The speed and almost fullness of my recovery from OCD have virtually mirrored the amount and intensity of the physical exercise I have been undertaking.
Coincidence? Not sure? Almost certainly, but there is no real way of quantifying this short of making myself ill again and trying to do it again, but with a more sedentary lifestyle (and I don’t really want to try that little experiment out!)
A sudden lack of physical excursion also coincided with the onset of my anxieties, obsessions and compulsions … another coincidence?
I had been working in a very physical job as a bricklayer since leaving school; so 16 years, and had always been reasonably sporty, if not particularly competitive. Riding my bike several times a week, going to the gym most days and playing a fair bit of football.
Add to this the ‘dancing like a loon’ at rock clubs and live music shows several times a week, and it would be safe to say I was pretty fit and active (and always knackered!)
Then it all stopped! CRASH..BANG..WALLOP!!
Overnight it was all gone, all on hold for an indefinite period.
A high speed trip over the handle bars of my BMX race bike destroyed my right wrist (and broke my left elbow too, just for a laugh).
3 operations, a bone graft from my hip, an exposed external titanium support cradle and a couple of weeks in hospital later and it was all over.
I suppose it was a miracle I’d got into my thirties before doing any serious damage to myself considering how hard I’d been trying over the years.
…I say serious. Almost exactly a year before I had dislocated and broken my thumb in a similar accident at a different track and had had to sit out a summers work and play while I recovered.
I split from my first wife during this time also; but despite these two not insignificant body blows, hadn’t noticed any particular negative effect on my mental health.
I’d had a relatively enjoyable and busy summer considering, visiting friends around the country (by bus and train – bit tricky to drive with no working arms!), eventually getting back in the gym, going to see bands play again and generally keeping life ticking over.
A pretty much full physical recovery (It’s still a bit stiff 13 years later) and I was back at work, back on the bikes, back in the gym and back on the dance floor.
NOT THIS TIME THOUGH!
Work GONE…Trade for life (that I was damn good at) GONE, as my wrist will never be up to the rigours again. Goodbye not insignificant salary and recognised routine.
Bikes GONE…Even when I could conceivably get back to holding the handlebars well enough, the prospect of further crashes and damage ruled out the style of jumping and riding I’d always done.
Football, or any other sports with physical contact or the chance of falling, GONE… A fall onto a wrist that only partially moves, and has been rated as a 9/10 for damage by the experts looking at my scans, didn’t seem a particularly attractive proposition.
Smashing myself about at punk and heavy metal shows GONE…The rough and tumble of these makes some rugby games seem gentle, so they were looking permanently off limits too.
A pretty static life was looking on the cards. And just as the months of killing time, walking around with an arm like a kids Meccano set was coming to an end, and the prospect of looking for a new career was on the horizon, something else decided to rear its head in anger for the first time:
This unwanted intruder into my life had snuck up on the blindside. I’d always considered myself pretty ‘together’.
I wasn’t prone to bouts of misery or depression, had a happy family upbringing and was reasonable alright for money and somewhere to live.
I’d never taken drugs or smoked, had been drunk enough times to know what it was all about but certainly not to any excess that it was ever a need, a habit or a problem.
I’d bounced to and from a few relationships over the years, like most people have, but they’d never really troubled me other than the initial expected upset you get in these situations.
Maybe it was a combination of a few things all together, my age or it just being the time?
The loss of full use of the arm, the loss of a secure working future, the upset caused to my parents (hurting myself on the day I was off work to attend my Grans funeral could’ve been timed a lot better!), the letting down of an old friend I’d been dating …and of a bunch of others who’d trusted me not to ‘love her and leave her’.
Was it this combination of life events? Was it me entering my 30s and needing to be a grown up about things? Or did I just have a ticking timebomb in my head that kept itself at bay and allowed me to have a great 30+ years where I could be possibly described as somewhat cautious and organised in nature, but never really as anxious.
What I’ve learned through experience, therapy sessions and conversation with experts is that it doesn’t actually matter WHY or HOW my OCD developed and took over my life.
ALL that matters is how to recover and reclaim yourself!
Hours can be spent overthinking and analysing the reasons for losing yourself to this shithouse of an illness. Is this going to help recovery? Will wasting valuable time with a psychologist talking about an old girlfriend or a previous job make you better?
There were undoubtedly triggers that contributed to my becoming ill, as outlined above, these couldn’t be removed but needed to be overcome or replaced by a stronger urge to move forward not dwell on the past.
I’ve never consciously blamed myself for falling ill. Certainly some of the triggering episodes could be put at my feet, but nothing that may have occurred was a deliberate act that I could apportion blame on myself for. I didn’t need to repent to myself.
No one deserves or asks to be ill, and if guilt is holding recovery back it needs to be taken out of the equation. Even the biggest arsehole who probably NEEDS to feel guilty about their actions may have to disassociate their health from their actions to enable their body and mind the chance to pull itself into line.
I didn’t, and almost certainly never would, go to a support group during my illness.
I was told of a couple of groups by my GP but it never crossed my mind that this would be something I’d like to go to or something that may be helpful to me.
