My OCD journey
I have OCD - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I’m going to explain what that means, because not enough people understand, or they think it’s the quirky ‘neatness’ and colour coding of underwear that the mainstream media and the casual misuse of the term (I’m sooo OCD’) would lead you to believe. This lack of understanding means too many people suffer in silence. Like I did for over 10 years.
Obsessions are intrusive and scary thoughts that you become haunted/obsessed by (i.e the thought of dying from cancer, images of murdering your spouse, blasphemous thoughts of God if you are religious). Most people get the odd bizarre and intrusive thought but if you have OCD you just can’t let them go, they repeat over and over. They trick you, mess with you and are seriously convincing.
Compulsions are anything that challenges the thoughts, rituals, things you must do in order to feel safe. Some sufferers may be terrified they’ll catch a disease if they don’t wash their hands 72 times a day. They will look down at their raw scrubbed fingers and know rationally that their hands are clean but not truly believe it in their heart. They will doubt, doubt, doubt everything they know to be true. Others may be terrified they have murdered someone without realising it and be constantly checking news articles to see if their fears will be confirmed.
Disorder, well, that’s exactly what it is — a mental health disorder. It's definitely not ‘normal’ (whatever that is) to feel this way and not conducive to a healthy full life. It must be viewed like any physical illness and be treated properly. That being said, once proper therapy and medication are in place, for all the negative impact my boundlessly imaginative brain gives me (OCD takes you on all kinds of absurd journeys in your own head) I know it is also a gift and makes me who I am.
OCD and my career
My OCD has always had an impact on my work life, mostly because work is such a large part of my life and frankly, my brain is the same brain whether it’s at work or not.
I’ve been in situations where my intrusive thoughts have gotten so bad that I’ve completely zoned out and gotten stuck arguing in my own head over what the thoughts mean (clue: nothing, they’re just thoughts), I’ve sat on my hands for fear of what they/I might do to people whilst in meetings, with clients, working on projects.
Despite this, there has been a general sense of surprise from colleagues and clients about my OCD, in particular one client over lunch saying, ‘You’d never think you’d have been so unwell with everything you’ve achieved.’ In the same breath there’s been a few ‘aha that makes sense’ from people I’m closer to, who know me for my nervous energy and chaotic (but oh so creative) mind.
My thoughts had a knack of tormenting me over almost anything, I would wake up in cold sweats over something I’d said in a pitch, not be able to shake something I was worried about to a really unhealthy degree. As well as the horrible, unwanted, taboo thoughts that my OCD brain would latch onto. Part of the reason that I have thrown myself into my career so much has definitely been to occupy my ever whirring brain. It’s a vicious cycle though, as the more stressful work gets the worse my intrusive thoughts become and then I want to throw myself into work in order to distract myself from the thoughts.
In the early stages of my career I would not understand why I ended up in floods of tears over the most minor things, the reality was all these things were just straws on a very mentally unwell camel’s back and the constant tension going on in my own brain meant that I was anxious, short-fused and self-destructive in nearly every other part of my life.
I went undiagnosed (I’d self diagnosed in my early 20s but not with a professional and never sought the right help) for around 13 years until the birth of my daughter three years ago (I was 32) saw me drawn into the worst OCD episode (they come in waves) of my life. I knew then that although I’d thought I understood OCD in the past I had not ever experienced anything like the trauma of maternal OCD. I had no choice but to seek professional help and truly dedicate myself to it in order to get better. The recovery journey is hard but so, so worth it and ultimately I want people who are struggling to know that you can recover.
I went back to work when my daughter was 6 months and at the time I had a few people not sure it was the right thing to do but it was good for me. I just had to ensure that I wasn’t trying to avoid her, which in itself is a compulsion so it was a fine balance between getting a part of my identity back and still ensuring I was focusing on my ERP therapy.
With all it’s negatives my OCD and recovery experience is actually not something I’d change. It’s been a gift in many respects, a way of truly knowing myself and understanding the power of my own mind. The friendships I have made through being a part of the OCD community are so special to me and I have learnt so much about true bravery and strength from other people’s stories.
I’ve come to realise that my own OCD story is something I need to speak about in a way that is open but not altogether shocking (and boy can those thoughts be shocking!!). Case in point, I opened up about the nature of my intrusive thoughts on LinkedIn last year and had one negative response, something which was a massive trigger for me and also a big red flag concerning mental health education in the workplace and beyond. I moved forward from it and found a few more mental health allies in the process, one of whom is the wonderful Nancy Lengthorn from MediaCom who has made incredible strides forward for mental health awareness in the workplace.
One thing I’ve learnt through my recovery, and subsequent understanding of how I function best, is that the unwavering structure of the traditional workplace does not serve everyone (anyone?) and that in order to develop a productive, thriving team you need to put in place an empathy based, ever evolving set of structures that make people feel they are in a safe space to be open about their mental health challenges.
Helpful resources for anyone struggling with OCD;