My Mental Health Story – Surviving Intrusive Thoughts

I’ve been contemplating writing this for the past year or so. The topic of mental health is all over social media. Instagram timelines are filled with ‘It’s okay not to be okay’ and ‘Talk to someone’ posts, yet more and more young people are taking their own lives every year. I’m seeing it happen to people I know and people I have grown up with.

So often, we’re told to reach out and speak about mental health/depression as if it were one narrow, homogeneous bubble, as if any form of depression can be easily cured by ‘speaking to someone’ about it. This puts extreme pressure on those who are scared to talk about what’s happening in their head, those who are ashamed of what’s happening in their head and those who haven’t a clue what’s happening in their head. 

Those who know me understand how much I hate talking about this and this is incredibly difficult for me to write (sorry I wasn’t able to put as many awful jokes into this piece as the other ones). For years I’ve hid my pain from a lot of people, but now it’s time to tell my story and hopefully, if anyone is struggling with something similar to what I went through, you can take comfort in the fact that I made it out. I’m writing this for the 19 year old me who didn’t know who to turn to, as well as for every young person fighting their own head. Please remind yourself – things will get better. They always do. 

The 19 Year Old Boy

Moving to university, he was like every other teenager – curious, excited and ready to blow his student loan on Buckfast. He had no previous mental health issues and often believed that anyone claiming to be depressed was in fact just *sad*. His time at school meant he didn’t believe in it. His time at school meant you weren’t allowed to have emotions. If you showed emotion, you were a target, plain and simple. Having turned 19, he started going to more and more festivals. As a university student in the UK/Ireland, drugs were everywhere. He thought he was indestructible and had little to no concern regarding the potential consequences of taking drugs.

He returned home from a 5 day festival at Creamfields and knew something wasn’t right. Although he had heard of ‘suicide Tuesdays’ (the depressive period typically occuring midweek after a weekend of taking drugs) he simply reassured himself that the festival comedown would be something that passed. It didn’t. His serotonin levels had been completely depleted and lead to a chemical imbalance in his brain, leading to intrusive thoughts – a form of OCD. This is the 10th most common cause for disability in the world with a 10%–27% attempted suicide rate, affecting approximately 2% of the population and coming with severe anxiety as well as an inability to function socially. No one knew that something was wrong.

He would go to work every morning at 4am, sleep-deprived, in an empty supermarket and fight his own thoughts until the shop was busy enough to become a distraction from his head. As the weeks and months passed, he reminded himself that he’d soon be back to his normal self. There’s no way this could last. “Things like this don’t happen to people like me, I’ll be fine”. He found a few articles online suggesting that his state of mind was temporary – after having ignored about 100 others claiming it was potentially a permanent condition. Needless to say, the thoughts never left. No-one knew that something was wrong.

During holiday periods at university, he would spend days alone in his cold university house, trapped away in his room. You could hear a pin drop, but in his head there was a never-ending battle, a constant tug of war that was slowly destroying him. Thoughts arrived in his head, thoughts that didn’t reflect who he was as a person, thoughts that he then start to believe as his own. The thing with OCD is that the more you try to get rid of these thoughts, the stronger they become. OCD linked to intrusive thoughts isn’t just like having ‘normal’ depression. How can you reach out for help if people may think you’re crazy when you tell them what’s going on in your head? The boy never reached out. The boy never asked for help. No-one knew that something was wrong.

Its extremely difficult to describe the pain this brought the teenager. No physical suffering he had ever experienced or ever would experience could compare to the mental torture he endured. He was tired all the time. His favourite part of the day was the 10 seconds after waking up, a bit dazed and oblivious to what’s happening around you. As soon as he regained his consciousness, he would be back to square one. The war in his head would restart, without warning. He would despair and try to get back to sleep as soon as possible. No-one knew that something was wrong.

Given his age, he had never heard of anything like this before and had no idea how many people suffered from it. Crucially, he didn’t know how to make it better. This affected his actions, his friendships, and relationships. He was lost. He would find respite in being in the company of others. He’d look for distractions. He’d read articles on his phone, play games all day long, in a futile attempt to try and escape his own reality. He would try to fight away the thoughts with compulsions. This would make him feel temporarily at ease, only for the thoughts to come back stronger and harsher 30 seconds later.

That 19 year old boy had no idea that what he was doing was in fact making it all worse. He bought anti-depression pills and 5-HTP, hiding them away so no one would know what he was going through. It’s easy to hide things with a smile. It’s easy to continue going out all the time trying to forget what’s happening. But as soon as he was alone, it was him vs his head. All day. Every day. For years. There was only ever going to be one winner. No-one knew that something was wrong.

In any given situation, his brain would imagine the worst possible thing that could happen. For example, if he saw someone standing at a train platform, his brain could imagine that person falling onto the tracks. These thoughts belonged to the illness, not himself. However, he started associating himself with these thoughts. He viewed himself as a horrible person for even having the capacity to process these thoughts. He knew he wasn’t a bad person. All he ever wanted to do was help people. Like any other teenager, he made mistakes. Unlike any other teenager, he wasn’t able to let them go. No-one knew that something was wrong.

