It was on the first day back at work after Christmas last year when, as I was cycling home, hands and face numb from the bitter cold and everything around me shrouded in darkness, a fox fell from the sky. No, really, an actual fox.
The fox, it turned out, had been hit by a passing train overhead on the bridge and fallen over the side, straight into my path. I stopped, shocked, startled, helpless and a little perplexed, looking at the fox as its body trembled en route to its inevitable and untimely death. When I got home to my empty flat, I pondered how unlucky someone would have to be, to be passing under the bridge at that precise moment. Pretty unlucky, I concluded, filed it under 'Bad omens for 2017' and climbed into bed. The next morning on my way past the fateful spot, however, the fox corpse was nowhere to be seen, which struck me as peculiar, given that just 12 hours had passed since the incident. And that’s when it happened; that’s when a malignant thought dropped into my consciousness and took root: 'What if the fox didn’t actually exist, and I had hallucinated the whole thing? What if I was crazy and was seeing things? What if my mind had created the whole episode?' It did seem pretty far-fetched...
In the days and weeks that followed this incident, I couldn’t move for foxes. Foxes on adverts, foxes outside my bedroom window, foxes in magazines, each and every one triggering the malevolent yet strangely seductive thought that I had imagined the whole thing, which I couldn’t for the life of me deflect with any level of conviction. It wasn’t until a few weeks later, when my anxiety hit its peak and I asked a friend to verify whether he had seen the fox standing a metre ahead of us, that I came undone. He had. I cried and cried, sweet tears of relief.
Now, the comic absurdity of this story isn’t lost on me, far from it; it’s now safely lodged in my repertoire of 'amusing things that happened when I was mentally ill', which I often roll out to demonstrate to people that, as with anything in life, when it comes to your mental health, it helps to have a sense of humour. What I hadn’t realised, however, until recently, was that Foxgate was one of many such episodes that have recurred throughout my life, and was a symptom of my undiagnosed obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
You see, for as long as I can remember, I have been a problem-solver. Now this is not, in itself, a bad thing. For the most part, my ability to identify issues and find solutions has allowed me to develop and maintain meaningful, enduring and mutually respectful relationships; to push myself academically, professionally, personally, emotionally and physically; and to dedicate my attention to the betterment of myself and the world around me. In fact, I am often called upon by friends and colleagues for advice, because of my natural ability to look at a problem panoramically.
However, during periods of prolonged or intense stress, this compulsion to find a solution to anything and everything that could be considered a 'problem' can sometimes malfunction, taking me to the corners of my mind that the light struggles to reach. This is usually because the 'problem' that I am trying to solve is me; that is to say, the thing that I believe to be intrinsically wrong with me, which is the sole cause of my inability to live the peaceful and loving existence that I so crave. As is common among sufferers of mental illness, this derives predominantly from a series of deeply held convictions about myself that I have historically believed without question, and which are all adjectives qualified by the words 'not' and 'enough'. During these times, of which there have been only a few particularly acute episodes in my life, I have fallen down a well so deep it has taken months to pull myself back out again. Yes, my friends, I’m talking mental breakdown.
Over the years, this relentless pursuit to uncover and solve this mystical 'something' that makes me different from those around me has led me down some particularly dark corridors, during which times I have worried that I am one, or all, of the following things (to clarify, I am none of these things; I checked with my psychiatrist): an abuser, a narcissist, a sociopath, an imposter, an emotional manipulator, a cheater, a liar, and even a murderer. It has tricked me into thinking that I am physically repulsive, unloveable, mentally unstable, unkind, selfish, stupid, cruel; unfaithful, intolerable, untrustworthy, clinically insane, annoying, and without talent or skill. This obsessive solution-finding exercise has stolen seconds, minutes, hours, days and years of my life, robbing me of peace, enjoyment, contentment and the ability to feel or appreciate the love of others. During particularly bad phases, I would even have to avoid reading stories, or watching TV programmes or films containing even the faintest suggestion of malevolent behaviour. This is because I knew that I would then spend the next few days worrying whether I too possessed that trait or affliction. God, it was tiring.
Now, as a self-professed solution-finder, it may seem ironic to learn that I was fundamentally incapable of solving the 'What’s wrong with me?' puzzle. Every single time I stumbled upon a solution, doubt would creep in or a fresh, new idea would force its way into my mind and arrest my thoughts. You know that annoying feeling when you’re doing a crossword or a quiz and a question comes up you know that you know the answer to, but you just can’t quite retrieve from the depths of your mind? This is what OCD feels like to me; a sensation of being forever on the edge of a solution that evades my grasp, which, once identified, will make everything okay. And like a cat chasing its tail, every time I feel like I’m nearing the solution, it moves just beyond my reach once more.
Now as someone who grew up around mentally ill relatives, who had previously been (incorrectly) diagnosed with both a general anxiety disorder and a panic disorder, who has many friends with OCD and, indeed, who has read every single description of every single mental disorder (and subsequently convinced themselves they had every single one of these conditions), you’re probably thinking, 'But Rose, how did you not work this out sooner? All those hours spent trying to reach what is a relatively simple and well-signposted answer?'
Well chaps, the truth is that I had. In fact, when the empathetic and incredibly insightful psychiatrist I visited in the summer delivered my diagnosis, she quickly followed it with an observation: “But I think you knew that already.” And she was right. But the problem was that years of habitual self-doubt had made me instinctively question the validity of my own thoughts, feelings and perceptions, and assume them to be a product of my 'melodramatic personality'.
As I walked out of her office and back out into the real world, contrary to what one would expect upon receiving what is, objectively speaking, a pretty scary diagnosis, I was hit by the most overwhelming sense of calm I have ever felt in my life. I went straight to a therapy session and cried non-stop for an hour, but they weren’t tears of sadness, it was a feeling of unadulterated relief; I no longer carried the burden of having to find the solution. Because the irony of it all was that the very thing that had led me to question what was wrong with me, was the thing that was wrong with me all along.
Now I don’t want to sit here and preach the value of labels; lord knows that living in a society that seeks to pigeonhole and marginalise people based on their objective differences has so far yielded naught but misery and conflict. But in this particular situation, being able to identify and categorise whatever dysfunctional pursuit that my mind is engaging in has enabled me to put it aside and refocus my energies. Before, when people told me to “just think about something else”, I couldn’t understand what they meant, such was the potency of my ritualistic obsessing; if only it were that simple. Now, however, I am able to say, “Oh, that’s just the ol’ OCD again”, allowing me to disengage from said thought for long enough to starve it of life. And I am not alone in this. According to Miranda Boal, a psychologist and founder of Skylark Therapy in London, “a label can help to shine a light to guide both client and therapist out of the labyrinth, and find ways of coping along the route.” Delivered compassionately, a diagnosis can enable a patient to “recognise that the problem is the illness and not them,” allowing them to be “more forgiving and accepting of themselves.”
A week after my diagnosis, I cycled to Paris to raise money for Mind, which was possibly the most meaningful thing I have ever achieved in my life, and since then things have only improved. I have, with the support of an incredibly patient and kind therapist, learned that not everything has a single fixed solution, and that the relentless search for one is what produces anxiety, panic and fear. I am not a puzzle that needs to be solved; neither is life in general. And for those of you paying close attention, that’s it! That’s my eureka moment! I’ve solved the OCD riddle guys, we can all go home. The more comfortable we can make ourselves with seeing foxes fall from the sky, and embracing uncertainty and the not knowing more generally, the more liberated, peaceful and content we will become. The end.
If you are struggling with mental health issues please contact your GP or mental health charity Mind for more help.