It’s 12.30am on a Saturday morning, I’ve had too much chocolate and this is my 88th attempt at writing a first sentence. I don’t normally find expressing myself quite so difficult; if nothing else this has been a useful exercise in empathising with many of my students – the ones who look traumatised when I tell them to write down the point they just made so clearly during a discussion. Never again will I tell them ‘just write it how you told me’ or that they ‘can’t get it wrong’. After this experience, I don’t know how they’ve all refrained from jamming their pens in my eye for giving them such useless advice, when all along they had the total conviction that no words on a page could ever convey what they wanted them to. I get it now and I’m sorry to all of them. Here are some excerpts from my various attempts at the opening sentence:
‘I remember the moment my life changed.’ This is so cliché I could vomit.
‘I was 23 when I had the thought which ruined my life.’ Whereas this is far too dramatic. How could anyone like me after reading that?
‘Why the fucking fuck can’t I write this? I am so bloody fuck- bollocking useless.’ I think this speaks for itself.
The problem is, writing about your life changing without being dramatic or cliché is close to impossible. If it helps (it probably doesn’t) my life didn’t change in any dramatic or cliché way. I didn’t come into a fortune or win a competition, find out I was dying or lose a loved one, fall in love or have a child. I didn’t witness a crime or a miracle, discover I have superpowers or receive my letter from Hogwarts (sadly). In fact, nothing of any consequence happened at all.
I had a thought. And, as you may have gathered, it was a big one. I’d had thoughts so powerful they had filled my entire head before, but this one took over my whole body. One minute I was packing clothes into a suitcase – probably not carefree, but in no great agitation – and the next I was gasping, in foetal position, as unable to move and as terrified as a rodent caught on a glue trap.
After about an hour, I recovered from my paralysis, continued packing and went on my holiday. But from then on, things were different and slowly my life did change. First, I started getting more and more thoughts – awful, disgusting, shocking thoughts and ideas – each one more frightening than the last. As a consequence, my career took a different pathway; the one I was on was just too thought provoking. Next, I started to lose friends. They tried to keep in touch with me, but being around them made me think too much, and thinking frightened me, so I avoided them. Then I started arguing more and more with my family, until eventually we were strangers – living together in separate worlds.
Four and half years after it happened, at around 2am on a Sunday morning in December, I lay crumpled on the pavement crying so hard my ears were ringing. A teenager walked by and bent over me to ask how I was. ‘I’m fine’ I choked, ‘just having a little lie down.’ But I was exhausted. The thoughts were taking up all of my energy. If I wasn’t having them, I was planning for them. I spent all day doing things to prevent them from coming or neutralising them when they did. But it was hopeless, because wherever I went my thoughts came with me and I was living my life on a tightrope, suspended over all their awful possibilities. It all went back to that first thought – the one which ruined my life. And I wished I could go back in time and put the television on, or decide to make a cup of tea at the moment it came in, or do anything instead of have it. But it was impossible. I couldn't unthink it any more than I could be unborn.
You may be reading this wondering ‘what was this thought?’ or, ‘why did it have such malevolent power?’ The answer to the first question doesn’t really matter (but I’ll tell you later anyway, don’t worry). And the answer to the second is simple: I have OCD. Writing that as an explanation feels inadequate even to me. The colloquial use of the phrase has robbed it of its weight (much like the word ‘melanoma’ would cease to be taken seriously if people started describing their pimples in such terms). But OCD in its true form is terrifying, consuming and life-threatening in its awfulness.
Recently though, I’ve come to realise something: the thought I had that night wasn’t the life defining event I’ve been seeing it as. Firstly, because a life doesn’t change just once; it can change a thousand times. All those things I said before (falling in love, having a baby, getting a terminal illness) could still happen, as could countless other unknowns, and my life will change again. Secondly, I didn’t really develop OCD in a second. It spent years creeping up on me, because for as long as I can remember, I was unable to leave my thoughts alone. I picked at every worry, doubt, risk and fear like they were scabs until they bled into every part of my life.
I’m writing this now to help two kinds of people: those who don’t know much about OCD, and those who know too much. If you fall into the first category, I hope to show you that behind OCD’s public persona – that of the ‘quirky’ personality trait – lies a dark and very real illness. Perhaps by writing about its true colours, I can help you understand what it is and what it can do to a person. And as for the people in the second category, already horribly familiar with the condition because you’re on the inside of it: I want you to feel like it’s OK to talk about what frightens you, to know that you can get better and, crucially, realise that you’re not alone. And so I’m going to do something I never thought I could do before: I’m going to share my thoughts with you.