My War on OCD

Why am I writing this?
I have chronic and ferocious OCD! I have also learnt to battle it, to the extent that when it attacks me, I have the confidence, tools and strength to fight back and win!

So on a morning seven mile bike ride, part of my war on OCD, I thought it was the right time to write an account of how I battled my demons and got on top of my OCD, to share with others who may want to incorporate my learning and actions into their assault on this quite horrible and devastating illness. I now add to this post on a regular basis in the hope it will continue to support others who read it.

My OCD life
My first attack, or symptom as I now know, was when I was 10 years old in the third year of four at primary school. It was the day the Sun newspaper broke the story about a new disease spreading the world, AIDS. It showed a picture of a man with a bloated head (I still have no idea why but it did) with a long explanation about this new disease and its effects, which normally led to death at the time.

From that point on, unbeknown to me, my illness took charge. I was constantly pushing my skull and temple in at various points, checking to see if I was bloating to confirm if I, a ten year old, had contracted AIDS and was going to die!

The second attack was again in the same school year when a chap came in to teach us about fungi. What most took as a routine discussion about not eating fungi because some were poisonous with no antidote, my brain took it as a trigger to start panicking about accidently ingesting poison, accidently getting some on my hands and touching a door handle, thus passing it over and potentially killing someone if they touched the handle and ingested it. It took a call from my Mum to the fungi man to establish if in fact I or someone else was going to die to calm me down.

It went on from there and gathered intensity, and here are a few of the vivid lowlights of my OCD life:

  • I struggled in science at secondary school because of chemicals. I was the one washing my hands all the time and opening doors with my elbows then trying not to touch my jumper in case chemicals were on the elbow area.
  • I had melt downs every evening when I worked the tills at the local Tesco because when I beeped someone’s bleach, or cleaning products, followed later by the bananas or something immediately edible, I panicked that something could transfer to the food, they would ingest it and die and it would all trace back to me and I would go to prison for manslaughter. I would then try to use as little of my hands as possible until I could get a break and wash them.
  • At college I dropped biology because I just couldn’t sit at the tables or open my folder that had been on the table, whilst opening doors with elbows and washing intensely. I simply gave in and didn’t want anyone to see me like that.
  • When I reached ‘that age’ where I started getting sexually aware and active, I must have, in my head and very real to me, contracted every sexually transmitted infection known from the most minor contact with my partners. In addition, no matter how safely I conducted myself, in my mind every partner got pregnant for a small period of time, even if the only contact we had was minor foreplay.
  • It soon progressed to me believing I was potentially a psychopath. Because of all the thoughts and rituals I was performing, I thought I was stereotypically mad and as a consequence was potentially someone who would snap and attack someone. If I saw a knife I would panic about potentially being able to use it to kill family, friends, partners and members of the general public.
  • Railway and tube stations and standing next to busy roads. Yes you’ve guessed it, could I push someone in! In all of these situations I would play over in my head actually doing it until I got the sensation of disgust that confirmed I wasn’t capable.
  • In later life it switched to HIV, Hepatitis and Cancer. Every scratch, exposure to any red substance, spot lump or blemish and minor health symptom meant to my brain that I was dying. The rituals and compulsions I engaged in are too embarrassing to admit, but needless to say I wasted a tremendous amount of health professional’s time, including getting banned from specialist online forums for asking too many personal and irrelevant questions and not seeking the mental medical advice everyone suggested I sought.

I now know that all of the rituals and compulsions I engaged in reinforced in my mind there was a potential problem to deal with, when in fact my dis-functioning brain was seizing on thoughts everyone has but they don’t even register. In my case however, they triggered the fight or flight function that exists in all of us, thus convincing me I was in a perilous situation that needed to be sorted. And sort it I had to do otherwise I was going to prison for the rest of my life or someone was going to die!

The facts for me
1. OCD is an illness of the head. Nothing more! No different to an illness of the heart, lung, liver or kidney’s. It’s a bloody pain in the arse illness. I am not mad, I am not crazy, and I am not mental! I have an illness of the head, full stop!

2. The symptoms can be described as me going into a blind and terrifying panic about things that others don’t seem to panic about and things I didn’t used to panic about either!

3. It’s because the mechanism in my brain to make me react to dangerous situations, e.g. someone pointing a gun at me from across the street, or me walking in front of a car that I didn’t see coming, kicks in when it shouldn’t with the exact same effect.

4. It’s because this mechanism is making me react and panic, then take remedial action which forces me to ruminate, avoid things and try to talk myself into believing everything is OK, all of which unfortunately perpetuates the frequency and severity of the symptoms by reinforcing there might be a problem in the first place!

