Drunk in blood


When I completed my first course of CBT two years ago, one of the ‘goals’ of my treatment had been to get to the stage where I could walk into a blood donation centre and give blood for the first time. It had been something I had always wanted to do but, for obvious reasons relating to contamination and crippling fear, I had never been able to do it. In fact, each day when I walked past the local blood donation centre on my way home from work, I always walked on the opposite side of the road. I couldn’t bring myself to walk that closely to a place whose sole business was human blood.

So, here I was, a month or two after my CBT course had ended, sitting in a waiting room of a blood donor centre. If it wasn’t such a clusterfuck of anxiety, emotion, fear and lead hot nerves, I think I could have probably found the whole thing quite funny in its ridiculousness. A contamination OCD-er in a blood centre? Ha! Walking into the centre alone, through the gates, onto blood ground, was a big enough step in itself – I suppose I could have just left it at that for one day, having at least taken that one monumental step closer to freedom from OCD. But, for whatever reason, I carried on right in. I opened the door, trying to ignore the sound of my mind screaming at me that there was blood all over the door handle. I was given a form to fill in – shit, how do I know the woman who just gave me this form hasn’t got blood all over her hands?! Where is the nearest toilet? Am I able to wash my hands somewhere?!

 I look around. Ahead of me is the Post-Donation Area – cups of tea and biscuits abound. This is where donors sit reading magazines and sipping sweet tea, safe in the knowledge that they have just done a good deed for the day, perhaps even helped to save someone’s life. They are quietly smug and demonstrably chuffed with themselves – and who can blame them? Most people don’t give blood – even though we really ought to – so, good for them I say! Feel smug, good deeders, for you have earned it! Besides, at this point, my attention has been diverted to the cotton wool pads that have been fixed to their arms to stem the bleeding. Underneath those pads, they are bleeding. Actual blood. Red, dangerous, blood. I start to wonder if any of the Smug Ones have perhaps come into contact with their own blood. I wonder if they have actually washed their hands – or are they just sitting with blood soaked hands? There is blood on their hands; these people who are now handling the tea machine and biscuits.

 I fill out my form and, there it is, in bold and in black and white. The word. The letters. The three letters that have me sitting in a clammy cold sweat, restlessly fidgeting and scanning every inch of this room: HIV. They have to ask you about it, of course they do. You can’t give blood if you are HIV positive. You can’t give blood if you have had sex with someone who is HIV positive. The list goes on. There is something about a capitalised acronym that gives weight to any term. Think about it, in the movies, you never see FBI officers running around with jackets emblazoned with their logo in lower case, do you? The authority of the Bureau would seem fairly diminished if its officers were forced to wear jackets with “fbi” on the back. No, it’s FBI for a reason – the capital letters tell you to bow down and be afraid, bitches! Be very fucking afraid. Ditto goes for HIV. The capitalisation somehow packs a punch that symbolises a greater power. You need to be scared of this.

 Having filled out my form, I take a seat and fidget my way through the next ten minutes or so. I distract myself by updating Facebook, encouraging people to donate blood if they can. A few friends start liking my status – all but two of them thinking that my status is about the act of giving blood. And in a way, yes it is. But mainly it’s a FUCK YEAH to myself because I am sitting in a blood centre and I am not screaming and I am not crying. I am just sitting (albeit restlessly, twitching like I’m on some kind of come down). A small nurse carrying a clipboard calls my name and ushers me into a side room. I’m wary of touching handles, of holding doors, who knows what the fuck is on them. But I follow her anyway, feeling a little more empowered with every passing minute.

 In the room we go through the form, she explains what will happen. She takes an iron test, which involves having my finger pricked before a drop of my own blood is squeezed into some kind of solution that apparently gives the go ahead for my donation. Suddenly, the table upon which the solution rests becomes toxic, and I am instantly very aware of my surroundings, my sense of danger is heightened and my stomach burns. My eyes are fixated on the cup of solution – how many other people have bled into that solution? And how many have then placed their punctured skin on this table, dripping blood all over the exact spot where my arm is now rested? I look at the nurse, who doesn’t seem to flinch. I am flinching. It doesn’t seem to occur to her that this table could be covered in HIV. Her hands, her pen, that form, this room. We are sitting at a table of blood and she is not even wincing. There is not so much as a disinfectant wipe nearby. Does she even wash her hands between donors?

