A letter to those searching for certainty

CW: Description of OCD related compulsions and thoughts

We live inside our heads, don’t we? The familiar voice of our internal dialogue is our only constant companion through life, aiding our decisions and comforting us. So, what do we do when that internal voice, that intrinsic and unquestioned sense of self becomes hijacked? What do you do when the essence of what you know to be ‘you’ is gone, when something terrifying and unfamiliar takes its place? And how on Earth do you get ‘you’ back? 

This is the most succinct way I can encapsulate the experience of OCD. It is not limited to a fear of germs or preference for neatness that tv and film taught me. Nor is it a character quirk or adjective but rather, a hijacked sense of self that forces us to see and act upon false threats.

I often wonder how I could have gone 12 years with sporadic days, weeks or even months being lost to a singular doubt that would occupy my every waking and sleeping hour. But I, like so many with OCD, did not know the reality. I assumed my disorder was either madness or “something everybody does…right?” I left this debate unresolved, too afraid to know the truth, until I reached my breaking point. 

These ‘hijackings’ would happen without warning. Year 5 assembly: “my nan will die unless I mutter sorry six times under my breath,” or as I left school and “I left the computer on and it will burn up and cause a fire and it will be my fault.” These thoughts weren’t just thoughts to me. They came with actions and a deep sense of belief in their validity.

Like the checking I would do in my flat. Waiting up at night till everyone else was asleep before my 20-to-50-minute routine could commence. Checking taps, the door, the door at the bottom of the building, the kitchen, the gas, lights, the oven, gas again, taps, the front door again. Then repeating it over and over because how could I be sure my eyes were not lying to me? How could I be sure about anything? It came with a gut feeling, a feeling of absolute terror and certainty that I had done whatever ‘bad’ thing I had thought, or that whatever ‘bad’ thought I had would come to pass. Never able to trust myself.

It doesn’t always come with the physical compulsions. Many, like me, can become consumed with mental compulsions – also termed ‘pure O,’ meaning purely obsessional. However, that definition misrepresents the experience. It does not account for the way compulsions become embedded into your psyche, how the mental gymnastics of proving or disproving becomes, in some ways, more debilitating than the physical compulsions as no one can see how you are suffering.

It was as though I had killed someone and the body was stuffed under my bed. The bad thing had been done, I simply lived waiting to be caught. Every minute of every day, the cycle of trying to prove or disprove the thought consumed me. Indescribable guilt forcing me to throw up that day’s lunch, conversations I had no memory of because I couldn’t focus, too busy shutting down thoughts that were appearing like pop up ads but with no ‘x’ to click on and remove before another emerged. There is nothing more lonely than watching a world continue whilst you are stuck in these cycles, nothing that makes you more envious than watching everyone else seemingly settled in a world of certainty whilst yours is riddled with doubt. 

But there is no logic to it, if there was, I would not have seen months of my life committed to disproving a crime I had ‘forgotten’ about, nor doubting how could I be certain I was real; the topics I obsessed over may have shape-shifted throughout the years, but the deep sense of foreignness in one’s own mind during these periods remained the same.  

When during the summer lockdown I reached four months of agony stuck in this loop, I was desperately waiting to hit solid ground, to reach a feeling of certainty. That landing never came. Instead, I continued to fall. I could barely speak, my brain too full of doubt and too lost in worrying over impossibilities or inconsequential questions. Becoming an unliveable torment, the rapid intensity of my intrusive thoughts left me paralysed. I couldn’t hold a conversation or watch TV or even hear people talking to me. My compulsions offered a momentary relief, yet they were only increasing the pace I was hurtling. I was falling too far from wherever I had left ‘me’ behind, and I couldn’t find my way back. My brain, I thought, had finally broken. 

Now, I am no longer falling, I’m just floating. Accepting the fact that this solid ground, this sense of certainty, simply doesn’t exist. I am still. My thoughts are too, at least most of the time. Somewhere within the past 6 months, the old me, the voice inside my head that I recognise, the sense of self I belong to, had simply fallen down to meet me after I had the epiphany of finding a diagnosis and got help. 

I write this as the warning sign I would have wanted this past summer, or in the first year of university, or right back when this began aged 8. To understand that what I was experiencing wasn’t unique to me and that it is surmountable.

If this resonates with you, you deserve the peace of mind you desperately seek, but it won’t come by continuing to search for solid ground. As tempting as that may be. You need to see it for what it is, OCD, and take the steps towards treatment and diagnosis, and know that as hard as it is to accept, you will never hit the solid ground of certainty no matter how deeply you search. That is the only thing I feel certain about now.

Illustration: Harriet Getley