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Personal Story: The courtroom inside my head

Coming to terms with my obsessive compulsive disorder. 

I killed someone yesterday. I swallowed a painkiller in a café and left my cup on the counter. Someone will have touched it and died of an allergic reaction. The thought comes as I’m washing up. I hold a plate, still, in the beige water. My mouth is cold with fear, the blood recedes from my toes.

My head is a courtroom, where the trial is always rigged. My fears are facts, my thoughts as valid as DNA. I feed my daughter breakfast with a prosecution in my ear, the barrister barking out my crimes. The fear coils my stomach like a snake. Somewhere close to me, my partner chews porridge. I start to check – the local news website, first. It’s slow, sluggish with adverts. I’m impatient, loading and reloading, refreshing the homepage to see if anyone’s died.

Later, we push our toddler to the shops and I envy my partner his domesticity, his innocent reaching for loaves of bread. I turn over newspapers, my fingers greasy with print. I glance at each page, looking for stories of deaths. But what if reading newspapers looks suspicious? I stop, sick with the thought that I’m incriminating myself.

The next week, my toddler says a swear word, and I know social services will take her away. Her nursery assistant, Natalia, chirps, “We thought she said ‘duck’ at first.” At dinner, I google “child protection laws”, while my daughter gluts her mouth with peas. The sites and stories grow fast as weeds. It’s 5am and I’m still researching, my laptop swallowing documents I don’t understand. Over and over, I hear Natalia’s words in my head and my own scared defence, “I’m so sorry. I must have said it when I stubbed my toe. We would never swear in front of her” (this is true). I curl up, thinking she will call the police. 

At first, I don’t believe that this is obsessive-compulsive disorder. OCD is for good people, so harmless that they’re terrified of things they’ll never do: abusing a child or stabbing their spouse. My guilt is thick and instinctive. I feel like a perpetrator, covering my tracks. I search for security cameras, rummage through rubbish, pull tissues from my pockets to check for incriminating notes. I know what OCD is, anyway. I got diagnosed at 18, when I kept counting three, three, three so I wouldn’t die, studding texts to my boyfriend with acronyms, HMP! (“help me please!”), IHNIFHE (“I hope nothing I fear happens, ever”), my nails sinking small wrecks into my skin. OCD is jumping back over pavements, flicking light switches, the number six being bad because there’s six letters in “cancer”.

But I don’t have OCD now, I tell myself – I’ve really killed someone. My daughter really will get taken away. I can’t have OCD because my fears are not illogical enough, I’m not pure enough, I’m too riddled with grubby uncertainty.

OCD is an excellent consumer. It hooks into every flickering thought. Filling out forms is hell. Student finance forms, tax credit renewals: “I confirm, to the best of my belief, that the information provided is true and complete…”, “I understand that I could be prosecuted…”. I scan for transgressions and accidental lies, rereading my answers until the ink blurs like tears.

OCD eats the hours from my day, chewing my relationships down to the quick. My need for reassurance is extreme. I cash in on friendships, forcing ones I’ve barely formed into confessional intimacy. “I’m worried that my laptop’s got a virus,” I tell a girl I hardly know, “and hackers might use it for illegal activities.” This is my current fear and it’s one of the worst. In computer shops, I question the assistants obsessively. One man asks, irritated, “Have you actually seen anything unusual on your laptop?” I haven’t, but I’m terrified of malware, how it lodges itself so subtly in your computer system that you don’t know it’s there.

I’m 14 and my parents are downstairs, whispering out their divorce. I strain to hear them, the bannister warm against my cheek. I think they’re discussing how bad I am. They’ve found out, I think, about the times I’ve touched between my legs and about the boy who asks for pictures of my breasts. I creep downstairs every night, searching their voices for sounds of shock. Back in bed, I fall asleep asking myself: what if they know, what if they know, what if they know.

At 17, I start to wonder if other people are real. My panic attacks are vicious. I’m sitting, knees to chin, at my philosophy homework. The thought comes fast and brutal, a fist under my throat. What if nothing exists outside my mind? I recite Descartes in my head, “I think, therefore I am. I think, therefore I am.” But what if the family I love are a figment of my imagination? Or a bunch of robots imitating consciousness? The awfulness of it pervades my mind. I stop eating, for fear that the food and the fork and the plate might not be real.

I think, extensively, of killing myself. I see a counsellor who tells me to snap rubber-bands on my wrists. I snap my wrists into rawness and follow each thought into an endless warren. I research solipsism, the idea that only our own minds can be known to exist, desperate to find a flaw in its logic. I find other voices online, crying out their pain. The woman who worries her twin babies aren’t real, the teenager, thinking of suicide. OCD pops up repeatedly in my research, but at the time I think OCD is just praying and counting. I don’t realise its obsessions and compulsions can latch on to anything. Our thoughts, our ideas, the things we’ve done and the things we fear we’ll do.

In our culture, OCD is inextricable from cleanliness. My OCD is about the purity of thought and action, the need to scour every event from the potential of wrongdoing, the sense that every particle of doubt contaminates me.

I would love to think of OCD as a tangible thing. As a pathogen masquerading as logic, tricking itself inside me, eating away the tissue of my healthy thoughts. I would like it to be that simple – OCD, the aggressor, me, the sufferer. I like the clear binary of good and bad, the perfect distinction between victim and perpetrator. But OCD is a really effective parasite. I’m never truly sure if it exists. 

This article appears in the 24 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Shame of the nation