Trigger warning – if you gross out easily, maybe skip this one.
One of the things that non OCD-ers may not realise is that having OCD can be expensive. It costs a lot to be this crazy; both literally and figuratively. I cannot speak for all types of OCD, but I can definitely speak for my own weird and twisted brand, revolving as it does, around the concept of contamination. To name a few things that I have been forced (by myself) to throw away for fear of them being contaminated with HIV: clothes (you name it, I’ve chucked it – t shirts, trousers, jeans, skirts, jumpers, dresses, shoes, boots, trainers, underwear, socks, tights, jackets, coats, scarves, gloves, everything), jewellery, food, handbags, purses, money (actual money), books, CDs, DVDs, a bike, travel tickets, mementos of special events, multiple bags of shopping, an mp3 player. There was also a mobile phone and an iPod (both gifts), which I technically didn’t throw away, but I did wash them until they were ruined and beyond repair. Nothing is safe. I have cut chunks of my own hair out and, whilst it didn’t cost me a penny, it did cost me a small ray of hope that day. I will never attempt to quantify how much money I have spent on this condition, because I am in no doubt that the grand sum total would render me speechless. As someone who watched her parents work themselves into the ground to provide for their children, knowing that I once deliberately left a £5 note on the toilet floor – just because it had fallen on the floor – makes me hang my head from shame.
So, here are a few examples of when OCD cost me dearly.
1. My Bike
I was, until a few months ago, the proud owner of The Most Beautiful Bike In The World. It wasn’t an expensive bike, it wasn’t flashy, it didn’t have a thousand gears, it did not have a romantic woven basket with daisies on the front. It was a simple, understated, beautiful bike. And it was mine. It gave me the freedom to dart across my city at leisure, free to come and go as I please, sweet freedom from the slings and arrows of outrageous public transport! In short, I loved that bike. One of the best parts of my day was leaving the office, hopping on my bike, putting my headphones on (health and safety officers, restrain yourselves) and just zoning out for the short ride home. Just me and my music, my heart rate pumping, skin flushed pink from the exercise, whizzing past a packed bus feeling wonderfully smug that I was on this side of the grubby window! Ha!
That was until someone thought it would be an awesome idea to leave a used condom on the pavement. That’s right, a used condom. Because, apparently, people are pigs.
Brakes on, music off, dream over. I went back to check that I hadn’t actually imagined the whole thing in a state of OCD sensitivity. No, there was no mistaking it, the disgusting shiny floppiness confirmed that it was indeed a rubber. Now, I am not sure if my bike rode over or anywhere near the bastard condom, but it didn’t really matter, a condom is tantamount to a little pouch of HIV in the mind of me. I am alone, in the street, and scared for my fucking life. What the fuck do I do? Get off the fucking bike! Do not go anywhere near the wheels, be careful not to tread anywhere that the wheel could possibly have been. Hold the bike away from you with one hand. Call Dad.
Don’t throw away the bike, he told me. It is not dangerous to me. Anything that could be on that condom will be dead by now. He told me to put the bike somewhere out of sight for a while and come back to it in a few weeks to see if I felt differently (this was something my Dad suggested in the early stages after the diagnosis. It can work very well – if I put something out of sight, usually carefully wrapped in several plastic bags, by the time I come back to it months later, one of two things may have happened. Either, I have dealt with the anxiety of that particular incident and it no longer holds the same fear for me; OR, I have completely forgotten why I hid the thing in the first place so I reason that it can’t be that bad after all. Besides, by that point, there is usually a bigger obsession to focus on (nb. at any given point in time there is usually one ‘lead’ obsession, to accompany the many ‘supporting’ obsessions) that seems ten times worse). I agreed not to throw away the bike. And technically, I didn’t throw it away because I didn’t actually take it to the tip. Instead I hid it somewhere I didn’t think anyone would find it and left it to rot and rust away.
In summary, fuck you condom litter person. Fuck you!
