TW: References to self-harm and discussion of mental illness
Josie Endacott discusses her experience as one of the eight per cent of the world’s population that lives with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
Why is it that literary figures always use fruit to describe their mental illnesses? For Sylvia Plath it was a fig and for T. S. Eliot it was a peach. Why do they never use vegetables? Asparagus screams anxiety to me more than any peach ever could. Personally, I would use an apple – an apple so round, so perfectly green and blemish-free. Then once you cut into it, it’d be nothing but brown, foul-textured mush.
I’m lucky, to some degree, that my mental illness allows me to pass through life with reasonable ease. I am one of the eight per cent of the world’s population that lives with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD). My diagnosis also marks me as highly likely to have a high IQ and be considered a genius – Stephen Hawking eat your heart out. Luckily I’ve also managed to be born at such a time that OCPD is no longer referred to as ‘anal-retentive disorder’. One should always be grateful not to be born into a time when mental health treatment is controlled completely by a deranged Austrian by the name of Sigmund Freud.
Unfortunately that is where my luck ends. Many would think that having an obsessive disorder would cause me to spend hours ordering bookshelves, repetitively washing my hands or having counting rituals. I actually spend my days listening to a voice inside my head, a voice so condescending, demanding and aggressive, that it sees my attempts at anything from writing a lab report to how I conducted myself in a conversation with a bus driver as mediocre at best.
My mind is like a warzone. Inside, my brain is a democracy fighting a tyrannical dictator. On good days democracy wins, the tyrannical dictator is not issuing orders or printing propaganda, and I go about my day without a problem. Other days I wake up to the screams of war; I am under attack by the tyrannical part of my own brain. All I see is a sort of ticker tape going around my head saying ‘not good enough’ or ‘not worthy’. It’s as if I have been bombed bombarded from above with posters emblazoned with all of my past failures whilst the demonic dictator spouts horrible thoughts like rounds of a machine gun.
When Beyoncé sang “perfection is a disease of a nation”, she was singing about my disease. I will never be able to admit to how many hours I will spend on this article in an attempt to make it perfect. I also can’t tell you how long I spend making sure my clothes are hanging up in my wardrobe. I can’t tell you how I will pick at every pimple on my face. How can I be perfect with a small bump to the left of my forehead? How will anyone love me when I’m not perfect? How can I get through life if I’m not perfect?
Whilst others may be able to brush off silly mistakes such as accidentally replying “you too” when a waiter or waitress tells you to enjoy your meal, I will still be reeling from it three days later. I will be punishing myself internally and sometimes physically. I will pick at my skin until it bleeds, or I will stop eating or sleeping.
The awful thing is that I know I’m being irrational. I know there is no sense to how I am behaving – but all the reason in the world won’t stop my obsessions. But isn’t that one of the unsettling things about having a personality disorder? I know that I can’t trust some of my thoughts. I know that some of my thoughts are not the real me but instead belong to this dictating monster. But sometimes spotting which thoughts are the bad ones is hard; they lurk hidden in plain sight. It’s like being in the shittest John le Carré novel – and there’s no Tom Hiddleston in this adaptation either.
Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder also comes with the added bonus of a high co-morbidity rate with both anxiety and depression. It is a sort of ‘buy-one-get-one-free’ offer on mental health disorders. And to add insult to misery, there is a whole sector of society that is capitalising on my obsession with perfection. An evening spent watching TV with my family is punctuated with adverts for various cosmetics, hair dyes, moisturisers, electronic gadgets, and more, which all promise to make me a better version of myself. Using the basic logic that my brain is ever so fond of means that not having these products makes me a lesser human.
The hunt for perfection is never ending and is much like searching for the Loch Ness monster; I’m not really sure if it exists and I undoubtedly shouldn’t be spending the amount of time or money that I am trying to achieve it. The horrid thing is that my mental illness tells me I shan’t be happy until I am perfect. It tells me I shan’t find true love until I have the body of an airbrushed Vogue covergirl. It tells me I shan’t get my dream career unless I spend 18 hours a day working and get at least 98% on every test.
When one spends the majority of their day attempting to silence the bombarding thoughts of inadequacy, living starts to become a labour of love. I have to convince myself that I am worthy. I have to learn to accept my humanity. I have to learn to accept my flaws. I have to believe that my future will be full of love and happiness. I have to believe that I will find my niché in the world and a career I shall enjoy. I have to attempt to achieve a peace treaty between the warring factions inside my head. I have to stop my search for my Loch Ness monster.
But ultimately I have to accept that I am not perfect and that not being perfect is okay. Chasing perfection is a fool’s game.
Illustration by Poppy Elizabeth Boys-Stones
This piece is part of our series of Mental Health Week articles. For more information about student counselling and mental health support at the University of Bristol, please visit: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/students-health/services/mental-health/