I think back to when I was a pre teen and there was so much happening, not only physically but also mentally… That’s when I first recall OCD happening to me–I was around 12 years old and I began to count and touch doors, handles, count my steps, turn off the TV at the “right time”. I had no idea what was happening, it all seemed innocent to me back then, just a little quirk I had. I just wanted to get that “right feeling”, no big deal.
As I got older, into my later teen years, I will never forget this feeling… ever: I woke up one sunny morning and it was like I was hit by a bus (Which I actually was years later, lol!!). I had this feeling of anxiety/sweating/tightness in my whole body… All from one single thought: Am I homosexual because I did that “thing”?! Prior to this thought I had never been attracted to the same sex, ever. It was just a thought in my head, that’s all. But for some reason it would not leave me. It hung around for months on end, every waking minute it was there. I would try and resolve it by looking at men out in public to “check” if I was attracted to the same sex but that just made matters worse. I would sit and look at magazines with pictures of men to see if I was attracted to them. It was all so confusing and scary and stressful. Before this thought my life was going along fine. How could a single thought turn my life upside down for months?!
I look back now to that morning of “the thought”, with all my OCD experience, and realize I was truly living in my head. I was nowhere to be seen, just a shell of my former self, walking around the planet earth trying to find an answer out of this nightmare, only to go deeper down the rabbit hole. The more I tried to scratch my way out of the hole, the deeper I fell. Every time I reacted to these thoughts and tried to make sense of it all, my brain would throw another one at me, Hey, Scott what about this one? I would try and figure that one out only to lead me onto another thought and completely forget about the first thought that popped into my head! Eventually this obsession left me. How, I can’t recall. There was a brief period where I thought I was back to the old me but I still had those underlying “quirks” of touching, counting and turning off the TV at the right time. I had no idea that I was keeping the OCD beast alive in me for bigger and better things to pounce on, to make my life hell again in the future.
The Journey to Now
When I was around 23 years old, I went globe trotting for about two years. My OCD was still there, unbeknownst to me. I just continued on with my “quirks” while I was working and traveling the world, the OCD booger not really bothering me much. I found myself living in London, England, for a while. I had a job as a gardener. It was a fun job until one day I was cleaning out a commercial garden and came across a hypodermic syringe… I didn’t really think much of it at the time until two years later when I was working as a gardener again back in my homeland of Australia. I was working away one sunny morning, cleaning out a garden bed, when I was pricked by something. It’s normal when gardening, it happens almost daily, but all of a sudden, my brain throws up a thought: WHAT IF IT’S A NEEDLE AND I CATCH AIDS?! In an instant my brain was going crazy with “what ifs”. Down the rabbit hole I went again, trying to scratch and kick my way out but only finding myself deeper down the hole than ever before. This obsession has been my nemesis over the years, coming and going for the past 15 years of my life.
When I was first triggered back on that sunny morning while gardening I began to do lots of checking, coping, and controlling. I’ve had a lot of HIV blood tests over the years. So many I’ve lost count! But now it’s been at least 6 years since my last test and I am still alive, believe it or not.
I have to back up briefly in my story if I may, to share an achievement from this crazy journey we call life. Back when I was living in London–remember when I mentioned I was actually hit by a bus–well that’s when it happened. I had been living in that crazy busy metropolis for about nine months, I had just finished work for the day, and was heading out to the famous Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill. I recall the day vividly–the people around me, the sounds, the smells. We had just about made it to the market when I felt this hard slap on the back of my shoulder. It was like someone had punched me really hard in the back. Before I even realized what had happened I was on the ground with my foot stuck under a bus wheel, screaming in shock. I was hit by a bus while I was still on the sidewalk!
After two months in a London hospital, I flew home to Australia. Following some tough decisions, it was best for me to have my left leg amputated below the knee. My whole world was flipped upside down, shaken, not stirred, and poured out in front of me. Now what?! After another month in hospital I began the year-long journey of learning how to walk with a prosthetic leg. Through this year of recovery I didn’t have any OCD symptoms. Funny how a real life event can do that to you. You don’t think twice, you just do what you have to because you’re responding from your true self.
