Growing Up With Intrusive Thoughts

In my old garden, there was a wall separating the grass from the patio. The slabs of stone that topped the wall were the colour of pale salmon and were about a foot wide. I remember walking along them on one day in the last week before the summer holidays whilst in primary school because my head was sore and burning. I had had an intrusive thought and the upset of it made me feel ill. It took around seven years for me to tell anyone what the intrusive thought was. I felt so evil for it, even though I never did it nor had any intention of doing it. The intrusive thought lived in my brain and changed slightly over those years. I’d go through months in the later years unbothered by it only to suddenly get affected by it.

It was only when I was in my mid-teens that I told my new phycologist about it. I couldn’t say it out loud, so I wrote it down, and told her to look at it in front of me so I could assure her to her face, I never would do that because the fear of being misunderstood was dominant in my head. To my surprise, she didn’t bat an eyelid, she completely understood that this was an intrusive thought that had caused for so long and I left that therapy lesson lighter than I’d entered. That specific intrusive thought comes back in various shapes and sizes but is nowhere near the headache-inducing struggle it once was. She was the only person I ever told it to because once she showed me she understood, it made me realise that it was truly only a thought. It was a random collage of words that played out in my brain and meant nothing. I wasn’t evil nor was I different from anyone else. Everyone has strange, dodgy or bad thoughts but nobody obsesses over them like people with OCD*.

The worst intrusive thoughts – such as the one mentioned above – the ones that make me feel evil and tormented me, only occur a handful of times every few years post-sharing them with my phycologist. On the rare occasion they occur, it’s usually when I’m overtired and vulnerable. Until I got older, intrusive thoughts were one of the worst symptoms of my OCD. It’s strange punishing yourself for thoughts that you haven’t acted on, nor had any intention of acting on, but for the most part the extreme intrusive thoughts are dormant for me.

Happy and special moments were tarnished by intrusive thoughts when I was younger. When I was nine my parents welcomed my baby brother into the world. When Mum and baby came home, mother let me hold my little brother and a random thought came into my mind. Suddenly my brain said the words “I should drop him.” Of course, I love my little brother and had no intention of ever dropping him, but that intrusive thought disturbed me so much that I gave my brother back to my mother and then preceded to have a headache. I can remember feeling so guilty for thinking it. Even though I was never considering it and it was just my imagination, I felt like the evilest person alive. The more I tried to get it out of my mind the more I thought about it. “Don’t think of purple elephants” the zip line instructor from the primary seven school trip had said when telling us to not think about the height. My autistic self replied “why not?” which resulted in said instructor face-palming.

To explain how distressing intrusive thoughts can be, here is an example of one I had when I was in primary school: I was around eight years old and having a bath with my Disney Barbie dolls.

I cannot recall the exact storyline, concerning the adventure of my half-chewed Ariel dolly with the sparkly plastic tail, but from recollection and artistic license here is the gist of it. Ariel had to find something that was vital in keeping the kingdom safe from Ursula’s evil brother. An evil brother who had risen to avenge both his sisters’ deaths by destroying Atlantica and Ariel and Eric. However the brother of Ursula set a trap – (the net the rubber ducks came in) – for The Little Mermaid and took her back to his evil lair in the hopes of luring Prince Eric.

Whilst I was splashing around in the bathtub with the dolls – I suddenly recalled something I’d seen on BBC News that evening. Tragically, a woman had been abducted and killed somewhere in the UK. I remember hesitating for a minute and then grabbing the towel and heading straight for the living room to get my hair dried by my mum. As I waited for my mum to finish drying my sister’s hair I sat on the leather chair and that familiar hurt in my head returned.

My OCD had done it again. Once I’d recalled that horrible story from the news a thought crossed my mind which became all I could think about.

“You were playing the character of Ursula’s brother in the bathtub and he kidnapped Ariel. You are just like the man who abducted and killed that poor lady on the news.”

Intrusive Thought, aged 8.

I can still remember being in the living room and feeling so bad and guilty. I didn’t tell my parents or extended family. I was too ashamed and scared.

I write this looking at my now ten-year-old baby brother. He is at least two years older than I was when I felt, this unbelievable guilt and shame over a simple thought playing with my dolls. Thinking of him being in that kind of turmoil is horrific, and yet, I still cannot give my young self the same sympathy, even retrospectively.

Whilst ruminating over past difficulties should be avoided, acknowledging that I shouldn’t have felt that way is important. It’s important to look at that situation with the dolls and comprehend how illogical and sad it was – because that means I’m not stagnant. What it means is that I’m evolving into someone whose OCD controls her less and less.

These days on the rare occasion I have an intrusive thought it is more of an obsession over the words my brain thought than the severe feelings of world-ending pain I suffered as a child.

I’m very grateful that as I’ve gotten older and more logical, intrusive thoughts have become much rarer and their severity is much less. I may not get the same volume of extreme intrusive thoughts, but I still get them in my own way. If I see something and think of a response out of instinct, once I learn more facts I often feel terrible about making such a judgement in my head. I fear I’m the only one with that opinion and that makes me bad. I may never say these random first impressions or thoughts but I still thought them and for me when I’m overwhelmed and overtired that’s enough for me to worry and obsess over. Does this make me a bad person? Why did I think or do this?

Every day is like sailing a boat in the sea. Some days you make better progress to your destination than others. If the wind is strong you’ll have to sail against it. When I get an intrusive thought I batten up the hatches. I take refuge by actively doing something such as; going shopping, spending time with loved ones and enjoying favourite TV shows to help push the intrusive thoughts to the back of my mind. And if I’m lucky, the next time the intrusive thought comes back, I’ll be strong enough to not care.

{*+ other conditions.}