Stephen Hosking started showing symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder as a toddler. “I’d feel the need to repeat things,” says Hosking, 50, who lives in Southampton and works as a transport planner. “Or to tap the wall. I just didn’t feel complete otherwise.”
When he got older, he would feel compelled to ask embarrassing and inappropriate questions. His hands bled from overwashing. He was convinced he had Aids, and was going to infect others.
Back then, few people had heard of OCD – it was not added to the official list of mental disorders until the 1980s. “My family called it ‘Stephen’s habits’,” Hosking says.
In 2004, Hosking, by now in his 30s, was formally diagnosed. He wasn’t having any success with relationships, and was often in trouble at work. “I’d get so obsessed with listing all the jobs I had to do,” he says, “that I didn’t get on with doing them.”
“It’s not great for your self-esteem,” says Hosking of OCD. “I felt like I wanted people to know the real me, and the way to do that was to confess all my inappropriate thoughts.”
Widely cited but commonly misunderstood, OCD is not, despite popular perceptions, a desire for order or cleanliness. “It’s a disorder,” says Hosking, “where you are irrationally worried about things, which gives you anxiety – that’s the obsession. So you do something to relieve the anxiety – that’s the compulsion.” When the compulsion is fulfilled, the person feels relief, but this is short-lived.
After two rounds of therapy, Hosking has got his OCD to a manageable place. (One practice, focused on exposing Hosking to his fears, was gruelling: “I had this fear of people slipping on banana skins,” he says. “It was almost comedic. Like in cartoons. One of my exercises involved dropping a banana skin and walking away.”) Most of the time, he doesn’t think about his obsessions, or act on his compulsions. Now, he is determined to help others manage this insidious and misunderstood condition.
Hosking founded his first OCD support group in 2005, and now runs four groups: in London, Oxford, Portsmouth and Eastleigh in Hampshire. He does it all free of charge and, before Covid, ran himself ragged, crisscrossing the south-east to lead all four groups in person, every month. He used to work full-time while running the groups, but it was too much, so he has gone part-time.
“Stephen has made a difference to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the UK,” says Danielle Walker, a member of Hosking’s London group. “My psychologist thinks attending the group regularly has helped me maintain my wellbeing and not relapse.”
People with obsessive thoughts are often misdiagnosed. “I hate it when people say, ‘I am a bit OCD, ha ha’,” Hosking says. “It’s not true. OCD is not a liking for order and perfection. And it means people who do have OCD think that they don’t meet the criteria for diagnosis.”
As a result, people with OCD can feel isolated from a society that does not understand their condition. But when people come to his groups, there’s a feeling of acceptance and recognition.
“It may be the first time they’ve met somebody else with OCD,” says Hosking. “People start to nod. They realise they’re with people who understand.” When lockdown was announced, all four of his groups moved online: “We didn’t miss a single meeting, which I’m proud of.”
He knew it was critical to keep the group going, especially for members whose OCD was triggered by the pandemic. People with contamination fears – who get obsessive thoughts about germs and disease – “were badly set back”. Their treatment before the pandemic had involved abstaining from masks and handwashing; now everyone was urged to do it.
“We’ve had people say that their life had been saved by coming to group,” he continues. His favourite sessions are the ones where former members return. “Their OCD is basically gone,” he says. “And this shows others that it’s treatable, and beatable.”
Hosking is a busy man, so finding time to arrange something nice for him was tricky. But at his request, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – somewhere he had always wanted to visit – provided two complimentary tickets and meal vouchers for him and a friend. “It was lovely,” he says. “We went for lunch and had a wander around the grounds. What we liked best was the rock garden. All these massive blocks of stone that somehow looked natural, but were actually manmade.”
A trip like that would have been an ordeal when Hosking’s OCD was severe. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed it,” he says. “I would have been worried about something or other and just have gone through the motions.” Perhaps he would have seen something on the train tracks, and been terrified it was a bomb, or a spotted broken window on a bus and felt an irresistible urge to report it. “The whole day would have been spoiled by my feeling anxious,” he says, “But I didn’t have any of that. We had a lovely time.”
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