 As she wraps up, she asks me if I have any questions. I seize the opportunity and ask her if my blood will be tested for HIV (for an OCD-er with my kind of OCD, this is a huge bonus to giving blood – it’s an inadvertent HIV test, which, for someone who is permanently afraid of contracting the virus, is quite a terrifying-but-good thing. At least I will know….). I ask her if they will let me know if my blood comes back as having tested positive for HIV. She looks more than a little concerned at this question and asks me if I am expecting it to come back as HIV positive. Suddenly realising how odd this question must seem to her in this context, I end up muttering something about how I have OCD and how this entire event is a goal of my CBT therapy. Looking perplexed but fairly reassured, the nurse looks at me, nods very slowly and shows me back into the waiting area, where I am placed in a queue to Give Blood.

 When My Time Comes, I shuffle over to the donation station, all the while trying to stay the thoughts and simultaneously pay attention to what is actually happening. A chirpy, chipper nurse introduces me to an odd looking contraption, not quite a chair, not quite a bed. It’s a wipe clean affair, which means that, in theory, it should be clean and disinfected. The thing is, I do not see the other nurses disinfecting the chairs between each donor, so now I am wondering exactly how much blood there actually is on this thing, and how contaminated this whole space is. Underneath the bed-chair, there is a box where I can put my belongings – thank Christ, because there is no way in hell I am putting my stuff on the floor. Shit knows how much blood has been on this floor at one point in time. So much blood in one place, there is bound to have been an accident at some stage – leaking blood bag, needles on the floor, open puncture wounds dripping blood everywhere; the whole room is bound to be contaminated in some way. Ahead of me there are shelves of blood, literally shelves of blood. Boxes of bags filled with human blood. Someone once told me that one in every hundred people* in Britain is HIV positive, which means that – statistically speaking – one of those bags could contain blood that will test as HIV positive. I am sweating. My whole body is on fire. I am fighting every instinct to get the fuck out of there before it is too late, before the contamination ‘sets in’, before the contamination of this bed-chair seeps through my clothes and onto my body, onto my skin and into my blood stream.

 (*I have since learned that less than 1% of the population is HIV positive, which means this statistic is way off. Lesson: question everything.)

 The aforementioned chirpy, chipper nurse sets about trying to find a vein. She gives me the ‘sharp scratch’ spiel (sharp scratch my arse!! It’s a fucking puncture!), and inserts a chunky mother of a needle into my left arm, before hooking it up to the Flimsiest Looking Bag You Have Ever Seen (don’t tell me those things don’t split all the time!). She comments on the speed with which my blood is flowing into the bag – I am not surprised, my whole body is on fire, my blood must be surpassing the speed of light if my thumping heart is anything to go by. I set to work trying to do the hilarious leg lifts and butt clenches that you’re supposed to do during the donation, to keep the blood a’ flowing. I look around and, suddenly, in the midst of the anxiety, and in the midst of feeling like I am literally drowning in blood, I start to feel a little bit smug. Smug because I am here, smug because I am helping someone somewhere, smug because fuck you OCD, look at this!! Three months ago I couldn’t walk on the same side of the street as this place, yet here I am, hooked up to a machine that is sucking out my blood. Sat next to a bunch of other people who are hooked up to machines that are sucking out their blood. Blood, blood, blood, blood, blood.

 I start feeling quite comfortable with the chirpy, chipper nurse. We begin to tread the path of small talk which is a welcome distraction, to say the least. I am feeling more pleased with myself than I have in a very long time, so much so that I cannot resist telling her that my being there is more than my being there. This is a CBT goal and I am kicking its arse (kind of). I don’t think she quite understands what the fuck I am going on about, but I can see that she understands that, for me, this is a Big Fucking Deal. She congratulates me, she smiles cheerfully and I am thankful for this moment. I know that it was a long time coming, and I know that the next time I kick OCD’s arse in this way may be years away, so I am relishing every second of this. I am being a normal person doing a normal thing, just giving blood, just living my life. Look at me. GO ME!!

 “She’s going! Let’s get her upside down!”

 That’s right, I passed out. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was emotion, adrenaline or just sheer relief that it was over. My brain probably just thought to itself, fuck this, I’m taking a time out!

 I walked out of that blood donor centre like a rock star. I sent texts to tell the people I knew would understand. They did, and it was wonderful. I was drowsy from the momentary pass-out, excited at the achievement, and just generally feeling so damn alive! At last I could count myself as one of the Smug Ones! Yes! You can just call me Ms Smuggy Smug McSmug. Then, I did what I always do, I put headphones in my ears and strutted (well, as much as anyone can strut when feeling slightly sick, delirious and a little drunk) all the way home, wearing the cotton pad on my arm with pride.

