OCD, OCD, OCD: And The Lessons I Learned fom Breaking It
My Experience Living a Repeated Life
It’s popular to talk about high agency, or challenging conventions, or grit, or pushing yourself to your limits - and fighting OCD is entirely about that. Honestly the lessons I’ve learned from it are some of the most important I can express to others. I’ve never really done so, but now I think I should. I have no idea if anyone will really read this, but at least it’s out there if anyone wants to.
The Nature of the Beast
When people say “I’m being a bit OCD about this”, they’re just describing something entirely disconnected from the actual condition. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is nothing like its popular image. It is not about extreme organisation, or about wanting things to be exactly correct in some pursuit of perfectionism. I don’t know how this difference came about.
OCD describes a wide range of behaviours, but essentially it can be summarised as having a few stages:
you have a particularly nasty, shocking, disgusting or upsetting intrusive negative thought,
you have a spike in stress (for want of a better word - but fear/adrenaline/shock/whatever works as well),
you are presented with a barter from yourself: Do X and it will ensure the bad thing never happens,
you do X and the stress decreases.
You’ve now learnt a coping mechanism for stress - your body and mind will start to rely on it.
X may be washing your hands, or repeating an action, or saying a word, or anything really.
You will find yourself doing this over and over but - crucially - step 4 reduces in efficacy. Somewhat like taking some recreational drugs, if you take them enough times, they stop working so well, so you might start taking bigger and bigger doses to get the same high. Similarly, the demands of X become larger, the penalties worse, so you have to do more and more to see a reduction in stress - and now the stress you feel is amplified, you’ve built an entire coping mechanism so brutal you will now spend nearly all of your day just trying to get through it and out the other side.
You might think: but hang on, why does this start at all? Step 3 is clearly absurd, no one would believe that, and so no one should do it! Well, this is another curse of the monster. People with OCD are not delusional - outside of the high stress they’ll admit that these things don’t make sense to do.1 But when they are under high stress, the cost of the stress is so high and they’re so crushed under it, that either they believe maybe it’ll work, or they imagine if I don’t do it and then the bad thing actually does happen, I’ll have caused it, or they’ll just be under such strain that in the moment, they do actually believe it will work.2 Once the stress has gone, they might even admit it probably wasn’t necessary to do X (unless they’re forbidden via OCD thoughts to admit that, which they might be). This adds another angle to the curse: you will feel ashamed and not want to tell anyone about it. After all, it makes you sound pathetic.
But I think it’s important to emphasise that this really isn’t unusual at all. A multitude of religions use ritualistic behaviours to cleanse thoughts, forgive sins, or to ask for the help of a deity. This is, in fact, very very usual human behaviour, fully a piece of the most basic parts of ourselves. “Say Y at this point and God will forgive your sins”; “Do this dance in this way and there will be rain”; “Waft this leaf and say these words and the gods will stop the sickness”. This is founded in basic, normal, human behaviour.
This is an entirely simplistic version of OCD and does not capture any of the breadth, depth and nuances that can occur for different people - this is only my own experience, mapped onto a broad overview. For instance, for myself, it wasn’t always specific thoughts but feelings. I would get some intense, awful feeling that I would want to get rid of. This would happen if I touched an object I associated with a particularly bad moment of my life. The bad feeling would be on my hands, I could feel it, like dust on my skin. I would then, genuinely, feel it creeping into my veins and coursing to my heart. My mind was so focused on this that I’d built an entirety of my imagination, consciousness and thought processes around it, to the point that I really could feel this thing. The response was to wash my hands, and - if it had travelled far enough - my arms, in order to stop it getting to my heart.
There wasn’t any particular threat here, just the bad feeling will get me. But the response - the compulsion - was to cleanse myself of it as best I could.
OCD can become truly, life alteringly, horrific. There was a point in my life that every single aspect of every single part of my life was defined by this thing. Repetition is a key part of the compulsions. The stuff has to be negative - you have to pay a price - and the spiral intensifies over time.
Let me give you an example. People with OCD can end up with preferred and disliked numbers. These can be for any collection of reasons. This isn’t unusual for humans - we in fact see similar beliefs in sacred numbers from religion, or gamblers or sports enthuasists. But let’s say the preferred number is 4 (one of mine), and there are two bad numbers: 2 and 5. You wash your hands once to fulfill one compulsion. Then another thought comes along - so you wash your hands again, this time to cleanse away this other thought. But hang on - you’ve now washed your hands twice. Yes they were disconnected moments, but does that count? You think, you should wash your hands 2 more times to make sure there’s no problems, that’s just 3 times total in this one instance (a nothing number) and 4 overall (good). So you wash your hands, but the third time, you turn the tap weirdly by mistake and it’s basically like you turned it on and off. Now is it 4 times in this instance? If so, that makes 4 this time and once last time: 5. And 5 is bad. Now what? You can’t leave it at 5. You can do another 3, maybe get to 8 - but is 2 x 4 a good number? 2 isn’t good, so is doing 2 groups of 4 okay? The solution is clear: do it 16 times: 4 x 4. That’s got to be good.
