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20 September 2021

The pandemic cured my OCD, but not before it got much worse

For years, I had an irrational terror of doing harm to others. Covid made that a reality.

By Matthew Stadlen

The Covid tester brushed my chin with her surgical glove as she twirled the swab inside my mouth. What if she was infected but asymptomatic? She was in close contact with hundreds of people who had coronavirus after all. I felt a familiar sense of panic. After she had finished, I closed first the car window, then my eyes. Then I sprayed my face with disinfectant. 

Several months into the pandemic, I was trapped in a relentless cycle. I drove away from the testing centre to endure another period of self-enforced self-isolation, wondering how soon after the inevitable negative result arrived I would go back for another. I knew that taking two PCR tests a week (I have had 31 in total) was extreme. I knew that none of my friends or family were behaving in this way. But I couldn’t escape my own warped logic.

When news of a novel coronavirus emerged in early 2020, my professional life had seemed set fair. Although the late-night hours as an LBC radio presenter were challenging, I loved hosting my shows. Plus, I had an exciting live events schedule ahead, with interviewees including Prue Leith, Dermot O’Leary and a former British prime minister. The podcast series I hosted for How To Academy was going well, and I felt intellectually fulfilled and financially secure. I was going through the pain of divorce, but my life was full of friends and family.

However, the spread of Covid-19 proved the perfect storm for my own particular brand of anxiety, which centred around the worry, sometimes acute, that I might inadvertently do harm to others. As a child, I would obsess over whether a small stone I’d dislodged on a Welsh hillside might roll down the following day and kill a farmer. As a student at Cambridge, I would struggle to make it to the exam hall through fear that an overhanging branch might strike a passing cyclist; or that a lampshade I’d brushed past six months earlier while working as a waiter might spark a house fire. As a BBC TV presenter-director, I had become convinced (wrongly) that my programmes might somehow harm my contributors and viewers. 

So when it became clear that, in a perverse inversion of our most basic act, we could kill people just by breathing, my anxiety wasn’t just triggered – it torpedoed me. Finally, along with billions of people around the world, I actually did present a risk to others. Even worse, I catastrophised: given the frightening algorithm of transmission, I might conceivably set off a chain reaction that could contribute to whole countries becoming infected. I was never remotely worried about falling ill myself; it was all about passing it on. 

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When I first thought I might have Covid, in early March 2020, I compiled nine A4 pages of close contacts and businesses that I had visited in the four weeks prior to a PCR test, which – just my luck – never produced a result because it leaked in transit. I rang up my bank to identify the times and dates of purchases in sandwich shops and pizzerias. I contemplated, during one nocturnal panic, paying thousands of pounds in private tests for the people I had seen during that period.

Two weeks of self-imposed self-isolation encouraged and entrenched the raging anxiety, which consumed my every waking moment. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was going mad. (I had experienced periods of anxiety, but nothing like this.) I blamed myself for not having isolated earlier, though the medical advice was that it was fine not to, and worried that I had been a major source of death in the UK and beyond. Had I infected a friend who subsequently flew home to India? Might I have killed the postman?

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I tested distances with tape measures at home and, once I was in the outside world, tried never to come within 2 metres of a friend. I avoided shops (a kind neighbour left groceries), cleaned everything that entered my house (including my feet), and used so much Dettol on my phone that its video function broke. When someone came to fix a flat car tyre, I emerged, no doubt to the bemusement of my neighbours, in a mask and gloves to wipe and spray the wheel. 

I monitored potential symptoms obsessively. Was my intermittent throat-clearing a new continuous cough? Could I taste my toothpaste? What explained my stomach cramps? Was the thermometer working properly? Did my chest feel hot to the touch? Why the night sweats, and that heavy sensation on my chest? 

For seven months between Easter and October 2020, the only human beings I came into any sort of physical contact with were the people who tested me for Covid. When I went on walking dates on the South Downs with the woman who would become my girlfriend, I insisted on staying 5 metres away from her (very Jane Austen). Friends and family discussed some sort of intervention.

[See also: Why we can’t treat our way out of the mental health crisis]

Meanwhile, I was trying to hold down my job as a national radio presenter and provide a public service to the many listeners who were themselves struggling. My weekend shows ran from one until five in the morning, and the lack of sleep almost certainly exacerbated my anxiety. After taking time off in March and April, worried that I was infectious, I returned to work at the start of May. Every night was a desperate struggle to get into the studio. For three and a half years before the pandemic, I had never missed a show through illness, working despite everything from food poisoning to tonsillitis. Now, though, I barely slept between programmes and pushed myself beyond breaking point. 

The clock started ticking almost as soon as I came off air on a Sunday. Would I be able to make it in the following weekend? Mondays, sufficiently distant from Fridays, were OK at first. But gradually the stress would consume the week. I spoke, often for hours a day, to my father, who would tirelessly attempt to save me from myself, persuading me that I was safe to go in. Initially, I enrolled friends in my support structure, but soon realised this was an unfair burden; they were themselves navigating a path through a pandemic that was impacting us all.

My goal was to reach the end of my contract at LBC and then step down. Once I had forced myself behind the microphone, the anxiety became manageable. Strange though it was to be hosting shows in latex gloves, and without coffee (for fear of infectious cups), it felt a privilege to be broadcasting during a period that more closely approximated a war than anything I knew. I quoted listeners an approximation of Franklin D Roosevelt’s famous Depression-era words – “there’s nothing to fear but fear itself” – and tried to offer sanctuary to those who wanted company and information in the dark hours. And somehow I managed it, 20 weeks in a row. My battle, though, was far from over.

