Lancashire woman's Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder was a mystery illness
I had graduated with an English degree, landed a job at my local newspaper and moved in with my boyfriend of around four years.
With no mortgage, studies or children to worry about, I should have been having the time of my life.
Instead, I spent my early to mid-twenties trying to prove if I’d committed a series of crimes.
Of course, those crimes had never happened. They were imaginary. But still, my brain wouldn’t believe it.
That’s because I have an illness called Obsessive Compulsive (or Anankastic) Personality Disorder (OCPD).
It means there are parts of my personality which cause me great distress and prevent me from functioning in life as I should.
Among my symptoms, I suffer from chronic doubt, worry, and obsessional thoughts, and I have an unhealthy desire for perfection. Underlying it all are feelings of shame and unworthiness.
My battle with mental health began when I was just 13 years old. I’d always been a shy kid, but adolescence has a way of stripping back a child’s confidence, and I’d sit on the sidelines in silence while everyone else joked and chatted away.
I wanted to speak up, but I was too afraid to say or do the wrong thing. My world was silent and I lived inside my head.
I’ve always been a dreamer, with an ambition of telling stories which bring light and colour to a dark world. But when I thought of myself, I’d imagine a blank canvas: someone unnoticeable.
I imagine it’s why, at around the age of 14, I developed an obsession with my weight and teeth. After all, TV and magazines were preaching the ideals of beauty - and to an insecure and inexperienced teenager, beautiful people seemed to be happy. And so began several years of skipping meals, exercising excessively and counting every calorie, all to hit that six stone mark. It was exhausting.
Teachers told me I was a bright kid, but as someone struggling with depression and anxiety, academic praise hit me like a drug.
While peers were out with friends or going on first dates, I was hidden away in my room with my head in a book, desperate to achieve high GCSEs. I left school with seven A*s, three As and not a dot of self-confidence.
That’s why it breaks my heart to think of teenagers feeling upset about their results. Because here’s a lesson: grades are nowhere near as important as the ability to form and maintain healthy relationships when it comes to success.
Trying to be perfect is like wearing a broken piece of armour. It does little to protect you. Like many people, I’ve always believed I wasn’t good enough - perfection offered an escape from the whips and blows of rejection.
But of course that armour is full of holes - because perfect isn’t real.
When I finished my studies, I ran out of fuel. It was as if I’d been holding myself together in a corset; and when I finally took it off to breathe, everything fell apart.
Working at a newspaper, my world was saturated with news. I’d read a crime story and take on the subject’s shame, reinterpreting my own innocent memories and looking for evidence of guilt.
It did not matter how many times my boyfriend reassured me I had not - and never could - commit such atrocious acts. I thought I deserved to die.
One of the things which saved my life was an article in The Guardian by a woman in her twenties called Rose Bretécher, who wrote about her battle with a little known strand of OCD.
Her experiences - and honesty - resonated with me. It’s why I’m passionate about the power of stories to help people by shedding light on someone else’s struggles. Rose’s article had given me both hope and courage to go back to my GP and seek treatment for what I thought could be OCD.
I’d been in and out of therapy since I was around 14-years-old and received some fantastic support from the local mental health team but had yet to find a label for my illness. We have kind and caring medical professionals in the area, to whom I’m eternally grateful, but unfortunately there is little awareness of personality disorders in local mental health teams, which means I was receiving treatment for anxiety and depression but not my other symptoms.
Over the next few years, my obsessions shape-shifted - health, relationships and morality etc - but when a terrifying one from my past reoccurred, I became suicidal and my therapist advised me to go to the hospital.
I was picked up by the NHS’ crisis team and assessed by a psychiatrist, Dr Faheem Naqvi, who diagnosed me, not with OCD, but with OCPD, and offered me around 10 weeks of life-changing therapy. It was the first time I felt truly understood. It was such a relief.
Today, I am much better equipped to deal with my symptoms, and I’ve learnt to recognise when an obsession is developing and seek help straight away.
I’ve also started to see that old image of myself as a blank canvas as a positive. Not having that solid sense of identity means I can play, experiment and create brand new shades of colour while still allowing room for other people to shine.
At times, I feel frustrated and lonely, as there isn’t much information out there about OCPD, and I don’t know anyone else who has it, even online. I hope in the future we’ll be able to recognise the signs much earlier, so that appropriate help can be provided before crisis point.
My illness has taken me to hell and back. But it’s nice to think I can share my story and potentially offer a voice of hope and comfort to someone whose world has been silenced by shame and fear.
For more information about personality disorders and other mental health conditions, visit www.mind.org.uk or www.rcpsych.ac.uk