It’s hard to know where to start with a post like this especially as like Sophie, I have never done anything similar to this before and virtually no one (apart from my really close family and friends) knows about my struggle with OCD and anxiety. It is also exceptionally difficult writing this down in words and trying to explain it as unlike an eating disorder or depression which people are familiar about, my struggle with OCD is something that most people won’t have come across, and with that comes greater stigma. However, as Muscle Minds aim is to make mental health a more open topic of conversation, I am going to try my best to explain my story as nervous as it makes me feel…
I thought I would start by giving you an outline of my current situation. I am currently a medical student at the University of Birmingham. At present, I am taking a year out of studying and working with a research team. The reason for this will become clear later in my story but it means I am actually between 2nd and 3rd year of medical school. In terms of my previous mental health, I had always been a relatively strong minded and mentally healthy individual before university and I never thought I was that ‘kind of person’… Sounds awful that I thought that way but I just knew so little about it. I almost used to sit and slightly judge people with a mental illness (without meaning to). It wasn’t because I didn’t think they deserved help or that I didn’t believe they were suffering but I just didn’t understand mental illness well enough. I couldn’t understand why if a person had an eating disorder and were close to death, they couldn’t just eat. I didn’t understand why people would actually want to self harm apart from for attention. I didn’t get why a person with OCD couldn’t just stop washing their hands. In fact I was so naive about what I ended up suffering with, I didn’t even realise how much more there was to the classic hand washing and clean freak stereotype.
All of this changed however when I started university. I went from being a ‘mummy’s girl’, to suddenly being thrown into a flat with people I did not know and an overwhelming sense of independence. My flat was horrible and damp, my block didn’t have people that were that similar to me, and I felt like I didn’t have many friends. While I did meet lovely people (such as the amazing Sophie) I was also very lonely. This loneliness paired with such drastic changes is what I believe triggered everything for me. So let me ask you what you would do if one day you were sat in University getting some work done and you suddenly think of the missing person you saw on a bulletin at the bullring shopping centre? But you don’t just think about it, a bizarre thought pops into your head… ‘Imagine if I had killed him’. Well, I certainly panicked. Thoughts rushed through my head; why did i think that? I wouldn’t have thought that if it was not true, I’m a horrible person, Maybe I’m schizophrenic? Will the police turn up and arrest me for murder?
Perhaps after a while you would think these worries would subside, but I could not let go of this thought. I repeated in my head… ‘Maybe I killed this man’. For weeks I tried to understand why I had thought like this and the more I thought about it, the more these types of thoughts came into my head. I couldn’t leave the house without seeing someone and thinking ‘Maybe I actually want to kill you’. I was absolutely convinced I had schizophrenia but I was too scared to ask for help, I thought I would be judged. These thoughts continued for months and were still there when I had my first year medical exams. The stress I felt during these exams was a ridiculous amount. I lost my appetite, I felt abnormally down and I had constant diarrhoea for a month. And this is when, as I was in my lowest mood, everything became a whole lot worse. From simply not being able to control these intrusive thoughts, I was now believing every thought as a fact. I would go on a walk and see someone and think ‘Maybe I want to kill you’. 10 minutes later I would panic and convince myself that I had actually done so. I began to create images in my head, letting myself believe that this imaginary scene I had created was real. I had a complete breakdown, and just managed to get through my first year medical exams. Reading this, you may find it hard to relate and understand, and even though it shouldn’t be the case I know that some people will probably judge me, so I hope to try and explain it so that it makes slightly more sense.
Let me ask you whether you have ever had a bizarre thought come into your head? Whether that be a worry about germs on a door handle, or a sudden intrusive thought of aggression? I think you will find that most people have. In fact a study on 777 University Students found that 94% of those students had said that ‘they’d had unwanted and intrusive thoughts in the past three months.’ The study then went on to explain that the difference between someone with OCD and someone without, is that the person who has ocd focuses and worries about this ‘abnormal’ thought they have had. For example, picture yourself at the top of a very high building looking down. I don’t know about you but I would think that a lot of people might think ‘Gosh I could just jump off and kill myself.’ While a non-OCD sufferer would simply ignore this ‘silly thought’, a person with OCD may obsess over this thought process. They may even convince themselves that they actually want to complete this action, even though in their rational mind they know that they do not. After having this thought, they then may overly worry about it, to the extent that they cannot move on. This is very well explained through the pink elephant analogy. Imagine if I ask you to NOT think about a pink elephant. I think you will find that it is very hard to get the image of a pink elephant out of your head. This is very similar to OCD, once you have started worrying about something it is extremely difficult to stop if you are trying to tell yourself that you should not be thinking like this.
