When Your Intrusive Thoughts Are So Taboo, You Feel Like You Can’t Tell Anyone

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Image for illustrative purposes only. The person shown is a model.
I first heard about ‘Pure O’ when a friend told me her sister had to take a year out of university due to having traumatic, intrusive thoughts about child abuse. The thoughts were so terrifying, she was convinced she could harm a vulnerable child without realising. Luckily, she was able to find help, but I didn’t expect the same thing would lead to my mental breakdown a few years later.
There are many misconceptions about OCD, mainly that those who suffer from it are obsessed with cleanliness or the organisation of their felt tip pens. But these myths are harmful, because when OCD does come knocking on your door, you may have no idea what you're dealing with. 'Pure O' is a form of OCD marked by uncontrollable and repetitive intrusive thoughts which can range anywhere from Are you sure you turned the iron off? to Are you sure you’re not a paedophile? Symptoms can vary from person to person but shame and guilt at having them around taboo subjects stops many from speaking out. 
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My experience began at a time when there seemed to be a continuous, negative cycle of news in my job. I was 23, working as a full-time journalist and remember the days leading to my breakdown clearly. Louis Tomlinson’s sister died aged 18 on 13th March 2019. The New Zealand mosque shooting happened on 15th March 2019. Then Mike Thalassitis’ death by suicide was reported a day later. I wrote a news article about it during my weekend shift, processing the heartbreaking details of the Love Island contestant’s death.
I finished work that evening but I felt off. All I could think about was the awful news about Mike. In the following days, I felt myself disassociating and disconnecting from conversations. I had a few random panic attacks and then started having the following intrusive thoughts: What if you kill yourself? Do you want to kill yourself? Are you so depressed you’re going to kill yourself? At the time the obvious answer was no but the thoughts were so persistent, I wasn’t sure I knew what the reality was. I texted my boss and was told to stay at home for as long as I needed to.

I was no longer concerned about dying and started questioning whether I could ever abuse children. I was so full of shame and guilt, it stopped me from speaking to anyone about it.

For weeks, the thoughts followed my every move. Making dinner was a question of chopping up vegetables or stabbing myself in the chest. Having a bath was a potential way to drown. Crossing the road was an opportunity to jump in front of a car. Catching a train was a way to fall into the tracks and get electrocuted or get hit by a carriage coming my way. The thoughts were paralysing and I felt insane. I couldn't cope with basic life functions. The more I engaged with the thoughts by trying to disprove them, the worse they seemed to get. I was fully losing it and desperately looked for a therapist.
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One of the ways of trying to move through this awful time was by distracting myself. Foolishly, I decided to watch Leaving Neverland, a documentary about paedophilia. Almost immediately afterwards, my thoughts evolved from suicide to paedophilia because my brain found something worse to latch onto. Suddenly I was no longer concerned about dying and started questioning whether I could ever abuse children. I was so full of shame and guilt, it stopped me from speaking to anyone about it for a while. Suddenly, I remembered the conversation I had all those years ago about my friend’s sister and realised I was most likely suffering from the same thing. I googled my symptoms and was quickly directed to articles about 'Pure O'. My first session with a therapist was coming up and finally I was able to talk about everything and, although it took time, I learned how to cope.
Julie*, who is a final year student at the University of Manchester, was 14 when she started having intrusive thoughts, but has been having them regularly within the last year. Her experience mirrors mine in the way that it started with intrusive thoughts about suicide and developed into ones about paedophilia. She told me: "When I first started getting the thoughts it was the scariest thing in the world and I thought having them must mean they are true and I'm a paedophile. With that in mind I was like, Okay, I'm just going to have to kill myself. But thankfully I spoke to a psychologist and she told me how common an issue this was and knowing that other people struggle with it made me feel so much better."
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Mike* is 23 and a web developer from Durham. He’s been suffering with intrusive thoughts for 10 years. "I can remember the exact date I first started getting them because it completely changed my life. [I] don’t know what triggered it. I would spend hours and hours combing back over what exactly my thoughts were and trying to understand them. Mine were on the topics of incest and paedophilia mainly, with some suicide mixed in – about the worst thing I could imagine."
He continues: "I found this very hard to deal with at the time and didn’t feel I could talk about it. Quickly, I became anxious and depressed which changed my personality quite a bit. I felt like I was a completely fucked up person and became withdrawn. I spent a lot of time as a teenager in my own head – daydreaming of being someone else. I was very lucky to have a super supportive and middle class family who could help me through difficult times."
A year on, I still get intrusive thoughts from time to time. They’re not as intense because I do my best to observe them and not to engage with them. If anything, they’re a good signal that my mind is tired and I’m feeling burned out. The biggest lesson I learned is that everyone has disturbing thoughts – but they are just that and there’s no need to internalise them. Mike agrees: "Understanding them does help though, I’m incomparably better at dealing with them now than when I was younger and mostly lead a pretty happy life, which I never would have believed was possible 10 years ago." For Julie, learning cognitive behavioural therapy and knowing she’s not alone was the biggest cure she’s found.
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As a therapist, I would reassure someone suffering from this that having the thought has no correlation on acting on the thought.

Dr Elena Touroni
I asked Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic why intrusive thoughts often manifest within taboo subjects. She said: "Everyone has intrusive thoughts that may be disturbing to them. We have thousands of random thoughts that go through our mind every day. But there’s a big difference for people whose intrusive thoughts develop within an anxiety disorder such as OCD as opposed to those who may momentarily experience an intrusive thought they can let go of."
"Some people will engage in behaviours meant to neutralise the intrusive thought to reassure themselves, but ultimately the difficulty is that the engagement with the thoughts themselves is the thing that maintains the problem, because they struggle to understand thoughts which aren’t representative of an action. If they’re able to relate to them in a more neutral and detached way, they are more likely to dissipate."
Dr Elena continued: "It’s incredibly common and the thoughts people have are also incredibly common. As a therapist, I would reassure someone suffering from this that having the thought has no correlation on acting on the thought. I would want to reduce any feelings of shame and make them aware that the way our mind operates can make them vulnerable to thousands of involuntary thoughts. The main approach is mindfulness, where you’re able to see intrusive thoughts as mental events in your mind."
*Names have been changed
If you or someone you know is struggling with intrusive thoughts, please get help. Call Mind on 0300 123 3393 or text 86463. If you are thinking about suicide, please contact Samaritans on 116 123. All calls are free and will be answered in confidence.
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