Oxygen in a can? Freshly squeezed orange juice? A website about orangutans?
You’d be forgiven for thinking so.
Then I’d slap you with a wet fish around the face because you’re WRONG!
No, it’s short for Purely Obsessional OCD, which is the kind of OCD I have.
In reality there’s just one kind of OCD – plain old OCD. But historically experts and sufferers alike have broken it down into sub-categories like Pure O, scrupulosity, ROCD, COCD, HOCD as shorthand for the kind of obsessions and compulsions they have.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, so here’s a quick crash course about OCD for the uninitiated:
OCD is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It’s an anxiety disorder that they estimate affects 1 in 50 people. Apparently the World Health Organisation ranked it in its top 10 debilitating illnesses … and you just know from the wording of that statement that it must’ve come in at number 10 – ha ha ha 😉
Obsessions just means the themes that an individual’s OCD focuses on. These are things like contamination, relationships, sexuality, harm, religion, … honestly it could be just about anything, but those are some of the common tropes.
An episode of OCD happens when a sufferer has a disturbing thought regarding one of their obsessions. This could be the result of a chance encounter with something real related to that obsession(i.e. battery acid, a pair of scissors, gay porn) or a thought that just randomly popped into their head out of nowhere.
These initiating thoughts are termed triggers. Triggers can be thought of as phobias – a fear of some dreaded thing coming true.
This immediately throws the sufferer into a heightened state of anxiety and they freeze up until they address it themselves or it dissipates of its own accord. This state is sometimes referred to as brain lock. The feeling of being stuck in this state and doing nothing about it is fairly unbearable. So sufferers are highly likely to develop some kind of contingency for trying to break out of it.
Compulsions are physical or mental routines a person devises over time to counteract the triggers and break out of the state of brain lock. In reality, carrying out the compulsion doesn’t really counteract the trigger in the way that the sufferer would like to believe that it does. Yet in the mind of the sufferer, it feels like the compulsion is a magic spell that must be carried out the right way to neutralise the trigger. See magical thinking for more on this.
As such, the sufferer would ideally like to stop the world and get off while they carry out their compulsion(s) in private with no interruptions. Whatever they were doing before that, this thought will trump the hell out of it and take top priority until they address it. Noise and interruptions sabotage carrying out the compulsion, and the sufferer is moved to abandon it and start all over again. This can lead to an awful lot of repetition. On a bad day, this can be extremely mentally exhausting. Moreover, the act of trying to perform the compulsion can itself spawn yet more triggers. Think The Sorcerers Apprentice with Devils and knives instead of mops and buckets.
There’s a particularly beguiling and malignant aspect to OCD. It feels like an ally to begin with as it gives you a welcome way out of unbearable situations. So you throw yourself at it with all your might. That’s where the trouble starts. Unbeknownst to you, the more you perform the compulsions, the more frequently and aggressively the triggers come back. Before you know it, you are horribly entangled in a seemingly inescapable web of terrifying triggers and complex compulsions. Then your life becomes a dark ballet of subterfuge, avoidance and treading water.
The classic form of OCD that most people are accustomed to thanks to Hollywood, involves physical compulsions like cleaning, checking, symmetrical matching, repeating. But it later transpired that there was another kind of OCD where there weren’t any obvious physical compulsions, but instead they were all carried out in the person’s head. This was given the name Pure O. Instead of carrying out a physical compulsion, the Pure O sufferer will develop some mental routine to counteract the bad thought. These often distill into mental mantras – like computer programs you devise to carry out a task, then refine over time into their most expedient form. If you run it the right way, it turns the alarms off and you can get back to what you were doing, albeit slightly more mentally exhausted than before.
As a footnote to that, it has since transpired that Pure O does have certain physical spillovers, so it’s a bit of a misnomer.
