Columns Lifestyle

Disability Looks Like This: On my OCD, fear of plug sockets, and pigeon logic

Artwork by Emer Sukonik

Someone once told me that pigeons only have two states of mind: contentedness, and panic. They are content most of the time, and then immediately panicked when a cat appears, or a seven year old boy comes charging at them, and they fly away until they can flip the switch and become content again. There’s no middle ground or shades of grey; everything is either totally safe or totally unsafe, perfect or terrible. I have no idea whether this is true, and funnily enough, a quick web search of ‘how do pigeons think’ didn’t really yield very many answers. But I find myself relating quite a lot to this mythical pigeon. Unless I have the certainty that everything is perfect, that means it’s terrible, and I have to fix it. The only difference is that the pigeon only panics when it’s really in danger, and flying away really does fix that danger. I, on the other hand, am far less logical. 

From a very young age, I’ve been weird. My parents hate it when I use the word weird. I should hate it too – I run a mental health magazine, I did college welfare for a year, this column is all about disability awareness. But that’s what I’ve been calling it my entire life. I remember knowing I wasn’t ‘normal’ when at age 4, my mother told me that bleach was toxic to drink and I shouldn’t touch it, and I got very scared, and my response was to go round the house asking her whether every object I could find was ‘toxic’. When I was 10, the firefighters came into school and we watched a video on electrical fires in homes, and ever since I’ve been making sure that all my plugs are unplugged and off at the switch before I go to bed, and am incredibly wary about charging anything overnight. It’s been 11 years and this hasn’t changed. When I was 17-18, I used to ask my then-partner if they’d do the same with their plugs, knowing I was being ridiculous, but compelled to anyway, by the weirdness. In fact, in all of my serious relationships, I’ve sometimes panicked if my partner doesn’t message me for half a day, in case they’ve died. I’ve persuaded myself I have bowel cancer or brain tumours and gone to the GP and been told it’s stress-related nausea, or stress-related headaches. I started taking paracetamol every morning for the headaches, and it worked, but then I became too scared to stop taking it, in case they came back, which meant I’d be anxious again. Somehow that morphed into me having to take paracetamol every morning to avoid panicking. I’d forgotten the initial reason why. Strange, right? If you’ll excuse the outdated and offensive language, there is absolutely no method to my madness. 

If I was with you in person right now, probably drunkenly oversharing this at pres, this is where I’d laugh with inappropriate confidence, to try and dispel the tension and concern. So weird, huh? There’s always an acute thing I’m panicking about – a hypothetical illness, something bad happening to a friend or a parent, a horrible thought out of nowhere which I didn’t know I was capable of having. I am absolutely incredible at persuading myself of ridiculous things. I think that side of me would be a great lawyer, if she harnessed that power to fight injustice, rather than to forewarn the other side of me of made-up impending doom, although perhaps her success relies upon the almost-humorous gullibility of her audience. And there’s always a way to fix it. Touching wood within five seconds of having the thought, or urging my mother to wear a helmet when she goes for bike rides, or rigorously checking that my whole body is functioning well, or turning my plugs off at the switch, or getting my then-partner to turn their plugs off at the switch, or someone to tell me that I’m being silly. They fix it for an hour if I’m lucky. But then the irrational thought comes back, and we’re off again, on the world’s least fun rollercoaster. 

As someone who has been so involved in both student welfare and mental health journalism, I’ve always (wrongly) felt like a bit of a fraud for not having a label or diagnosis myself. I wondered whether these weird acute little fixations were just something everyone dealt with, and my particular weakness and sensitivity was the only reason they consumed me like this. They were too specific for generalised anxiety disorder, and confused the hell out of every GP who had to reassure me that no, I do not have thyroid cancer, I have a cold and some swollen glands. I dismissed them as a horrible little quirk of being me, and took the very British approach of soldiering on, with bitten fingers and nails, a few (well, more than a few) afternoons lost to health-anxiety-WebMD-panic, but soldiering on nonetheless. Until Hilary Term 2021, when my grandmother suddenly passed away two weeks before I ran in a heavily contested SU election against the backdrop of… you know, the world right now, and I properly lost control. I had to appear so on it and so motivated online for the campaign, when all the while intrusive thoughts about bad things happening to people I love weren’t leaving me alone. On bad days it felt like I was touching wood every five seconds. So I stuck with what I know, and I googled my symptoms – my real symptoms, not the apparently life-threatening ones that deep down I think I always knew were psychosomatic. I found the OCD UK website and it felt like coming home. It was as if they were inside my head. A month or so later, I’d told a few friends, got my diagnosis confirmed by a GP, and started medication. And so here we are. 

Strangely, despite such involvement in student mental health, I didn’t ever really know what OCD truly was. I think most people assume that it’s a love of cleanliness, order, organisation; if you look up OCD on Google Images, you get memes saying “Do I have OCD or do I just love it when things are done right?” “Moved in with my OCD girlfriend, never have to clean again!” Really, it couldn’t be more the opposite. Not just because I am chronically disorganised, hate washing up, and once took my spare set of keys out from the porters’ lodge about twenty times in one term, but because people with OCD don’t enjoy their compulsions. Some people with OCD do get compulsions around cleaning, but they aren’t doing it because they love it. It’s not a matter of feeling properly satisfied and happy when everything is tidy, when your pens are lined up, when the ritual is complete. It’s a matter of satiating that irrational, demanding, perpetually hungry side of yourself, knowing what you’re doing is illogical, but having to do it anyway, on the smallest chance that the disorder is right.

I hate who I am when it’s in charge. If I properly listened to the disorder, I’d wrap everyone I loved in bubble wrap and wrap myself up in it too and put us all in a room with walls and floors made of pillows and make sure we took our vitamins every single day and then maybe I wouldn’t ever have to be anxious again. But even that probably wouldn’t work. The only thing you can do to combat it is to accept that bad things do happen, and that you’re not personally responsible for stopping them. That most people are not ‘good’, or ‘bad’, but instead just making mistakes and doing the best they can, and that applies to you, too. You have to embrace the uncertainty. You have to leave your laptop on charge overnight if it’s low, and acknowledge there’s maybe a 0.001% chance it’ll get too hot and start an electrical fire, and sleep soundly anyway. (As you can probably tell, I do not get on well with mains electricity). 

If you have friends or loved ones with OCD, or whose mental health issues you find confusing or irrational, be gentle with them. They aren’t “weird”, they’re exhibiting symptoms of an illness, which is often left out of mainstream conversations surrounding mental health. It’s hard for me to sum up more personally here, which bodes really well for me at the start of my career as a columnist at the Blue. I suppose it’s because while I’m happy to now have a label, I haven’t really learned anything from this, or made any progress, and as much as I joke about things the mountain looks pretty steep and hard to climb right now. Realistically, “live in the moment” isn’t the best advice for someone who’s seeking treatment for a mental illness, and sounds a bit too “live laugh love” for me to take it wholly seriously. And I shouldn’t pretend I’m on top of this, either: this is all such early days, perhaps too early days for me to be writing on the topic confidently. But I think, ignoring my knee jerk cynical reactions to toxic positivity, it might be what I need to bear in mind before medication and proper therapy start (hopefully) working. I have to absolve myself of the burden of responsibility for things I cannot control, especially when all of that ‘control’ hinges on meaningless rituals anyway, and sit with what I have now. I need to remind myself that pigeons are far better at detecting threats than I am. And hopefully that’s a start.

If you are affected by any issues described in this article, or need mental health support, you can find more information at https://www.mind.org.uk. In addition, the University’s Counselling Service is open to all students: contact them at counselling@admin.ox.ac.uk

Ellie Redpath

I'm Ellie (she/her), a third year classicist at Magdalen and your disability columnist for this year! Activism and writing are my passions so I'm hoping to combine them in this column. You can usually find me procrastinating in one way or another - working on things with the SU Women's Campaign, dreaming of the day charity shops can open again, and spending far too much time on Twitter.