Carol Edwards


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My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is now in remission. This is a disorder that comprises of two essential characteristics – obsessions and compulsions. Basically, since eight years old, my brain has been producing and misfiring paradoxical information into my conscious mind. This is the same for anyone who is predisposed to developing the disorder. For over 30 years my obsessions included intrusive thoughts, impulses, images, and sensations that made me feel I was on constant alert, with anxiety often reaching 100 on a distress thermometer. The compulsions I did merged with the obsessions to complete the disorder. These were repetitive and time-consuming, but at the time they were the only behaviours I knew that would counter the obsessions and reduce anxiety, albeit momentarily. My fear of disease and visible compulsions: For example, during a time when I had severe symptoms of contamination OCD, I persistently feared coming into contact with a life-threatening disease. Intrusive thoughts were triggered when I touched door handles when I ate in restaurants or brushed past people I perceived to be infected. The disease I feared was AIDS. My responses (visible compulsions) were to avoid touching door handles, eating in restaurants and being in close proximity to people I erroneously thought could have the disease; I also repeated hand washing and mouth-cleansing rituals. This is no offence to people who live with AIDS; it was my OCD that had sprung into action, automatically putting me in “fight or flight” situations. My days had suddenly turned into 24 hours of fear when AIDS hit the headlines in the 1980s. Every waking moment OCD had me ready to avoid infected blood finding its way into my body, and every night I awoke with nightmares believing somehow I hadn’t been careful enough. I also had purely obsessional thoughts with hidden compulsions: My purely obsessional thoughts (or pure-o thoughts) differed from the better-known variation of germ obsessions and handwashing, which is similar to my AIDS obsession. These differed in that the thoughts, images and urges that unwillingly entered my mind were not only disturbing but were also horrifically graphic and extremely distressing. These were most upsetting because the themes contradicted my true desires. Even still, I kept the intrusions to myself, worrying that if I disclosed my thoughts to someone, I would be seen to be indecent, immoral or dangerous, particularly because pure-obsessions fall into three main categories, which are sexual, religious and harm. A sexual theme I hated was wondering what it would be like to live as the opposite gender. Some of my other obsessions included fears of hurting myself or someone else, usually with a sharp object. Also, driving a car into oncoming traffic; or walking into a busy road. These were terrifying thoughts and at the time and I wondered what the heck was wrong with me. At aged 10 I developed a religious obsession. I had fears that I wasn’t truly saved. I sensed this underlying threat which felt like an evil person was inside my head, menacing me. I recall having intrusive thoughts about not being true to my faith and believing that God would send me to hell. I also had frightening images of my family and friends suffering in hell if I failed to read my bible each night; or if I didn’t pray for each of them in perfect order. I felt I had no escape from these intrusive thoughts, and more so when they followed me throughout my childhood and into adulthood Magical thinking: I remember my religious obsession hitting me hard when sudden intrusive thoughts popped into my head saying I would die instantly if I saw the clock hit either 12 noon or 12 midnight. I truly believed at that time that God would strike me down because I hadn’t followed through perfectly with my night-time bible reading and prayer list. In those days, I hadn’t a clue about magical thinking or understanding that things don’t happen just because you thought about it. Compulsions that corresponded with this pure-obsession were mostly hidden and included avoidance of clocks, praying for forgiveness and saying a string of words under my breath to neutralise the intrusions. I also mentally swapped disturbing images for pleasant ones; I surreptitiously avoided or escaped certain situations in which OCD thoughts were triggered, and I ruminated on what-ifs for hours on end. Keeping up with compulsions was far from easy. This is because my parents were non-religious. I’d recently started going to Sunday school out of curiosity, but kept this a secret. When the Sunday school teacher handed out bibles and told us to read it each day, I knew I would have to sneak mine into the house and hide it somewhere safe. Secret readings and prayer rituals: I would read a section each night when everyone was asleep. What I did was creep onto the landing where the light was left on, do what I had to do, then quietly tip-toe back into the room I shared with my siblings, and then climb back into bed where I would silently say my prayer. Little did I know that such a performance would become an exhausting and frightening ritual. One night I was caught out. My punishment was that my bible was taken away (for good) and also I was thrown and locked inside the cupboard under the stairs for the night; within the darkness of that cramped cupboard, I remember being petrified of going to hell, especially because I was told I was the devil’s child, a paradox that hit me harder than the OCD’s paradox itself. My compulsions were emotional responses: For more than three decades, I reacted emotionally when faced with an obsession, hence irrationally giving into compulsions to relieve anxiety. But these groundless efforts to thwart disaster, unfortunately, reinforced the problem, keeping me stuck in a never-ending loop of (1) obsessions (2) anxiety (3) compulsions (4) anxiety relief. How did I recover? I went to my local bookstore and by chance picked up a book on obsessive compulsive disorder. After reading the first page I realised I had these symptoms. I eagerly bought the book, took it home and read it in a week. This was a self-help book. It talked about cognitive therapy to correct thinking errors seen in OCD, and how to change faulty beliefs. It discussed exposure response prevention and demonstrated the process of listing a fear hierarchy. I put what I read into practice and by systematically resisting compulsions, I started to become less and less sensitised to the things that once terrified me. I used the book over a few months to guide me towards remission. Life after remission: For me, intrusive thoughts didn’t or haven’t just gone away, but they’re much reduced and I’m not a prisoner to the OCD cycle anymore. My quality of life in remission is much better. I enjoy eating in restaurants and visiting interesting places that once triggered my obsessions. I’m able to concentrate on daily activities without intrusive thoughts interfering on that; for example, I happily pick up fruit and veg from the grocery store without checking for “infected” blood before purchasing them. I feel free from giving into time-consuming compulsions when I visit the bathroom; also, my sleep is free from horrific intrusive images and nightmares. Whilst recovery doesn’t mean cure, for me, it is a freedom I hadn’t known for the best part of my childhood and young adulthood. I’m maintaining this quality of life by continuing to do what I call the 3 A’s. These are to 1. Acknowledge the intrusive thoughts when they come in 2. Accept they are there, and 3. Allow them to come and go without putting meaning to them. Also, before remission, I wanted to be a counsellor and did some training at my local college. But I put this on hold because my OCD was too severe for me to continue. So I was glad to go back to studying soon after I recovered. This time I chose cognitive behavioural therapy and specialised in OCD. It felt like the right thing to do. I enjoyed working with all ages as a freelance therapist for six years. Following a hand injury last year, I was no longer able to drive and continue with my work. But I didn’t let this deter me. I’d already created a free-to-use website for parents of children who have OCD, and so I decided to expand on the idea of having a writing and online coaching career. In the past year, I’ve edited previously written material for an OCD study course for teens and adults, and I’m also actively writing information for therapists working with people who have OCD; for this, I have an online topic store. I’m open to writing opportunities, and currently, I’m working with a publisher on a book about pure obsessional disorder. Advice: I would say to anyone who is in the process of recovery that reaching your goals will be hard work but the long-term benefit is worth sticking it out since consistent effort is crucial for the gradual reduction of fears. You have two choices - one is to stay in the “comfort zone” albeit that OCD is paradoxically an unstable and debilitating condition; the other choice is to slowly and gradually break free from the “safety” behaviours that only serve to keep you stuck in a never-ending obsessive-compulsive loop.

By Carol Edwards

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