2. Jeans + Boots + Tampon + Rain
So I’m walking home from work feeling pretty chuffed with myself because I have just walked past the Blood Donation Centre. The reason for my jubilation? I walked right past without crossing the street. A year earlier I would not have been able to do this; I would have walked all the way home on the opposite side of the street for fear of becoming contaminated by what may or may not be lurking on the pavement (discarded blood-speckled cotton wool that a blood donor may have casually tossed on the floor perhaps?). But no, I walked straight past. My imagination, despite itching to indulge in the suggestion that was just simmering at the back of my mind (blood bags that had somehow fallen out of the back of the Blood Van and had burst onto the pavement), was well and truly kept in check. I keep walking with – as ever – music in my ears. La la fucking la.
At this point I’d like to thank the woman who thought it would be a truly excellent idea to leave a used tampon applicator in the middle of the street. Yes, you read that just fine, a used tampon applicator. Thanks, sister. Stumbling across a blood soaked used tampon applicator is never a good experience, even for those who don’t have OCD. It’s disgusting. But for those of us whose own menstruation causes anxiety [sorry but I’m not making any effort to dress this up], stumbling across evidence of someone else’s on the walk home is just one sparkling hamper of bone crushing fear, wrapped up in a big fucking red bow.
So, did I walk on it? No. Did I walk near it? No. I walked past it. So what’s the problem? Let me count the ways. First off, how do I know that the offending object wasn’t thrown a few feet from where it currently is? What if it fell somewhere else on the pavement but has since been kicked/blown/rolled to where it is now? There may as well be blood all over the fucking pavement. Secondly, it’s raining, hard. The significance of this? Water carries shit from one place to another. What if the rain has washed traces of blood towards me and it is now on my boots? Also, the hems of my jeans have probably touched the floor so they may as well be soaked in blood too.
I’m sure you’re noticing the element of perhaps/what if/maybe in this little story – and that is just one of the cunning little devils of this bastard condition: the what if, the fear of what may have been. Can you tell me that it one hundred per cent could not have happened? Can you eradicate the 0.0000000001% chance? No? Then, to my mind, it as good as happened. Only 100% will silence the wild as fuck banshee that is my imagination – otherwise you can bet your arse that I will find a way to connect that object with my transmitting HIV, I don’t care if it involves acrobatic blood particles, magical thinking or telekinetic activity. If I can see it in my mind’s eye, it’s End Game for today.
When I reached my front door, I proceeded to take off my jeans and my boots. Feeling grateful that the bin port was right next to my flat, I threw the offending items away, before heading into my flat for a shower. Some months later I was walking down that road again – the anxiety relating to the Tampon Applicator Incident had reduced and I was ready to walk on the path and face the thoughts. I had just been into town, I had treated myself to a few nice things (which I don’t often do, mainly because I know there’s a chance I will one day throw it away) and started the walk home. I was dealing with the anxiety, I was walking on. Predictably, I accidentally tripped on the uneven surface, which caused me to drop my bag of treasured shopping onto the pavement. Immediately I’m seeing that tampon applicator from months ago on the pavement up ahead, covered in blood. Here we go. What if the blood had been carried along on someone’s shoes and deposited exactly where I dropped my bag? I calmly picked up the bag and threw the whole thing – contents and everything – in the bin. In full view of a mile long line of rush hour traffic.
3. Trail of Contamination
I’m standing at the bus stop with my nephew who, at that time, could not have been more than nine years old. We’re on our way to the cinema for some precious and wonderful auntie-nephew time. Dishing out the bus money, I accidentally dropped a £1 coin on the floor. My nephew, noticing the money on the floor, goes to pick it up. I tell him to leave it where it is. He asks me why. I have absolutely no answer. Well, I do, but not one I can share with him: the answer is the Trail of Contamination. Here goes the trail: we are standing at a bus stop that is one street away from where I once saw a used condom on the floor (amazingly, not the aforementioned used condom, this is a completely separate Condom Incident. Apparently, among the many inhibitions that one loses in the throes of passion, keeping our streets litter-free is now one of them).
My fear is that someone may have walked on or near that condom. Whatever was on the condom was then transferred to their shoes, and subsequently deposited all over the pavement, wherever this person happened to walk. I don’t know where s/he did or did not walk, so I have to assume that s/he walked everywhere, including past this bus stop. Which means that whatever was on that condom is also now at this bus stop, on this pavement. That is why I cannot let him pick up the coin.
