Sometimes I touch toilet floors for the heck of it, but whatever…

Treatment: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

When my doctor suggested CBT at age 24, the emotion that engulfed me second most to excitement, was fear. I was scared that, because OCD was such a huge part of my existence, I would be willingly sacrificing parts of myself, and that I might not have control over which parts I lost (classic ‘loss of control’ terror… textbook OCD behaviour there my friends). 

For example, LISTS. I bloody love ’em. I list everything. I write a list every night of my entire routine for the next day. I write lists of things I want to achieve. I write a list everyday of the things I am grateful for. I push lists upon people like I’m a list dealer with a big bulk I need to get rid of. I knew for a cold hard FACT that if I lost behaviours like this to CBT I’d feel rubbish, because those behaviours are meeeee! 

The line was beginning to blur between mim “quirks” that I thought of with endearment – the ones that felt like home – and the debilitating mental illness that is obsessive compulsive disorder. 

I was having an identity crisis as such. Like Ted Daniels in Shutter Island, except mine was way less dramatic and wasn’t a box office banger.

The CBT began with my therapist and I writing up a fear hierarchy, which consisted of all of my fearful situations, thoughts and objects stacked up on top of each other in order of NOPE. For example, it began with me leaving my psychology textbook in my locker overnight, the thought of which terrified me. This may seem absurd to some, but the thought of leaving my personal belongings anywhere other than my home (my safe place) was simply an impossibility due to the inexplicable feeling of guilt and anxiety I would carry around with me until my sweet beloved belonging was back in my hyper-sanitised arms. This first step took perhaps two weeks before I was desensitised and I could move onto the next level. Being able to leave my books in my locker overnight was a sweet, sweet victory for me. Take that OCD, ya bish. 

I won’t outline the entire hierarchy – it was long, and I mean LONG. Also some of the stuff I was encouraged to do was really gross and therefore TOP RUDDY SECRET (who am I kidding, I’ll be telling you so many honest truths in this blog lol). Over the course of six months, I worked through all levels of the hierarchy, for example using a keyboard in a public library, touching door handles, putting my handbag on bus floors and being able to make eye contact with strangers. The key to completing these levels effectively was to not seek reassurance from anybody during each situation, to not carry out reassuring behaviours such as repeated hand washing after each situation, and to not calm myself down with alcohol/benzodizepines/compulsively watching Harry Potter bloopers and/or videos of sleeping puppies. 

One of the last and most petrifying levels on my hierarchy, was having to rub my hands on a public toilet floor… Sorry I’ll say it louder for people at the back… A TOILET… FLOOR. Worse still, I was encouraged not to wash my hands afterwards, and I then had to eat a packet of crisps in order to maximise the floor-to-mouth ratio. I’m pretty sure anyone would find this gross, but for me it was the ultimate nemesis. NB: Research promotes pushing the fears to fully test them and so we considered options such as licking the toilet etc. I told my therapist I’d literally rather douche with hot sauce, so we went with the floor-stroking instead. I had to repeat the floor-stroking everyday until I could complete it whilst feeling no anxiety whatsoever. It took a whole lotta time and a whole lotta toilet germs folks.

In hindsight, these months were actually some of the darkest and most lonely of my 26 years on planet Earth. I didn’t realise this at the time, as I was constantly in survival mode. I was completing my A-levels alongside the CBT course. I didn’t have any brain-space left to feel sorry for myself or to moan about the CBT. I’m notoriously hard on myself anyway, and so I wasn’t scared to really twist the knife when it came to pushing myself with OCD fears. This must have been a very hard time for my family as well, as my therapist had warned them that reassurance would undermine the exposure therapy. My parents watched me conquer some of my greatest fears and phobias without being able to give into their instincts to comfort or reassure me. OCD IS A SICK TWISTED ILLNESS. OCD deserves to stand on lego every morning when it gets out of bed. OCD deserves to forget about its tea every single damn time and then has to drink it stonecold. OCD deserves single-ply toilet roll. There, I said it. 

Completing these six months of darkness did however, lead to a multitude of positives that I couldn’t have imagined at the beginning of my recovery journey. For example, I felt the most proud of myself I had felt in a very long time and I also got to see my family, friends and therapist being proud of my achievements (still a massive fan of praise at the ripe age of 26, I won’t lie to you). I also began to understand myself on a level I hadn’t before. CBT not only aims to help you overcome your fears in a practical way, but it investigates the theory behind your individual case of OCD. After talking in depth with my therapist and carrying out various exercises, we concluded that my OCD had perhaps been triggered or exacerbated by growing up with a disabled sibling. My therapist challenged each of my fears, asking WHY I was scared, and what the worst outcome would be. Each time, the answer came back to the fear that I would bring harm upon the people I loved. From a young age, I watched my older sister become more and more sick. I became incredibly protective of her throughout my childhood, citing myself as her protector and feeling more like the older sibling myself. This feeling of responsibility then spread into other areas of my life as I grew older, and I became fearful of being responsible for the pain of anyone I loved and cared for. When combined with the OCD (that I was perhaps genetically predisposed to), I began making illogical connections between my actions and the wellbeing of others. CBT helped me to see that these thoughts and behaviours were indeed illogical. 

CBT helped with the practical side of dealing with germs, especially for the first six months after treatment, however I ended up later having to take SSRIs for OCD after screaming down my GP surgery in the late summer of 2017 after considering all of the pathogens in existence in the world at any one time (even writing that nearly caused a meltdown). This did not render the CBT useless however, as it changed my thought processes and my way of thinking in such a gargantuan way. I was disappointed at first when I was put on SSRIs as I had wanted the CBT alone to ‘fix me’, however I realise now that my little human brain is far too complex to be ‘fixed’ like a toy car or a dodgy nose job. 

In case you’re wondering if I’m still obsessed with lists and all of my little OCD ‘perks’ as I like to call them, I absolutely am. I’m listing in my head right now! The CBT did not banish the bits of OCD that I am compatible with, and I soon realised that CBT was simply shifting the power back to me from the OCD. I was in control of my life and my fears and I was the only one who could help myself out of the horrible place I was in.

In the last year I have developed patience and kindness for myself, and I will forever be grateful to both CBT and to my wonderful therapist for teaching me that although I have OCD, it doesn’t have me.

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