You might ask: what if you mess it up in the attempt at 16? Well, this is why I had times washing my hands into the hundreds. Once I just fell on the floor, hands in the sink, water running, unable to even remember the count, just wishing it would stop.
How To Ruin The Things You Care About
There is surprisingly little media on OCD. I first realised I had this thing called OCD when I was maybe 15 or 16 and saw someone on some TV show with it.3 I had previously had OCD type episodes throughout my childhood. The really bad period started when I was about 13 or 14. I was having intrusive thoughts, bartering them away, and distinctly remember thinking “Don’t worry, this happens sometimes and it will pass”. It didn’t.
From age 13/14 my OCD ramped up. It dictated every part of my life. Because of the shame, and embarrassment, and difficulty, I hid it from basically everyone. No one realised I was doing everything, nearly absolutely everything, in particular numbers and patterns. Not my family, or friends, or teachers, or anyone. This isn’t a failing on their part, it’s a sign of how much you can get around people when they don’t even know they’re meant to be looking for something. I’m also a confident person, I laugh a lot, I did well at school - there was no flags going up for anyone to really pay attention to it.
Having OCD intensely over your teenage years means that your mind really carves out paths for it. It becomes a central part of who you are. As you’re becoming an adult, you’re also building these connections in your brain, dedicating vast resources to it, and seeing its capabilities and power grow. Friends, girls, homework, coursework, exams: all of it was through this filter, this shroud and weight that forced everything through the tracks it had constructed for me to live.
(I talk of it as if its a separate entity, because it kind of feels that way. It feels as if you are at war with something else in your system. Not in some spiritual, frightening sense, but it doesn’t feel like you’re bartering with yourself, or really with an entity - but that you’re being offered these barters by a weird psuedo-something-else. I can’t describe it anymore accurately than that, but that’s the way it is.)
The direct effects are one terrible thing, but the indirect are something else. At 17 I tried to go to the gym. Counting out sets? Not great. I quit after a few weeks. The social and health positives I would have gained were lost. Instead, I spent my late teens and early 20s incredibly underweight. Why? 1) I burn calories quickly; 2) You think I want to spend time cooking or making a sandwich? Can you imagine all the steps? Way better to go hungry, eating something very simple once or twice a day.
At about 14, I once had a thought that I had to cross out out every single word in a school notebook before I handed it in for checking by the teacher - I did so. I scribbled out literally everything throughout the book - all the work I’d done that term. Every single lesson. I dreaded the feedback. A week or so later I got it back - they’d written: “Be neater in your handwriting”. They didn’t even notice that every single sentence was scored through or scribbled over. No one asked, or checked. Not that I would have admitted to it anyway.
School was a nightmare. Every new task was a new world of suffering. Every piece of homework an additional curse. The experience was terrible, though I did find rote learning laughably easy - repetition was all you really needed and I was very well practised in that. It’s a skill I used throughout school and university. Memorising for exams was trivial - and people’s complaints that “ergh, it’s so boring to read and repeat the same things over and over” didn’t really register with me.
What did register though, was how awful reading itself became. In my first year of Law I tried to keep up with the reading but - like everything - it became a part the beast. I couldn’t finish a paragraph without re-reading it multiple times over. This was made worse by the genuine need to do so when we were given absurd postmodernist pieces to decipher. Not to mention that a great chunk of academic writing is written chiefly to praise the intelligence of the author, and very rarely to express concepts clearly - oftentimes, lest anyone see the emperor really does wear no clothes.
As a direct result, even to this day, I find reading a very difficult task. I have to get into a flow state to read longer pieces, as otherwise this residual feeling of stress begins to build, my enjoyment wanes, and I start to feel that part of my brain engage again. It is a shame as I love learning things - and I would love to find it less difficult than I do. Luckily, of course, Youtube and audiobooks exist, and I have many smart people in my life that tell me about amazing things - and I try to read substacks and long-form blogs, though far far fewer than I would like to. Books are a nightmare still - I push through when I can, but there’s work still to be done.
Beating the Beast: How to Win The War
My first year of uni was horrendous. The workload was insane, I lived in a flat shared with other students who were absolutely dealing with their own (I think some quite serious) crises, and I was collapsing under the weight of usual life pressures (the constant examination processes etc). But - most overwhelmingly - I was collapsing under the weight of OCD. I couldn’t get dressed in the morning without it, I couldn’t listen to music but in the exact same playlist order I’d had for years. I couldn’t read. I could barely play games. Sleep was impossible, I’d just lie awake in fear and fret. Some mornings I woke up, held my eyes shut, and just tried to put off the start of the day for as long as I could. The moment I sat up in bed, I was locked into the demands, and I had lost myself to all of it.
