In a brave, truthful and powerful read that the Cutter is proud to publish Paul Edwards (Damocles/@MCFCDamo) reveals the continual struggle of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
For somebody who spends a lot of time on social media and the internet, it’s pretty hard these days to become inspired. Sure, events like the #Kony2012 campaign against Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony or more recently the #MeToo campaign inspire people into short bursts of energy or activism but it’s rare that an idea sticks with you over the long term. That type of idea that doesn’t initiate an immediate Call to Action but instead plants a seed in your brain and over time becomes something larger and more powerful.
I think I first became aware of Ste Tudor around 2009 or so when we both were regular posters on the Manchester City focused Bluemoon Forum. Bluemoon was then, and still is to some extent, a pretty madcap place to spend your internet time; there’s raging arguments, trolls, hilarious one-liners, memes and even on occasions an insightful or intelligent post ranging in diverse subjects from what is the best formation for the next game to when you last defecated accidentally in public. It’s a broad Church but as somebody who helped out on the technical backend of the site it always felt to me that us regular posters were part of a community and even when we disagreed on major life issues such as politics or religion or Roberto Mancini, we still had a shared heritage to some degree. The true power of the internet is the power to give you access to communities where you start to view others as friends, respect them as intelligent and articulate people and given chance, encourage and support them in whatever project they were trying to pursue.
In May 2017, Ste Tudor wrote an article about depression for Mental Health Awareness week. Within those pages he confessed to his mental health problems and how they adversely affected his life up to that point. I found the article powerful and moving in the moment but quite honestly, I probably forgot it a week later. Or so I thought. For some reason, that article kept popping up in my brain months after and I couldn’t verbalise or understand the anger that it generated. The article itself contained no reason to be upset – if anything it was a tale of confession and ongoing redemption. I later realised that the reason that I was angry at the article is because Ste was “one of us”. He wasn’t some far flung individual sharing their story on Youtube or it wasn’t some article in a paper you vaguely scan over but he was like me. He was a City fan, a Bluemoon poster, a podcast contributor. He was a “proper bloke”, a mate, a lad you’d see down the pub and enjoy a pint with. For the first time in my life I saw the reflection in the mirror and the anger that I felt wasn’t anger towards Ste or the article, it was anger at myself and my problems and the frustration and shame that you take from hiding such an overwhelming part of your personality because you don’t want to be seen as weird or lesser or give the internet any ammunition to ignore or inflame you. My internet me wasn’t the real me because it was hiding a vital part of what makes me, me.
It’s a bit odd being mentally ill because you often process the world in a different way from other people and that leads to embarrassing or frustrating situations. Speaking to others who had mental health issues in the past, they’ve often described the worst thing being that you can’t ever work out what part of your thoughts are “normal” and what parts of your brain are “illness” because to people with long term conditions, everything that you do seems perfectly normal or rational. It would be like somebody telling you that putting a coat on when it is raining is odd behaviour – every fibre of your being, every logical process in your head, tells you that this is the definite correct thing to do and you couldn’t imagine why people wouldn’t do it or would have an issue with you. I often am somewhat jealous of these people who are oblivious to their illnesses because they get to be delusional about the extent or severity of their ‘differences’ to the world. Me? I know I’m mad. But I can’t stop being mad. And I’d argue that that is even more frustrating.
To get this out of the way and to give the diagnosis, I have OCD. OCD is pretty badly understood in the general public because it conjures up images of people wanting all their pencils to be lined up or getting annoyed when their house is a mess; that’s not really OCD, it just means you are neat or appreciate symmetry. The more educated might understand it as having to repeat a task a certain amount of times or washing your hands until you bleed – although this is certainly one of the presentations of OCD, it isn’t really the disorder itself but instead the visual things that can be shown in a movie or TV show.
Obsessive Compulsion Disorder is a mental illness in the anxiety family that can be best characterised in three ways; you have obsessions, you have compulsions and avoidance tactics.
