I’m wandering around the school yard with my friends. I’m six. Trailing behind me is a piece of rope about 12 feet long. It’s in my imagination, but not a metaphor. For most practical purposes it might as well actually be there. I haven’t knowingly imagined it into existence: it just appeared one day. We have a large rain shelter that’s held up with iron pillars. As we play, we weave in and out of the pillars and the rope tangles itself around them. I count: first pillar, once anticlockwise; second pillar, once clockwise. The bell rings. I need to untangle the rope before I can go inside. Discretely I reverse my steps: walk around the second pillar once anticlockwise; the first pillar once clockwise. My friends haven’t noticed, thankfully. They don’t know about the rope. School is a really happy, safe place for me but the rope appears occasionally for a year or so. I don’t tell anyone about it until I’m 19. This could be one of my earliest memories of obsessive compulsive disorder. Or it could be a child’s healthy imagination. That’s the thing about OCD — there’s a fine line between jumping over cracks in the pavement and realising you can’t walk down the street any more.
I’m walking down the corridor alone, heading for the yard to meet my friends. I’m 11. Running down the walls is a dado rail that goes around corners into each doorway. Oops. I forgot to touch the corner of the rail at the last classroom door. I double back and touch it quickly with my fingers. That feels better. I carry on, touching the corner of the rail on the opposite side as it reaches the fire exit before I walk through into the sunshine. Later, I’m walking across our classroom. I forgot to touch the corner of the middle table as I passed it. I think about not bothering, but I can’t manage to ignore it. I double back and touch the corner of the table. That feels better.
I’m kneeling on the floor in the hall at home with my bag in front of me. I’m 14. I want to watch a TV show in ten minutes. I have a black ringbinder with a velcro flap. I put the sheets I need for tomorrow in the rings and close them. I didn’t close them quite right: it doesn’t feel right. I pop them open again and close them. That feels better, but the second time of closing them cancelled out the first time, so really I haven’t closed them at all. I open and close the rings a third time. But it still doesn’t feel right. What I really need is to close them five times: two pairs of two to make a square number, then a fifth that is the one to actually count. I quickly open and close the rings a fourth time, then more carefully on the fifth time to make sure I do it right. That feels better. Getting the velcro flap shut takes another set of four goes, plus a fifth to do it right. By the time I’m onto putting the folder in my bag, and out again, and in again, and out again, my mind is feeling really locked into patterns. I put my folder into my bag for the fifth time. That feels better. I’ve missed the start of my TV show, though.
I’m in my room at university, in bed with the light out. I’m 19. I don’t think I pressed the switch quite right. I get out of bed and turn the light on. I’ve recently looked up obsessive compulsive disorder and realised I have it. I need to do the four-plus-one thing or I won’t really have turned the light off. I flick the light off and back on another three times, then make sure I turn it out properly so I don’t have to move up to sixteens instead of fours. That feels better.
A few weeks later I go to a doctor. Up until now my compulsions have been little more than quirks that come and go, morph into a different form and reappear some years later. But they’re getting bad enough to make everyday functioning tricky. The GP gives me a prescription and tells me to refer myself to the university counselling service. Instead of taking the drugs and getting counselling I end up changing universities and subjects. It turns out that the OCD was just a symptom of me being unhappy with where I was living and the course I was doing. That feels better. The compulsions mostly go away.
It’s the start of the the summer holiday after four years at university; I have one more year here. I’m 22. For the last three weeks I haven’t wanted to touch the door handles or the house phone after the men in our friendship group have touched them. Everyone else has gone home, but I’ve stayed to give the place a good clean. I’ve been cleaning for five days. Each day I’ve gone out and bought more cleaning supplies. The coffee table has a mountain of used cloths on it. I spend the afternoon scrubbing the kitchen floor with a small brush and neat floor cleaner, working my way towards the bathroom. I finally reach the end of the kitchen, exhausted. I put all my clothes in the washing machine, in case droplets of water may have bounced off the floor and landed on them. I get in the shower and clean myself. For an hour. Nothing feels better. I don’t graduate.
After a couple of years of OCD hell I eventually feel ready to reach out for help to a psychologist. I get my life back: get a career, have fun. But I don’t manage to get rid of the obsessions and compulsions completely and can’t work full time. The OCD ebbs and flows in waves. Then in raging floods.
I go to the kitchen to get a glass of water. I’m 33. It’s today. I step over the piece of biscuit I dropped on the carpet an hour ago: to pick it up would mean washing my hands and then maybe scrubbing the sink. On the way through the door I bunch my top up in my hands in case it somehow leaps away from my body and touches the door handle. I get a tissue out of my pocket, unfold it into a square and use it to turn the tap so I don’t have to touch anything. I run the water slowly so it doesn’t splash out the glass into the bowl. Were it to splash it might send a droplet of water from the bowl towards me. Mum went to the bin earlier and has used the sink. The bin has been touched by the bin men, who have touched everyone else’s bins. So all the “man-ness” of all the men who live in the area has been transferred to our bin, and some of that man-ness might be in the water drop. I turn the tap off and put the tissue in the designated place on the worktop, where I know Mum will pick it up and put it in the bin for me. I sip my water and carry on writing this article.
All this feels like it’s keeping me safe. It’s not, is it?