Finally, at the close of the summer of my first year, the new uni year was rounding the corner, and I’d spent all summer in this constant hell. Years of it finally pulled me down. One night, at home with my parents, a friend had sat on and crushed a hat I’d just bought. I had laid it on my bed for the day - an action which meant I couldn’t move it until later, something the OCD had decided, and my friend hadn’t seen it. A minor thing but I told my Mum “I left it there and it’s ruined, I just couldn’t move it so they didn’t see it”. She asked what I meant by “Couldn’t move it” and, finally, after 7 years of this, I told her.4
Therapy has become a by-word for “healthy living”. A kind of idea where you turn up, chat about your feelings and you can sort through things - like an emotional inventory. There’s a growing American-seeming norm that everyone should go to therapy. Therapy for OCD doesn’t look like a sit down chat - not for a lot of it anyway. OCD cannot be defeated by explaining its roots, or thinking in a more positive way. OCD is a fight.
If you recall the cycle above - the trigger causes huge amounts of stress. You are then, with OCD, trying to soothe that stress through unhealthy compulsions. As such, the stress becomes more and more powerful over time, and the compulsions less effective, so you need more of them. There is only one solution.
That aching, horrendous, disturbing, unsettling, horrifying stress - you have to trigger it. You have to trigger it and sit with it. Sit with it for as long as it takes. No compulsions, no rituals. Just sit with it. You fear not doing something might kill you? Sit with it. You genuinely, completely believe and fear it’ll kill your family? Sit with it. You imagine the painful, slow death of someone you love? Sit with it. You feel that disgusting dust that settles on you crawl up your skin, delving into your veins, coursing to your heart? Sit with it. It will ramp up. The stress will just increase, and increase, and increase, and increase. And then? You aggravate it. You will make it worse. You will lean into it and make it worse for yourself.
Eventually - eventually - your stress response will just… dissipate. You will become calmer, and… hopefully, you won’t have died, your family will be okay, or whatever thing you were fearing just isn’t there. You’re now past the peak and you can reflect, like you often do, and realise that you really didn’t need to do that behaviour - and this time you didn’t. You have a Win.
This process (known as exposure therapy)5 can mean sitting in obscene amounts of stress for, sometimes, hours - and not giving in, and then, making it worse.6 And doing this only one time is nowhere near enough. This isn’t just a fight, its a war.
You start small. You construct a list of indicative things you do. Some of them feel more central and absolute rituals, others less so. You then rank the list. You can think of this list as your hit-list. You start at the easiest things - the rituals that don’t feel as central, or as important. These wins are easier, and they build your practice. Like working a muscle, you’re getting stronger for the next fight. You’ll notice that taking down one of these earlier ones might mean you never have to follow it again - and sometimes it even “unlocks” other things for you. When I reorganised my playlist ahead of one therapy session I found a bunch of other stresses just disappeared.
For the real big ones my therapist was with me in the room, and guided me through it. They even offered to go places with me that I find particularly difficult and to do the process there too.
After a few months, I had decided to take a year out of university and I’d thrown myself into this as fully as I could. The weekly meetings meant I had something to push myself for to ensure I did the work. It’d be easy to find excuses not to do the challenges - even the early ones were very uncomfortable. But eventually, we started to tackle the really nasty ones - the central rituals I really feared.
One session sticks in my mind. I had a watch I really cared about that was special. The therapy was to basically take an object I thought had that bad, dusty, nastiness, and entirely envelop the watch in it. Basically, completely mess this thing up in the mind of OCD. All session, I turned something I liked into something “infected” with this feeling I despised. We worsened the stress as much as possible, no escape, just constantly getting my mind to a more and more uncomfortable place. A place which made me as upset, and concerned, and stressed as I could possibly be.
And then, like a break in the clouds, it just kind of - stops. And the watch is a watch, and the thing is a thing. And, we’re just two people in a room, and I’m a guy that has two objects in his hand and like, nothing has changed. You have yourself a real impressive Victory.
The meme of “cope” reflects a part of us which tries to fit the world around our fears of confronting our own negative emotions. I see people so often choose to rely on cope for the punches that life throws at them. They try to outwardly avoid the truth, or soothe themselves from criticism. They fear confronting the reality of their situation, so they ignore it. Or they come up with excuses, or reasons or rules that mean that they could not improve as “really”, the fault lies elsewhere. We’ve all seen people outwardly attack the motivations of people critical of their work, but fail to engage with any of the substance of that criticism. Confronting the criticism head on, sitting with the uncomfortableness: that’s difficult. That’s tough. Better to soothe it away instead.
