The thing I’ve found most difficult about the lockdown is being left alone with your thoughts. I have OCD, and the time spent sitting in your flat with nothing much to do allows it to run rampant.
My first big run-in with OCD was when I was 19. I had just come out as gay, and I thought my life couldn’t get better. I felt – for the first time – truly liberated. I didn’t have to conceal a big part of what made me, me, and I didn’t have to deceive myself any longer. The gradual realisation that being gay didn’t mean I had to change my life goals, that it meant I could be who I wanted to be, was a formative experience. I felt resilient: I had come through a protracted period of emotional difficulty – starting from when I was 16 – and emerged from the other side as a stronger person.
But the joy was relatively short-lived. I remember one day reading about a transgender woman’s transition from becoming male to female. A thought locked into my head: what if I am living a lie, and my gender identity is wrong? This thought sat momentarily, and within hours spread. It was the only thing I could think about for months and months. I became depressed and felt like I was deceiving the world. Initially, I was desperate to find an answer: is this really what I want? Or is this just a sham? How can I tell? Is there any way of telling?
I think the problem is you can never tell. When your brain sends thoughts that feel very real, it can be hard to sift through the noise. But realising this is also the key to tackling the disorder. Just accepting the thought, taking it for what it is. No matter how strange, uncomfortable or even dark it is. Just let it be. Let it sit there, and rest and then drift away. And the more you habituate to the thought being there, the less likely you are to get the horrible, gut-wrenching, tachycardia-inducing fight or flight response that your brain is producing to try and protect you.
When the OCD brain is working, it latches on to a thought and gives it undue meaning. Everyone has the occasional, fleeting thought of perhaps jumping onto a train track, or harming someone who is close to you. That’s just part of the noise generated by the mind. Most people can ignore them. Whereas for me, some of these thoughts can’t be ignored and feel like a challenge to the very way you live your life.
With OCD, it so often feels that you are fighting against your brain and you wonder why it’s forcing to you go into self-destruct. But it’s good to reappraise this. Based on reading I had done by an expert in the disorder (here), I realised that it was my brain’s defence mechanism kicking into play: a thought that was discordant with who I was, triggering an emotional surge like an evolutionary ‘fight or flight’ response. It’s impossible not to notice it because the evolutionary instinct is so potent. And this also makes it very difficult to fight it.
Gradually, over time, the thoughts diminished – and they faded into the back of my mind. It was through repeated practise: engaging with the thought, no matter how distressing, and letting them sink in. The thoughts are still there but they are managed – done by teaching myself not to give them any mind. If they crop up, allow them to be there. Don’t try and suppress them. Don’t try and out-logic your emotional brain. You soon realise that having these thoughts is just part of being human.
It’s what we do that matters, not what we think.
As is the case with any chronic disorder, it can relapse. And indeed, a couple of years down the line, I was spending a couple of weeks at home. I was stressed with my exams and frustrated with life in general. I remember thinking “what if I wanted to harm my mum?” That was it, again: a thought that challenged the very way I was living my life. It challenged everything I stood for. I knew I loved my family. I knew I would never harm them. But what if? What if I had it in me.
I don’t give up easily. Although there were times, at the lowest of the low, where I felt like it would be better for everything just to stop, I didn’t. One of the key things with any mental illness is to try, try and keep going. Keep up with your routine. Go to work. Do some exercise. Eat well. Speak to your friends. In these very actions, you are showing your mind that the thoughts don’t own you.
The problem with the lockdown is that it can prevent you from doing so many of these things – it disrupts your daily routine. So over the past few days, I’ve had a relapse with some of these dark thoughts creeping back. I am practising again with exposure exercises – directly confronting the thoughts and accepting them as part of who I am. But no amount of therapy, willing engagement, can counteract the gargantuan disruption caused by the lockdown. My routine has been shot to pieces.
The past couple of days have been particularly tough – but I’m grateful for the support of my family, friends and housemate. All have been so helpful in helping me come to terms with this and battle through. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, just like last time.
I know that many people suffering from OCD will be experiencing relapses right now. So the key thing to remember is: a thought, is a thought. Practice thanking your brain for making it, and letting it know when now is not the time.