I’m sure there are some lovely caring people at them, both sufferers and carers, but why would I want to surround myself with illness?
For one, the thought of being around ‘strange’ people when I was at my sickest would have put me off going anyway!
And what would we talk about? “I’m ill”…”so am I”.
I was unaware of social media at this time…and mighty grateful that I was!
I’d heard of Facebook but hadn’t thought of signing up and am not even sure if Twitter was up and running.
What a waste of time it would have been spending hours on those when I could have been concentrating on getting better. I waste enough time on them now and enjoy the access to information, opinions and friends, but it is free entertainment for me rather than watching the TV or reading magazines and newspapers.
I can see the possible benefits of seeking information if you are exploring the possibilities of why you feel ‘weird’ or ‘different’ and seeking answers as to appropriate courses of action and treatment.
The temptation to seek reassurance by simply airing your anxieties must be SO TEMPTING though that I can see no benefit from interacting with fellow sufferers once the facts are in place and the route to recovery known and accessed.
Maybe for younger sufferers it is a form of friend making if this is something they find difficulty with at school or college.
I have read some brilliantly open and brave blogs, particularly from young people whom I have the most respect for, but I often wonder if this selflessness in sharing their stories for the greater good and their work in raising awareness for the benefit of the ‘community’ of sufferers at large is taking away from their own chances of recovery?
It is so tempting to respond with a plea for them to take this obvious passion and bravery and dedicate it to themselves solely for a couple of years and see where it can take them.
I found the fight and recovery EXHAUSTING. To hand over valuable energy and times to others is commendable but …
I seem to have gone massively off track here; I was supposed to be talking about the relationship between physical exertion and mental health … SO I WILL!
I DID TRY.
After 9 months I made a tentative return to work. I was very ill by this stage and was struggling to drive or even walk anywhere.
Driving the 10 miles or so to the building site was proving a real issue. The anxieties and compulsions ramped up steeply, with retraced journeys and multiple laps of stretches of road a now daily occurrence.
At this stage I had also acquired contamination and checking problems that meant I was looking at anything shiny or red as a potential needle or splash of blood. On an active building site with a proliferation of dropped nails and screws all over the place this was not a convenient development.
I was put on light duties due to the weakness in my arm which, although relatively easy and well paid, meant working alone with just my overactive ruminating mind and the radio for company.
Despite being offered this as a long term job option, I was struggling. This wasn’t something I could see myself wanting or being able to continue with.
I was also becoming increasingly uncomfortable being in the town that me and my new partner were living in.
A probably over inflated sense of resentment from some old friends and acquaintances, and an increasing routine of anxieties and compulsions had me searching for work possibilities elsewhere…somewhere new? Somewhere safe?
The bikes stayed and even came out very occasionally; I even attempted to resurrect my social life to a degree, but by this time I was in a downward spiral; OCD had well and truly grabbed hold of me.
At this stage, after just a few minutes of research had unearthed the likely/obvious cause of my anxieties, I had been to see my GP and had been given some medication to take the edge off of them. No form of behavioural treatment was offered and I was unaware still of what I should have been asking for or being offered.
I managed, bizarrely, to get offered only the second job I applied for.
Something related to construction, but not hands on, so wrist friendly.
This meant a relocation of some 60 miles and a new start for us.
It didn’t however mean an end to the misery of OCD. Running away or dodging isn’t a route that’s going to bring much reward with this bad boy. Tackling head on is what’s really called for!
Feeling mildly better had encouraged me to take my bike riding passion in a different direction, and for a while I was able to partake in a fair amount of mountain biking, heading out with a group of other riders a couple of times a week.
I was also doing well at work. Within a few months I had been ‘poached’ into a teaching role, something I’d never really considered up until this point.
My illness didn’t affect my work in anyway other than a few logistical issues and a bit of underhand checking that went pretty much unnoticed by both colleagues and students.
I was also (whisper it) playing a lot of golf at this time. The physical effort involved in this may well be up for debate, but it at least involved a 4 mile walk a few times a week!
Obsessions arose during the playing of this far too often. The countless used tee pegs littering the course got my ‘is that a needle’ suspicion going, and I found myself regularly wandering along the fairway (or more often the rough) some 20 yards behind my playing partners as I scanned the floor for anything remotely harmful.
Not being able to take my ball from the hole (after I’d finally got it in there!) without staring into it to make sure it hadn’t been booby-trapped was also an 18 times a round effort.
It was at this stage that kids came along. See my other blogs for the inside story of the implications of bringing up children while suffering from OCD https://compulsivflyer.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/ocd-the-implications-to-bringing-up-children/ and https://compulsivflyer.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/ocd-the-implications-to-bringing-up-children/ .
This new found focus in life had a rollercoaster of highs and lows for my battle with my illness.
Bigger and different anxiety problems and eventually a real NEED to get better had sport and hobbies taking a back seat.
The lack of leisure time parenthood allows resulted in another sideways step with my bike life. The half day long off road excursions were replaced with road cycling which allowed similar levels of exercise but in less time and nearer to home.