Any time he caught himself smiling, he would tell himself he was not allowed to be happy. It would be another 3 years before he was able to sit down and smile without it being immediately withdrawn and replaced with sadness, emptiness and hopelessness. He’d spent his time in the library trying to focus on work, bringing with him a two litre flask of tea and filling up his friends’ cups. He liked doing this. This allowed him to escape. No-one knew that something was wrong.

During those 3 years, he would often talk about what happened that weekend at the festival. He’d talk about it with a smile on his face, downplaying the reality of what he was going through. He was crying out for help, but didn’t have the strength to admit it. Anyone he trusted to go into a bit more detail with, simply didn’t understand. He couldn’t blame them, how could anyone understand? He was the crazy one, after all. He was the one who couldn’t be saved. Yet still, no-one knew that something was wrong. 

Why don’t you just reach out? Talk to someone?

If you haven’t got it yet (God help you if you haven’t), the 19 year old boy mentioned is me – or rather, was me. One of the most frustrating things I see over and over again online is people stating that you should just ‘reach out’. “Have you ever thought about speaking to someone?” – This question used to infuriate me. It is not as simple as that. As a 19 year old boy, you don’t just ‘reach out’ for help. Why not? 

  • You’re a 19 year old boy. You’re taught from a young age to not show emotion or weakness.
  • You had no mental health education at school and insufficient mental health facilities at university.
  • You don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you. 
  • People would think you’re crazy if you told them what was happening in your head. 
  • It is far easier to reach out now than 4 years ago.

Guilt is one of the key emotions associated with intrusive thoughts. It’s important to note that everyone gets intrusive thoughts, it’s just that people without OCD are able to quickly understand the insignificance of these thoughts and let them go. People without OCD often don’t even realise they had the thought, as it is let go so quickly. You shouldn’t feel guilt, these are not your thoughts. ’12 Rules for Life’ is a fantastic book by Jordan Peterson in which he sums up our ability to believe in false realities. 

  • “The capacity of the human mind to deceive, manipulate, scheme, trick, falsify, minimise, mislea, betray, prevaricate, deny, omit, rationalise, bias, exaggerate, and obscure is so endless, so remarkable, that centuries of pre-scientific thought concentrating on clarifying the nature of moral endeavour, regarded it as positively demonic. This is not because of rationality itself, as a process. That process can produce clarity and progress. It is because rationality is subject to the single worst temptation – to raise what it knows now to the status of an absolute”

How to Get Rid of the Thoughts

First of all, don’t do what I did and wait for it to pass. You’re reading this now so you have a way out. The way I went about it was typical of any teenager – telling no one and Googling it. I discovered Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and in particular Exposure-Response Therapy (ERT). This teaches that in order to escape the thoughts, you have to accept them, no matter how hard this may be. You have to increase the associated anxiety before decreasing it. Once you accept the thoughts, you realise their insignificance and start to think rationally again. Because of a previous lack of research in this area, it’s very hard to find a doctor who understands how to treat this condition (therefore a diagnosis given by a doctor can in fact make it worse). If you do choose to go to someone, make sure they are aware of CBT in relation to OCD and intrusive thoughts – this is really, really important.

This is an example of how it works – Imagine you are moving house and you have found a lovely new apartment. Upon moving in you are awoken at night by the sound of a train passing (the train representing your intrusive thoughts). You’re now angry that there’s noise every night. Because you are angry, you will hear that train passing every single night. Now let’s say that before moving in, you’re already aware that there will be trains. You’ve accepted it. Because you’ve accepted it, you start to no longer hear the train (your thoughts will disappear). Guests will come round and mention the fact that the trains passing are loud, and you’ll reply ‘What train?’. 

This may sound strange but despite everything, I am so grateful that this happened to me. I was easily influenced as a teenager and didn’t care about people I hurt, often people I cared about. I often ignored the consequences of my choices. This pain allowed me to become more compassionate and understanding. My illness forced me to grow up very quickly and start taking responsibility for my own life and decisions. 

It took me years to get through this when it should have taken a few weeks (given the right help). To anyone reading this going through something similar, talk to me. At the end of this article I will leave a link that will help you a lot. I’m not going to sit and pretend that I don’t get these thoughts anymore – I do. The difference is that I now know how to react to them in order to render them insignificant. I have good days and bad days but ultimately, I know who I am and I know that I will always get through it.

To the 19 year old boy who despite everything got through it alone, I’m so fucking proud of you. You’ll beat it and move back to France. You’ll get a first class degree. You’ll become bilingual. You’ll meet someone who genuinely cares about your mental health. You’ll find a passion for reading and helping people. You’ll move to Australia and go snorkelling in the Pacific Ocean every weekend. You’ll catch yourself smiling on the train whilst listening to music, unrecognisable from the boy who thought he could never be happy again. You’ll start writing down your goals and achieve every single one of them (keep working on those handstands, bro). But most of all, you’ll be okay. 

To anyone else struggling, in any way, you are not alone. I urge everyone to read about this, as it’s highly likely that some of your friends are going through the same thing alone. It is so important to remember that it’s not always easy to reach out, especially for people suffering from intrusive thoughts. Be considerate in what you say to people and always put yourself in the other person’s shoes before you say anything. It’s okay not to be okay.  

Here’s a video on intrusive thoughts for those who are interested.

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