Erica* didn’t need to clean obsessionally or check her oven, but the false memories and overwhelming guilt caused by her Obsessive Compulsive Disorder were completely incapacitating.
When I got back from a holiday to Cyprus with Sam* and his family, I was certain that I wanted to spend my life with him. We’d already been together five years and, in that moment, I realised just how much I loved him. But it also occurred to me that there were things that he didn’t know about me.
Back in the early stages of our relationship, when I was just 22, I’d gone away to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and ended up kissing someone else when I was drunk. Nothing more came of it, and I hadn’t told Sam. Now I was working as a teacher in a stressful, unsupportive school, and later that week I drove home to our place after work and made my confession.
"Was that it?" Sam asked. "That’s fine, it was years ago."
That should have been it but something clicked in my brain that night and I couldn’t stop thinking about what I’d done. I thought about what had happened again and I remembered that actually I’d kissed this guy a few times over the course of a week, before never seeing him again.
I spoke to Sam, telling him it had been more than once, perhaps six times. He wasn’t bothered. Then I said maybe it was 10 times, I couldn’t be sure, in fact, there was one night when we’d been really drunk. What if we were fumbling around? What if I’d touched his penis?
"Stop it! It’s fine, I don’t care," he said. But even after telling Sam about what had happened, I couldn’t make the feelings of anxiety and guilt go away. I felt like I deserved to be punished.
Soon these thoughts chased me for all my waking hours. I would be thinking about it while teaching and then the kids would leave the classroom and I’d ring Sam and ask him to talk to me about it one more time. When his reassurance didn’t make me feel better, I turned to Google, searching whether hypothetical things I might have done made me a bad person. I turned all my conversations with friends onto the subject of infidelity, hoping for a shred of clarity.
A few months later, I could barely leave the house and I’d lost two stone because I was too anxious to eat. If a man looked at me when I walked down the street I worried I was somehow flirting with him. I combed through my memories of men who had tried it on with me in the past. Had I encouraged them? I left my teaching job, telling them I was stressed.
Sam and I went on to get married – but my worst-ever episode was on our honeymoon. I was enjoying the in-flight entertainment on the plane to Sri Lanka, until one of the characters in my film pointed out that cheating isn’t just sleeping with other people, it can also be emotional.
I’ve had an affair, I thought. I don’t need to have slept with a man, or even kissed one, to have been unfaithful. It can just be connecting with someone, and I’d had so many close male friends.
Our honeymoon was a complete write-off. I couldn’t leave our hotel room and, on the rare occasions I did, I couldn’t eat anything. I kept asking Sam if he was right to marry me because I was certain I was a terrible person. He was incredibly supportive, but he didn’t understand why I couldn’t just accept what he was saying.
When I became pregnant with my oldest daughter, Michelle*, who’s now five, I felt better for a while. But when she was six months old, it came back. Sam and I were watching an episode of Coronation Street, and one of the characters wasn’t sure who the father of her baby was.
"Wouldn’t it be awful to bring up a child and then find out it wasn’t yours?" Sam said. You can guess what happened next – it just hit me.
"You don’t think that about Michelle do you, Sam? You don’t think she’s not yours?" I said to him.
"Of course I don’t!"
One night, six weeks before I became pregnant, I’d gone on a night out to celebrate one of my ex-students' 21st birthday. I got really drunk, wandered outside so none of them would see me and passed out on the pavement. Could I have been raped then and just not remembered it? Could my pregnancy actually have been six weeks longer than normal and it not have been picked up?
My GP told me it wasn’t possible but I still asked him again and again, sometimes calling him multiple times per day. Every time I looked at my daughter, I just thought about how she wasn’t Sam’s. I begged him for a DNA test but he knew now that that wouldn’t help. Even if we did it, he told me, it would still only be 99.99999% certain and I would be convinced we were the 0.00001%. He was right. At my worst, I told him I needed to run out into the road and let a car hit me, just to make it stop.
At this point, I was finally able to see an OCD specialist. Because I wasn’t obsessionally cleaning or flicking light switches, I had previously been misdiagnosed with acute anxiety. One private therapist had been lovely, but she had offered me constant reassurance, which only continued my cycle of obsessions and compulsions. I was already taking medication to help me manage, which really helped, but the specialist also encouraged me to do Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). This meant imagining my obsessional thoughts coming true and talking about my worst fears until my anxiety dropped.
Now I have a job I love as manager of a theatre company where I can actually talk to my colleagues about my mental health. I’m in recovery from OCD and though I still have occasional thoughts, I just try to think of them like clouds. There are always clouds above us but there’s no need to take any notice of them. These days, I try to see uncertainty as something exciting.
*Names have been changed