Anyway, summer passed and despite the reduced stress my anxiety remained very prominent. It had begun to consume every single waking hour, from the moment I woke in the morning to the minute that I went to sleep. I over-analysed everything I did, developing other obsessions and fears, as well as acting out compulsions to try and alleviate the anxiety I was facing. For example, a new fear of death developed and I was terrified that I may have left the hob on and that a fire would start. To try and remove this worry, I would then repeatedly check it had been turned off, even though I knew that it had been. The problem that a lot of people suffering from OCD face is trusting their memory, and as a result this ‘checking’ behaviour manifests to the extent that some people even struggle to leave the house because of it. I found the above poem on a tumblr page (I will paste the link at the bottom of this post) which I think explains the compulsive side of OCD really well.
It wasn’t until October time (of 2nd year) when I had the huge realisation that I was presenting with OCD-like symptoms. After some research, I can’t tell you how weirdly relieved I was as it explained everything I had been thinking and feeling. I just wish I had known more about it before and then it might not have developed to the stage it had done. 2nd year was incredibly tough…I was on ridiculously long waiting lists to try and get help and as I waited and waited things got worse and worse. I tried self help, I bought so many CBT books, I tried the uni counsellor. Nothing would work. It resulted in a complete breakdown and I had to defer my exams.
While writing this I thought I would take a look back on some old photos of myself. Unlike an eating disorder, OCD isn’t very visible to the obvious eye but I was shocked by how deflated and down I looked. Looking past that summer glow I had developed from all my over-exercising, there was a deserperate, hopeless girl crying for help. Compare this to probably exactly a year later I feel so much happier and healthier. Interestingly enough through this whole period, I probably looked just like the photo on the right which proves to show that no matter how happy a person seems on the outside, there is most often more going on than you realise. I for one know my friends were completely shocked when I told them what I was suffering with. I got replies like ‘but you are the most happy and laid back person’ or ‘you don’t have OCD, you are so messy’. It made me almost proud that I was able to hide my illness so well, but it also disturbed and upset me how much mental illness is stereotyped.
After having to defer my exams because of my mental health, I realised I had to do something. I started on medication despite my previous disapproval of their use, I luckily got to the top of the waiting list for CBT and I began to exercise. All of this was helpful…from the sertraline, to the lovely lady that set me goals in CBT, to the beautiful morning runs. But it made me realise while people are oversubscribed antidepressants, while some manage to get CBT after month long waiting lists, the one FREE thing we underuse is exercise?! And you can start this wonderful therapy straight away. Once I had learnt how to use fitness in the best way (as it definitely can be used in the wrong way as both Sophie and I found), I began workouts that were there to lift my mood and improve my mindset. From this point I was then able to utilise exercise in a way that honestly continues to help me so much towards my recovery. It is from my personal experience that I realised that if people knew how to motivate themselves in the right way, how to manage such a commitment alongside a mental illness and the best kind of exercises to do then mental health could improve massively. For me, it gave me everything I needed; confidence, strength and determination. It proved to me that I can do something if I put my mind to it and it made me feel alive. I’m not saying exercise alone is the only solution to recovery, but it is certainly an effective method and at Muscle Mind we believe the use of it should be promoted far more. It is an antidepressant in itself and we should encourage people to use it in this way. That is what we are all about; giving support, helping people exercise in the right way alongside their mental illness and creating a community that together are working to gain strength.
Where am I now? In by no means would I say I have recovered from OCD and anxiety. I still suffer from it to an extent, and I am still taking 100mg of sertraline. This past year I ended up having to take a year out as I failed one of my 2nd year exams, which initially set me back a step. However, I honestly think it was the best thing for me in the long term. In comparison to where I was last year, I am 100x better I can’t even explain it and I honestly believe exercise is a huge factor as to why I have ended up in this better place.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, and if you have any questions please do not hesitate to contact me as I would love to be of help. I would like to add that it is almost impossible to explain all of my symptoms in one post, and to give you a full account of what it was like in a description is actually very difficult especially as OCD presents in so many different ways. What I have given you is an account of how it all began and the symptoms that I first presented with. I want to take this opportunity to thank those special friends and family that have been there for me. I found this lovely poem the other day and it gave me hope so I thought I would share it. This is to anyone out there going through a tough time:
”For a star to be born, there is one
thing that must happen: a gaseous
nebula must collapse.
This is not your destruction.
This is your birth.”