In this piece, guest contributor Mia (who is a using a pseudonym to protect her privacy) discusses her struggle with OCD. She was a successful student and promising academic, and yet most of her friends and colleagues were unaware that her serious OCD made her life almost unbearable. After reading her piece, it may be worthwhile to take a moment to think about who else in your life might be fighting a secret battle.
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My journey with mental health started with mild OCD when I was 9 years old. Technically speaking, OCD is relatively simple to explain. People with OCD experience frequent anxiety-inducing thoughts or urges (“obsessions”). To neutralize these thoughts, they feel compelled to engage in repetitive behaviours or mental acts (“compulsions”). For instance, many people are familiar with the example of an OCD sufferer who has obsessive thoughts about germs, leading to a hand-washing or cleanliness compulsion. But my OCD has taken so many forms over the years that sometimes I find it hard to believe they all fit under the one diagnosis.
It started with symmetry, order, germs – and then it got worse.
It started with symmetry, order, germs – and then it got worse. I experienced severely distressing obsessive thoughts that I am still not comfortable talking about, even under a pseudonym. It became severe in my mid-teens and was at its worst during my undergraduate degree. This disorder took over my life, my every thought, my dreams. If you were talking to me I wasn’t really listening, I was trying to process the horrific thoughts in my head. I lived with an overwhelming guilt that made me physically sick and took away my appetite. I would force dry toast down my throat while my parents watched, just so I could say I’d eaten something that day. I avoided children, animals, elderly people, family members, anyone who I thought I could potentially harm if my thoughts were carried out as actions. I could only speak to one person about my thoughts – my mother. Her looks of horror when I disclosed an abridged version of what was really going through my head was enough to confirm that there was something very wrong with me.
Despite my struggles, I was determined not to let my condition get in the way of my educational ambitions. While completing my undergraduate degree, I found that I was always at my worst during exam period. I remember times where I was so weak that I’d lie on the couch barely able to move while my mother listened to me revise lecture notes out aloud.
Yet, I excelled in my studies. My final year included a minor thesis, my first exposure to research. Managing my condition throughout the research process was my toughest challenge yet, and the intrusive thoughts ran rampant. At that point in my life nothing made the thoughts go away, but watching television or having a conversation would distract me slightly from the anxious feelings that came with them. In contrast, when I had to work through readings, I was left alone with my anxiety. At the end of that year, despite the knowledge that my undergraduate degree might not lead to many opportunities, I decided to get out and find a nice easy job that kept my mind busy.
Fast forward one year and I’d been working in a call centre, my condition slightly improved due to the busy nature of the job and the decreased isolation. But the ambition that has never left me persisted, telling me I was worth more than this; that I was capable of great things. I started writing a proposal for a PhD study, and eventually I bit the bullet and met with a professor who was willing to take me on as a student.
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Looking back now, I’m unsure whether I did this for the right reasons. Did I start my PhD because I enjoyed research and wanted to be a researcher, or did I start because I wanted to get out of the place I was in and felt like my talents were being wasted? On the one hand, I was convinced that if it weren’t for my OCD, I’d have enjoyed the research process. On the other hand, could I really be a researcher with no concentration skills and an inability to read?
It didn’t take me long to start struggling once I started graduate school. Not only did the pile of reading seemed endless, my OCD was telling me I had to read every paper ever written on my topic, and every topic surrounding it. Unfortunately, as I’ve explained, reading only made my condition worse. It was a vicious cycle and I was stuck in it.
The first big blow came when I approached my supervisor about this. I kept it brief and vague; I had anxiety which affected my concentration and made it difficult to read: did he have any tips? His reaction was unexpected: a pause, followed by a slow and deliberate string of words: “You’ll want to keep that to yourself – people don’t react well to that sort of thing in academia”. It was clear to me then that academia did not look kindly on people like me. I was there to do a job, and if I couldn’t do it, I shouldn’t be there.
My supervisor’s words remain a terrible reminder of the stigma of mental health within academia
Although my supervisor’s words remain a terrible reminder of the stigma of mental health within academia, I’m glad this occurred because it prompted me to find a brilliant OCD specialist who changed my life. Over the years, I’d seen myriad health professionals who all had similar reactions to my disclosures as my mother had – “that’s very strange indeed” or “I’ve never heard that before”, paired with looks of concern. This therapist was so different. I told her every thought in excruciating detail, and cried rivers of tears as she sat there nodding, saying things like “yes, that’s very common” and “I’ve heard that one before”. It felt as though the weight of 14 years of intense suffering had been taken off my shoulders, and I guess it had. I had never imagined I could live a normal life free of the thoughts and guilt, and yet after therapy I found myself doing just that.
The thoughts became nothing more than occasional annoying pings in the back of my head, which I learned to swat away like a persistent fly. There is no doubt my condition still has an impact on my life – some of my milder obsessions and compulsions came back when the severe thoughts went away, and my partner will tell you I’m near impossible to share a house with – but I can live with this, and that’s a whole lot more than I could say previously.
….continue on to Part 2 of Mia’s story