For all the vital work that has been done to de-stigmatise mental illness, I didn’t think I’d ever write this piece. It was only after Ben Stokes withdrew from the England cricket squad this summer, in part to prioritise his mental health, that I felt empowered to share my own struggles, in the hope that it might help others seek support. Stokes’s heroics on the field have blended outrageous skill with a resilience and mental fortitude few can match. If he can be vulnerable, so can I. 

It wasn’t my first experience of poor mental health. In 2015, I wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph about my stop-start struggle with anxiety. But before the pandemic, I had been able to cope – just – with the help of a psychologist, as well as the loving support of those closest to me. 

My own resilience and determination was important too. My father, a retired high court judge, had instilled in me as a boy the maxim that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Where I went wrong in 2020 – and earlier too – was to misapply this often useful principle to my deteriorating mental health. Despite an overwhelmingly privileged life, I was used to battling my way out of adversity, familiar with coming back from disappointments. But in pitting just my tenacity against my anxiety, I was asking too much. 

I have never stigmatised others for seeking medical help – but I had refused to contemplate it for myself thanks to a combination of misplaced pride in my capacity to cope, and a deeply entrenched reluctance to lose control. I have never taken a recreational drug and didn’t want – as I saw it – to lose ownership of my mind. If I took anti-anxiety pills, could I be sure why I was really feeling what I was feeling? Would they change my personality? Would they make me less “me”? I had always wanted to beat my demons without chemical interference, and so I had continued to suffer.

I was proud of what I had achieved at LBC, after four years of night shifts. I had done 200 hours of Covid broadcasting while experiencing the most sustained distress of my life; I felt I had done “my bit in the war”. I’d proved, by the barest of margins, that in a battle with myself, I could still win. But of course I hadn’t. The anxiety, although it briefly abated, failed to recede in the weeks and months after I left my job. Instead, I gained new obsessions about other ways I might be harming people. By mid-winter, it was increasingly obvious that I needed something more than my weekly sessions with a psychologist.

Last December, I took the step I had so zealously avoided. Over Zoom – of course – I saw a psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with anxiety and OCD (though not the sort, as my girlfriend would readily attest, that involves obsessive cleaning). Over the course of two hours, he learned more about the workings of my mind than some people I’d grown up with had, and prescribed me with a low dose of a drug used by sufferers of depression, anxiety and OCD.

Still, I didn’t start straightaway. It took a further month for things to get so bad – each day blighted by acutely anxious thought patterns – that I stood up to my prejudice and took the medication. It was as much out of respect for those around me, and an understanding of what I was putting them through, as for myself.

And after an uncertain few weeks as my mind adjusted, the drugs seemed to work. There were flare-ups, but in time the effects appeared transformative. I can’t discount the positive effects of a loving relationship (as well as the companionship of two working cocker spaniels), but I firmly believe the medication helped hugely.

I am able to live my life again. I went to a semi-final and the final of the Euros at Wembley, I’ve taken my dad to Lord’s, resumed six-a-side football on Wednesday evenings, been to parties and socialised inside. I’ve eaten at restaurants (although I still sit outside) and I no longer obsess over possible symptoms.

And I caught Covid as a result of going to Wembley – six weeks after my second jab. But I didn’t infect anyone and my illness was mild. Nor did I agonise about coming out of isolation; within a couple of weeks, I was back in the Jeremy Vine studio on Channel 5 in my role as a political pundit. Far from changing who I am, the treatment has enabled me to be me again.

I have continued to see my psychologist, though less frequently. Now that we are no longer having to firefight, we are able to look more deeply into the roots of my anxiety. To what extent do my struggles originate in early childhood, when I experienced severe separation anxiety every time I was dropped off at school, or when my parents went out for the evening? Although the anxiety I’ve experienced has revolved around infecting others, is it entirely altruistic? Or am I also challenging myself morally, setting myself false tests and asking: what am I prepared to sacrifice in order to “do the right thing”? Given the crippling nature of the anxiety, how am I able to broadcast on national TV and radio without nerves? How did I get through an hour and a half on stage with Michael Caine, without notes, in front of a packed London theatre? 

These questions remain, but at least I can now search for the answers. Are there drawbacks to the medication? It’s hard to tell, but I suspect it makes me a little forgetful. In blunting my worries, I sometimes wonder whether it has taken the edge off my professional drive – something I am addressing.

Since my anxiety has eased, the results of an endoscopy have shown that I have acid reflux. This helps explain why I had to clear my throat so often, a process I mistook for a coronavirus cough. My anxiety has long thrived in the shady vacuum that uncertainty can create: there’s almost always a hint of plausibility to my worries, just enough to provoke a highly analytical brain into misdirected overdrive. The drugs have helped me break that habit, though, and when the time is right, and in consultation with my psychiatrist, I intend to come off them.

I write this not to advocate medication, let alone any one drug in particular. Different approaches work for different people. I just hope that in publicly acknowledging the journey I have been on, from self-stigma to self-acceptance, I will help others – whatever type of mental illness they might experience – to feel more comfortable about seeking help. Talking about it helps me too. I now look forward to the future again, with hope and excitement.

Anyone struggling with their mental health can call the Samaritans for free any time, from any phone, on 116 123, or the mental health charity Mind on 0300 123 3393.

[See also: How life without germs has left us newly vulnerable]

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