 That was two years ago. I have some way to go, but I cannot wait to be able to do that again.

 One day!

PS. If you are physically and mentally able to give blood, do consider it. You may save someone’s life. For more info, go here – http://www.blood.co.uk/index.aspx


Coming out of the OCD closet


One of the worst things about any kind of mental illness is that it doesn’t just bring you down, it can also bring down the people that you love. Every behaviour, every ritual, every oddity hovers suspended in mid-air; a musty, misty, rusty smell. Like a diseased rising damp, it creeps into the cracks, saturates the walls, leaving its grim and grey shadow everywhere. You don’t have to acknowledge it to know that it’s there. It’s in the air. With contamination OCD your home can become your own little playground of terror, your personal private hub of crazy. Zones are designated as ‘clean’ and ‘contaminated’; safe spaces gradually become smaller until, if you are lucky, you have just one small patch of ‘clean’ space within which you can live. Mine was my bed. But even that had areas of contamination on it, so that I would have to sleep in a certain position to avoid catching AIDS. That’s right. AIDS.

 For years, I had convinced myself that I was doing all of this beneath some kind of cloak of invisibility, where my parents couldn’t see. I was embarrassed and I was ashamed. I was not stupid, but I felt like a fool who had been tricked, and the last thing I wanted was for my parents to realise that I had been duped in this way. Looking back, I know they must have noticed a lot more than I realised. I cannot begin to imagine how hard it was for them, especially for my Dad who, by the time I was diagnosed four and half years ago, was effectively my father and my mother in one. As the OCD worsened during my mid-twenties, I devised increasingly elaborate ways to disguise my rituals and compulsions. It’s fair to say that, as much as the compulsions are exhausting, trying to hide them can be just as tiring. But, for however much it was destroying me, I think it is safe to say that it was doing the same thing to my Dad, albeit beneath the surface.

 When I was growing up in the late 80s/90s, OCD was not an illness that was understood by many beyond the elite circles of psychiatry. I’d wager that for most people, OCD was an incredibly rare and disturbing condition, known for driving people to madness (cue extreme examples involving social pariahs and romantic notions of genius recluses – anyone for Howard Hughes?). So, as much as I was in the dark, so was everyone else, including my parents, and because I was too ashamed to talk to them, they could never know why I felt the need to obsessively wash my hands. I often wonder what would have happened if I had just said to them, “well, I am washing my hands because I think I have AIDS on them.” Of course, my parents would have said that I did not have AIDS on my hands – or anywhere else on my body – and that there was no risk whatsoever of my catching AIDS. But I was unable to tell them what I did not understand; my own thought process was so locked and automatic that I did not now how to even begin to explain. I did it because I just did. So much of what happens is happening inside your own skull, it just can’t be seen by anyone else; the embarrassing ritual (whatever that may be – hand washing, turning the light switch on and off a set number of times, the re-tracing of your own steps) is just the final scene of the final act of this sick play.

 I remember very vividly when my Dad came into my bedroom to talk to me. I was 26 years old. My room, to someone who was not me, was an absolute tip. There were piles of clothes everywhere, clothes in plastic bags, clothes drying on the clothes horse in the centre of my room; there was just stuff piled up everywhere.  My bed had no sheet (because there was not one clean enough) and my makeshift quilt was a limp damp blanket. I was dressed in nothing but a t shirt even though it was the middle of winter; it was the only clothing I had that was contamination free. Walking into this room you would be forgiven for thinking that you were entering the space of someone who was lazy and careless – the chaos, the holy clothes horse perched like a sacred sun in the middle of the room lovingly decorated with sopping wet clothes, the bags of shit just piled up all over the place. For me, this was all exactly as I needed it. The piles of clothes were, in fact, in very specific categories depending on pre-determined levels of contamination. The piles of stuff everywhere were carefully arranged so that I would not risk brushing past them as I tread the careful ‘clean path’ between my bed, the clothes horse and my door. It was a very specific path that I knew to be contamination free. Anything beyond it was death.

 I had spent the evening doing numerous loads of washing and my Dad had come into my room to tell me that I could not use the washing machine any more that day. I told him that I did not have any clean clothes and, if I could not use the washing machine, I would not be able to go to work tomorrow – the clothes that I had left in my wardrobe were contaminated, I could not wear them. I could see in his face that his mind was made up and I was not going to be washing any more clothes that night. He asked me about the piles of clothes all over my room, I explained that they were all in specific piles and could not be washed together. He asked me why. I was too embarrassed and too ashamed to explain the categorisation system.

 I started crying. I told him that I was sorry, that couldn’t help it, that I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I told him that I wanted to die, and that I was sorry for thinking like that, but that it was true, because I couldn’t stand it anymore. He looked at me and said that he knew I couldn’t help it, that he knew that I wasn’t doing it on purpose, but if I was not able to stop what I was doing I would have to go to hospital because he did not know what to do. It was in that moment I realised that, however scared I was, my Dad was just as scared, if not more so. I could see in his face that, however hard it was for me to sit there, feeling like the most worthless and pathetic little animal, it was just as hard for my Dad to see his child like this. And that’s the cruelty of mental illness, it doesn’t just get you, it gets the people you love most. And it got my Dad. And that made me feel so ashamed, so guilty, so sad, to know that there were two of us that were being eaten by this.

 If I live to see one hundred, I will never forget that conversation with my Dad because I think it saved my life. He was the one person I had wanted to tell, but the one person I wanted to hide it from because I didn’t want him to think any less of me. Most of all, I didn’t want him to worry and I didn’t want him to blame himself, to think that he or my mother had done something wrong. My parents had done absolutely nothing wrong and no one was to blame, we were all in the dark – myself included. Now, after years of not saying anything, of trying to hide so much of myself, finally I was outed – my OCD had well and truly peaked, and I was scared out of my fucking mind. There I was, 26 years old and unable to get dressed.

 I am grateful for everything that my Dad has done for me in my life, for everything he has done for my sisters, for everything he did for my mother, but I wonder if I will ever be as grateful to him as I was in that moment, when he said he knew I wasn’t doing it on purpose. I had convinced myself that no one would understand, and that everyone would think I was doing it deliberately, that it was an act, some sick warped bid for attention. Nothing could have been further from the truth – the energy you spend, the efforts you go to in an attempt to hide this shit is unreal. So, to know that my Dad understood that this was something I couldn’t help was everything. In that moment I felt less ashamed, less afraid and less alone, and I am so grateful to him for that.

 I begged my Dad to let me have one more shower that night. He said I could, but that I was to be in there for no longer than 20 minutes. Usually, when I had a shower, I would be in there for so long that I would genuinely lose track of time. I would sit in the bath with the shower head running for hours. I would sit daydreaming about how life would be one day when I wouldn’t have this, one day when I would be normal. All the while I would be willing time to just slow down, so that I would not have to get out of the shower and face the hell of getting dressed, of getting on with every day life. Getting out of the shower in itself was a ridiculously convoluted spectacle – I would have to step out of the bath without a single drop of water dripping from one part of my body to another. For example, if I stood up too quickly and the water dripped from my one of my arms to my legs, I would have to re-shower. You see, water that has just washed me is contaminated, which means that, should a single droplet of that contaminated water touch another part of my body, that part of me is now also contaminated and unclean (still with me…?). Often I would just stand in the bath and wait for all of the water to drop off me and/or evaporate, so that I could just step out of the bath completely dry, thus avoiding the circus. This time, instead of sitting in the bath for hours, my Dad called me after twenty minutes and said it was time to get out. As hard as it was to get out, it was a relief to know that, for once, the decision was out of my hands. I would not be in the shower for hours that night.

 The next day, having no clothes to wear to work, I lay in bed all day and listened to the radio. I didn’t dare eat anything because I was scared that I would contaminate the food in some way. So I lay in bed, listening to the chitter-chatter of talk radio, welcoming the distraction of their thought processes, for it muted my own for a while. I spent much of the day crying. I was cold, still having only the aforementioned limp blanket to cover myself, but at least I was dry; I didn’t want to leave my bed for fear of somehow contaminating myself, which would mean yet another shower. I just wanted one day without a fucking shower. In the evening, my Dad’s wife peered around my door and said she had heard what I had said to my Dad the night before. She said she would help me. She asked me if I wanted a hot chocolate, I said no. She made me one anyway. I talked to her that evening and she told me that she had suspected OCD for some time and that she had been doing some research online – she had even printed out some information sheets. She encouraged me to come down and eat dinner with her and my Dad.

 That evening, as I headed to the front door to make my almost-daily trip to Asda to buy underwear and socks (most days I would throw away the underwear I had worn, I had convinced myself that it would never be clean enough), she stopped me. She asked me where I was going. I said I was going to Asda ‘for some bits’ and she said that I was not to go if I was just going to buy underwear and socks (apparently, months of disposing underwear and socks in a bin leads to suspicion, who knew?). It’s funny, you think all of your weird behaviours and rituals go by unnoticed. They don’t. I didn’t go to Asda. That night, she brought me some sheets and a quilt and helped me make my bed. I went to sleep that night warm for the first time in weeks. It was like heaven to be that warm. Later that week, she and I would go to the doctor, who would diagnose me with OCD. She spoke for me – I was too tired – and she fought for me in a way that I could not have at that time. I will never be able to thank her enough for what she did for me.

 A few days later, my sister came round to visit me with her husband and children. I was still in bed but she came up to sit with me and talk with me. Growing up, I had shared a room with my sister and, as such, she was privy to all of my weird and whacky behaviours and habits. I was surprised to learn that she still remembered my habit of switching the light switch on and off a certain number of times, for fear that, if I didn’t, my parents would die (I had, in fact, completely forgotten about that period myself). At the time, she had accepted it all in the way that children do – as just something I did. This meant that now, some 17 years later, she could accept what was happening to me but without being afraid of it, which somehow made me feel less afraid too. Her matter-of-fact-ness was comforting. She has the blunt no nonsense streak of my mother, which means she can get away with the straight talking that I sometimes need to hear, she panders to no one and no mental illness. Make no mistake she will tell it to fuck off as quickly as she’ll tell the next poor bastard who’s pissed her off that day. I admire her so much for that. It helps to know that, if my sister has that streak, somewhere I must have it too, and perhaps every now and again I can tell OCD to go and fuck itself.

OCD, medicated and fat


Since I started blogging a couple of months ago, one of the things that I have noticed is that often, when people are struggling with one mental illness, they are also struggling with another. If they’re really unlucky, they may find themselves struggling with more than that, which prompts me to wonder how on earth they face the day. I have nothing but the utmost sympathy for anyone that does this. There seems to be some kind of intersectionality of mental illness; I sometimes wonder if we have a mental-health-specific immune system. I imagine that it works in the same way as our regular immune system, so that when we are affected by one condition, we instantly become more susceptible to others. I hope that I am wrong, but it’s just how it seems sometimes. Too often do anxiety disorders seem to come accompanied either by a side dish of depression or by a secondary, (sometimes tertiary) anxiety disorder. With mental illness, there is no such thing as fairness.

When I was first put on my OCD medication four and a half years ago, I remember reading through the Papersheet of Doom that they enclosed with the meds. Among the many unpleasant side effects that go along with taking this stuff every day include: insomnia, headaches, diarrhoea, nausea, fatigue, nervousness, anxiety, feeling tense, decreased sex drive, tremor, dizziness, excessive sweating… [and the list goes on]. Hilariously, there is a disclaimer that says that you should contact the doctor immediately if you should fall into a coma. Which is always good to know. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t skipping to take my first one of these pills.

Within a couple of weeks the side effects started to settle in. I felt nauseated a lot of the time, I found that I was trembling for no reason, I was nervous and on edge just sitting at my kitchen table. There was a constant knot in my belly and I felt like crying for no reason whatsoever. And then there was the fat. It did not take long before I started gaining weight. Despite the fact that it was listed in the aforementioned Papersheet of Doom, I didn’t think it would actually happen.  But, as the weight crept on, the clothes felt tighter and I got more and more fucked off. I upped the exercise ante in an attempt to stay the swelling of the fat tide. It worked to keep my body on a fairly even keel, and minimised the fat fluctuations.

Last year, after a discussion with my doctor, she agreed to allow me to reduce my dosage from three little pills a day to two. I thought I was doing ok with the reduced meds, I seemed to be maintaining the OCD (however much you can ever really ‘maintain’ it), and in my mind I felt so relieved that I was well on the way to Getting Off Those Bastard Pills. I had always hated taking them. Hated being tied to them, hated the prospect of having my brain chemically altered in any way, hated the way they would sometimes lodge themselves in my throat, causing the white powder to puff up into my throat, a haze of compounded pollutant lacing my mouth and my nose. There is nothing quite like the pungent taste of brain altering chemical concoctions in your mouth, yuck. Of course I want to get off this shit.

Looking back now, I can see that the worsening of my OCD and gradual onset of depression was probably, in part, a result of this reduced medication. I did consider it at the time but I tried to convince myself that it was just a phase that I would have to go through as my body adjusted to the reduced dosage. I was sure that my body wouldn’t let me down, it would catch up eventually and all would be well. Except that it wasn’t. My body never seemed to quite do what it was supposed to. In the late autumn/early winter of 2013, I started to feel less and less like myself. My OCD kept going from amber to red; occasionally back down to green, but mainly hovering around amber and red. I started to feel sad a lot of the time. I was getting frustrated with myself and my apparent inability to sustain a change in my life. I felt like I was drifting backwards. As the OCD was gaining steady momentum, the latent feelings of self-loathing started their steady climb. Functioning like a normal human being seemed like a daily Herculean task of which I was just not capable. I sought escapism in Netflix, in catch up TV, in staying up listening to news channels, in leaving myself behind. And eating. I began to eat and eat and eat. It is only when I look back now that I can see how much.

Six months of over eating later and I had put myself at the biggest I have ever been in my life. These days when I look in the mirror, I genuinely do not recognise myself. I look like my old self in a fat suit. My face is round and flabby and my body is a disgrace. I hate looking at it. I wouldn’t even dream of looking at my naked body in the mirror, I am sure I would find it repulsive. My clothes don’t fit and I can feel my heaviness in everything that I do. These days, I do everything much more slowly, like an old lady. I waddle like a rotund and plump duck and I can feel my ever expanding belly spilling over like an inflatable mushroom. When I see myself in photos it makes me cry. I look so unhappy, so ashamed of my body, so disgusted with myself. My face is the face of someone who just hates herself. What’s worse is, I don’t have a shred of sympathy for myself, I look at myself and think, ‘look at you, you disgusting fat fuck! Who would look at you and see anything other than fat? Who would look at you and see anything other than a slob, a lazy, greedy piece of shit?!’ That is what I see. And that is how I feel, like I have betrayed myself in every possible way.

What’s weird is that, when I look at overweight people in the street, I don’t feel any of these things. I don’t assume any of the things that I assume about myself. I detest fat-shaming (if that is even a term!) in all of its forms. I hate that the diet industry keeps people (particularly women) chained into patterns of self-loathing/diet relapse/weight gain. I hate that, somehow, weight has become intrinsically linked to a person’s value and self-worth. I think that all women (and men!) should be free to wear a bikini regardless of whether they are a size 18 or a size 38. I think that everyone should be free to eat whatever the fuck they want without incurring the judgement and condemnation of strangers. Above all, I think that everyone, regardless of their waist size, should be judged not by the number on their bathroom scales, but – in the words of a great American – by the content of their character. But, for whatever reason, when it comes to myself, I do not afford myself the same courtesy.

These days, when I am walking down the street in big, baggy, ugly clothes, I feel ashamed. I hate being out in public, especially in daylight, because I just feel the judging gaze of passers-by. I know what they’re thinking when they see me – that I’m a mess. Because I am a mess. I am a fucking mess of shit. I sense people looking at me and I feel like I am in disguise, like I am wearing the body of someone I do not know. I want them to know that this is not me. I am not someone who looks like this. I am not someone who wears black all the time. I am not someone who scrapes their hair back into a mess without so much as glancing in the mirror before stepping outside. I am not this person. Except I am. At this moment, this is who I am.

In all honesty, I have never seen the Fat Issue as a mental health issue at all. I have just seen it is my own personal weakness, just something else I can’t control, something else that makes me hate myself a little bit more. So, when my CBT therapist suggested that we tackle my relationship with food, and that we tackle it as number one item on the list, I was reluctant to say the least. I was there to kick the crap out of OCD, not challenge my addiction to sugar. After all, compared to the ongoing hell of OCD, my fatness is just another drop in the ocean of shit. That’s how I see it anyway. However, when he explained how my relationship with food was affecting my mood (depression), and how this was, in turn, affecting my ability to deal with my own OCD, I began to see how there might be an advantage to tackling the Fat Issue. I was bowled over to hear the words ‘Bulimia’ and ‘Body Dysmorphia’ directed at me.