Finding my Tool Belt
Looking back on that life experience now, what got me through the first year of recovery was: sports. I was always involved in sports from a young age and wanted to get back at it as soon as I was able. I was also lucky enough to have amazing support from my family and friends that helped me along the way whenever I needed it. At the time of my accident I was really into downhill skiing. So there it was, I had a goal in mind: To get back to skiing!
That goal really drove me in a positive way. After months of hard work, I eventually got back on snow and learned how to ski again. It was a great day! One thing lead to another and that same year I was flying to Canada to learn how to become a downhill ski racer! After a couple years of racing, I went to the 2002 Winter Paralympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. I continued racing downhill and competed for Australia again at the 2006 Winter Paralympic Games in Torino, Italy. Did I have OCD in this period of my life? Yes, yes indeed.
Looking back now on my racing and coaching days, I managed my OCD through daily compulsions of checking, coping and controlling. At the time, I didn’t realize it, but that’s what I was doing. If I knew what back then what I know now, my racing days would of been a lot more fulfilling and rewarding. What I did learn though, from the time I was injured that day in London, to the day I finished my racing career, was that the journey is far more important than the destination, by a long shot! This lesson took me many years to grasp when it came to OCD. I have spent years trying to cope, check, and control everything related to not only OCD but also my day-to-day life, which I now realize had kept the OCD Beast alive and well. How did I come to this realization? Meditation, daily. Through meditation I am gaining a better relationship with my brain/mind and how he functions. I am learning that I can have thoughts I can have emotions. Everyday I can have all sorts of thoughts and emotions that travel through me. I am not the “owner” of them. They are just happening. My job is only to be the observer, to see the thoughts and feel the emotions, from a neutral position, like watching a movie.
Next time you watch a movie or a program on TV, try to be mindful of how many thoughts are running through your brain, how many emotions you feel, and just let them happen. You can recognize their presence and accept it. Once the movie or TV program is over, you might be left with a lingering feeling or thought but that’s about it, eventually it just passes through you and you move onto the next activity! This is an example of what I am gaining through meditation.
What else has helped me? Working with Mark Freeman! He isn’t a therapist but has been the biggest help by a long shot. He’s “been there, done that” when it comes to OCD and he’s helped me recognize:
- The hard work needed to manage my OCD. Not only with my contamination OCD but also how taking a holistic approach in day-to-day life can really help.
- The importance of being mindful of non-OCD compulsions in everyday life that may seem “normal”. Since I’ve been on the mindfulness journey, I am learning to recognize how much of my daily routine was feeding the OCD Beast and keeping it healthy and happy. When I was making a cup of tea, it had to be “just right”. In my job as a furniture restorer, I’d become obsessed with whatever I was working on until I got it just right. When I’d go shopping with my wife, I had to know exactly where we were going and for how long. These types of patterns were continually feeding the OCD Beast without me even recognizing it. Now I’m more mindful of these patterns. They can still happen but I am in a better position now to see them from a distance and not let them influence my behaviour. Practice here is key, believe me. I’ve had the OCD Beast kick the shit out me over the years, but when it comes down to it you have two choices: You can continue on the compulsive path of never-ending pain, or you can choose to gain your life back in spite of the OCD, you can live together in harmony! I think one of my biggest mistakes when it came to OCD was that I always thought that recovery meant that I would be free of OCD–done, finished, and life was back to “normal”. I had that attitude for years and I thought I was doing the hard work by reading and reading so many self help books about OCD but what I was really doing was coping, checking, and controlling–seeking reassurance over and over. It was just keeping me in the cycle of compulsive actions! So now when I think recovery I think maintenance instead. For me, maintaining my mental health is no different from maintaining my physical health. If I want to stay in shape, I have to do the work! Thanks Mark!!!
