Just one last look under the bed and behind the curtains. Great, time to sleep. Just need to turn the lights off. Wait, let me do that again – that didn’t feel right. Okay perfect. Did I really check under the bed? I’ll just make sure one more time. And behind the curtains. Are all my plug switches off? I don’t want to cause a fire so I’ll check again. They’re all off which means I can finally rest peacefully! Lights out and I’m jumping into bed…..I forgot the wardrobe. I know it’s likely no one is in there but what’s the harm in checking?
This was my bedtime routine when I was 12 years old. At the time I thought it was normal or at the very least I never thought it meant something was wrong. It was exhausting but prevented me from falling asleep. OCD can be so cruel. This was also where my mental health journey started but I wasn’t aware of this until 14 years later when my counsellor encouraged me to reflect on my past. So, let me take you to what I thought was the beginning and we’ll come back to 12 year old me who will no doubt still be checking his wardrobe.
The Panic attack
I thought my mental health struggles began with a panic attack.
I was a confident teenager who loved public speaking. I would take any opportunity I could to put on a show to my classmates.
One day, my welsh language teacher called on me to read to the class – he knew I loved the spotlight. I stood up confidently and began to speak. And then, I suddenly became extremely aware that all eyes were on me and strangely, I didn’t like it. My heart began to race, I began to sweat, and I felt like I was being choked, as if one of my classmates had finally got tired of hearing my voice and decided to take matters into their own hands.
I had experienced a panic attack and this experience had a profound impact on my life for the next 7 years. During those years, I developed a fear of panic attacks, so I stopped public speaking. Then I feared public speaking, so I stopped speaking. Then I feared embarrassment. I feared shame. I feared all the emotions that came with my previous panic experience.
I locked myself away and shut myself off from others. Surely, I would now be safe from uncomfortable feelings. If I just stayed in bed, stop socialising, stopped living, then I would never experience a panic attack ever again. So what if I also never experienced happiness? Or joy? Laughter or love? Those are great but they weren’t worth the risk of feeling the way I felt before. Alone I was secure. Isolated, I was safe.
I was sad. I was tired. I was lonely. I was depressed. You guessed it, shutting myself off from the world and spending 12 hours a day in bed was not good for my health. Did you know this? That was my approach for the 7 years following my panic attack. In that time, I dropped out of university and became depressed, developed social anxiety, drank excessively and sabotaged relationships.
I realised I couldn’t carry on this way. What I was doing was not working. It was time for a new approach. So, I went back to university and decided to access the mental health and services that my university provided.
Two steps forward, One step back
After returning to university, I attempted to tackle my mental struggles without help. That was difficult. Despite making the effort, I felt extremely anxious when talking to my new housemates, class mates and this had an impact on my lecture attendance. I no longer felt depressed, but my social anxiety was stronger than ever.
The university wellbeing service offered free counselling. I attended six sessions where I learned about CBT and developed CBT-based skills to help manage my anxiety. They were effective and I felt my anxiety decrease in everyday situations. I was becoming more sociable, more confident and more myself. This isn’t to say that I had recovered, I still had anxiety and I just knew how to manage it. Additionally, I was still fearful of anxiety-inducing situations such as public speaking.
But for the first time in a long time, my anxiety and mental health no longer dictated my actions. Seven long years and I was finally back in charge and this was reflected in my life. I graduated university and even went back to obtain my Masters. I landed a good job and met a girl. Previously my anxiety had prevented me from getting close to anyone, but this was no longer the case. Life was so much better yet it wasn’t perfect. I still experienced daily anxiety and though I coped, I dreamed of a day it would be gone entirely.
Two years had passed since my last counselling session. My CBT skills were being used every day and I felt like I could tackle any situation.
Of course, my brain must have heard this and perceived it as a challenge, “You think you’re a tough guy eh? Well let’s see how tough you really are” (I tend to imagine my brain sounds like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas).
One night I was lying in bed when a thought popped into my head, ‘What if I go crazy? What if I wake up tomorrow and I am schizophrenic?’
That was it. I had attached myself to a nonsense thought concocted by my unreliable brain. I began googling symptoms of schizophrenia. I was double checking if the things I was seeing were there. I spent hours ruminating about this condition, neglecting everyone and everything else in my life. I tried applying CBT but it proved ineffective. Trying to think logically didn’t work because my brain could always come up with logical reasons as to why my fears were real. For the next few months the themes of my OCD changed. Fear of schizophrenia, MS, dementia all took turns in ruining my life. If these skills that I had spent years honing didn’t help, what chance did I have?
Two things then happened that would change my life and lead to my full recovery from anxiety, OCD and any other mental health condition that I was experiencing. Firstly, I searched for a counsellor in my area who had experience in treating OCD. This was private and not free. Fortunately, I was in a stable financial position and the rates were affordable. During our ten sessions, we investigated my past and mapped out where my struggles began.
It was during these sessions that I realised I had OCD since a young age. My bedroom rituals that I mentioned at the beginning? Classic OCD. Since a young age I had been teaching my brain that compulsions were the best way to deal with uncomfortable feelings, thoughts and experiences. I may have been a confident public speaker during my early teenage years but this didn’t mean I was confident. I had a lot of fears that ranged from the need for acceptance to death. Coping with these fears resulted in OCD, anxiety, depression and then OCD again. What a rollercoaster.
The second thing that led to my recovery was my discovery of Acceptance and Commitment therapy, otherwise known as ACT. Whilst going through counselling I came across a youtuber known as Mark Freeman who talked about how ACT had helped him completely recover from OCD. ACT teaches you that uncomfortable thoughts and feelings are completely normal and that they don’t need to be avoided or even addressed. Intrusive thoughts, anxious feelings – these are things all people experience. You can let them come and go whilst you live a life that is meaningful to you (there’s a little more to it than that but this is what it means to me).
As I started to learn about and apply ACT, I noticed changes. I still experienced unwanted thoughts and feelings, I just didn’t view them as problems. Anxiety would occur and that was fine. I could give a presentation in work whilst accepting my anxiety was there. I could have a thought about developing some terrible disease, without ruminating for days. My brain can scream, shout and tell me I need to react to its discomfort, and I can say ‘thank you brain’ whilst doing something that aligns with what I value in life.
Six months of applying ACT and I feel stronger than ever. Our brains are extremely flexible and we can change them through our actions. I’m not anxiety free – no one is. Anxiety is essential for our survival. However, it no longer pops up in situations that aren’t life threatening.
This doesn’t mean I stop learning and practicing. Mental health is a lot like physical health – you will benefit if you perform healthy actions daily. I now practice mindfulness, meditate daily and read any book I can find on ACT.
I have learned a lot on my mental health journey. If I could offer one piece of advice it would be this – recovering from mental health is trial and error. Some things will work, and others won’t. That is okay. Keep trying. Keep learning. I promise you that one day you will develop skills that will lead to your mental health recovery. It’s a matter of when, not if.
Image credit: PublicDomainPictures
Zac Francis is a person who has no idea what to put in his bio. He works for the UK government environmental agency with a focus on saving the world and in his spare time he writes about his own mental health experiences, hoping to give back to the community that saved him.