As an auntie, I make a point of always explaining to my nephew why I am asking him to do or not do something. I don’t buy into the ‘do it because I say so’ approach, partly because, as a kid, it used to piss me off. Mainly it’s because I want him to know my thought process, so that he understands why he is being told to do or not do something. This time, however, I came up so short. I had no fucking answer for him. So I said nothing and willed the bus to hurry up. I will never forget that moment, and there is a part of me that will always feel so much shame because of it. For me, the incident at the bus stop illustrates the biggest price of OCD – the people I love. In that moment, I could not be his auntie, at least not the auntie I try so hard to be, because in that moment I could not be honest and open with him. Furthermore, I loathe the message that my actions may have conveyed: that money is disposable; that you do not need to respect money, you can go right ahead and throw it away, just like a piece of trash. If my actions in that moment have taught one of the most precious people on this earth such an irresponsible and stupid lesson, I will hate that part of me until I die. OCD stopped me from being his auntie. I fucking hate it for that.
A Little Irony
Whilst I have been composing this post, I dropped my glasses case on the floor. Into the bin it goes. It would take too long to explain that one.
To sum up…
On that note, probably best to wrap this up. I’m aware that I have written fairly extensively, so I am going to keep my conclusion to three key points.
- People with contamination OCD spend a lot of money having OCD. When I ask myself where my money goes, often the answer can be found in three letters.
- People with OCD spend more than money on these three letters.
- Don’t litter. Use a fucking bin.
When the news broke that Robin Williams had died, as a result of a suspected suicide, one of the things that struck me was how many people were choosing to focus on the fact that such a funny, outgoing and happy guy – would choose to end his own life. Media looked to the ‘sadness behind the smile’ to try and find answers, overanalysing everything in the quest for clues, trying so hard to pinpoint exactly where the catalysts for this man’s misery could lie. How could someone who seemed so happy be – underneath it all – so unhappy and so alone?
No one knows what happened to Robin Williams. No one. Despite the rabidity of the rumour mill, the over-analysis and the concerned speculation, we will never know what drove him to take the action that he took. Furthermore, we do not have any right to know. Williams did not belong to us. So please, let his family grieve in peace, and spare us the speculation about how someone who seemed – on the surface at least – to be so happy, could also be someone who was suffering from severe depression. Above all, let us stop being surprised that happy people get depressed too.
The truth is there are many people who suffer with depression who choose to try and disguise that fact as best they can. They might be the bubbly ones, the outgoing ones, the couldn’t-give-a-fuck ones, the comedians, the extroverts, the smart ones, the class clowns, the one that everyone looks to for a joke and a giggle, the one that is just always so fucking cheerful. But underneath it all, they are drowning. Beneath the bravado, there’s self loathing. Beneath the bubbly, there’s despair. Beneath the sunshine, it’s fog.
They might go through their entire life thinking that this dual existence is perfectly normal. They might tell themselves that this is life, that life is struggle, and so living is struggling and that is that. They might choose the ‘laugh or you will cry’ approach and so will seek the laughter at any cost. They might break down, they might not. They might choose to go to the doctor, they might not. Whatever they do, they will seek to do it behind the curtain, propping up the façade, anything to live up to everyone else’s expectations of sunshine. Depression is, ultimately, deemed by the sufferer to be their own failure, to be their own weakness and their own doing. I am one of millions who can attest to this, because I have felt it.
But I am not speaking on behalf of everyone who has had or will have depression. I can speak for myself alone.
I went to the doctor almost eight weeks ago because I felt like I could not go on living another day the way I was, in a permanent state of fear, always teetering on the verge of tears, on the verge of what felt like true madness. The progress I had made with my OCD two years ago (following a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) had, somehow, become undone and, here I was, going steadily backwards. At least that’s how it seemed. This time, unlike five years ago when I had no idea what OCD really was, I could see the signs for what they were – symptoms of the disorder. One of the consequences of this, of realising what was happening, was that, as the OCD monster gained momentum, I gradually sunk into a deeper and deeper depression. It was so gradual that it was, to the untrained eye (like mine), undetectable. I dismissed periods of hopelessness as just that – specific episodes that were unrelated and incidental. I would tell myself that I was hormonal, or that I was letting the OCD get to me; that I was temporarily stressed because of [insert life/work/whatever here]; that what I was experiencing was nothing more than a period of low self esteem or melancholy.
