To be completely truthful, I don’t know how long my brain has been functioning this way, perhaps since birth, through genetics, or developed sometime in childhood, who knows? For me, the first time it got out of hand is still very clear in my mind. I was eleven or twelve and, after a bumpy initiation into US soccer following my family’s move from London, I began to feel like I was on top of my game and playing at a level I was really proud of.
I fell instantly in love with this sport when I was four or five, playing in the alleyway of the small primary school we attended in Hampstead at the time. Running around, hitting the football I immediately knew ‘this was it’, this is what I wanted to do with my life. I want to become a professional footballer. And this love shaped my life growing up, in fact, it still does to this day!
Something felt off
When I was eleven or twelve I began noticing something ‘not right’ going on in my head that I couldn’t put my finger on. I felt like something bad was coming, but not sure what, and how to stop it. Within several weeks I had to stop playing football. Although I tried, the pain was too much. It took a while to figure out what had happened, but eventually, it emerged that I had stress fractured the L5 vertebrae in my lower back and would need to be put in a Boston brace which spanned the distance from my hips to my chest and halted any football (or soccer in North America) playing. All-in-all it took about ten months before I was able to return to playing again.
During this time, however, a pattern developed in my mind which would be with me much, much longer than the duration of my back injury. This was, as I have only recently learned, OCD. During this time of stress and depression, when I felt like my identity and love had been most ruthlessly ripped out of my hands, a little voice emerged in my head. Amidst all the worries and uncertainty about how things would be when I returned to playing, a thought came up that whispered this doubt soothingly away, it said, “if you do this, you will become a pro.” This voice offered a feeling of certainty when it felt like I was floating in the unknown, a cave to find shelter in when the winds of life were storming so violently outside. When this voice came up, “if you do this, you will become a pro,” I always listened.
The further I traveled into this cave, the deeper it stretched. I was convinced each time the voice came up that, if I obey it now, I will forever feel the certainty of “yes, I will go pro.” And that certainty came, the relief of doing what that voice asked, whatever it be, immediately calmed down the feeling associated with frightening questions of “what if I don’t go pro? What if I was going to achieve my dreams had it not been for this back injury?” However, as sure as the arrival of this certainty was, so was its disappearance, and those haunting questions always came back, each time scarier than before.
By now the storm outside had calmed and I was no longer in a brace. However, I was fragmented. Sure my body was back playing, but my mind was deeper and deeper inside this cave. I felt detached from the outside world. I kept listening to the voice because it was the only thing that made me feel safe, but I didn’t see that it was also the biggest thing keeping me from the life I wanted. I’d dribble a tennis or squash ball around the house, school, and outside regardless of the weather. I became a zombie. It got so bad that a bone in my foot broke under the stress of all the hopping I did on my toes. It was a wake-up call for sure. However, it wasn’t enough as I returned to the cave and began shoving squash balls and marbles in my shoes. It was a little more discreet than dribbling a tennis ball and didn’t hurt as much as jumping on a broken foot, but it was also uncomfortable.
I mention these points not to seem like a victim, but rather to speak to the severity of OCD. The voice of OCD doesn’t ask for part-time commitment – like it may seem when it’s referred to nonchalantly. When you’ve been pulled deep into the dark, OCD is all-consuming, making it difficult to be half-in or half-out of these compulsions.
Eventually, with the help of a wonderful psychologist in one afternoon I was able to put down the ball and take the marbles out of my shoes. With small efforts, not touching the ball for a minute, then maybe three, and then fifteen. I learned that nothing happened when I let go, it was safe to do so, and coming out of the cave began to seem imaginable.
From the outside it seemed like everything was fixed, there was no ball on my foot, and so no eyebrows were raised out and about. Yet, those voices that had pulled me into the cave in the first place had just begun to work in a different way. Instead of dribbling a ball to deal with uncomfortable uncertainties or putting marbles in my shoes, I began to seek certainty by ruminating, trying to answer “what would have happened to me had I not gotten that back injury?” Again similar relief would come and just as quickly disappear, depositing me back into an endless search for answers I hoped would relax my anxieties.
Around nineteen I decided to take a break from the game I loved, hoping the distance would give my mind a much-needed rest, and spent the year in Barcelona where I fell in love with the city and a new group of friends. Over time the thought of damaging my relationship with these people and losing connection to this part of the world that had come to mean so much to me became a scary enough idea that my brain began, particularly once I moved away from Barcelona, to search for ways to make certain that such losses of love didn’t happen. This took the form of ruminating mostly but also included some repetitive actions such as checking, or making sure I didn’t walk on a particular spot of the sidewalk that my brain had spontaneously labeled ‘threatening to my relationship with Barcelona and my friendships there.’
The rumination around Barcelona had already been going on for several months when the pandemic began. I moved back in with my parents and felt like it was a good time to start tackling this cave thing, still not sure what it was called. Because I was ruminating so much, as had been the case for several years now, I prioritized finding a way to quiet my mind. I thought meditation might offer a solution and sure enough, it did. Without much going on during the first few months of quarantine, I’d tuck away in my room, shut the door and meditate, sometimes for an hour straight. The relaxation from these sessions was amazing and I truly felt like I had things under control for the first time.
I moved back to Barcelona in the summer of 2020 with high hopes and soon got into my first relationship with a good friend. Things seemed to be going great. However, confinement rules came back quite strongly in Spain as the weather cooled and the threat of COVID returned. At the time I was only seeing my girlfriend a couple of days a week, meaning I’d spend about five days alone, where I tried my best to isolate myself from others, not wanting to deal with the uncertainty of perhaps contracting COVID and later giving it to my girlfriend. Months passed on like this and my mental health fell off a cliff.
I eventually stopped meditating as it tended to make me feel more lonely than I already was feeling. Even though I anticipated things may get worse as a result of stopping meditation, the feeling of isolation was just too much. After several months like this, for the first time in my life, I began getting panic attacks, they could be in response to contact with someone without a mask and the thought that maybe they had COVID, or just because I was overwhelmed by so much alone time. Eventually, the troubling doubts and uncertainties centered around the relationship and whether or not I was truly loved by my partner. I didn’t know what to do with these thoughts and eventually, despite there being a strong connection, we broke up. Of course, that didn’t address the difficulty with uncertainty as I spent the next several months doubting whether or not it was the right decision.
Finding hope with NOCD
Yet, there was a silver lining to this time. During the breakup, my ex-girlfriend mentioned that perhaps some of my symptoms matched the description of OCD. I had heard of OCD before and thought I had it, and even tried doing treatment for it before. But those efforts were mostly through watching recommendations on YouTube, and I wasn’t following an organized systematic plan that would address OCD with the necessary vigor and focus. More motivated, or desperate, than ever to tackle what was going on, and with the amazing help of my family, we came across NOCD. I’ll never forget that 15-minute introductory call with NOCD.
For the first time, I felt like what I had been struggling with was understandable and shared by others, and the conversation gave me hope that with a scientific treatment methodology, there was a way out, a way to leave behind the cave and step into my life. The recovery journey wasn’t easy, and many parts of ERP were incredibly frustrating, but looking back, a year after having started this journey with NOCD I couldn’t be more grateful. I feel no longer under threat from some mystery-cave thing that in the past has wreaked havoc on my life whenever a new love emerged.
I don’t know how long my relationship with uncertainty has been unhealthy and classifiable as OCD. Somedays I wish that OCD was never a part of my life. But other days I feel extremely thankful as researchers, psychologists and the OCD community have given me amazing insights to understand how my mind works. I write this today at a time in my life when uncertainty, which scared me silly for so long, has begun to become a close ally.
I hope that if you feel you have OCD, you explore ERP seriously as it can really do wonders for your life and help you to feel yourself again. I wish you success and that one day we can appreciate uncertainty, an unavoidable element in all our lives, together. Feeling that we have left that dark place behind and are out in the world living life as our best selves. Best of luck with everything, you got this!