5. It’s because the brain is the most powerful thing on earth; period! And when your brain instinctively tells you to do something, you do it right?

6. Wrong, not if you have OCD! I needed to slap my brain back down and convince it, it was wrong and had been tricked. I needed to train my brain not to react to things when it shouldn’t! I needed to regain control when I found myself at the lowest point I had ever been in, crying in a heap at the bottom of my bed because I couldn’t take it anymore!

7. As a process and theoretically, battling OCD is quite straightforward, but in practice it’s the hardest thing I have ever attempted and something it took a momentous effort to do. But I did it and I hope others can to.

8. Don’t laugh at me for saying this but I can actually now see the positives from having OCD! Yes, positives. I am the most prolific proof reader, I am unbelievably accurate at work and I can spot a risk a mile off which under control is a gift!

When I was at the bottom of my bed at the age of 34 crying uncontrollably, having suffered for 22+ years and losing about half of my life to panic, which involved hiding in rooms, toilet cubicles and pretty much anywhere I could go to panic and ruminate over and over, to try to convince myself everything was OK and avoid whatever I was panicking about, I said to myself, “No More”! I am going to wage war on OCD and do the things the countless therapists, books and websites had told me to do, which I ultimately paid lip service to and did not apply because my brain was too strong and my illness was in control!

But I had nothing more to lose apart from the rest of my life. It actually took me reaching rock bottom to realise I couldn’t go any further downward and I just had to try different and uncomfortable things!

The very next time a panic hit me that same day I said to myself; “No, f&%k off, this isn’t real, it’s my brain tricking me to panic about something, it’s not me it’s my OCD. In essence I took the first step to resisting the decision my brain was incorrectly making for me and started the process of training it not to react.

I then forced myself to do something else while my body and brain was in a state of terrifying panic. It hurt, I was experiencing the strongest and most unbelievable possible urges to panic, ruminate and take corrective action due to the thing I was panicking about. My brain was telling me to panic the same as it tells me to breathe in and out!

I got the spade out and started digging over the garden. I had my demons attacking me from each side and I resisted, resisted and resisted and immersed myself in the gardening, talking to my wife about whatever I could force myself to think of, but above all I forced myself to ignore the panic, ignore the urges, suffer the pain, sweating and terrifying sense of doom that was engulfing me. Easier said than done but I was somehow motivated to give it a go. I had found the strength somewhere and had nothing else to lose!

Weirdly, after about 30 minutes my body started to calm down. My brain started to calm down to, the demons were weakened and slowly disappeared and the thing I was panicking about didn’t seem very concerning anymore. I could think about it and it didn’t feel as real anymore, I felt normal again (just so you know when I wrote that bit I had a calming and pleasant shiver run down my spine)!

I had contradicted my brain. I had proved it had been tricked by my illness, forcing it to trigger the mechanism for me to panic, react and take remedial action. I had an alternative, albeit a very painful and unbelievably challenging approach to panicking and it felt better after I had ridden the storm. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel for the first time in 22+ years!

I can quite honestly say from that point onward, the severity of the panic of each subsequent episode was reduced and as I applied the same approach, which became easier and easier throughout the day, the symptoms continued to weaken. By the end of the day I was so proud of myself and happy I had finally assembled the courage to wage war on my demons. I actually won some battles against them, which strangely made me want them to attack again so I could use my new found weaponry against them!

I couldn’t believe that by taking the fight to my demons in an afternoon and evening made me feel whole again. 22+ years of terrifying episodes kicked into touch in a day. I started to doubt this could be true, but I genuinely stopped having major episodes. Was it too good to be true? Well, I am 40+ now and since that day, every episode I have had (I do still have them because OCD isn’t something you cure it’s something you control), has been controlled and car parked quickly because I have done it before. A bit like running the four minute mile!

And on that note I did other things as well to give me the very best chance of defending myself against the return of my demons. I got fit. I ate better. I reduced my alcohol intake. I stopped smoking when I drank.

I now run 10K or ride seven miles a day, three to five days a week. I control my food and alcohol intake. I battle the demons when they knock on the door. I really believe that being in the right physical state gives me the strength to control my mental state. I have regained control of my life

It’s funny when you get to where I am now because I recognise that anything I do panic about is not real and the opposite is more likely to be true. It’s sometimes hard because my demons can catch me unawares at the worst possible times because they are sneaky like this and very clever. However, I draw on all of my strength and armoury and unleash everything on them. I am in control most of the time and when they try to seize and shift the power, I seize it back!

I am not suggesting this is a solution for others but it worked for me and pretty much follows the professional advice given to me by many. It is my practical interpretation and execution of everything I learned in my battle and journey with this powerful and destructive illness.