I challenged the labels on account of the fact that, whilst these are disorders I know very little about, I do know that they can be horrendous and debilitating, just like OCD. It would be insulting to anyone who has ever lived with either of these conditions to count myself among them.  Yes, I have a very unhealthy relationship with food. But, Bulimia? No. I hate myself in many ways, I hate how my face looks and how my body feels but it doesn’t control everything that I do in the way that it would a person with Body Dysmorphia. No. I genuinely do not believe that I fall into these categories. However, I must admit that when my therapist went on to explain how and why he had reached his conclusion, I could kind of see where he was coming from. I had always figured that Bulimia was defined by the act of vomiting, but apparently it is in the act of binge-eating, and by the person’s overall relationship with food – and, in all honesty, my relationship with food is pretty toxic. My homework for that week was to search for books and reading material on binge-eating and Bulimia (Overcoming Binge Eating by Dr Christopher G. Fairburn).

One thing that I do recognise is that my relationship with food and my own body is absolutely affected by my relationship with OCD. When OCD is at its worst, all of the shutters seem to come down, I become more vulnerable, I despise myself that little bit more. When everything seems hopeless, absolutely nothing seems worth it. Getting out of bed doesn’t seem worth it. Making an effort to look relatively normal doesn’t seem worth it, no one wants to see this, I don’t want to see it. Close the curtains and leave me be to eat whatever the hell I want and do nothing at all. Fuck it, if I am fat and disgusting anyway, what’s one more binge going to do? Why on earth shouldn’t I carry on eating myself into a sickly sugar induced stupor? At least then there is a chance that I will fall into a sugary haze that will eventually become sleep. And hey, with sleep – it’s like that Danish dude said – with sleep, what dreams may come…

If just for a while.

Did you hear the one about OCD?

A few weeks ago, the stationery company Paperchase thought it would be a wise idea to stock the following product in their UK stores:


I don’t need to go into too much detail here about the spectacular levels of fuckery that Paperchase have reached with this shit. As a consumer, I am disappointed – I thought better of this quirky (albeit at times over priced) provider of notebooks, craft materials and birthday cards. As someone with OCD, I was disappointed, insulted and more than a little fucked off.

I am often left feeling more than a little frustrated when I hear the term ‘OCD’ being used as an adjective/insult/joke in every day life (hands up if you have heard a variation of this statement – ‘I am soooo OCD about….’), as if OCD can be used as a substitute for the words ‘fussy’/’perfectionist’/’neat’ etc. I was rendered all but speechless when Channel 4, in its infinite wisdom, decided to air a programme focusing on a group of individuals who seemed to present with severe forms of contamination OCD. Instead of seeking help for these people (one of whom spent up to 19 hours a day cleaning) Channel 4 instead chose to make the most of their misery by putting them to work cleaning the homes of people they did not know. I shit you not. I won’t go into detail here, but if you have five minutes, please do read Richard Howse’s review of this hideous programme here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/tv-and-radio-reviews/9868378/Obsessive-Compulsive-Cleaners-Channel-4-review.html

But, with the ridiculous ‘OCD Hand Sanitizer’ novelty gift (!), Paperchase have well and truly stepped up the trivialisation and taken it to whole new levels of stupidity. Theirs is a product that not only pokes fun at the condition but also at all of its cruel and horrendous components – namely repetition and ritual. If the sellers and producers of this appalling product had any comprehension of how crippling the repetitions and rituals can be, I would hope they would think twice before indulging in the marketing of such spectacular ignorance. But, aside from ridiculing the many people who live with contamination OCD, the ‘OCD hand sanitizer’ also manages to insult the many people who live with a form of OCD that has absolutely nothing to do with contamination whatsoever.

Hand washing and obsessive cleaning are often seen as the ‘textbook’ example of OCD, perhaps because it is a form that has some very obvious compulsions that are easy to spot (try disguising it in a public toilet when you’re scrubbing away at your hands like a surgeon!). But OCD is a spectrum. I am no expert, my knowledge of the condition is my own, but I doubt very much that there exist even two people whose OCD will manifest itself in identical ways. Some people fall into certain categories (contamination, hoarding, checking, for example), some people straddle more than one, some all of them. Contamination OCD is just one type, there are so many manifestations of this illness that I could not even begin to compose a list in a short blog post. My somewhat elusive point is this: by slapping the name “OCD” on a bottle of sanitising gel, the producers and sellers of this product are sending the message that OCD, by definition, is about washing your hands. Fuck that, Paperchase, fuck that!

(NB. to Paperchase’s dwindling credit, they eventually decided to remove the offending product following the perfectly warranted condemnation by several mental health charities and spokespersons.)

