I finally have a feeling I am moving forward. My therapist combines elements of different therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), and mixes them together to make it more individualised for each client.
What is different this time is that my sessions are less focused on my symptoms themselves, and more focused on how they came about in the first place. Instead of addressing my thoughts head on, we are instead going through the reasons as to why I’m having the thoughts.
At first, I was quite guarded with this new therapist, but this was probably because I had been disappointed so much in the past and I was doubtful that this type of therapy would work and see me overcoming OCD. But now I’m feeling hopeful.
Me, beneath the OCD
I have noticed that a lot of my thoughts seem to be orientated as to whether what I’m experiencing is true or false. Am I making up my symptoms? Am I actually good at my job? Did I accidentally kill someone 3 years ago?
Now I know that the pattern of these thoughts stem from when I was little, and I was convinced I had made my symptoms up. This is why they have taken on that theme. I still subconsciously don’t know if my symptoms are real or fake.
Although my intrusive thoughts may never go away completely, knowing why these patterns re-occur has made my life a lot easier. I can rationalise my thoughts in a way I couldn’t before because I know why they are happening. I no longer feel defined by them.
You are not alone
If you have OCD, remember that your thoughts don’t define you, and having distressing thoughts doesn’t mean that you’re going to act on them.
Even though the thoughts you are having are horrifying and alienating, there are countless others who are going through the same struggle as you are. Just keep going.
Overcoming OCD is quite the battle. But whether I want them to or not, my intrusive thoughts have made me into who I am today, even though I am no longer defined by them.
Do you worry you might have OCD? We connect you with top London psychotherapists who offer therapy for OCD. Or use our booking site to find UK-wide therapists for OCD as well as online counsellors you can talk to from home.
Have a question or want to share about overcoming OCD? Use the comment box below.
Jenni Brooks is a freelance blogger and journalist currently studying an MA Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham.