I find myself for the first time in my life in perfect sympathy with a Tory. Disconcerting. In my defense, this sudden influx of common feeling has nothing to do with any matter of policy.
It’s at a personal level that I feel for Charles Walker MP, after his recent parliamentary speech about his obsessive-compulsive disorder. In bad periods, he (as a self-proclaimed “fruitcake”) has to wash his hands hundreds of times a day and becomes tormented by the idea that if he doesn’t do something – put an item back in a certain way, or say a certain phrase a certain number of times – then something terrible will happen to him or his family. He described it as being like “a hundred little blackmails a day” and I thought “Bang on, Chucky Egg. Bang on.”
My OCD came on when I was six and accidentally drank some weedkiller. My mother rushed me to the sink and my dad made me swallow salt water so that I was sick. It was dramatic and frightening but better, of course, than dying. From then on, I became obsessed with germs. Germs that wanted to do me a deep, personal and quite possibly fatal wrong. They were everywhere, but especially in crowds, on things in shops and on carpets. I refused to go barefoot anywhere, even at home. I edged round shops with my arms pressed fiercely against my sides, like a miniature hyperventilating guardsman. Any strange speck or mark in or on anything – especially food – could be toxic and was spurned by my ever-alert infant self.
Soon I began something which I now know is common in OCD sufferers, “catastrophising” – that is, instantly envisaging the worst possible outcome to any given situation, no matter how innocuous. I became consumed with anxiety about how I was going to run home in under four minutes if (or rather, when) nuclear war was declared while I was at school. My mother solved that one by assuring me that my understanding of modern warfare was flawed. There would be a build-up to war and as soon as any bellicose mutterings began she absolutely promised to keep my sister and me home so that we would all die together. It’s a good job the Bay of Pigs wasn’t on any primary school curriculum in Eighties Catford, otherwise that might not have worked as quite the charm it did.
But there was no shortcut for all my other worries. Every evening I would crouch in mortal terror on the pillow while my mother embarked on the checking under the bed (for fluff – germ havens), the checking within the bed (for snakes), while she delivered the hundreds of reassurances I required that none of us was going to die of cancer in the night. Then the having to get out of bed (slippers ON) to check between every single thing hanging in two wardrobes to make sure there were no (very thin) bad men hiding between the clothes. I knew there could be no-one in there but I couldn’t stop, so I would sob apologies while my mother kept repeating that it didn’t matter, staying with me until I fell asleep from sheer exhaustion.
But I’m back to normal now. I go barefoot at home these days, and swing my arms nonchalantly in shops, unless there’s someone I really don’t like the look of going past. But I still can’t bear touching shoes and if I know someone’s touched or walked on something I consider particularly dirty (a pub carpet perhaps), I note all the places in my house he/she has touched since and can’t rest until they have been purified by an antiseptic wipe or, if small and insignificant enough, chucked out.
Normal is a relative concept. The point is, Charles Walker did well to speak out. I wish I – or at least my poor parents – had known more about what was going on at the time. OCD wasn’t even a phrase then, let alone a wellknown one. Perhaps I – or they – could have been given some help if so, and I would have wasted less of my life washing my hands, holding my breath when passing people breathing snottily or plotting ‘safe’ routes from A to B.
I think everyone has a degree of OCD. I think that is indeed almost normal, and probably accepted as simply part of the magic that makes you you. But if it begins to intrude on your life, to curtail your activities, to make you miserable, frightened and stressed, know this: there are hundreds of thousands like you and there is help out there. Google it, go to ocduk.org or ocdaction.org.uk, go to your GP and find what works for you. Good luck, fellow fruitcakes, good luck.
By Lucy Mangan