 And then there was Katie Hopkins. I am not really sure who this woman is, although I gather she has a large number of Twitter followers. A simple Google search brings up results relating to a stint on The Apprentice, a public spat with the late Peaches Geldof and various appearances on This Morning, which I do not watch. So, how does she fit in here? In the aftermath of Paperchasegate, Ms Hopkins took to Twitter to mock the company’s decision to remove the product from shelves, posting pictures of the product with various comments: (“The OCD bridge on the outrage bus wanted to complain, but had to go home to check the door was definitely locked”). Before long (and judge for yourself if it was a wise decision, but I have no regrets) I found myself responding to the tweet with the following comment: “Congratulations for adding to the ignorance.” Perhaps I was asking for trouble, but frankly I am sick of this shit. To which she responded, within seconds, with this peach of a tweet: “Being an OCD blogger must be really challenging. Does word have a spell double check?”

In the hours after this tweet three things happened. Firstly, I was amazed at the number of people who sent me some truly spiteful and angry tweets telling me (among other things) that I need to ‘get a sense of humour’, ‘get a life’ and get off Twitter completely – extreme? I think so. Anyone for freedom of speech? Secondly, I was genuinely touched by the number of people who seemed to show support for what I had been trying to say with my short but sweet tweet. Thirdly, I noticed a soar in the number of people viewing my blog. So at least I can thank Katie Hopkins for that.

For me, incidents such as this just highlight the fact that, when it comes to OCD – and mental illness in general – we are still faced with eye-watering levels of ignorance, an ignorance that is only turbo-charged when people take it upon themselves to make a mockery of human suffering. I am not saying that we should not have a sense of humour. There is a logic in humour, particularly with OCD, because I do believe that, if you can laugh at something, you are – on some level – taking away at least part of its power. Sometimes I do have to laugh at the fucking ridiculousness of my own rituals, because they just seem so whacky. But having a sense of humour does not extend to ridicule, and that is what the Paperchase product is all about. Ridiculing and trivialising a horrific condition. If people really understood how horrendous, debilitating and isolating mental illnesses can be, only the truly cold of heart would take it upon themselves to mock those who suffer from one of the many conditions that ruin the lives of millions.

A few years ago I watched a documentary called A Little Bit OCD, where we follow comedian Jon Richardson as he seeks to understand OCD and his own experiences with the condition. Richardson visits a lady named Joyce who appears to have a form of contamination OCD. Anyone watching as Joyce proceeds to disinfect bags of shopping before putting them away cannot fail to be moved by the way in which this condition has taken over her life. It permeates everything that she does.  She explains how OCD has affected at least three generations of her family: she suspects that her father was a sufferer (which eventually resulted in the breakdown of her parents’ marriage) and that she herself was diagnosed when she was pregnant with her son. Her condition at the time was so severe that she could not take care of her own child.

She reveals that her son was later diagnosed with OCD whilst studying at university. His life became so consumed by his condition (“all he could do was pace, and he paced all day and all night”) that, whilst in the midst of completing his PhD at Oxford University, he took his own life. He was, as she says, “a victim of this horrible, horrible, illness.” Undoubtedly one of the most heartbreaking moments of this documentary is when Joyce shows Richardson her son’s death certificate: the cause of death is listed, clearly and in black and white:

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

And that is the point. Disorder. Not quirky habit, not personality trait, not adjective, not marketing joke. A disorder. A lack of order. A chaos. An out of control compulsion to act on a fucked up obsession that no one chooses. This is not order. This is not a choice. This is not straight edges and even numbers. This is not being neat. This is not cleaning. This is not handwashing. This is being afraid. This is being a mess. This is being scared to death every single day. I do not believe that there was a maliciousness in Paperchase’s decision to sell their ‘OCD sanitizer’, nor do I believe there was maliciousness in Ms Hopkins’s attempt to make light of an illness that is so misunderstood. She simply does not understand. Very few people understand, which is why it takes people like me 17 years to go and see a doctor, 17 years of hell and shame. The only reason I agreed to go to the doctor at all was because I really did believe that I was on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. I wanted to die. So, please do not trivialise our experience by ridiculing it with cheap jokes. It is just not funny. It makes us feel so small and so weak, it makes us feel like we are the joke. If I am alone and afraid, please do not make me the butt of your joke. I am not a joke, I am a walking bomb.

There is a moment when Joyce sums up the whole point of this post better than I ever could: “This illness, in its worse form, kills… It is a time bomb ticking in our heads.”