The obsessive part of the OCD is a certain thought that constantly enters your mind intrusively and will never leave you alone; a bit like that song that gets stuck in your head but for 30 years instead of 30 minutes and without respite. For many people, their obsessions relate to different fears such as becoming ill or being a violent individual or not being able to protect someone from hurt or not being able to avoid failure. Imagine your inner monologue constantly thinking about some potential harm that will come to you or your family or friends and you focusing on it and thinking about it for every waking moment. You’re in the shower? Thinking about it. Having a nice meal? Thinking about it. Flirting on the phone with that bird you right fancy? Thinking about it. Sat at work concentrating on the job in hand? Thinking about it. These obsessive thoughts pretty understandably generate a pretty severe anxiety and sometimes (but not all the time) depression in people with OCD.
Compulsions are the “you’re a f**king lunatic mate” part of the illness. These are the things that make you understand that you’re a bit odd. A compulsion is the thing that you do to make the obsessive thought go away, a sort of distraction technique, and they make absolutely no sense at all to anybody else in the world apart from you and even then they don’t really make sense to you in any logical way. This is what the hand washing or stepping on cracks in the pavement while walking are.
Let’s give an example. If your kids or parents went skydiving, would you advise them to check their backup parachute? Sure. That makes sense right? Because they might die if they don’t. Now do you presume that your kids or parents are stupid and wouldn’t check the parachute if you didn’t mention it? Of course not but you don’t lose anything by mentioning it and it’s such a big risk if they don’t that you should do it. You’re sure that the instructors are all good and they’ll follow the correct procedures but why not? It’s a one off comment, no problem. Now consider the obsessive thought – you tell yourself all day that they need to check the backup parachute and have visions of them dying if they don’t. So even though it’s a Monday morning slog at work, maybe you ring them now instead of waiting until Saturday to go and see them? Makes sense right? You’ll feel much better and it will be off your mind. Then later in the day, you’re walking to Greggs for your barely edible meal deal and you pass a bookshop that says “How to pack a backup parachute”. If you’re THAT worried then there’s no harm in picking it up and maybe giving it to the skydiver right? No big deal. Whatever. So you do. And you feel a bit better for a while. Then after work while sat on the bus, you remember that perhaps you can’t make it Saturday because the match is on and the traffic is bad so maybe it’s best just to send them the book? Oh look, that Post Office halfway across the bus route is open and I’m pretty sure that when I get back home, my Post Office will be shut, so I’ll just jump in there and send them the book quick. Because you might not make it Saturday and you’ve already bought the book and it would be really daft if they didn’t get it because maybe then they won’t pack their parachute correctly. That seems somewhat logical even though it’s stretching a bit right? But you feel better so off you go. Oh hold on, there’s not another bus for an hour now and that rain cloud doesn’t look too friendly so I better get walking you think. As you’re merrily trotting along you get some time to think and let your mind wander. You find yourself remembering a “Builders From Hell” type show about crappy businesses and a bell rings in your head – was that company the skydiver said they were using featured on it? Maybe it was Watchdog? You’re ABSOLUTELY SURE you’ve heard their name before on one of those programs but for the life of you, you can’t remember which one. So you think you’ll just quickly Google it to make sure that they’re not the same company. Why wouldn’t you? No skin off your nose. You’re not doing anything but walking anyway. It will give you something to do. And honestly though, let’s say you don’t bother and there’s some sort of problem later and maybe your loved one hurts themselves, could you live with that type of guilt knowing that you could have warned them but didn’t? Just a quick Google search while you’re rushing home. You don’t unearth any immediate evidence but there’s a skydiving company that you find on Watchdog whose name sounds similar. Maybe they’re related in some way? After all, if I was on Watchdog then I’d probably change my business name. I’ll check Companies House to see if they share any Directors or any shenanigans like that, you think. What’s the harm? If they ARE just the same company renamed then it’s important for your skydiving loved one to know the risks. Hmmm, you notice that just after the Watchdog programme aired there was a change of management. I wonder where the old managers went? I’ll Google it to be sure. Wait, did that car just beep at me? Lol, must have been lost in my thoughts and didn’t see them turning into the road as I was crossing it.
