My childhood with OCD

I was 9 years old when I had my first intensive intrusive thought. I was on holiday with my three siblings and parents on a remote island in Scotland. It couldn’t have been more perfect for a child. Our days were full of sun, swimming and beaches, and in them spaces to create magical stories and games. We were all such creative children, and have become creative people, and our imaginary world of characters and stories often sustained me. But the wildness of my thoughts took a dark turn that holiday and I found myself fighting what would become a very long battle of uncertainty. My mind was on fire.

The thoughts were horrific. They’d come on as I was lying in bed at night. It felt like I was watching my childhood stripped from me thought by thought. I believed I was a murderer, minutes from acting on the images that plagued my brain. I also thought about harming myself. I’d obsess about the sea and how I could run out of the house suddenly and drown, or how I could go to the kitchen and get a knife and hurt myself or my family. I remember how envious I was of my siblings when I watched them happy and careless as I battled with my brain. I made a promise to my 9-year-old self that holiday-‘This is the most awful thing about you- you can never tell anybody’.

Photo by Kat Smith on

These thoughts, and others like them, persisted for ten years without me knowing what they were. The compulsions were invisible and I became a master at hiding my agony. I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t really think I was worthy of help. I thought other people needed protecting from the awful things I believed I was about to do to them. It didn’t cross my mind once that it might be a mental disorder and it felt impossible that these thoughts didn’t have an underlying meaning or truth to them.

My parents tried to protect me from the darkness of the world as any good parents would, but still I couldn’t tell them about it- I had promised myself that it must be a secret. I was an inquisitive child and would absorb information, though not able to process it properly. The world was a terrifying place for me and growing up in a vicarage at the heart of a community didn’t help this confusion. I had bits of information and stories about parishioners to obsess and fear over, but not the knowledge about what my mental health even was and how to deal with these sudden onsets of disturbing thoughts. I turned to pushing myself academically, so that I had something else to focus on. Learning the cello when I moved to secondary school I often feel saved me at that time. My mind finally had another creative outlet and it was so comforting to know that.

The greatest gift is that I can say I can deal with my thoughts now. I accept them as the transient mystery that they are. I have undergone over a year of talking therapy and have learned to treat them neutrally, although this isn’t always easy. I discovered three years ago, after a period of extreme anxiety and panic attacks, that the thoughts had a name. Like many people the idea of having obsessive-compulsive disorder was pretty barmy, but I discovered it was so-called pure OCD after talking about the thoughts to a CBT therapist. She told me that this was the term given to repetitive and disturbing intrusive thoughts without visual compulsions. I was half expecting that her hearing about them would mean I would be admitted to some institution.

 All I could feel when I heard my diagnosis was immense sadness for the young girl who had to endure all of this in darkness in fear. A child without any wisdom that a better time would come, or that her thoughts meant nothing about her- I mourned my childhood that day.

How do we give children the knowledge that taboo obsessions like the ones I suffered with are common? If most people suffer with wild intrusive thoughts from time to time as a result of having an active imagination, then why are we not taught about them? Though the tone is off as I imagine a primary school teacher explain dark intrusive thoughts to their class.

This is exactly why I suffered in silence and why, sadly, I’m sure many other children have and do. We can’t speak about it. We don’t know how. It’s unlikely that people will understand or know what to do. It’s even more unlikely that children are comfortable admitting to their thoughts. Raising awareness for mental health in primary school has to take a leap of faith. There are young children suffering that need to know we hear them.

You aren’t alone. You are part of a community of people with bizarre thoughts, but your brain can be sticky and sticks to them sometimes. If you have thoughts that make you upset or that won’t go away, we can talk about them. You are respected unconditionally and your feelings are important.

Do we need to go into the fine details of these thoughts with all children? Maybe not, but mental health awareness for children needs to start from a place of courage, compassion and trust. They deserve to know that their minds matter and that they are respected for speaking out. Healing is beautiful and my God I wish I could have spoken out sooner.

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