Beating up OCD meant meeting the beast head on. When I returned to uni I wasn’t afraid of exams or coursework - I didn’t care about grades. I wanted to learn and enjoy it. But I also wanted the criticism. I wanted to improve - not for grades, but for learning arguments, and analysis and widening my skillset. I’d spent the last year fighting the absolute worst, most harrowing thoughts that I could conjure up against myself, the very worst parts of my imagination - so it was hard to get upset by criticism of an essay. Take the punches, take the time to absorb them. Once you have, learn from them and move forwards.
If a criticism has hit you - if you have even the tiniest suspicion that it can be useful to learn from it - then sit with it. If you’re avoiding something - confront it and sit with it. Soothing yourself is a part of life, taking breaks is a part of life, but the big things that get in your way, that hold you back, that stop you enjoying the full extent of what we have to offer ourselves in life: confront them, sit with them, assess the reality, and fight. We can’t control reality, but we can respond to it. In order to respond best, though, we have to see it as it truly is. Just a watch and you in the room.
You never get rid of OCD. The beasts lurks in the background, it waits. As the day drags on, my defences reduce and tiny behaviours slip through. To fall asleep, I avoid having time to think - when I’m tired, obsessive thoughts creep back in. Instead, I watch horror game play-throughs and somehow they genuinely make me relaxed - I have no idea why. But these little parts of the beast belie the reality that it is mostly dormant - only every now and again does it try its best to breach the surface, and I need again to sit, and to fight. These little behaviours, barely noticeable, act as a reminder: sure, life is a fight, but you know it’s worth the winning.
There is a complication here - sometimes religious or spiritual thinking can add to this and then, maybe the person does consider that if they don’t do X then a god or being or whatever might punish them.
OCD is, in part, a need for certainty in the chaos of unpredictable reality. It feeds off doubt, off of the chance - however remote - that something might just go wrong.
Maybe it was the Simpsons episode where the Rich Texan guy says he has OCD, shoots his gun in the air and taps his feet several times. I thought it was hilarious then, and still laughed now - it’s so dumb, it’s great. It was either that episode, or something like Monk. I can’t think of anything else it would have appeared in, that I would have seen.
In fact, most media that involves OCD, does so as a joke. I see no particular problem with this. When suffering with it, I found the ability to laugh at it very helpful. I saw a movie a few years ago, Toc Toc, which does the best capturing of OCD behaviour I’ve seen in any film or show. The characters all have different aspects of OCD behaviours, some of which I had, others which I didn’t recognise in myself but could clearly see how you could get there. It’s a comedy movie. Not one that I’d say was particularly good in general, but one which I found to be pretty funny just because I recognised the behaviours so well.
The only other media - and one that goes viral every few years - is this spoken word poem on OCD. When I’m in a particularly bad episode, the poem seems mostly just tragic, but when I’m feeling better I’m frustrated at how much he makes the poem about his own suffering and seems to imply it was better when his ex-partner loved him and his OCD behaviours, which strikes me as particularly bad.
A poem I really like on this is “Anxiety Group”, its funny and gets across the broad strokes of the fears that can stoke OCD.
For people that might have partners or loved ones going through something like this, I hope I can offer some good advice. The person suffering is going to feel ashamed, don’t make them feel that way. Don’t tell them its ridiculous. Don’t tell them to reason through it. They can’t. They have to fight it, head on. Don’t draw attention to it, in either a positive or a negative way - they’ll just hide it from you. Just let them know you’re a support and then leave them to it.
Connectedly, make sure you don’t live your life around their issue. And absolutely do not let OCD make you a part of the curse. It is easy to start to accomodate it - you don’t need to. Don’t add to stress, but don’t change life so that they find it easier to live with their compulsions. The compulsions will grow to consume whatever space you leave, and they’ll keep expanding to take over anything you don’t leave as well.
Instead, build up the other person - prepare them for battle. Take them along to exposure therapy, get ready for difficulties, but do not interrupt, do not soothe, do not let the thing take over. They’ve got a war ahead, and they need to win it. The war is nasty, brutal but its absolutely winnable. It’s a war they must fight themselves. Do not add shame, or anger, or judgement, but do not pander to the demands of the curse either. Just support them when they ask, let them fight, console their defeats they tell you of, and celebrate their victories.
One resource that might be helpful is OCD Stories,
It can be worse than hours. Several years after beating the compulsions, I had a severely bad episode in which I was stuck with terrible intrusive thoughts, but had no compulsions. This led to months of talking about it and trying to do something about it. I eventually realised the pattern: talking about it was the compulsion. I had only one choice: sit with the bad thoughts for as long as it took for them to go away. That took months. Thinking terrible things, wanting desperately to talk to someone about them, but knowing no solutions existed. Instead, I just had to sit until they lost their power. They did, eventually.