My first recollection of Pure O was when I was 12 years old when I was terrified of reading out loud in English classes. My English teacher spotted this and promptly made me read out in class all the time. Bitch! I unwittingly started developing mantras to try and prepare myself for it because the anxiety was just too much to bear. Unfortunately in my case, I didn’t discover I had OCD until 29 years later. No-one knew what OCD was in England back then, let alone Pure O. I did go to the doctor back in 1997 when I’d come to the end of my tether with it. It was interfering with my work and my life and I decided I was going to get to the bottom of it once and for all. Ha – I had more faith in medicine back then. I went to the quack with a thorough list of troublesome symptoms. With all the rigorous scientific process of line dancing, he quickly told me I had clinical depression and gave me a wheelbarrow of potent anti-depressants to suck on. I would intermittently go back to him explaining these things weren’t making a dent in the thing I originally went to see him about. So he’d increase the dose and/or change the brand. this went on for some years. He even referred me to a psychologist at one point and he lazily backed up the quack’s crappy diagnosis. Sick and tired of being used as a drug guinea pig for Glaxo Smithline, I abandoned hope and decided to go it alone.
Very … bad … idea …
Approximately 10 years of living hell ensued whereby I had to gradually retreat into myself to limit the damage. Somehow I managed to hold onto my job for most of that time though honestly I don’t know how. I think I just systematically cut everything else out of my life, numbed my mind with as much alcohol and cigarettes as I could get away with and tried to bail out the boat best I could every evening/weekend. Obviously that comes at a shocking personal and physical cost though.
Eventually the company surrendered and I was made redundant. When things started properly unravelling I went to Peru and tried a shamanic “plant medicine” called ayahuasca as a last-ditch hope. I don’t know if I ever really believed it would work but it was all I had left so I tried. Funny story – turns out ayahuasca and my Pure O didn’t play so well together. I was fairly convinced I was actually in hell at one point and it seemed to go on forever. Oh my, that was an embarrassing evening. Locked in a toilet and trapped inside an imaginary world of terrifying locks and loops, not really aware who I was any more, and without my usual go-to compulsions. I started vocalising all of my thoughts as and when they came up. I can still remember the laughter from the ceremonial hut next door. I don’t blame them either – I was being really loud and making an absolute jackass of myself.
So that was money well spent.
Then, a month after I came back from Peru, during one of my habitual internet safaris to hunt for what the hell was wrong with me, I stumbled on a Youtube video some kindly Pure O sufferer had made.
It was the strangest sensation – bells started going off one after another as I realised that this thing they were describing was the mystery thing I’d been living with undiagnosed all my adult life. I had gradually come to the conclusion I must be a one-off, a freak, a weirdly damaged person. Possibly cursed for sins in a former life. It was surreal finding out it had a name and other people had it too. I don’t think I even felt particularly uplifted; just numb, incredulous, and not sure how I was supposed to feel about it. Almost like it was too late now anyway. Not very Hollywood I’m afraid.
One particularly vexating aspect of this was that I’d looked up OCD more than once on my travels but always came up against some generic definition which covered physical compulsions but no mental ones. Moreover there were a couple of moments in the film The Aviator which echoed my problem. I even remember googling Howard Hughes to find out what was wrong with him in case we had the same problem. I don’t know what year that was but they didn’t say he had OCD at all, and whatever they did say he had didn’t match what I had. So I dismissed it. Well I later found out that he did indeed have suspected OCD. Just as an added little kick in the nuts, when I was a kid, my brother used to call me Howard Hughes for fun because I washed my hands far too much. Ouch.
After this revelation, needless to say I got straight on the phone to the quack to book an appointment and find out what help was available to people with OCD. I was in the driving seat this time.
The rest is probably best saved for another blog post … that’s right , the government took me to a secret mountain facility and turned me into a super soldier with amazing powers – I can kill with a thought now (sorry).
Since absolutely no-one’s reading my blog, I felt it was important to share my story with you all.
Saaaayyyyy – no happy ending?
Who the fuck am I – Beatrix Potter?
In the meantime, here’s a song that kinda reminds me of Pure O and nicely ties in with that ridiculous crap I just said: