How I Survive My OCD
I recently read that mental health issues are generally not discussed in Asian communities; I believe that to be true. When I was a teenager, I suffered from bullying and racism and had low self-esteem, but I was also a fighter and would stand up to anybody who tried to put me down. I didn’t do well in my studies, but I still fought hard and got myself to university. I often felt quite isolated and different from others. I longed for a boyfriend because I just felt that being loved by someone would validate me.
On my first a day at university, I met someone who would go on to be my husband. I spent the first year of my relationship feeling extremely guilty for even having a boyfriend and everything that comes with a full-on relationship. By the time summer had come my first episode of mental health had manifested itself on a family trip abroad. I was weepy and depressed and not coping being separated from my partner. I then began to have episodes of believing that any point a catastrophe was about to happen, and I was about to die in a horrible plane crash. Then came the obsessive-compulsive thoughts that even now I find hard to discuss openly.
By the time I returned home to the UK I just wasn’t in my right mind and on my 21st birthday and still at university I became pregnant. It was one of the most frightening difficult years of my life. I lost a lot of weight and at one point only weighed under six stone as I couldn’t keep my food down and had to have a termination.
After that incident, the obsessive-compulsive thoughts came and went over several years. My marriage broke down, and I went abroad to teach to recover from my marriage break down. It was then when I began to experience what I can only describe as a dirt phobia or OCD. By the time I came back to the UK, five years later, I could hardly walk on a public street without feeling like I might vomit. At that point, I decided I had to tell my parents, and I was surprised at how supportive they were, and they took me to see a psychiatrist. I never told my parents about the obsessive-compulsive thoughts as I thought it would shock them, but I did tell the psychiatrist everything and told him that I thought I might be schizophrenic. He diagnosed me with something called OCD obsessive-compulsive disorder. And it was the same OCD that led me to panic around dirt and death. It also drove the strange thoughts that would sometimes pass through my head that I would try and reject but would only get worse and worse.
I went to see a specialist who enabled me to work with my OCD and phobias including spiders and cockroaches. While I wasn’t able to completely get rid of my insect phobia, he was able to reduce the level of anxiety that I felt when my OCD kicked in. The most liberating part of the treatment was when he showed me a list of people with no OCD who also experienced strange thoughts. These thoughts would pass through their minds just like mine; the only difference was someone with OCD would allow those thoughts to be trapped within their mind and begin to panic which would lead to anxiety and guilt.
In my mid-40s I had quite a major operation, and unfortunately, the operation left me in lots of pain. My GPs rather than finding the cause of the pain just put me on tablets which only increased my levels of anxiety and fear considering that I already had OCD I think it was an irresponsible thing to do. Even though I was on the lowest dose of this medication, one day I decided not to take it as it was doing nothing to relieve my pain. I spent three months suffering from anxiety and suicidal thoughts which just wouldn’t subside. It was one of the scariest moments of my life. It was so horrendous that I started to forget my past, wasn’t able to think about the future and the only way I was able to get back any level of humanity was to do some gentle exercise at the gym, go for walks, and read all three novels of Bridget Jones. Then I pushed myself back to work even though it was too early as my operation wounds had not healed. I was suffering panic attacks every day, but the routine of getting up and going to work and having goals got me back to some level of normality. After a few months, my anxiety generally disappeared even though today I still suffer from the chronic pain.
I get my worst OCD during Christmas. That generally should be the happiest time when I’m with my family, and it makes me feel guilty because it’s a precious gift to enjoy my time with them. My time with my mother is now limited as she is 77, and again I spend most of my time with her having bouts of OCD. As soon as I go back to my own home that OCD lifts, I still can’t explain why this happens and I still haven’t confronted it. But most of the time with techniques that I’ve used from books that I’ve read I can generally shift obsessive-compulsive thoughts in the long term. Two techniques I use are repeating “It’s not me, it’s the OCD” and that helps distance myself and my inner self from this condition. When I get my crazy thoughts, I use an elastic band around my wrist and place my finger under the elastic band and let it go. It’s minor shock therapy, but it absolutely does work.