- ACT Therapy. Basically put, ACT is helping me to learn how to accept my thoughts and feelings as just what they are. I’m committing to my values as best I can no matter how I feel or what thoughts are running around in my head. Some days, it’s not easy, but the alternative, drinking the OCD-Kool aid, is much, much worse! If, for whatever reason, I’m feeling off for a few days, I know I have to take a holistic approach to the big picture of my life. What compulsive actions have I been performing in my day-to-day life leading up to my few “off days”? Have I been getting enough sleep? How is my diet? Have I been exercising enough? How much stress is in my life at the moment? I’m learning that by being mindful of my life outside of my contamination OCD symptoms, I can see how I’ve been keeping the compulsive beast alive and well by feeding him all kinds of tasty compulsive treats. He just sits back like a couch potato, eating away on them, wanting more and more, never satisfied. So no matter what my brain throws at me, thoughts or emotions, I recognize them as thoughts, I feel them as emotions, and let them be there. I DO ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to change them. I get back to what I truly value, whatever that may be in the moment. This is where ACT has truly helped me in learning that I have no say in what happens with the stuff in my skull but, if for one millisecond I try to change that stuff or run from it or get rid of it or paint it a different colour, that’s where I open to the door for OCD to creep back in.
The Silver Lining of OCD
Yes, there really is a silver lining to this disorder. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with OCD or are deep in the battle with this beast, you might think I am CRAZZZZY! But you will come out the other side eventually. I feel you have to go through the tough times to learn the lessons that are so important in maintaining a balanced recovery. Again, recovery to me means maintenance. Sure there will be times when you are so fed up with the OCD Beast in your head and just want to scream, go ahead and scream for a minute but never beat yourself up for too long. It only feeds the beast in your head. Give yourself a break, you’re fighting one tough little beastie beast here!
When I was working with Mark, one tip he gave me was this: It’s totally ok to have write-off days, but shift the focus to what you can do on those days so tomorrow will be better.
And that’s where your values kick in. Get back to what you truly value no matter what your brain throws at you. Ok, I have veered away from the Silver Lining a little. So what has OCD given me?
- Meditation! If I didn’t have OCD, I don’t think I would have started the journey into meditation. My life is so much better because of meditation.
- The ability to be more compassionate with myself and others by being mindful of dropping judgements (still a work in progress!)
- Daily gratitude for everything in my life, even the smallest things like a fresh cup of coffee in the morning!
- The people I have met along the journey that have helped me. Without their help, who knows where I would be! I’ve made some great cyber buddies along the way!
- The opportunity to work on what my core values are in life.
- Learning that if I want to achieve something, I have to really put in the hard work, commit to it with every grain of my being, stop listening to the OCD Beast in my head, and listen to my true self–he knows best! I spent years thinking I was putting in hard work but I was really just faking it.
Thanks OCD, for your gifts!
That’s my story… so far. I can’t say I am fully recovered from OCD but with my OCD recovery “tool belt” that I’ve gathered along the journey, I know I’m on the right path. I hope my story helps in some way.
The last word goes out to my wife, Sherry. Without her love and support through this crazy OCD journey who knows where I would be! She kicked me in the butt when I needed it, held me when the pain was too unbearable, and most of all, she was always there for me. I can’t thank you enough wifey!
The journey continues… Onward!
Books from the Journey
- Full Catastrophe Living – Jon Kabat Zinn
- How to Meditate: A practical guide to making friends with your mind – Pema Chodron
- Get out of your Mind and into your Life – Stephen Hayes (A great book on Acceptance & Commitment Therapy)
- The Mindfulness workbook for OCD – Jon Hershfield
- The Acceptance Field Guide – Mark Freeman
- Brain Lock – Jeffery Schwartz (This was the first book I read when I was diagnosed with OCD and it really helped me understand what was happening in my brain.)
- When in doubt, Make Belief – Jeff Bell