I Am Not My Thoughts
When you think of addiction, what comes to mind? Alcohol, drugs, sex, social media? Did you ever think you could be addicted to your own thoughts? Well, you can. At least I can. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is pretty much characterised by this notion. Obsessive thoughts and actions that become addictive and contribute to a debilitating cycle of anxiety that if you let it, can swallow you whole.
Mental illness, for me, has always been like one of those toxic friends who leaves and enters your life completely unannounced and typically uninvited. This “friend” first entered my life when I was 12. It started with phobias, and up first was death. My curious young mind began reeling. Where do you go when you die? What happens? What does it feel like? It must be bad, right? If I do anything risky (like being a normal, living human being), I might die. And my family might die. And my best friend. And my dog. And the obsessive thoughts go on…
Months went by and these thoughts intensified. I remember vividly resenting the song “Just Another Manic Monday” because I couldn’t wait for Monday’s, and the distraction of school. My weekends were filled with scary thoughts and I would crave the routine of school to distract me from these pervasive thoughts. I saw a child counsellor who talked me through these thoughts and they started to slowly dissipate and take less of a priority in my little world.
At 14, my phobia friend joined me again, this time, it was flying. My parents had generously extended an invitation for me to join them on a trip to the U.S. Just after the flights were booked and paid for I told my parents over the dinner that I simply couldn’t go. When asked why, I explained I couldn’t fly. Soon enough my days were filled with inescapable thoughts on air crashes, oxygen masks, full sick bags and never seeing my family and friends again. Every time I thought of getting on that plane a physical ball would erupt in my throat, my cheeks would turn read and fear would engulf me. I was fortunate enough to have been on many plane rides before, always thoroughly enjoying the experience and never thinking twice. This new fear was frustrating and unexplained but also very, very real. My poor parents were worried and booked another appointment to see a young female psychologist. They were adamant I was getting on that plane. After a few sessions, I was left confused about where this phobia had come from but was armed with coping strategies (breathing techniques, inflight activities, essential oils to inhale). Let’s just say I boarded that plane and, although completely out of my comfort zone, had a great trip and made wonderful memories.
Shortly after this trip, my obsessive phobic thoughts turned to actions. My toxic friend decided to think less and actmore. It wasn’t long until I was experiencing the symptoms of a full blown Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Of course, when these symptoms began I had no idea what this disorder was, let alone that I had it. But the way it worked for me was like a formula (and I’ve never been good at maths). It goes something like this…Bad thought (i.e. someone I love might die) + activity to counteract bad thought (i.e. flick light switch 48 times) = bad thought won’t come true. And repeat. I became totally addicted to this very dangerous, very damaging cycle. This OCD friend came everywhere with me, and I mean EVERYWHERE.
But you see, the catch is, the “obsessive activities” do not eliminate the obsessive thoughts. You find yourself back at square one and before you know it you’re flicking a light switch 48 times, closing a door 7 times, brushing your teeth 4 times and looking out a window 16 times all before breakfast. This addictive disorder meant a simple daily task like brushing teeth would take me twenty minutes instead of two and very quickly these time inefficiencies were impacting on my daily functioning. It took missing the school bus 14 days in a row before I realised this was a problem. However, this realisation came after almost a year of creating, repeating and torturing myself with these addictive actions as a seriously messed up antidote to my own anxieties.
Didn’t your family and friends question you, you say? Looking back, one of the reasons why I suffered in silence for so long is because like many mental illnesses you spend just as much time hiding them as you do living it. I became professionally in denial and put A LOT of effort into performing my actions privately and in a way that no one knew what I was doing. It was like a secret society and the only members of the group were me and my toxic friend, OCD. It was only when my compulsions became so frequent and intense that my family began to notice, and I knew I could no longer hide what I was doing. Not from them, and not from myself. I remember my siblings finding it quite comical to start with, but one day my sister called me “crazy” for tapping a spoon one (or fifty) times too many and it hit me like a tonne of bricks. Was I crazy?
The third time seeing the psychologist was the most enlightening. The psychologist was a middle aged man who liked dogs and going for coastal runs. He was very matter of fact all while being sympathetic. With some intensive cognitive behavioural therapy, I no longer felt the need to perform my counting, rituals and totally soul-crushing routines to combat the noise in my head. It didn’t happen over night, but it happened, and I am so grateful for that. I remember him asking me a question that no one else had. He said “so these “things” you do, what would happen if you didn’t do them?” I responded with “something bad might happen”.
He gave me some homework which was basically trial and error. Somehow I found the courage to try not doing something to see what might happen. When I would wake up alive with my family safe and well - I realised what I feared hadn’t come true. Realising this simple fact was the true turning point for my illness.
Now at 27, I’d be kidding myself to say I live a life free from mental illness. I can say I am in OCD remission and have been for some time, but I can still find myself over-thinking and obsessing about thoughts. I’ll occasionally, deliberately step around cracks on the side walk or knock on wood, but I’m not doing it in fear, more habit. I know now that we can’t control “bad things” happening. No amount of light switch flicking or door closing will stop natural disasters, or animals being hurt or losing our loved ones. What we can control is our ability to seek a quality of life we as humans deserve. One free from pain. And getting help when I needed it was the best thing I could have done.
I used to long to be like my care-free, laid back friends. Not a care in the world, not an addictive personality in sight. It took a really long time, but I have grown to love the qualities that my experience with mental illness gave me. Qualities like acceptance, sensitivity, thoughtfulness, empathy and curiosity. These things make me, me and my quirks (notflaws) only add to who I am. And my imperfect self is enough.
Written by Tamara Louis
Edited by Claudia Farnsworth
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Any information on this blog is not a substitute for professional advice. It is written from personal experience and research only. If you are in crisis, go to your nearest emergency room, call lifeline on 13 11 14 or dial 000.