Nearly 70 overdoses and a stomach full of charcoal: one young woman shares her 18-month experience of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Illustration: Jes Hunt
I don’t really know how it started. It just kind of happened one day. Thoughts about overdosing had been in my head for a long time, and I don’t know why on that one day I finally did it. But after that first time, I had to do it again and again and again. Suddenly it started happening nearly every week. At its worst it’s been every day.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read the Animorphs books by KA Applegate. If you have you’ll know the Yeerks – slugs that go into your brain and control you – that’s how I’ve described the OCD, because it feels like something very separate from myself. When the Yeerks go into your brain you still have your own thoughts and your own feelings, but you can’t do anything because you’re being controlled by this horrible alien slug-puppeteer. It’s not what I want to be happening – I hate it every time. But it feels like something that is completely beyond my own control, even though it’s my own hands that are doing it.
There have been lots of times where I’ve taken an overdose outside A&E. I can’t necessarily control the fact that I’ve got to take an overdose. But I can control where, and so the safest thing is to do it near where I can get help as soon as possible. So sometimes that means being outside A&E, and taking a bunch of tablets and going straight in.
I did try once going to A&E without having taken it, but there wasn’t anything they could do, so they just sort of sent me away and said, “Do you want your tablets back?”
Sometimes if I get seen within an hour of having taken the overdose, and I’ve taken a certain amount, I get given this thing called activated charcoal. It’s a liquid with charcoal in it, which you have to drink, and it takes toxins away so they pass through your system rather than being absorbed by your body. It is horrible. I would liken it to drinking paint. It is one of the most unpleasant sensory experiences, you’re likely to get covered in it while trying to drink it because it is so disgusting. You end up throwing bits of it back up, and spitting it out, and every fibre of you is screaming, ‘This is not a substance that is meant to be ingested!’ And then you shit it for a week.
‘Why don’t you just go travelling?’
Most of the time the nurses are really great, they’re not judgemental. But sometimes I have a random thing said to me like,”You’re young you shouldn’t be doing this, why don’t you just go travelling?” I mean, sure, if I could just swap necking loads of tablets for jumping on a plane somewhere then I would, but that’s not a possible exchange. I can have the busiest schedule, but I still have to do it. It’s not something I’m doing because I’m bored or because what I really want to do is swan around India.
I’ve been in the women’s crisis house twice in the past year. While I was there I taught people how to tie-dye. Everyone really enjoyed it, and it made me feel like I could contribute something. You can only stay for a month, but you do get to know people. It’s like you’re all in it together, and it’s a really supportive environment.
“The therapist I was seeing when it started happening stopped the sessions after I’d taken the first overdose, because she said she didn’t know how to help me”
Letting people in
It can take a while for people to get their head around what’s going on with me. It makes people scared, and they don’t know how to respond. Sometimes I’ve felt very, very on my own, and quite often feel guilty for taking other people through it with me. My family and friends have been really supportive though.
Coping and survival
I find art really helpful, though I haven’t been able to do so much of that recently because I’ve been on some medication that’s completely dampened any kind of creativity. That’s incredibly frustrating because drawing, collaging and painting have always been a coping strategy for me. Being around other people has helped me try to start to ride out the compulsions. So saying, “OK, I’ve got to take this overdose, but I’m just not gonna take it right now.” It goes a little way towards trying to make the gaps between the overdoses longer.
I remember when it started happening there just wasn’t any help. In fact, the therapist that I was seeing at the time stopped the sessions after I’d taken the first overdose because she said she didn’t know how to help me.
It was only after months and months of overdosing that I was picked up by the recovery team. In the past I’ve felt completely on my own with it, even though on paper it looks like I had support. I do now, but that’s only after nearly 70 overdoses and a stay in hospital. I’ve started some art therapy, and I’ve got a community psychiatric nurse (CPN) and a recovery navigator I see on alternate weeks.
I’m trying to get the overdoses down to every three weeks; I haven’t quite managed it yet. So at the moment it’s about every couple of weeks, but back in February it was happening every day, so it’s definitely an improvement.
“Some people do what may seem like bizarre, repetitive things, but they feel if they don’t do them something bad will happen to someone they love”
Misconceptions and stereotypes
OCD. It’s acceptable to use it as a label for anything, usually meaning a bit of a neat freak. “Oooh, these things weren’t lined up neatly, it’s setting off my OCD,” or, “I just washed my hands twice, I’m so OCD.” That’s not what it’s like to live with.
Actually people have obsessions and compulsions over so many different things. Yes lots of people do wash their hands a lot – and often end up with bleeding hands, because they have to do it again and again. It can also be about rituals you have to go through because you think that something terrible’s going to happen. Some people do what may seem like bizarre, repetitive things, but they feel if they don’t do them something bad will happen to someone they love. A lot of the struggle isn’t just the actions itself. They’re the tip of the iceberg – everyone can see them but they’re the product of the battle that goes on in your head.
Just think about the words you’re using, because OCD is an incredibly difficult illness to live with, and it trivialises people’s suffering and struggle to use the term in such a dismissive way.
I am someone who is going through a really difficult thing, but I am not the difficult thing. I want to be able to share my experience to inform and educate other people, but also not be defined by it. I do a lot of art things, I’m really interested in languages, I love my sister, and my parents, I like working with children, I’ve done lots of plays and musicals. I did a youth production back in April for Stepping Out Theatre, which works with mental health service users. It was a devised piece about the future, and we had robots that were called iFriends. I really enjoyed doing that.
I don’t want to just become the OCD, and be nothing else. That’s not what defines who I am.