What you’ve just read is how OCD works in a fairly standard situation. You had the obsession (my friend might die) and the compulsions (phone call, the book, getting off the bus in the middle of nowhere, walking into the road while Googling some middle management figure from a vaguely remembered story). In the moment no single thread of your behaviour seems THAT odd but looking back at it afterwards, explaining to someone that you were looking up “Michael Smith” on Facebook because your mate might die if you don’t is a bit stupid. And that’s always how it starts. Over time you start to understand that these small behaviours are wrong but then the thought occurs to you: WHAT IF YOU DON’T? Yeah, looking it up is daft but it’s such a small part of your day and if you don’t then you’ll feel a twat. So even though it’s a bit stalkerish and creepy you’ll do it anyway. Because the benefits outweighs the risks. And that small thought of WHAT IF YOU DON’T changes your entire life from the moment it clicks in your brain.
It’s hard for me to really say when I developed OCD but I think it was in my teenage years. My obsessive behaviours tend to focus around the idea of becoming (or making other people) ill such as vomiting. There’s no one incident that I can point to as “the root cause” of why it developed because mental health is never as pleasingly simple as this, but I can tell you that it has shaped almost my entire life and every major decision that I’ve made in my time. Avoidances are a bitch.
Avoidance is where you basically can’t be arsed with going through the compulsions so you don’t even bother. It’s like this – would you have fifteen pints or lager and a vindaloo the night before a big early morning meeting that your career rested on? Probably not. You’d avoid that because you might get ill or be distracted or smell like Bernard Manning’s breath and that wouldn’t be good. Take that principle and magnify by a thousand and you end up thinking about what behaviours are “safe” and what behaviours are “not safe” for you to do. In my life a major issue for me was a stadium move from Maine Road to the Etihad Stadium for Manchester City. Maine Road had become a “safe place” for me; I had rituals when I got up in the morning where I’d nip to the loo, have a shower and shave, then get on a certain timed bus which would get me to the ground a bit before kick-off where I’d buy the fanzine or programme to read at half time and sit in pretty much the same place all the time. Happy days; could do that no problem. In 2004 when City moved stadium, it then presented me with an anxiety ridden choice – I had to then go to something that wasn’t a “safe place”, where I didn’t have rituals/compulsions to get me through the day and all of this uncertainty flooded into me and broke my brain. I missed much of our opening season there because I decided to avoid that whole mentally draining task and sit at home instead. Over the years, you manage to create whole new compulsions that you do “just in case” to distract you from the obsessive idea that you’re about to constantly throw up or be thrown up upon and that’s fine. I was back to the games. And in 2012ish then the whole thing started again. You see it’s like a chain and if you break a single link you break the entire thing. If my toothpaste changed or I didn’t need the loo before leaving the house or if you have to change where you sit then you can’t even get out of the house. I stopped going to games for a fairly long time because – and wait for this because it’s the stupidest fucking thing in the world and you’ll probably laugh – part of my journey was to get the Metrolink from Piccadilly Gardens to Piccadilly Station (a couple of minutes journey) rather than walking and the grey/blue Metrolinks had changed and only yellow ones ran which weren’t part of the ritual. BUT, going to youth (or later Women’s games) were no problem at all on the yellow Metrolinks and I’d happily do that.
I have no explanation on why that is. I like the Yellow Metrolink trams. They’re pretty clean and spacious and comfortable, much better than the older ones but it doesn’t matter, the trams aren’t really the point, the point is BUT WHAT IF YOU DON’T? You build compulsions and rituals because they lessen the anxiety from the obsessive thoughts that you have and when the rituals change then your anxiety returns. I can as a normal person understand the idea that going on a yellow Metrolink to a senior game or you know, driving or walking or getting a taxi or a bus or getting a piggyback ride from a friend are all possible solutions and the chances of me getting ill on a yellow Metrolink are absolutely dead on the same as the grey one. It’s probably lessened if anything if you remember the grey trams and how trampy they became. It’s not about logic and despite a ton of trying, you can’t think your way out of OCD. When you “conquer” one compulsion such as needing to get the same bus to Maine Road every week then instead you replace it with a different compulsion such as getting on the Metrolink and the move from grey to yellow was as big a change as the move from Maine Road to Etihad. It needed a whole new chain. Other games aren’t a problem because they have their own chains that are not linked.
