Almost every talk about OCD begins with variations on a theme of ‘Everyone has intrusive thoughts from time to time, they’re a natural part of how the brain works.’
This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. I’m thinking a lot about my mental health as a child and how it might be possible to explain pure-o (OCD obsessive thoughts about, but not limited to, harm/death without outward compulsions) to younger children to give them courage to speak out if they find themselves struggling. OCD is much more common than you might expect with 1 in 40 adults having received a diagnosis. I was just 8 when I started having intense intrusive thoughts and it was to go undiagnosed, unrecognised and entirely hidden by me for over 10 years.
I remember the school holidays always being the worst time. I recall painful trips to the sea side and the anxiety the sea would cause, along with cliff tops and the thoughts that came with it. I remember a trip to Cambridge a few years later and staying in a high rise hotel surrounded by a huge busy road. I remember a holidays in swimming pools and on remote islands. It’s still hard to go into detail about these thoughts. School was a safe haven for me because I had a focus and a purpose and the thoughts usually diminished.
I have been trying recently to be more open about my experiences with OCD. With this comes sadness and concern from those who care for me, asking why I ‘didn’t tell them sooner’. This is hard to explain to anyone that hasn’t suffered from it. When the only logical reason for your thoughts is that you are a dangerous and malicious person, this belief is bad enough without the fear of those you love abandoning you or sending you to an ‘asylum’. How can you explain to kids as young as nine that having intrusive thoughts about causing harm to yourself and/or others is not synonymous with being completely insane?
I suffered for so long because I was scared of what the thoughts meant about me. The thoughts were what felt identical to urges, like I was a whisker away from committing my biggest fears. I was so convinced that I was the problem. At no point did I think I was in the middle of a mental health disorder. I never knew that anything like this existed nor thought there was any chance that anyone else might be suffering the same way. The saddest part for me is remembering looking at other children who were seemingly joyful with so much envy; sad that I couldn’t be a ‘normal’ kid and have a happy childhood. I hid it so tremendously well that I remember my mum and sister commenting they couldn’t believe how I ‘never got anxious’ and how ‘confident’ I was. This was the start of me realising what a front I was hiding behind.
If everyone is able to relate to intrusive thinking to some degree, is it not our duty to help the many children suffering just as I did with the knowledge that they will be understood if they speak out? The simple but powerful knowledge that intrusive thoughts hold no more weight or truth than any other thoughts and people are ready to listen and help you heal.