Poet Neil Hilborn tells the emotional story of falling in love with a girl as a teenager while he struggled with severe obsessive compulsive disorder. Courtesy Button Poetry
MANY men don’t know what to do in moments of crisis or when dealing with mental illness. I know this from personal experience. From about the age of 30, I was one of these men. I had no idea where to turn or who to turn to. I seriously contemplated suicide a number of times. After a catastrophic divorce, my life was rapidly spiralling out of control.
I’m still here. I’m the author of three books and one e-book, I am father to a wonderful 11-year-old girl, and have a good professional and personal life. I’m healthier at 41 than I was at 21, but when I look back on my 30s, I see a decade lost. I lost it mostly to obsessive-compulsive disorder or OCD, an anxiety-spectrum disorder that affects hundreds of thousands of Australian men, women and children, of whom very few will ever talk about it openly. It’s very much a debilitating hidden illness.
It’s also one of the most misunderstood disorders and part of the motivation in a lot of my work — my writing and my public speaking — is to help people who are dealing with depression, OCD and other anxiety disorders every day of their lives. You’re not on your own and never will be. There are people out there who understand what you’re going through and help is there if you need it.
It’s no fun to live with OCD. People who have it deal with it by trying to maintain a front that everything is fine and they’re OK. They’re not. They’re really suffering.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted to scream when some celebrity who is fastidious about cleaning their fridge or sorting their shoes has said they’re “so OCD”. It’s almost an insult to someone who’s really going through the worst of what this disorder involves.
OCD is a very serious condition, not simply an amplified need for cleanliness or order, such as David Beckham’s obsession with pairs or Jessica Alba’s fastidious hair-brushing, which is actually OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder).
The rituals we’re all reasonably familiar with as symptoms of OCD — the counting, the handwashing, the hoarding, the checking, etc. — are all compulsive rituals designed to neutralise the things outsiders can’t see: the intrusive thoughts, images, words and impulses afflicting people with OCD. And when I say thoughts, images, words and impulses, I mean the worst of the worst. A general rule of thumb with understanding the O in OCD is that whatever is the worst thing you can think of, you will think it. So: vivid images of violent acts, abhorrent sexual thoughts. Sudden urges that make you feel as if you want to do something you really don’t want to do.
It’s like living in your own personal 24-hour-a-day horror movie.
So you can appreciate why very few people will admit to having OCD.
That’s because they fear what people will think of them if they confess to having these obsessions, let alone talking about the content of them. These intrusive thoughts, images, words and impulses are especially stressful and upsetting to the sufferer.
OCD feeds off what is most important to you: the people you love and care about. Or it latches onto the things you subconsciously fear or find most repulsive and uses those worries to invoke scenarios in your mind, completely involuntary on your part, that are the most disturbing and inappropriate of all.
The more you try to avoid thinking something, the more the intrusive thoughts, images, words, urges and impulses (harm obsessions, sexual obsessions) arrive in your mind. Relationships — romantic and family — are a minefield. It’s very typical for an OCD sufferer to just prefer to be alone. They don’t want to be thinking horrible things about the people they love. Who would? So they retreat from their families and friends. They become reclusive. They refrain from sexual intercourse.
People with OCD are capable of rational thought as much as anyone else. This is the great contradiction of the disorder.
But here’s the rub. The rational mind understands that these thoughts, images, words and impulses are not expressions of one’s true self and one’s true desires, but always there is this lingering doubt that maybe you’re wrong; that you’re kidding yourself. Which is why OCD is sometimes called the ‘doubter’s disease’.
So it never really goes away and this never-ending, relentless cycle of obsession and compulsion takes hold of you and can very nearly ruin your life. And it very nearly ruined mine.
That was until I got a hold of it, changed some habits and approached managing OCD in a methodical and complete way, involving different strategies. I have eliminated symptoms of OCD from my life because I made my recovery my full-time project. I bit the bullet and got help. I talked to people. Organisations such as the Black Dog Institute in Sydney, my friends and doctors gave me the support I didn’t think I was going to get but desperately needed.
The person I am today is very different from the one I was when OCD entered my life. Not just mentally and emotionally but physically. I’ve lost 35kg since 2007, the year when I divorced. For a long time, I couldn’t see my genitals when I looked down. I had a double chin. I dressed like a fat Russell Crowe: all baseball caps and big men’s polo shirts from Kmart.
I lost all that weight the hard way. There were no tricks. Just discipline and diet. It was exhausting but I persevered. And the best thing was that the more I worked on my physical health, the more my mental and emotional health improved. Simple perseverance and commitment to fitness in turn improved the way my head was working. It is my personal belief that not nearly enough emphasis is put on physical health in the national debate about mental illness.
I’ve found it’s helped me immeasurably to be open about my experience, rather than hiding from people and pretending that part of my life never happened. Half a dozen close personal male friends have since come to me and admitted they’ve been dealing with depression or anxiety for years but felt like they couldn’t talk to anyone. Others are going through the excruciating pain of divorce or relationship breakdowns. It’s happening around Australia every day.
Beyond Blue is the national depression and anxiety initiative. Visit beyondblue.org.au.
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