We should all talk about mental health, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s much easier said than done.
Two years ago, I was signed off work after being diagnosed with severe anxiety, OCD, and depression. The experience traumatised me. I’d never taken a day off sick before, even at school. How could I explain to my boss that work had made me so ill that my doctor had deemed it essential to stay away from the office?
Looking back, the diagnosis shouldn’t have come as a shock, but it did. However, that trip to the doctors was the first step—an important step—towards acknowledging my illness and working to overcome it.
I’ve always been a perfectionist, and often that worked in my favour—especially with writing when I was keen to master grammar and produce the best chapter possible. But when it stopped being a useful mindset and started to become an unhealthy obsession, it took over my life.
Perfectionism suffocated me at work. Tasks that should have taken 10 minutes instead took over an hour as I compulsively checked every little detail in search of that one fatal error. Then, after work, I spent my evenings poring over every task I’d completed and every email I’d sent, just in case I’d made a mistake that needed correcting.
I never switched off. Not even at weekends.
Still, I thought that was just my work ethic. I prided myself on my quality of work and I didn’t want to let anyone down by making mistakes, so I assumed the obsessive checking was just me being me. Even locking myself in the office bathroom to cry didn’t seem like a sign of depression. I just considered myself over-sensitive, new to the working world and yet to develop a skin thick enough to deal with the rude emails or sufficient experience to get through the heavy workload.
Depression & Anxiety
And perhaps those things are normal—on a small scale. Maybe everyone has shut themselves away to cry. But not every day, and certainly not multiple times a day. Maybe everyone does care about making mistakes. But they won’t check emails ten times before sending, then go home and re-load their sent box to look over every message. And I’m sure everyone would love to get through their to-do list each day, but they probably don’t cry themselves to sleep at night worrying about how much work will roll over into tomorrow.
My behaviour wasn’t normal, but I didn’t realise that because I didn’t talk to anyone about it. My husband would moan at me each evening to get off my emails, but he didn’t understand that I had to look at my sent box otherwise I’d spend the whole night worrying about whether I spelt that person’s name wrong or attached the wrong file. I needed to switch off, he said. Like it really was as easy as flicking a switch. Nothing could turn off the thoughts in my head—no matter how desperately I wished I could.
It didn’t help that I’d previously tried to talk to a doctor about “feeling low and worried” and he’d dismissed it as normal emotions for a twenty-something-year-old woman.
“You’re just young,” he’d said to me. “These feelings will pass.”
And he was a doctor, so I believed him. Maybe I should have stood firm and insisted that this was consuming my life, but I didn’t.
So the feelings persisted for another year, and other checking-related habits began to spiral out of control, too. It happened gradually, to the extent that I didn’t realise they were abnormal even when they started to occupy my mind more and more.
After all, who wants to risk a burglary or fire? Nobody. Although most people wouldn’t think to check the hob before leaving the house—they’d know they turned it off after cooking. They’d probably only check the door handle once to make sure it had locked, too.
I would stare at the hob for minutes on end, then check everything was unplugged, ensure all the lights were off and the taps not running, then I’d go back to the hob again—hands behind my back just in case I accidentally touched the dials and turned them on. When I eventually left the house, I’d try the door handle between ten to twenty times. I wasn’t counting. It was never about counting. It was about doing it until it felt right. Until I was absolutely sure that the door was locked.
Although I thought this was just me, my husband didn’t. He became increasingly concerned and eventually dragged me back to the doctors.
I saw a different doctor this time, and I’d barely been in the room two minutes before she told me I was very unwell and needed to remove myself from the situation causing me the greatest stress.
But how could I keep away from work when my greatest stresses occurred out of the office? What about all the mistakes I might have made that I wouldn’t be able to fix because I wasn’t there to notice them?
Going to the doctors was an important step, though. An acknowledgment that I did have an illness and these awful thoughts weren’t normal. If it was an illness and not normal, then that meant it could be cured, right?
So, the next day, I searched for local therapists and booked an appointment for later that week. During our first session, she asked me to fill out a questionnaire, circling which statements were most relevant to me. I was amazed at how many of them rang true.
Have you worried a lot about terrible things happening, such as:
- Fire, burglary, or flooding the house?
- Accidentally hitting a pedestrian with your car, or letting your call roll down the hill?
- Spreading an illness (such as giving someone the flu)?
- Harm coming to a loved one because you weren’t careful enough?
Are you constantly worried that something bad will happen because you forgot something important, like locking the door or turning off appliances?
Are there things you feel you must do excessively or thoughts you must think repeatedly to feel comfortable or ease anxiety?
Do you have to check things over and over or repeat actions many times to be sure they are done properly?
These were all symptoms of OCD, apparently. Ignorantly, I’d always assumed OCD was just to do with cleaning or arranging objects neatly. Everyone’s heard that throwaway comment of, “oh I’m a bit OCD about this” when they do something that isn’t really that OCD at all.
I hadn’t known there are different types of OCD, and mine revolved mainly around fears of harming others and obsessive checking.
I knew I was a “worrier”, but I didn’t realise my worries verged on so excessive that they constituted as OCD, nor that I had become severely anxious and depressed as a result of them.
Filling out the questionnaire and realising that these were obviously common symptoms (otherwise why would they be on the questionnaire?) gave me some comfort.
The worse part of my OCD, and the part that developed later yet needed the most CBT, was the contamination side of it. I was more worried about picking up germs that would harm someone else rather than harming myself. I started washing my hands obsessively. If I touched something I thought might be infected—a door handle to a shop, a rail on public transport—I would then worry constantly about that until I could wash my hands. But I’d probably touched other things before I got to the soap—my bag, my clothes, my phone—so all these objects also became “contaminated”. Every time I then touched those items, I was infected again and needed to wash my hands. And so the cycle continued.
As I write this in May 2020, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. We are being told we need to wash our hands regularly to avoid potentially passing the virus onto someone else. Every day, I think about people who are suffering from the contamination aspect of OCD and my heart hurts for them, because I know how painfully stressful these times must be. How can you overcome an obsession with cleanliness when experts are telling you that you need to obsess over cleanliness?
I vividly remember sitting at home alone one day, when I should have been at work, and wondering whether I would ever feel “normal” again or if this would be my life from now on. I couldn’t ever manage not feeling the way I felt.
Today, I look back at that person and it’s like seeing an old friend. Someone who you used to be close to but no longer speak to. I remember the thoughts, I remember the obsessing, and I remember feeling like I would never escape it.
I did escape it. It took well over a year, sheer willpower and commitment to therapy, and a desire to make a change to my life. It was not easy. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through. But I look back now, and I realise how far I’ve come. I realise how much those “chemicals in the brain” affected me. Controlled me. Overpowered me. Because they weren’t me. They never were. Yet they took over my life.
My mental health is still a battle at times. The difference today is that I recognise when I’m slipping back into unhealthy habits, and I know what triggers me, so I can adapt my behaviour to get back on track. Therapy was incredibly useful, and I still use the exercises that my therapist taught me in order to get a handle on worrying thoughts or low moments. Perhaps most importantly, I realise that moments of anxiety or depression don’t necessarily represent a relapse or a failure to “get over” my illness. I’ve got through it once and I know what I’d need to do to get through it again.
You can never truly understand the power that someone’s mental health holds over them unless you’ve experienced it yourself. And, the thing is, so many of us have experienced it. We talk about it now more than we used to, but we still don’t talk about it enough. We should. You never know what battles someone is fighting inside. But the more we talk, the less we feel alone.
If you’re concerned about your own wellbeing or someone else’s, please seek help. There are some useful resources here.