Imagine my surprise when the doctor told me that, in addition to the OCD, I was also depressed. I had spent most of the appointment talking about the OCD, I didn’t use the word ‘depressed’ once, it was she who said it first. And it went off like a fucking firecracker. Depressed? No. I am feeling down because I have OCD and it is beating the shit out of me. Depression? No. Why the reluctance to use the label ‘depression’? I don’t know. Perhaps I just don’t want to add another dysfunction to my already dysfunctioning and dysfunctional brain. Perhaps I am just so sick of not having my own brain on my side. I am sick of it letting me down, time and time again.
But I think mostly because it feels like a betrayal of myself, or at least to the myself that I am to everyone else. To outsiders, I seem like quite a happy-go-lucky and positive person. I love nothing more than to laugh so much that my stomach literally aches. I love putting headphones in my ears on the way to work and imagine that I am Beyoncé on stage at Glastonbury, gold jacket and black boots, fuck you Monday morning. I will walk with a strut if I have music in my ears, smile on my face, and I don’t give a shit who can see or hear me. I am the person who will bound into work late with an excessively elaborate account of a mundane non-event that occurred on the bus that morning. I’ll wax lyrical about the fact that the bus driver wouldn’t let me on board with my hot drink – oh the injustice of having to choose between catching the next bus or throwing my cappuccino away before I’d had a single sip! I won’t mention that I had several showers this morning, just to ‘decontaminate’. I’ll spend most of the day humming and clicking and randomly singing verses from an eclectic back catalogue of who knows what. I’ll randomly burst out laughing when I remember something hilarious that happened ten years ago. To them, I am happy.
But – and this is what gets them – all of the happiness, all of the bubbly, all of the sunshine, is also a mosquito net. Because it shuts out the noise, it blocks out the OCD, it blocks out the constant fucking fighting in my brain, the constant obsession about contamination, about blood, about HIV, about death, dying, don’t let them die. It blocks out the YOU ARE FAILING that is the undercurrent of everything. It mutes the YOU ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH that is always there, like a creepy wind-chime at the bottom of your neighbour’s garden that catches the breeze at the worst moment. Catches your heart, announces the doom.
I don’t like scary movies, not at all. I cannot watch them. I already spend so much time being scared, so much time living in fear of my own mind, that if I find myself at a cinema weighing up my options, you can bet every penny in your wallet that I will not be watching a film that exists for the sole purpose of making me feel afraid. I’ll take the ‘chick flick’ any day – and I can’t stand those films – because I would rather laugh at something ridiculous for a little minute, than be forced to experience physical distress at the hands of an over zealous film director. If I find myself channel-hopping late at night and happen across something that contains scenes ‘that some viewers might find distressing’, I will always seek to rectify this by jumping onto the nearest comedy channel. I am thankful for the endless re-runs of various American sitcoms that slow the racing inside my mind, replacing it with the soft chuckles of the studio audience. What a wonderful sound that is.
When people wonder how I can sit and watch the same episode of Friends so many times over, or how I can watch the same films, on a loop, without feeling anything close to boredom, I understand why they might find such a habit slightly strange. After all, what they are seeing is someone who is being entertained in a passive way; they see someone transfixed by images, by sounds, duped into believing that what they are watching can be real life. Ultimately, they see someone who is transfixed by the doing of nothing. But that’s not quite right. I am not transfixed by the doing of nothing but by the thinking of nothing that can happen for brief moments when I know what’s coming and I know I’m going to find it fucking hilarious and isn’t that beautiful. There is nothing passive about my laughter; I am laughing my arse off because it helps.
Similarly, when people ask me why I am always singing, I want to tell them that my voice – as tuneless and keyless as it truly is – does a pretty good job of drowning out the intrusiveness of the thoughts and the accompanying physical symptoms of anxiety. And that is all. I can force myself to be happy on the outside, because it helps me to deal with what is going on inside. I get to trick my bastard mind into thinking that everything’s ok, and that the power is all mine really, that any time I want to, I can start singing some stupid pointless nursery rhyme about an egg that fell off a wall (although really, whoever said he was an egg?), and all of the shit – the OCD, the doom, the bleak, the YOU ARE NOTHING – will have to get to the back of the queue for a while. I have a song about an egg to sing.
But it’s a temporary fix, a uniform donned to get through the moments. Right now, I am unable to do this. I am too tired, too exhausted, that I cannot see how I will get past this phase of my life. I wonder if I have said goodbye to that person forever who can find respite in eccentricities, I wonder if I will ever be happy again. I feel hope that I will, and I know that I am so lucky for that. Some are not so lucky.
So next time you read an article that falls into the trap of looking for the ‘sadness behind the smile’, be that article about a celebrity or not, remember that a person’s happiness and their sadness are not necessarily opposite sides of the same coin, nor are they the opposing ends of some metaphorical seesaw of emotions. It is not necessarily the rule that this person must be either happy or sad, but that they are happy precisely because they are also sad. These are intricately linked emotions, and their incestuous relationship is less a case of when one is up the other is down, and more a case of doing everything possible to prevent the tip-over. Theirs is an ever trembling tightrope of momentum that seeks always to maintain the illusion of balance, of equilibrium and of something that sounds like normality.
If you have taken the time to read this post, I would ask one small favour: that you also take the time to share information about mental health awareness via your blog/Facebook/Twitter etc.; that you post one link to a mental health charity anywhere in the world and encourage others to do the same; that you donate £1 to a helpline that will reach out to those people who are facing the darkest hours of their life.
As someone with contamination-type OCD, it doesn’t take much for something small to sew a seed of doubt which, with the passing of time and obsessive rumination, becomes an instrument of fear, rendering me genuinely frightened and afraid. As such, at times of high anxiety, I tend to avoid any kind of exposure to media (TV, film, news articles) that might exasperate my fears. For example, despite the fact that it is one of my favourite films, I have not been able to bring myself to watch Philadelphia (the 1993 film starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington) since long before my diagnosis, simply because there is a scene that acts as a trigger for my own anxieties. The distress it causes means it is just not worth it. Similarly, I can’t watch anything relating to HIV/AIDS and I find myself switching channels during any kind of cleaning type show that seeks to glorify obsessive cleaning behaviour: How Clean Is Your House? Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners, Your Hotel Room Will Kill You etc. Okay, I made that last one up, but you get the idea.
It is because I am perhaps overly sensitive to themes relating to germs and various illnesses, that I can get very annoyed (read angry) when I come across some spectacularly irresponsible (read stupid) marketing campaigns. Step forward Dettol and its ‘No Touch Hand System’, a soap dispenser that senses hand movement and dispenses the soap, without any need for the user to touch the dispenser itself. Let me be clear, I have contamination-type OCD – I once convinced myself that the red sauce on a pizza could potentially be contaminated with blood; several months ago I threw away an actual bike because I thought it was contaminated and could, therefore, kill me – and yet I can see through the bullshit of this.
Aside from the contradiction of its own campaign (our product kills 99.9% of bacteria, but we’re not quite sure about what’s lurking on your hands, so we’d better not let you touch it), marketing of this kind is just fucking dangerous. Yes, I get that you are trying to sell something. Yes, I know that there is a marketing premise that dictates that you must create a problem to then provide a product-based solution. But with this campaign, Dettol has gone too far, and Dettol is not alone. How many times have I seen adverts for germ-assassinating sprays/wipes/soaps that paint a picture of their product as the only thing that stands between you and the annihilation (via household germs) of your entire family?
Everything in these adverts, from the chilling horror-movie music and its accompanying sinister lighting, to the personification of evil germ-creatures (contrasted nicely with the innocence of children playing in the background), suggests that an Armageddon is lurking just round the corner if you fail to buy this product. As a marketing tool, it’s an absolute coup: the underlying message here (which is, interestingly, nearly always targeted at women/mothers) is that you alone are responsible for protecting your family against impending doom, and that only by buying our product will you be able to safeguard against the (always) 99.9% of all germs ever. Talk about pressure.
So, onto the underlying argument or ‘logic’ of the Dettol campaign in question, the ‘No Touch Hand System’: you must wash your hands using our product (interestingly labelled a ‘system’, in order to perpetuate its own underlying myth of logic and science), because our product will keep you safe. Our product will prevent the aforementioned annihilation of your family. Use it, bathe in it, but be sure not to come into contact with the bottle that sources it, because that right there is a hotbed of disease and viruses. Hold on, Dettol, just hold on. You just told me that your product is basically a super-product that will save the world, and yet you cannot guarantee that it will kill the germs lurking on its dispensing spout? Would you care to rethink the claims that you make about the apparent superpowers of your own product, this apparent ‘system’ of protection?
Of course, I am exaggerating for effect (just like you, Dettol), and that’s because irresponsible marketing pisses me off. It’s because irresponsible marketing like this goes beyond the trickery of everyday advertising, relying as it does on the creation of a genuine fear in the mind of the viewer. Worse still, it relies upon the explicit manipulation of the public’s perception of danger. I can see through the absolute hokum of this, but not everyone will be able to. And that’s not because I am smarter, more intelligent or more resistant to media terror (I am not either of these things, and I freely admit that I have been at the mercy of the terror on many occasions), but because I am lucky to see it for what it is. Perhaps I was just having a good OCD day when I saw the advert for the first time. But that will not always be the case.
The danger is that someone somewhere will see this advert and – make no mistake – it will plant a seed of genuine fear in their mind. Speak to people with anxiety based disorders and so often will they tell you that the trigger of their anxieties was something that, to most people, seemed harmless and small. Too often, it only takes something that is so seemingly insignificant to tip that balance, to awaken an otherwise dormant volcano. Once that damage is done, you will have a hard task trying to reverse it before the fear engraves itself upon the thought processes of that person’s mind.
I am in no way suggesting that Dettol is triggering anxiety disorders across the population of Britain. No. Anxieties of all kinds sit within a complex spectrum of illness, with many causes and many manifestations. I am no expert – I am no psychiatrist, psychologist nor scientist. But I sit within the spectrum, and it infuriates me beyond words to see large well-known companies like Dettol acting in a way that is so careless and devoid of consideration for the public, a public comprised of human beings like you and me. I am also not blaming Dettol for seeking to maximise its profit margins with new and elaborate campaigns such as this – its business is profit and profit alone, its goal is to make money, first and foremost (despite the well-chiselled image as gatekeeper of our home and health).
What I am doing is asking the likes of Dettol et al to think. Just think before you make the claims that you make, think before you market your product, think before you choose to sew a seed of fear that is not only unnecessary but is also illogical and potentially dangerous. The question is: for however many units that Dettol sells as a result of marketing campaigns like the ‘No Hands Touch System’, how many of those are being sold as a result of little else but a commercially constructed fear? And is this right?
There are some days when, despite the on-going monologue (or should that be dialogue?) that’s thrashing around in my head, I find I am able to accept that there is a part of me that will always struggle with this thing called OCD. I don’t like it, in fact I hate it, but I accept it. And I understand that they are just the cards I have been dealt. My cards could have been infinitely worse. Then there are days like today, when I don’t know anything at all. When I can’t compose thoughts in my own mind without crying, can’t think about anything beyond the sadness. I am grateful that my tears are warm, even if they are salty. If they were cold it would seem worse somehow. I welcome the dehydration headache brought on by tears, for it distracts me from the thoughts. I can’t tell which is screaming the loudest, the depression or the OCD.
OCD is a bully. It makes you feel worthless, weak, pathetic, crazy even. It makes you do the very things that you don’t want to, It’s such a fucking snake, crafty and convincing enough to trick you into believing that it’s the only way to keep safe, to prevent disaster. It forces you to ignore all logic and reason in the name of a compulsion. It holds a gun to your head, all the fucking time. How many times have I wished that I could erase the settings of my own mind, restore original factory settings like some kind of external hard drive, clean up everything in it – even if it means losing my memories and myself – so that I could start again. OCD makes you feel small and insignificant. It turns living into a battle of wills, both of which are your own. It makes you hate the sunrise, despite its beauty, purely because you know it is all about to begin again, and you haven’t had enough sleep to function with a normal mind, let alone with one that has been hijacked.
Sometimes, I feel like nothing more than a vehicle for someone’s cruel little joke. Let’s see how far we can go with this one. Will she really take her trousers off on her own door step, in full view of any passers by, in the name of contamination? The answer is, of course, yes. And I can’t even describe how much it hurts to know that about myself, because I am smart. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a genius but I am smart. I have a decent level of intelligence and I like to think that I am fairly open-minded. I despise the blind acceptance of ignorance of any kind, not only because ignorance needs nothing but itself to breed, but also because, at the root of all hatred is ignorance. Why am I saying this? Because I am trying to demonstrate that I am of sound mind. Compos mentis. And yet I allow myself to get tricked into this.
And I guess it’s precisely because of that, because I do know better, that I find it so incredibly sad. I feel used. And I hate myself for not being able to say no to this. I hate myself for giving in, time and time again. Stand up to the bullies! That’s what they say. Try standing up to this one. Every minute of every day, no breaks, no on-call room to find refuge for a few hours before the next exhausting and soul-crushing shift. Because even when I sleep I see blood, and even in my sleep I can’t accept it – I am afraid and I am frightened. And those are the days that I wake up wondering if I have contracted HIV through my own thoughts. And that’s pretty terrifying.
I begin to lament the waste, the waste of the years that I have spent locked in battle with my own mind. What’s worse is that I am fighting a struggle of my own making – so how dare I be so sad? There are people fighting battles with real illnesses. Illnesses that are eating at their own body, illnesses that force loved ones to watch them rot away. How the fuck dare I talk about my own struggles? So, on top of the shame, the worthlessness, the dead hope, there is the guilt of knowing that I do this to myself. And that’s when I start to question the point of me, and I begin to wonder what it’s all been for, what have I really brought to this planet? I have made myself miserable. I have made others miserable on my behalf. And for what? Blood? Life? Death? What?
And I know I am not alone. There are so many people living with this fucking shit. And I’m not just talking OCD, there is a spectrum of anxiety disorders, mental illnesses, disorders of the mind, that keep people in prison for so much of their lives. One of the greatest keepers of our existence, one of the greatest gifts that evolution has given us – the ability to sense danger – has become our enemy. Nature’s protection, one that resides within all of us, has become confused and frightened. It has somehow slipped into the highest gear and now the gear stick won’t fucking budge. So what or who protects us now?
This is why we can’t leave mental illness to government, to bureaucrats, to management. This is why we must all help one another, in whichever way we can. Even if we can’t do much, even if it’s responding to a post in an online support group letting someone know that they are not alone. Even if we can do no more than just sit by someone’s side as they are staring into the face of hell, just so they know that there is someone outside of the nightmare, who will be there when they come back. Someone who will be there to say, ‘you are not alone. You are going to be ok.’
(Someone posted this once, and I thought it was perfect…)
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness….” – Maya Angelou
As someone who has lived with a spitefully cruel, and frequently debilitating, mental illness, there are times that the only heaven I can find is in music. It’s one of my biggest regrets that I can’t play an instrument or sing particularly well. I would love to be one of those people who can perch themselves by a grand piano and just play, or be someone who could sing so beautifully that I could soothe my own sorrows by painting a masterpiece with song. The reason for my regret is that music gives me hope, gives me strength and – for however fleeting a moment – it gives me a shot of soft sedation that hushes the roar of OCD for a little while. Which is why I am grateful to those who make it for the rest of us to enjoy. I am sure I am not alone when I say that music can dilute the loneliness of anxiety, can comfort you when you feel at your most alone and can be the arm of a friend when you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, alone and frightened.
It doesn’t have to be a specific kind of music – it can be any kind of music – but if you can find truth in it, there is heaven there. Sometimes, I put music on to try and sound out my own brain, to drown out the OCD shit that is on continuous repeat in my head. When I’m walking down the street, I love to have music in my ears and sing my heart out. In the street, yeah. Just the music and me, not giving a shit. Sure, I probably look odd to the casual passer-by, but really, when I think of the things I have done in the name of OCD in full public view, well, I think singing to a song whilst walking along in the sunshine is probably the least attention grabbing of all of them.
Last month, I threw an entire handbag and its contents into the bin, because I had it in my head that it was contaminated. I tried to hide in the toilet cubicle until everyone had left but, after standing there for what seemed like forever and her mother, I decided I just couldn’t stand there any longer (public toilets are a terrifying nightmare at the best of times). I walked out of that cubicle, dumped my bag in the bin, scrubbed my hands, then got the hell out of there. Oh, then there was the shoes incident (or Shoegate) of a few weeks ago: in the midst of an OCD freakout (as I call them), I had thrown my shoes in the nearest public bin, and forced myself to cycle all the way home in just my socks. Which, by the way, is pretty painful as pedals are not made for those of us prone to throwing our shoes away. So yeah, in terms of embarrassing myself in public, I’ve done it all. So forgive me while I sing my heart out for five minutes.
