Life as a 40-year-old journalist with OCD
Mental Health Diaries: Journalist and founder of The OCD Chronicles podcast James McMahon takes us through a day of living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Each year, one in four people will struggle with their mental health in some way. But you don’t need statistics to realise the true extent of the problem. You perhaps only need to speak to friends and family, or even look inwardly, to notice that our collective mental health is in freefall. As we figure out how to heal from the tragedies of the pandemic, awareness has never been more important.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Running parallel to the rise in mental health issues is a growing desire to open up about the things we usually bottle up. Slowly but surely, stigmas are being smashed, taboos are being lifted, and more people are finding the courage to speak out.
THE FACE’s new series, Mental Health Diaries, is only part of the conversation. By laying the realities of living with various issues bare, we hope to not only encourage understanding and empathy towards those with stigmatised conditions, but also inspire people to reach out to others and seek support. Most importantly, we want everyone to know that they’re not alone.
[TW: Mental illness, eating disorders, intrusive thoughts of a disturbing nature]
My name is James McMahon. I’m a journalist from South Yorkshire. I also have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a much-misunderstood condition in which sufferers receive unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and are driven to control these thoughts with actions, be they internal or external (compulsions).
3:30AM: I am awake and I am ruminating. My OCD takes on many different forms, but rumination – reliving traumatic events, on a loop, in the hope that the outcome will this time be different – is core to my experience of the disorder. It’s at times like this that I recall the scene in A Clockwork Orange, whereupon Malcolm McDowell is strapped to a chair, with his eyes clamped open, and is forced to watch scenes of horror unfold before him.
5:00AM: Early last year I was also diagnosed with Binge Eating Disorder. I’m on the waiting list for treatment. My gut tells me that it’s linked to my OCD. I never overeat when I’m not in the throes of obsession and compulsion. I eat a baked potato. Then I eat another. Then I eat a bowl containing three cans of beans, with five slices of cheese in it. Midway through eating the bowl of beans, I burst into tears. I carry on eating. I fall asleep with the bowl on my lap.
7:20AM: I wake up with bean juice all over my legs.
9:00AM: I play some video games for a while. I play a lot of video games. I recently interviewed Dr. Sachin Shah for my OCD themed podcast, The OCD Chronicles. Dr. Shah works at the Maudsley Hospital, a prominent psychiatric hospital in Camberwell, South London. It’s where I got my OCD diagnosis in 2008. Ten years later, I went back and got another, after I’d ignored the first one and had a total mental breakdown in 2017. “I don’t have OCD,” I’d decided. “I’m really messy!” I didn’t understand the complexity of the disorder. Dr. Shah is also central to the organisation Gaming The Mind, which views video games through the perspective of mental health. Our conversation led me to the conclusion that video games don’t help me conquer OCD, but they do stop it getting worse. Little can temper the chaos of my mind other than the multifaceted experience of gaming.
12:00PM: I’ve got a bunch of looming deadlines. Once I bat away a succession of incoming intrusive thoughts – quite simply, unwanted mental images or ideas – I manage to open my laptop and focus on the task(s) at hand. I’ve had a lot of practice, I guess. Like gaming, writing calms my mind. I can get lost in it. Almost every other aspect of being a journalist has an adverse effect on my chosen career. I can spend a week or more unable to think about anything other than a misplaced comma. But writing? That’s freedom.
4.30PM: I’ve got an idea for an article, so write a pitch and send it to an editor I work with. Here’s my pitching process: Think of an idea, write it up, email it, obsess.
4.35PM: “Why haven’t they replied?”
4:45PM: “They haven’t replied, James, because they’re an editor and they’re busy…”
5:10PM: “Or… maybe they think I’m a paedophile!”
5.30PM: “That’s just OCD, James. Remember that time you thought the woman who works in the post office thought you were a paedophile because she blinked when you asked her to sell you some stamps? You – or rather your mental disorder – has been obsessing that people think you’re a paedophile for over twenty-years…”
5.45PM: My editor definitely thinks I’m a paedophile. Definitely. They definitely do.
6.05PM: I get an email from my editor about the idea. They like it and would like me to write it up for next week.
6.06PM: I burst into tears. I have lost so many hours of my life to this shit.
7:00PM: There was a victory worth celebrating today. I’ve had a new OCD thought – “themes”, we call them – brewing for the last week or so. I’ve started to believe that when I touch objects, I’m “imprinting” thoughts on them. I have this thought today when I open my front door after coming back from the supermarket. Maybe someone else will touch this door handle and know everything I’ve ever thought. I dismiss it as “just” OCD. I couldn’t have done that a year ago. I would have hung on what that “meant”. I had a brilliant burst of treatment last summer at London’s Centre for Anxiety Disorders and Trauma. I need more – so much more – but I’ve got some tools now.
9:00PM: Ever since the early days of the pandemic, I’ve watched a horror movie on Monday nights in tandem with my friends. We call it “Horror Club”. We even have a theme tune that I record on WhatsApp in a silly Bela Lugosi-esque voice at the end of each club. I love “Horror Club”. I love horror movies. Sometimes people ask “is that really good for your OCD?” But here’s the thing, I’ve never seen anything in a movie that comes close to being scarier than the thoughts OCD flings into my mind. Even the really scary east Asian films.
10:10PM: This is quite a scary movie. But still! Once, a muscle spasm in my leg led to a yearlong obsession that I must have contracted HIV from touching a wet handrail in a nightclub. I took all my clothes out of my wardrobe in the early hours of the morning and I burnt them in a field. It was, I decided, the only way I’d be safe. Halloween has got nothing on that shit.
11:15PM: I retire to bed, terrified of what tomorrow might hold, to be honest. But I’m also content with the victories hard won during the day.
What’s the number one misconception about OCD?
There’s a phrase that’s become a sort of mantra in the OCD community: “OCD is not an adjective.” OCD has taken so much from my life that it’s impossible to hear someone say, “I’m a bit OCD,” when they mean “I like to be organised,” and not feel something akin to fury. Misinformation about OCD is what stopped me not only getting a diagnosis earlier, but also believing it when I got one. There are no benefits to OCD. It’s like a bomb going off in your brain.
What’s the most useful coping mechanism you use?
The gold standard for OCD treatment is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and something we call ERP – Exposure Response Prevention. CBT is something many people with varying mental illnesses will be aware of. It’s literally the process of retraining the mind. EPR is the practice of desensitising sufferers to their obsessions. I regularly obsess that the only way I can keep myself safe is to cut my fingers off. It is for this reason that I write these words with a pair of scissors next to my laptop. I regularly obsess that people might think I’m a serial killer. When I walk to the shops, I listen to a recording of my voice saying, “people might think you’re a serial killer”.
What would your message to fellow sufferers be?
Find a support group. It’s no exaggeration to say that the one I found saved my life. There’s a list of the nearest groups to you available on the OCD-UK and OCD Action websites – the UK is very lucky to have two brilliant charities for OCD and their related disorders. My group put me on track to fight for the treatment I needed and connected me to other sufferers who are now dear and valued friends. The greatest day of my life was when I met my wife, but the second greatest was when I walked into a gym’s function room, joined a circle of people articulating my life via their own experiences and thought, “I’m not alone.”
If you or someone you know is looking for support with OCD, you can find lists of support groups at ocduk.org and ocdaction.org.uk
James’ podcast The OCD Chronicles is available on Apple Podcasts