I Was the Poster Girl for OCD. Then I Began to Question Everything I’d Been Told About ‘Mental Illness’


From The Guardian: “Six years ago, I sat halfway up a spiral staircase in an old medical library in London, watching an actor recreate one of the most intense moments of my life. We were filming a TV drama based on a memoir I’d written about my struggles with disturbing sexual and violent intrusive thoughts.

The story had started when, aged 15, I was suddenly bombarded by relentless, maddening doubts about core aspects of my identity: my capacity for violence and abuse, my physical appearance, my sexuality, whether I could trust my bones not to break. Graphic, unbearable thoughts and images started looping in my mind, thousands of times a day. I had no language for my devastating anxiety, or for my shame, so I kept it all a secret for 12 years.

The scene we were filming that day was based on the euphoric moment in my 20s when I first discovered that my thoughts were typical symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and that there were others out there battling this common enemy. ‘Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God. Fuck. It’s OCD. I’ve got OCD!’ said actor Charly Clive as she read a list of symptoms from the medical textbook in her hands, giving voice to the astonishing clarity and relief that diagnosis can bring in a bewildering mental-health landscape.

Regardless of the labels I’d been given over the years (I’d previously been diagnosed with depression and anxiety), doctors had always framed it in the same way: illness. This was due to the received wisdom that mental disorders are diseases of the brain with organic, biological root causes; and to the medical language that infused charity campaigns and the media. It was also due to the ideas explicitly promoted by professionals who treated me. One of my CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) therapists said that OCD is primarily caused by a misfiring amygdala, a structure in the temporal lobe of the brain. Another said that their trademarked therapy could ‘rewire my brain’ in six weeks.

In 2013, I finally shared the story of my struggle with OCD in an article that became a book, Pure, that was adapted into the TV show of the same name. Soon followed invitations to write more articles, endorse charities, speak at conferences and guest on TV magazine shows. I had become the poster girl for OCD.

And I co-opted the language of medical professionals who treated me. ‘Mental illness can happen to any of us,’ I wrote in Vice in 2014, ‘like a cold or a cancer.’ I broadcast messages I’d been told were facts: the root cause of mental illnesses are biological abnormalities in the brain; mental illnesses are illnesses like any other.

Sitting on the staircase in that library in 2018, watching the TV show being made, should have been an affectionate look back on the pivotal diagnosis that led to my recovery. A chance to celebrate the turning-point moment when I’d first seen my secret inner reality reflected back at me. Charly wept in front of the camera while I wept behind it as we rolled another take.

But as our tale of hope was making its way to the screens of millions of people, in private I was growing more hopeless. I knew what no one else knew, that the relief of being diagnosed had been brutally short. That not only had the terrifying intrusive thoughts now returned, but I had begun to question almost everything I thought I knew about mental health.”

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