I can be having a day of monumental OCD shit, but if I can just listen to a voice, a word, a lyric, and just feel ok for a little while, even if I know it won’t last, well that is a respite worth having. And you know, those few minutes where I am in the song, where I can hear nothing else, not even myself, only music, I don’t give a fuck about OCD. It can fuck off. Right off. And I feel a happiness that it can’t touch for those few moments. Its shadows are nowhere, because with music there is only sun. Everywhere.
And sure, the song will end, and that fleeting feeling of elation will go, but at least I had it, if just for a few minutes. I felt something that wasn’t fear, or dread, or shame, or guilt. I felt music. In my ears, in my throat, in my heart, in the goose-pimples on my skin. It’s the most wonderful high I know. When the blood in my body seems to get zapped by that music and my pulse seems to shift to keep time, when the roots of my hair seem to start swivelling and shuffling on my scalp, I swear they are moving to this music! Suddenly, I am smiling for no reason, other than music.
Sometimes, I will be abruptly ripped from this moment of peace, when I see something on the floor that brings me back to OCD (is that blood? Did I stand on it?), or when I happen to see anything that prompts a chain reaction of thoughts and dread. And then I am back to hating myself, and hating everything, hating the fact that my brain seems to hate me. But, that’s all the more reason to cherish the moments of escape. And feel grateful for those that dedicate their life to making music for us. To those who can sum up our greatest loves, our greatest fears, our greatest strengths, our sharpest falls, in just one little verse. To each of these I am so grateful.
And so, onto one of my favourites of all, Ms Janelle Monáe. I could write for pages about how much I love this woman, about how much I love her music and everything that she stands for. But there is one song that speaks to me as someone who struggles with a mental illness. Its lyrics bring tears to my eyes every time, tears of sadness, of shame and of helplessness. But they are also tears of joy, the joy of knowing that there is some kind of hope out there. For however brief the moment, the words bring with them a surge of optimism that the daily popping of the pill packet does not. When I listen to this song, I don’t look down, I look up. I don’t look at my reflection in the window, I look through the window, at everything that is beyond. I look to the infinite sky that leads to an infinite space, instead of looking shamefully at the floor, with its drains that lead to sewers. It is rare to find a song that literally seems to speak to your mind, whispering its message to you alone. As if it knows what you’re thinking, as if it’s sole purpose was to reassure you that things will get better, that you will be ok, and that you are worth so much more than the pain that suffocates you. And it is truly the sweetest breath of fresh air you will find on this earth. The hope.
I am fairly sure I will never get to thank Janelle Monáe in the flesh for this song. But if I did, I would hug her, and tell her that her voice and her song have reached out to me in some of my bleakest moments of reflection. When I am standing in the dark and cold shadows of my mind’s canyon, its words bounce gently down to me, giving me something to hold onto, to bring me back up, so that I can stand and face the sun at last.
The moment is quick, and gone too soon, but I am so thankful for every second of it. For those seconds of not being OCD, of being free.
“Victory” by Janelle Monáe
Today I feel so troubled deep inside
I wish the tears would roll back in my eyes
Will I rise?
Oh I’ll keep singing songs until the pain goes
If loving you means fighting till the end
Then I’ll fight harder baby just to win
And if tomorrow shall come to me
I’ll count your every kiss as a victory
Cause to be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
To be victorious
You must find glory in the little things
Surrounded by the schemes and senseless lies
And blaming others, feeling victimized
Oh tomorrow, one day they’ll know
To win you’ll have to lose all the things you know
Trying to light the fire deep inside
Father take all the fears and sorrow from my life
Cause when the rain falls
My seed will grow
I’ll be further to my dreams tomorrow
There’s a greater love
In the little things (oh the little things)
It’s the little things, all the little things
You’ll find a greater love in the little things
There’s a greater love, love, love..
You can listen to the song on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-TrxrKyQMXc