When I was about five years old, I remember very clearly the evening that I spilled some water on the counter of my parents’ bathroom. Another child might have wiped it up and walked away, never thinking about it again, but each time I tried to wipe up the water, I felt like I hadn’t cleaned up every last drop. I became so distressed that I went and apologized to my parents.
But as I got older, issues of morality and confession didn’t boil down to just a drop of water on a counter. I started to feel guilty about a lot of things, even when I knew that it wasn’t a big deal, and continued double checking with my parents if what I had done was ‘moral’ or not. By senior year of high school, when it was time to apply to university, the forms I had to fill out started to beat down on my moral sensibilities. Before I turned in an application, I would spend hours staring at it, checking and re-checking that I hadn’t lied or made an error. I even would go back to the parts of the applications that would never change – such as my name, birth date, and address, and check and re-check these. I knew it made no sense, but I did it anyway. I couldn’t stand the guilt I would feel if I made an error, no matter how small.
In the end, no amount of checking and re-checking was enough, and after all my applications were sent in, I was seized by a feeling of crushing guilt. I started feeling like I should cancel all my applications or turn them down because I was not worthy of going to an institute of higher education. At some point in March, I started feeling ill. I had hauled myself out of bed to go to a physics extra help session one morning when my teacher took one look at me and said, ‘Chase, go home and go to a doctor.’ And that set off the warning bells. Something told me that, deep down, the thoughts and the guilt just weren’t right.
This physical illness was one of the major turning points for me: I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with shingles, most likely brought on because of the extreme stress I was putting myself under every single day, day in and day out. Because the shingles inflammation was so close to my eyes, there was a brief scare that I might lose sight in my left eye because of damage to the ocular nerve. But, luckily, it turned out that this wouldn’t happen. As I sat on the couch at home, finally feeling like I was off the endless train of school and stress and work, I made the conscious decision to go to a counsellor. And so I started getting the help I needed. By early summer, the diagnosis at last became clear: I was suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
OCD is not a joke. I too have made the silly statement that ‘I’m feeling a bit OCD today’ when my pens or something were out of order. OCD, for some people, might in fact be a small inconvenience like this. But for others it is painfully intrusive and debilitating. OCD varies in intensity. I can only speak from my own experience, where it manifests as intrusive thoughts, mostly of a form that would transform my desire to be an honest person into a grotesque, utterly misleading parade of guilty feelings. OCD would heighten my sense of morality to such an unrealistic point that to lead an ‘honest’ existence was completely unattainable. These thoughts – the sensations of needless guilt, over-sensitive morality, and heightened scrupulosity, were what are called my ‘obsessions.’ In turn, my response was to try to reduce the anxiety I felt through confessions, seeking reassurances from others, and checking and re-checking: these are called ‘compulsions’. The trick with OCD is that these short term reliefs did not combat my long term anxieties, and my fears and intrusive thoughts would come back stronger than before. I was becoming trapped in a vicious cycle.
OCD comes in all shapes, intensities, and sizes, and my type is only one of many forms the disorder can take. I am also lucky that mine was and is not nearly as severe as the forms faced by other people. I am deeply grateful for the people – professionals, friends, and family – who have helped me, step by step, to resist my compulsions and confront my obsessions, slowly but surely breaking the OCD cycle. About two years on from being diagnosed, I can say that I feel much, much better. For me, recognizing the patterns inside my head was half the battle: it made my thoughts much less scary, and easier to confront. And though I will always have OCD with me, as someone once told me, it’s better to have a little than a lot.
OCD can be highly stigmatized, often because people have their own preconceptions of what the disorder entails. The good news is that OCD does get better with hard work and patience. I want this expedition to bring attention to the fact that there are resources out there, there are people willing to help and to listen, and there are communities of people who have gone through similar experiences.
My experience with OCD is why Kate and I have chosen OCD Action as our partner charity. OCD Action is the largest charity dedicated to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the United Kingdom, and yet it only has under ten employees. I feel that this highlights the extent to which we need to raise the profile and general understanding of the disorder: if this expedition can move people who come into contact with it toward this in even the tiniest sense, it will have been worthwhile.
OCD Action, at the current time, offers five main services:
- A network of local and online support groups
- The only advocacy for OCD Service in the country
- A support and information helpline (both phone and email)
- A youth project (which also offers an e-helpline service for young people)
- Online resources and support forums
Most relevantly for university students, OCD Action is working on services specifically designed for this demographic. The preliminary materials can be found here.
How can you get involved? In lots of ways!
- Subscribe. To keep updated on our activities in the lead up to the expedition, follow this website, like us on facebook, and follow us on twitter.
- Donate. We aim to use the expedition as a vehicle to raise funds for OCD. To donate to OCD Action, our charity partner, head to this link.
- Contribute. If you are interested in helping to sponsor our cycling equipment, food, medical supplies, or kit to help us achieve our goals, just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com to get in touch.
- Make a change. Educate yourself about OCD at the website of OCD Action, and read up on the ins and outs of the disorder at any number of further sources. Keep on the lookout for symptoms among friends, and learn about the support services available. OCD Action runs an effective page to introduce those unfamiliar with OCD to the disorder, including a helpful video. By learning about the basics, we can all help to combat stereotypes that I know I have experienced in the past, and that others have experienced to a far greater extent than the little I have faced.