OCD has plagued me for most of my life – can I ever escape it?

I am a 76-year-old married man and have had intense and ongoing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since the age of 13.

My father was killed in the second world war, just after I was conceived. When I was six, my mother remarried; the marriage soon became unhappy and tense. My mother was a strict disciplinarian and hit me frequently when she felt I had been naughty or cheeky. She often told me off; I don’t recall her showing me much affection or praising me.

When I was 13, the rows between my mother and stepfather became more frequent and violent. One night, she attacked him with a hammer and broke two ribs. My maternal grandmother and I pleaded with her to desist. I feared she might kill him and be hanged. My grandmother, stepfather and mother all died by the time I was 35.

As a child, I had a rich fantasy life, full of reading and history. From around that time, however, I began to suffer from various nervous tics. I prayed a lot and developed recitations to still the fear and anxiety I felt. I have tried to conquer the OCD using yoga, meditation, research and simple willpower, but it is so strong. I eradicated it briefly for a year when I retired. But after that, the pressures built up again and I began to repeat the stock reassuring phrases I had invented, and to give in to the absurd tics.

The OCD pressure is worse when I am with people. I do not want to discuss it with my wife – I don’t want to worry or burden her – and don’t see how she could help. I have considered professional help, although Covid has made me reluctant. I don’t know how many years I have left, but it would still be wonderful to escape from this daily, almost lifelong affliction.

I’m so sorry for all you have been through and all you still have to deal with. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is, as you say, “so strong” that it’s not surprising you haven’t been able to conquer it on your own. I’m sure you have read that it can be a way to deal with anxiety and intrusive, distressing thoughts, and the compulsions (in your case, repeating phrases and tics) give momentary relief. But then it returns as intense as ever.

I consulted Dr Lynne Drummond, who is a consultant psychiatrist and an expert on OCD. She is the author of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: All You Want To Know About OCD For People Living With OCD, Carers And Clinicians (Cambridge University Press); her new book, Everything You Need To Know About OCD, including a self-help section, will be published in 2022.

“People make jokes about OCD, but for those who have it, it is a real struggle,” Drummond said. “It’s not something to be dismissed or something you can snap out of.” She explained that we all have “intrusive impulses or thoughts. But the difference in people with OCD is that it’s constant, intrusive and they feel a need to bring their anxiety down. And what to do to bring it down is a compulsion.”

Your letter didn’t say whether you had seen your GP and, while I’m aware there are waiting lists and things aren’t easy at the moment, please, as soon as you are ready, ask to be referred to an OCD specialist. Show the GP your letter to me if you have to. Drummond explained that as well as a psychological treatment, your doctor may also discuss a pharmaceutical approach (SSRIs) to give you some respite. Of course, this approach is personal, and will differ for every patient.

The therapeutic treatment for OCD is ERP: exposure response prevention. It involves exposing someone to something that causes them distress, then helping to manage their resulting compulsions. This is best done with a therapist, especially to begin with. The key is consistency, and it’s important not to think recovery will be linear. You can also download parts of Drummond’s book free; chapter 10, “What can the person with OCD do to help themselves?” gives you things to work on immediately.

Be hopeful that this is treatable. In the meantime, I want to leave you with this from Drummond: “With OCD, we’re asking the patient to face up to their worst fears, to be phenomenally brave. This means they are heroes.”