I was kind of ticking along for a while, not really getting any better but with a successful series of CBT sessions behind me and a reliable, dependable medication dosage being taken was in the most stable way I’d been for a fair few years.
That final push to the level of recovery I’m enjoying at present came about by chance.
The charity OCD-UK http://www.ocduk.org/ had held their conference in my hometown and I’d gone along as a curious and nervous sufferer to see if I could get anything out of the event.
An inspirational and frankly terrifyingly harrowing talk from a former sufferer about how OCD nearly cost him his family kicked my now wife and I so hard that it compelled me to try EVERYTHING within my power to get better.
I checked the charities website and noticed they were looking for runners for a big 10k event in London.
I’d not run AT ALL since stopping playing football 10 years before and certainly had no idea what a 10k race would be like (or if I could even manage it). I’d also pretty much avoided London as much as possible for a good few years as the number of ‘scary’ people and inability to perform checks in such a big City had scared me too much.
I did a few little practice runs, but had some leg pains that led to me having to unfortunately pull out just before the event, and that seemed the end of that idea … little did I know I would return to this with gusto a year or so later.
I upped my cycling as best I could, ramping my rides up to a regular 50 miles most weekends and started to do a few big organised rides, such as a couple of 140 mile weekend events for the fine charity Asthma UK http://www.asthma.org.uk/ .
These were proving to be a good physical and mental workout, as I was putting myself well out of my comfort zone on both fronts. I was beginning to see some signs of a recovery, but nothing that felt certain or solidly founded.
A year on from my failed 10k attempt, a got an email out of the blue from OCD-UK asking me if I wanted to run it this time … IN THREE DAYS TIME! … with no time for any training runs.
So there I found myself, on the starting line of my first ever running race, and little did I know, on the starting line to fulfilling my dreams of recovery and a return to a normal life.
This was at a stage when I was still shuffling about looking at the floor for non-existent hazards, but the freedom and instantaneousness of running in a group and the lack of opportunity for checking meant that I comfortably finished the event.
Not only did I finish it, but I did it relatively anxiety free; even being ‘relaxed’ enough to have been able to nip up a side alley for a wee half way through – NOT the type of behaviour you’d expect of a sufferer of a contamination anxiety disorder.
CAUGHT UP IN THE MOMENT is the phrase that comes to mind and it’s a phrase that is VERY unfamiliar to OCD sufferers. Remember, this is an illness where we want FULL CONTROL of ourselves and our surroundings. Going with the flow isn’t usually an option.
This was a real breakthrough. CAN’T walk 100 yards down the pavement at home, CAN run 6 miles through ‘dirty’ London. The bug had bitten a bit. I’d exhausted my cycling sponsorship options by now, so decided to enter a half marathon.
This would require something a bit more than my ‘rock up and hope for the best’ approach. I decided to go along to a local running club that a lady at work ran with.
Although obviously anxious about the new surroundings and experience, it went well and I started to train with the club twice a week leading up to my next event. This training also involved some off-road stuff that challenged a few different issues for me.
The more I ran, the more I wanted to run. The motivation to get out and do things was a welcome feeling I’d not had for a long time. After that first half marathon, I started to do a few smaller local races.
Confidence in speaking to ‘strangers’ and making new friends when running was an added bonus I’d not accounted for. That couple of hours a week was proving very profitable.
As my confidence and recovery started to snowball, an opportunity arose to put another demon to bed. A plan was hatched with a friend from my old town, where my OCD had grown and from where I had moved away.
The couple of times I’d HAD to return I had been a bag of nerves. This time was to run a half marathon through the town and along the streets I’d been barely able to walk along a few years earlier.
To top off the weekend I’d arranged to talk on camera … and indeed publicly for the first time about my illness. A post-race interview with the wonderful Claire Watkinson for her Living with me and my OCD documentary occurred … freezing cold and soaking wet under the entrance hoarding of a nearby B&Q! See the trailer for this ground-breaking film here http://livingwithmeandmyocd.co.uk/ .
A blog of this weekend entitled ‘A weekend of normal’ can be seen here https://compulsivflyer.wordpress.com/2013/03/18/a-weekend-of-normal/ .
After this, the sky seemed the limit. More training, more racing, more socializing, GETTING BETTER!
And here I sit now. I ran a marathon last month, as a big thank you, and probably last hurrah sponsorship wise, to the guys at OCD-UK for the work they put in to supporting sufferers and spreading the truth about this illness.
A couple of days before I did this I presented two 1 hour awareness talks to large groups of colleagues at work.
More importantly, I’m a happy Dad, a better husband, and back to somewhere close to my pre-OCD self. And I’m running and riding A LOT.
Is there a direct proven link between physical activity and mental wellbeing? Don’t know? Ask a Doctor.
What I do know is that if I’m asked by another anxiety sufferer if I think they should go along to a support group or sign up to a chat forum, I’d tell them not to bother. Why spend your time with people who share your worries and problems? They may not have the answers. If you strive to be ‘normal’ then maybe its normal people you need to be around?
Look up your local sports club instead. It may well give you everything you want and a whole lot more.