How exactly to deal with this all is something that still changes for me day by day. Let’s be honest, even I have to admit that it’s a BIT funny. Anything absurd is funny and OCD is one of the most absurd things I’ve ever had the misfortune to deal with; as I said earlier, when you have it, you’re fully aware of how mad it is that the colour of a Metrolink is going to determine your physical health. And I can’t blame my mates who throw in a subtle but well-meaning dig about compulsions every now and again – you’ve got to laugh at yourself to get through anything, really. But on the other hand, I can’t adequately explain the anger you generate at yourself when you know that this is a really stupid connection that makes no sense at all yet you are still bound and paralyzed by it. Nobody ever hates you with quite the same venom that you hate yourself when you feel pathetic or stupid, nobody else can create that type of resentment and anger and frustration and loathing and mocking and patheticness and self-pity and shame and embarrassment and humiliation that you can produce when you feel like you’ve let yourself down – especially over something so pathetically trivial. It’s this that really causes the compulsions to become compulsions in my opinion, you’ll do anything to avoid that soup of emotional shame and function like everybody else does. Even if that means rituals or turning a light off exactly six times before leaving a room. We all want to love ourselves and we’ll all do anything to escape self-hatred even if it causes mockery or judgement from others.
Avoidance strategies tend to shape OCD existence. There are many different types of OCD and people with this suffer and overcome in a large variety of ways, so I can only give my personal experiences on avoidance and they may not apply to everyone else.
OCD is linked pretty heavily with substance abuse problems. It’s sort of in our nature to do things at 0 or 100,000 miles per hour and if you want to stop thinking and make your head shut up then 10 pints of Carling is a decent option. You feel happy, confident, your brain often shuts up a bit, you don’t care quite as much about compulsions; you can be around other people without massively overthinking everything. It’s a seductive option and one that I turned to often in the past. Unfortunately, getting pissed every day creates a whole slew of its own problems that aren’t solved by getting more pissed. Compulsions are like that; you think that you’re better off when you get pissed up so the perfectly logical thing is to get pissed up. It doesn’t make any more sense than the yellow Metrolinks at senior games; it’s just a different solution to the same problem. And a bloody expensive one too.
Many with OCD tend to be the “stay at home” type. Home is a safe place. Home is often a place where you’re in control and you don’t have to think and you don’t need a big ritual to get you out of the door. To step outside you need to often do 15 things in a certain order and who can be arsed with all that thinking all of the time? Who wants to climb a mountain every day? Besides, there’s probably something good on Netflix or Twitter. Much easier to stay here. I like it here. It’s comfy and the objects in my house are all under my control. This is my space, not yours, and that book isn’t on the side because it’s messy but because that’s where it lives and things have to be placed where they live otherwise I get irritated.
When you’re the “stay at home type” you need two major things: a form of income and a distraction from the constant obsessive thoughts or entertainment. Here the lowly computer is the saviour; it becomes a way to make a decent wedge of cash (because the NHS might crash so you need to save money in case you need to buy private insurance because otherwise you might get ill which makes sense because you’re mental, mate) but also a way of escaping your own head. Many people with OCD find themselves in IT based careers to some degree, understandably. It also helps that IT is a somewhat lonely pursuit at times and you don’t have to deal with the social consequences of the OCD often. Even worse than this, the obsessive behaviours of OCD are sometimes even encouraged because you work extremely hard and extremely long hours. Nerd culture glamourises the obsessive genius who is always a bit odd – Moss from The IT Crowd wouldn’t be a bad example of such a thing although there are tons more. Some might suggest Paul Gascoigne and the idea of the erratic genius in sport too although I wouldn’t like to diagnose at a distance. IT people are sort of expected by the general public to be the weird loner types who probably bathe too little and think too much.
