A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
I distinctly recall the night it started. On my back, my eyes toward the ceiling, I juggled time zones in my head. I was 17 and head-over-heels in love with someone two years my senior. He was some place south of Ubud, Indonesia, sinking Bintangs and smoking sampos as I twiddled my thumbs in Melbourne. A little voice—somewhat like mine—whispered in my head, "I hate James. I hate him so much." It repeated it relentlessly and every time I interrupted it, or tried to doze off, it came back louder. It felt like punishment. Like my brain was wired wrong. Like the more the little voice in my head muttered, the more likely that something terrible and ghastly would to happen to him. Because I muttered it. Because I said that I hated him, even though I didn't. I mourned his pseudo-death every week because of it.
But James was fine. Always, and unsurprisingly.
"Pure-O" OCD doesn't look like an uncontrollable desire to wash your hands, or color-code your desk. However, it is OCD nonetheless, even though the compulsions—which cause grave anxiety—exist only in one's mind. In saying that, it's fairly easy to develop outwards tendencies as a means of "handling" the condition; or distracting oneself from it. I currently have six washing baskets and piles that demand my attention… when I'm not resisting violent, intrusive thoughts about my loved ones dying, of course.
It looks like this: My boyfriend hasn't responded to a text message for 45 minutes. He hasn't been online for 60. Considering he is driving to work, and work is approximately a 25 minute drive, he has likely been in an accident. I'd best check the VicRoads incidents and alerts website. According to his usual route, there are no collisions… it seems. But perhaps he went a longer way. This is punishment—I knew this would happen. This is all because last week I bopped my head along to a song by someone I once slept with. I shouldn't have done that. No wonder this is happening. If I hadn't had done that, he wouldn't have been in a car accident. He hasn't been active for 65 minutes now, and everything hurts.
My Pure-O feels like a perpetual game of uttering "Bloody Mary" three times in the mirror. We all know how that ends. I am sure that, because I have done something wrong, or said something wrong, or enjoyed something… wrong, I will be punished accordingly. I will come to avoid places, objects, songs, and people for no reason because I think that, by engaging with them, something bad will happen. I compulsively seek reassurance from one or two people who have to remind me that, no—just because so-and-so hasn't responded to a text message, it doesn't mean that they have died some awful death. And no, it's not because of that time six years ago when you didn't laugh as heartily as you should've to a joke they made.
There are grave and unpleasant things I have imagined I'd rather not write down on paper—or in this article—in case they eventuate, like some sort of twisted premonition. Ways and methods of which family members have died. Before he boarded a plane to Sri Lanka, my father's phone was off. I called his office. I called my mother. I argued in frustration with his colleague, as what on earth was Dad doing by himself… uncontactable? I emailed him. Three times.
I was almost certain I knew what had happened. My father eats too much salt. I had visions of him blanketing his pumpkin soup, his ribeye, his egg and bacon roll, with heaps of sodium. I had already begun grieving for my father, whose heart had, in my mind, given out.
Pure-O is the feeling of grieving for somebody almost daily even if they are safe and well. It is tiring, confusing, and above all else, time-consuming. It is living in a constant state of frenzy, feeling as though your world is about to implode.
OCD doesn't prevent you from seeing rationally, however. There is a strong, reasonable voice deep in my psyche laughing in the face of it, telling me that everything is fine. But if anything, that makes it harder to seek help. Obsessive thoughts and strange compulsions feel shameful, unavoidable, and indisputably absurd. Embarrassing. There is nothing chill about demanding your loved ones remind you every day that they are alive. It gets annoying.
But the moment I sat down with a friend (who was late to dinner only because life happens, and not because she was trapped in some enormous car wreck, like my OCD suggested) and told her how I was feeling, everything felt smoother. More at ease. After that, if she didn't respond to a message for quite some time, I could comfortably tell her "this is my OCD talking. I just want to know that you're okay," as opposed to tiptoeing around my angst.
Now, because I have sat in front of a psychiatrist and showed her the strange lists I collect on my phone, and disclosed to her all of the nauseating ways in which I have grieved for people over the years, I can be steered in the right direction. I can receive the resources designed to assist me.
For a long time, I was diagnosed as someone with anxiety, which is no doubt something I have. But it stems from my OCD. Fixing the anxiety is just a bandaid. To tackle the OCD takes hard work and the right help. I am booked in to see a psychologist every other week who specializes in my type of OCD. But in the meantime, I practice honesty. No matter how ridiculous, I spout my confusion.
If a song comes on the radio and I listen to it, and then am convinced that it means my boyfriend will perish and die—I tell someone I trust. If I find myself repeatedly seeking reassurance that I'm not a bad person, I ask my loved ones to take note of my behavior. My OCD is not just my burden to carry, and with the assistance of others, I can make sense of it—and myself.
Mental illness is intimidating, yes, but largely because of how it holds survivors hostage with secrecy. But not only is it okay to ask for help—or to unload all of the disconcerting concerns you have about everybody you love melting into the ground (and it being your fault)—it is essential.
If you're having mental-health symptoms you'd like to talk about, text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.