One day, when I was 19, I woke up convinced that I was HIV positive. Until the other “worst years” that were to follow, it was by some distance the worst year of my life.
I spent the following 12 months either in bed or at my local sexual health clinic being tested. Six times I made the trip to that little building with the green door. The same number of times I was told I was fine. Yet, the fear remained. I thought: “Maybe they’d got my blood mixed up with someone else’s?”
During that year I rang NHS Direct so many times that a very nice nurse finally (and very politely, it should be said) suggested that I refrained from calling so frequently. Eventually my GP prescribed me with some pills and I managed to think about other things again – like my degree, or even just remembering to have a wash – for a bit anyway. I wouldn’t learn that I had OCD for another 10 years.
This particular fear is now so buried beneath the other fears that have come along in the two decades since that I don’t think about that year very much at all. And yet, it was a memory sat at the very forefront of my mind as I sobbed my way through six episodes of Pure, Channel 4’s bold new show that shines a light on what it’s really like to have OCD.
Pure is based on the 2013 book of the same name by Rose Cartwright (who I met once, although I didn’t really know what to say to her because “your suffering has proved hugely comforting to me” is quite a shitty ice-breaker).
It’s very funny and the music is fantastic, but, more importantly, it’s a show that finally gives people like myself a reference point. It’s something that I can point to and tell my friends, “that… that’s me… that’s how my brain works”. All the while watching Pure, I couldn’t stop thinking, “I wish this television show had existed during that year I thought I was losing my mind…”
Having a reference point – something to do the explaining for me – is seismic. Having intrusive thoughts and the resulting compulsions that follow is an extremely difficult thing to explain to anyone who hasn’t had them.
Meanwhile, reversing the stigma and general misconception that OCD is an illness that simply makes you tidy is a task seemingly so insurmountable that for a period of my life I just stopped saying I had it, using the broader, catch-all of ‘anxiety’ to explain the difficulties I had with my thinking.
Can a person be “a bit OCD?” Well yes, they can, but as Rose said when interviewed by The Guardian this week: “I’d encourage anyone contemplating how ‘OCD’ they are to think carefully about the ‘D’, the disorder, which can leave people agonised, ostracised, impoverished and dead…”
According to the World Health Organisation, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is one of the top 10 leading causes of disability in terms of loss of income and quality of life globally. It rings true: I can’t think of a single area of my life that my condition hasn’t affected in some sizeable way.
In the show, Rose – or rather a fictionalised version of herself named Marnie (played tenderly and with great wit by newcomer Charly Clive) – suffers from a form of OCD called Pure-O. It results in her having intrusive, extremely inappropriate sexual thoughts.
I don’t have Pure-O. But I do have obsessions about people thinking bad of me so extreme that I once spent £300 on a taxi ride to a party on the outskirts of London to have a ten-minute conversation with someone I was obsessed hated me, then another £300 back, just to give my mind some peace. Thanks to my obsessions and compulsions, I couldn’t afford to eat for a month.
In the past, I have stuck my fingers into live electrical circuits under the impression that if I didn’t then my family’s life would be at risk. I spent a year filming myself locking the door and turning all electrical devices off each time I left the house so that I would have a document to refer to during the day and have some degree of peace. I used to have a ritual whereupon I had to eat three Mars bars and drink one bottle of milk (in that order), three times a day, or I would lose my job. How do you go about telling your boss that this is why you’re half-hour late for work every single day?
I have told people about my obsessions and compulsions. Some have, kindly, tried to understand. Others have blanked me, stoking my fear further. It’s understandable, though: how could you understand if this wasn’t your truth?
Previously, when I needed to be empowered, I would remind myself that Joey Ramone had OCD. Joey Ramone, my favourite musician of all-time. After all, we all need things that make us feel less alone and a little less weird. For a long time Joey was alone in doing that for me. Now he’s joined by Pure too.
People too often say that a film, TV show or album “saved my life”. It’s true that Pure hasn’t literally saved my life, but it has given me the strength to carry on for a while. Maybe there’s some 19-year-old kid somewhere who’s unsure what the fuck is happening to their brain and who might watch it. Maybe – maybe – Pure might lay claim to saving that person’s life.
For help and advice on mental health:
- ‘Am I depressed?‘ – Help and advice on mental health and what to do next
- Help Musicians UK – Around the clock mental health support and advice for musicians
- Music Support Org – Help and support for musicians struggling with alcoholism, addiction, or mental health issues
- YOUNG MINDS – The voice for young people’s health and wellbeing
- CALM – The Campaign Against Living Miserably for young men
- Time To Change – Let’s end mental health discrimination
- The Samaritans – Confidential support 24 hours a day