This is something that I’d like to touch on more deeply too but it’s the “mental illness is a superpower” trope. OCD isn’t just limited to intrusive thoughts about one subject but can manifest in a variety of different ways. Thoughts dominate your entire existence. To many other people (I’m told), they are able to think something, dismiss it and move on. I can do this too about opinion based stuff; politics, religion, jokes or whatever but working on a project is exhausting. I’m not good at programming or football coaching or whatever because I’m a super-genius who is bestowed by a deity with an incredible intellect. I wish. I’m good at those things because once they latch into the brain, I spend 20 hours every single day researching and practicing them until I burn out because of exhaustion then need to go for a bit of a lie down for a few days. There’s no such thing as “taking it easy” or “having a break” or “just get it done mate”. It will be done and it will take me a billion hours to do it and it will be absolutely perfect.
Or that’s what you tell yourself. In reality, you barely actually DO anything that’s productive because you obsess over and over and over about the really stupid and small details that nobody else cares about to the point that it becomes crippling and some massive job where you have to remake the entire Universe to finish. It is believed due to poor representation on TV shows that having OCD or being a wankery corporate type who claims to be “a perfectionist” makes you able to spit out just a ton of work because of your ability to constantly obsess over a subject. Whereas the opposite is true. People who are much less knowledgeable about the details of my trades are often much more successful because they understand that the end user doesn’t care whether you implement a Singleton Pattern in your code or whether you split the percentage time between static and dynamic stretching in a training session perfectly. They care about whether you deliver the thing you promised.
Unsurprisingly, many people with OCD work for themselves because their time management is awful and their productivity ranges from superhuman to slug. And sometimes you might want me to do a presentation in an “unsafe place” and that requires just a metric fuck-ton of effort to work out, plan the route, do the rituals and go through the huge anxiety of creating a new chain. Other times you might not understand why I’m a bit shouty about you nicking my stapler for a bit of a laugh. No, it’s better to just avoid the whole thing and be my own boss and work with a small amount of people who suffer through my obsessive and semi-productive nature. You want to try a talking with me when I’m obsessive about a certain topic – it’s like getting repeatedly punched in the face for three hours while someone vomits a stream of consciousness at you. I have literally finished phone calls drenched in sweat on a regular basis because of the energy that goes into them. God knows what the people on the other end are thinking, I’m lucky to work with some very understanding and caring colleagues who can see that passion in a positive light.
I’ve never written about mental illness before nor shared any details about it with anybody but a very close knit group of friends that I have in my non-internet life. Mainly because it feels like giving ammunition to everybody who wants to be a bit of a twat to you on the internet and I already do enough of that.
But that short yet compelling article by Ste Tudor changed all of this for me. By late 2017, the seed had grown into a sapling and the idea that other people who struggled through mental illness existed within my community was a powerful motivator in beginning treatment options. It let me know that I wasn’t alone and that there are people who I genuinely like and respect who battle their own demons on a daily basis. Seeing “one of us” from the City fan community talking about their own failings, their own shame and their own illnesses challenged and exposed the cowardice within me for what it was, and forced me to think “this isn’t normal, do something about it”. Madness recognises madness.
The goal for this article, for me, and the reason that I stepped out was mainly because I hope there are people out there who might recognise the behaviours in themselves or might know people who already suffer with this and understand it a little better. Ste didn’t have OCD, his battle was with depression, but him putting his head above the parapet began my own journey. All of life’s problems are ultimately solved by talking about them and recognising them; you can only hide from yourself for so long before you have to reach that crossroads.
I chose to have the conversation about it and start looking at solutions rather than calling myself a bell-end all the time. I hope others of any severity and any condition who are worried about their mental health find something worth taking away from this. Even if it’s just a seed.
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For further information and help please check out the OCD-UK site here