Years earlier, when I was living abroad, I do remember being in a dark and lonely place even though I should have been a very happy time in my life. I couldn’t shift the feeling of depression and strange thoughts. My partner at the time couldn’t understand, and it was hard for me to explain everything without scaring him. However one day he took me canoeing down a river with a couple of his friends. I have, to be honest, it was probably the best therapy I’ve ever had. All my problems seem to wash away while I rode down the river with all my force. I laughed, I cried, I peed in the bush because there were no ladies toilets in the wild, it was full of dirt and it should have been an OCD nightmare for me but I survived, and it was fantastic.
Definitely going for a walk and getting some fresh air in a beautiful place in the countryside walking and talking alongside your loved ones again is amazing therapy for me. There are many other methodologies you can use like reframing, mindfulness, meditation, forgiveness, letting things go, trying to see the bigger picture, charts and tables, which I’m not so keen on and affirmations which I love. For every horrible thought that you experience, do something amazing to compensate, there are endless things that you can do. If you just need to rest your body and mind and withdraw yourself from the world and just do it, watch the sea, the waves, listen to the wind, be with nature.
I’ve learned to live with this condition I accept its part of me yet it does not define me. It was a shock at first being diagnosed in my 20s, but throughout my 30s and 40s, I have acquired tools to deal with it. I never saw it coming – the ‘monster’, but when it did, I fought back because I knew it wasn’t me. I’ve learned to accept that I will never rid myself my OCD, and it will manifest itself in many ways throughout my lifetime that my time on this earth is for a living and enjoying, and therefore when the OCD ogre rears it’s ugly head again, I fight back kicking and screaming. I don’t let it overtake my life, but ultimately I forgive myself because it’s not my fault and I refuse to let it be my story on this earth.
Like any illness or pain, you may feel in your life, it is just a warning sign that things are not quite right and that you have to stop and take stock and reflect on what you can do better and how you can take care of yourself both mentally and physically. I know people who face mental health conditions every day, and they suffer even worse than myself, so I am here to share my story and anybody else if they are also going through a similar condition. Generally, I don’t like to share it with the general public because I know it would impact on the work that I do if others knew that I suffer from this condition because the stigma around mental health is still a terrible reality. However, when I have had to, I have shared my issues with my boss and sought help from my organisation and have been referred to counselling in the past. I get very little out of talk counselling and much more from CBT but I am surprised at how few CBT experts there are in the field.
What does worry me is that in my 20s when I first started to notice this condition (my issue hadn’t been diagnosed as OCD at that point) my GP wanted to put me automatically on tablets. I wanted to get to the cause of what this problem was because it seemed so alien to me. Years later, when I realised it was not necessary to take tablets because it was just my mind processing in a different way to people who do not have OCD it was incredibly liberating. Understanding that sometimes the strange thoughts that can pass through anybody’s head at any given time can lock inside the mind of someone with OCD and it’s harder for you to shift them from your brain, therefore, you start panicking and feeling high levels of anxiety and guilt. Knowing that you can have crazy thoughts doesn’t mean that you are a bad person, it just means that you are human and with OCD.
Looking back at my community over the last few decades I can honestly say that mental health is still considered as a sign of weakness, and in middle-classes and often very snobby communities, it’s also deemed as an indicator of a bad gene pool and a failure on every level. I am hoping that will die out with our children’s generation but a lot of understanding needs to take place before then.
I have heard of cases within the Asian community where someone with severe mental health conditions such as schizophrenia has either been encouraged to marry someone from abroad (as if that was some kind of remedy) or to shut off from the rest of the world as if they no longer exist. Looking back on my own life over the last four decades I can honestly say that sometimes cultural guilt does not necessarily help anyone achieve good mental health. Pressure, when it came to relationships, sexuality, 1970’s racism, academic achievement, exams even at primary school when the 11+ exam still existed, did not help and those ghosts can stay with you for many years to come.
All I would say to anyone suffering from similar experiences forgive yourself it’s not you. Then fight back and find every single tool you possibly can and use it to reprogram your brain utilising every technique that you can find. Just remember my mantra “it’s not me it’s the OCD.”
Anonymous Asian Woman
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