OCD and Me

Bumblebee28th July 2021

Long before I got my autism diagnosis, I was living with a very different kind of condition – one that still plagues me to this day. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

For anyone unfamiliar with it, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or OCD for short) is a mental health condition where you frequently have negative thoughts that cause great anxiety, followed by a series of repetitive actions to try and relieve said anxiety – all of which is typically out of your control.

It sucks, it’s exhausting and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. (Even though I can think of one or two people high up on my “enemies list”.)

If you’re reading this and you also have OCD, I understand what it’s like and how it feels. Though the way our OCD affects us may be different, I can empathise with the struggle.

Unfortunately, I don’t have all the tips, tricks and answers (on dealing with the condition) in this blog. Rather, I just wanted to tell you about my OCD and my experiences living with it for almost 20 years.

In the beginning…

I first noticed these strange new behaviours when I was 13/14 years old.

They mainly manifested in my reading ability; which caused me to start reading a sentence, stop before I’d finished it, then start the sentence from the beginning again. But every time I started again, the amount of the sentence I read got less and less. (This meant a quick 5 minute read turned into 30!)

I didn’t think much of it at first. Being in school at the time, I thought they were “techniques” my brain put in place to help make sure I did my homework properly. But when my classmates started to notice this behaviour, that’s when I REALLY started to notice it.

Terms went by, until it was time for me to do my GCSEs. (This is when my new “quirk” really exploded.)

Exam revision became really difficult – almost impossible – to do in groups, since people kept looking at me and giggling. (This just made me feel more and more embarrassed about what I was doing.)

And when it came to the exams themselves, I actually COULDN’T FINISH most of my papers because the reading took up SO MUCH of my time, that I couldn’t physically reach the end of them!

I still managed to get decent grades in the end, so it wasn’t a total disaster. It was just really humiliating that it happened the way it did.

Off to work I go

My time in school was (finally) over. The next phase? EMPLOYMENT.

By now, I recognised my new “behaviours” as OCD. Reading continued to be an issue in all the jobs I had, making tasks like checking deliveries and stock counts much longer (and harder) than they needed to be. But during that time, my OCD started to “evolve”.

I now needed to CHECK things – over and over and over again. For some reason, my brain just wouldn’t trust what my senses were seeing or feeling. My brain just wasn’t satisfied that:

  • An electrical socket was turned OFF and UNPLUGGED,
  • The taps weren’t RUNNING,
  • The lid on the milk bottle was ON TIGHT, and
  • All the doors and windows were CLOSED and LOCKED.

I had to “go over” these things (and others) and CHECK them as many times as it took. As many times as I needed, until my brain would finally say:       “OK, it’s safe. Move on to the next one.”

Sometimes, I couldn’t even LEAVE MY HOUSE! Not because I didn’t want to, but because I just couldn’t. All of the “checks” would get TOO MUCH for me to deal with, and I’d resign myself to a day “trapped” in the house – cancelling any fun activities I had planned outside.

It all made daily life really difficult, and I was constantly feeling embarrassed – especially in front of my parents. They couldn’t understand what was going on. But then, neither could I. Why was I suddenly finding the simplest tasks SO DIFFICULT to deal with? It all made me feel quite pathetic.

But time went by, and I worked all sorts of jobs all over the place. Until I thought I’d finally found the perfect place for me. I got myself a job in Cardiff’s BRAND-NEW doughnut shop.

At this point however, my OCD had “evolved” even further. This time, to include the hand washing rituals stereotypically associated with the condition. (I think this change was brought on by the fact I was now working with food. I didn’t want to “contaminate” anyone or anything, so I got really paranoid about cleanliness and hygiene.)

The OCD made working in such a fast-paced industry really challenging, and I often felt like I was the weakest member of the team. But my bosses and colleagues were really supportive. I kept working hard and despite the difficulties, I enjoyed working there for 4 years.

But then, something happened…

Demolition in Progress

I was signing out from my shift one day, when one of my “Team Leaders” decided to have a little joke at my expense. (I say Team Leader in air quotes, because she didn’t really act like one.)

She decided to make fun of my OCD – TO MY FACE!

Now I knew this Team Leader well, as I’d worked with her for the whole 4 years up to that point; which is why the joke felt so “out of left field”. But what made it all sting more was the fact that the joke was also made in front of a brand-new member of staff.

This joke DESTROYED ME (and I’m not over-exaggerating when I say that). I felt like all the hard work I’d done to better myself in the years since leaving school, and learning to adapt to this “new way of living”…… All undone in the space of 10 minutes.

The whole incident made me so upset, and I couldn’t bear the thought of working another shift in that place. Even on the days where I physically managed to go back and try doing another shift, I’d burst into tears almost immediately and had to leave.

All of a sudden, I didn’t feel safe there anymore, and I started to think: ‘if 1 colleague expressed those things about me, what must everybody else be thinking about me?’

It was then that I knew – I just couldn’t stay at the doughnut shop anymore. I HAD TO GET OUT OF THERE. I HAD TO LEAVE.

But what was I supposed to do next?

From the Ashes

The doughnut shop incident put me in a really bad place for quite a while. But like any good gamer, I couldn’t sit with a “game over” for too long. I had to keep playing.

I spent some time working on MYSELF. During which:

  • I went back to education, where I studied Creative Arts in college for 2 years. (It was nerve wracking, especially since my last experience of education didn’t leave the best impression. But I’m glad I was brave and managed to do it.)
  • I got my autism diagnosis when I was around 26 (while I was in college), which has given me a great new community to be part of.
  • I got a new job, working in a supermarket over Christmas. (It was only temporary, and a crazy time of the year to be working. But my bosses were really understanding, and it was overall a positive experience.)
  • I’ve been drawing pretty pictures, and doing all manner of creative things, working for the Autistic Minds charity for the last few years.

(Maybe I could write a blog for some of those adventures some time in the future? Who knows. Watch this space.)

It’s taking a while for my self-confidence to build back up again, but hopefully I’ll get there one day. I just need to take my time, TRY and be patient with myself and do things in my own way.

Unpleasant Protector

I sometimes find it hard to explain to people what having OCD feels like. If there was a way to let other people be “passengers” in my brain, so they could get the experience first hand, then that would be the best way to understand it.

(But as of the time of writing this blog, such technology unfortunately doesn’t exist. So I’ll just have to do my best here.)

For me, having OCD feels like having a thug or bully that you have to pay “protection money” to. (Imagine the relationship between businesses and criminals in gangster movies.)

The OCD hurts me, it makes my life more difficult, and I often feel like I can’t “disobey” it – but it also keeps me safe. It’s a horrible and exhausting thing to deal with every day, but it’s been with me for so long, that I think I’d probably panic A LOT MORE if I didn’t have it.

It’s not an ideal situation to be in, but I think it’s “helped” me get as far as I am now. And if it ultimately helps me feel safe, then I’m reluctantly willing to let it stick around.

For now, at least…

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