The future
I worked my way into a very senior position at G4S, one of the world’s largest companies, and I am doing well at providing for my wife and children. They are my motivation and driving force and the reason I needed to take up arms and wage war on my OCD. I am not a therapist but I hope some of this will help others as they wage war against their own demons.

Since leaving G4S is November 2015 I have successfully supported three major corporates with global resourcing and HR technology transformation projects as a specialist consultant.

I started helping people directly with what I call ‘mental difference’, by setting up the Mental Health in Business LinkedIn Group, and indirectly by supporting employers to start or amplify their conversation surrounding mental wellbeing and turn it from a negative to a positive one.

I did this by speaking at company events and workshops, developing or enhancing their wellbeing strategies to include focus on the capability that mental difference brings, and developing diagnostic solutions to enable businesses to target their wellbeing resources and investment to the areas that have most impact to improve the working lives of their most valuable asset, people.

My day job now is co-running APeopleBusiness, with a specif focus on promoting StressFactor™, which is a psychoanalytical tool that identifies hidden stress within the workforce presented as a heat map through a digital dashboard. It provides the evidence base to take pre-emptive actions that; improve Productivity, reduce Risk and deepen Culture.

StressFactor™ gives insights into Stress intensity mapped against personality capability providing probable causes with the ability to drill down, to target critical areas of concern and understand the potential impact of future business change.

It is our belief that challenging stress and positively impacting on these business issues will increase leadership interest, stakeholdership and investment in developing optimum working environments, with a specific focus on mental health and wellbeing.

So this is my most important message. I have mental difference! It enables me to approach situations differently to contribute to well-rounded discussions and debates on a particular subject, which supports the development of better outcomes. I can proof read better than most, I am an excellent problem solver because I have exercised my brain by continually solving catastrophic challenges, which are far more complex than the majority of business challenges. I have an acute risk radar and can spot a personal and business risk before most others. I’m also very orderly.

I have OCD and I have learned to live with it because it’s not me it’s my OCD. I have OCD and it’s part of me. In essence it completes me. I don’t want it because there are some catastrophic down sides, however I do have it and there are some amazing upsides!

I would love to find others who have battled and won, are battling and winning, or are at the start of their battle and either need help, or want to join the movement to break down the stigma surrounding mental difference by sharing their story.

Remember Crocodile Dundee when Sue was talking to Mick about shrinks! She suggested they probably had no need for them in Walkabout Creek and Mick confirmed they didn’t because “back there if you got a problem you tell Wally. And he tells everyone in town, brings it out in the open, no more problem”. I hope we can all work together to bring mental difference and the positives and capabilities it brings out in the open.

Opening up
A series of situations compelled me (funnily enough it was a non OCD compulsion) to ‘open up’ about my OCD.
I found out on Facebook that an old school acquaintance may have committed suicide because of his ‘demons inside’ and I immediately thought, what if this was OCD or any other mental health issue? What if he needed help and suffered in silence? What if I had found out he had OCD and I had the chance to support him! What if, what if, what if? I might be, and desperately hope I am wrong, but what if?

My Dad has gone into a home with Parkinson’s and Parkinson’s related dementia and I have spent a lot of time with the most amazing individuals who are sadly losing their cognitive ability which is just so unfair.

I got angry with reasonably recent TV shows taking the mick out of OCD, plus eventually got tired of people flippantly suggesting they were a bit OCD when in fact they were just tidy. I’m not criticising them, I just felt OCD needed to be understood more.

Finally, I watched the BBC programme ‘Employable Me’ in a hotel room in Paris, whilst supporting the amazing people at AXA with their careers digital ecosystem aspirations. It broke me when 34 year old (at the time) Brett with Autism was given an opportunity to do work experience for a medical solutions business and solved a major business challenge for them culminating in him getting a full time job.

This was after being rejected for every job he had applied for, for eight years solid. I literally found myself in floods of tears on the phone to my wife saying that because I used to hold the second largest private employer Group Head of Resourcing role in the world, I had to do something about this.

Quite an arrogant statement on reflection, but it was meant from the heart not from any other level and I am so pleased I decided to change direction and attempt to do something about raising awareness to mental difference.
So I went public and since then my life has changed demonstrably!

Directly helping others
My passion is to support, help and champion people with mental difference. I realised a dream on 10th March 2017 when I launched the Mental Difference at Work anonymous Q&A resource to enable people with mental difference to freely, and covertly, seek advice and support from a global authentic and compassionate audience.

Users can ask questions both anonymously or openly, which provides those not yet prepared to open up publically about their mental difference with total security and comfort to seek knowledge, advice, guidance and support.

Users simply download Rungway from the App Store or Google Play, then email requesting access to the Mental Difference at Work group.