It was a year since my mum died and I wasn’t coping. My bereavement counsellor asked me to write a letter to her, to talk to her as if she was around. I’m not the overly religious type, but I wrote that I hoped she was at peace and asked that, wherever she was, she looked out for us. I found myself writing in search of direction. What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Who am I going to be? Help me do the right thing.
And then a thought: “What if I become a paedophile?”
Where did that come from?
This wasn’t me. It isn’t me. My stomach knotted instantly and I broke into a cold sweat. Does this mean something? I almost laughed – but it wasn’t funny. I’m not a paedophile. Don’t be daft. Come on. This is sick. Of course you’re not. I jumped out of bed, jumped on the spot a few times to shake off the slow waves in my mind and physical feeling of disgust.
The next day, I had managed to forget about the thought. I didn’t tell my counsellor because I was terrified he wouldn’t believe me, and he’d assume I really was a paedophile. It was just a weird unshakable thought, right?
Estimates vary, but the average person has between 50,000 and 70,000 thoughts a day. Many of these are little explosions in our minds, catching us off guard. Thoughts that are out of character, unusual, maybe even a little disturbing. Our minds are complex beasts and we’re not good at controlling them.
Here’s a familiar test: for the next minute you’re not allowed to think of a big pink elephant, no matter what.
Go . . .
It's in control of you – or at least that's how it can feel
Wasn’t easy, was it? And that’s what obsessive-compulsive disorder intrusive thoughts can be like. When your mind fixates on a thought or a particular idea and just won’t stop going over it. It’s beyond your control. It’s in control of you – or at least that’s how it can feel.
Four months on from the thought, life had picked up and I thought I had moved on. I was in Canada and was dating someone new. It was winter, the snow was falling, the heat was on, and I had the house to myself.
“Paedophile”. The word jumped into my head. The waves, the nausea, the rolling feeling of unease: it all came flooding back. What? No, not this again. It means nothing, you’re happy here.
“Children”. What if I harm children? Do I want to harm children? What if I have sex with a child? The thoughts fired successively. Like trying not to think of the big pink elephant, I had to try a million times harder not to think of the image of sex with a child.
Trembling and shaking
My mind wouldn’t give me a minute of peace and, for weeks, I was trembling and shaking with fear. I was on high alert, paying attention to every single thought. I had to check each and every one and make sure that it was okay, that it didn’t mean I would become a paedophile or child molester. Well, I’m neither of these, and I never have been, so this probably won’t happen. I felt relieved for about 20 minutes.
But intrusive thoughts won’t be silenced; they’ll kick all the doors right in if they have to. “I’m a paedophile now because I looked at that child walking past me on the street. Did I look at her for too long?”
I didn't deserve food so I stopped eating
I knew the logic didn’t stack up. I knew who I was, where I was and what year it was, but I couldn’t snap out of it. A thought or an image would flash into my mind, and I’d scan my body, checking to see if it aroused me. It didn’t, but I’d feel both relieved that I wasn’t aroused and anxious that I’d had to check in the first place.
What kind of monster was I?
I didn’t deserve food so I stopped eating. I lost weight. I hated myself. I couldn’t tell my boyfriend. I was in a new country without friends or family, and I couldn’t go to prison in a foreign country. And then I started projecting – imagining being murdered in a dank cell. I had a panic attack in the shower and hoped I would die.
One day, I thought of how I could die but, at the train station, I remembered my mum’s advice about suicide: “It’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Finally, I started to reach out. I told a friend over Skype that I wasn’t thinking clearly, but I didn’t give her the full picture. I managed to tell my sister. Then the thoughts kept me awake for four days.
Dad saved me. He rang my doctor and demanded I be seen immediately. It was a slow healing process. I told the same bereavement counsellor some of what I was going through, but I was too ashamed to give the full story. As a gay man, I feared people would assume I was a danger around children.
It took two years, four doctors and four separate therapists before I accepted that I had OCD intrusive thoughts. They call OCD “the doubting disease” and I understand why. I was asked embarrassing questions from doctors about my sexuality and what I was like around children. I knew why they had to, but I was so afraid I wouldn’t be believed. My family, friends and boyfriend gave me support and I gradually told them.
An entire spectrum of violent acts filled my mind
I had other thoughts besides harming children. An entire spectrum of violent acts filled my mind: stabbing pregnant women, pushing old men off their bicycles, having sex with animals and then killing the animal, rape. My mind seemed to be turning on me and I had lost control of it.
I had a year of exhaustive self -reassurance, mantras, positive thinking, self-affirming, rational, counter-balancing techniques. Until one day I put my mental hands up and let my mind do its worst. I noticed the frequency of the thoughts dropped but not the severity of them.
Eighteen months of antidepressants didn’t erase these thoughts. I’ve now been through cognitive behavioural therapy. I use a technique in which I observe my mind, becoming the watcher. When I have a troubling thought, I acknowledge its presence and let it pass without judging or labelling myself. It felt uncomfortable and unnatural at first but after a while the dread and anxiety would lessen.
It’s now been seven years since I developed OCD, and I’ve accepted that I will have intrusive thoughts for the rest of my life. When I stopped fighting the thoughts, giving up and accepting them, a feeling of freedom came.
Right now in the world, there’s a father who fears he will lose control of himself, willingly swerving the car off the road and killing his daughter. There’s a teenager afraid he will become a sex offender because of a random thought. Or a mother with thoughts of harming her beloved newborn. I’ve met these people and none of us should be feared, suspected, ridiculed or bullied. Therapists and doctors know that sufferers are less likely to act on their thoughts because of the distress caused by the thoughts themselves.
Today, I still get the thoughts but I pay them less attention. I feel sad that I’ll never be quite as I was before. But with support from loved ones, doctors and most importantly, myself, I’ve learned I can get past this.
- In conversation with Peter McGuire