The third letter



















A temporary vegetarian 

My wife is a dietitian. Starting yesterday, she and the team of dietitians she leads are trying out some of the clinical and controlled diets that their patients experience. So, for a week, my wife has chosen to be a temporary vegetarian. 

Two of my daughters are already vegetarian; the other is a devout carnivore. But, for this week, the whole family is having a go at the vegetarian thing, in solidarity with my wife. 

We’re into our second day and it’s going OK so far. We bought a lot of vegetables and vegetarian food at the supermarket yesterday. We didn’t buy any fish or shellfish – we’re not doing the ‘pescetarian’ cop out, but we’re also not trying the full vegan thing either. I will struggle enough with just a vegetarian diet. 

One thing I insisted upon was trying some of the facsimile products, like Quorn ‘chicken’ nuggets. We will make some meals from scratch, but I wanted to try some of the foods which are considered as ‘cheating’ by some proper, permanent vegetarians. If one likes meat, but for whatever reason chooses to be vegetarian, then why not have some things which are meatlike in taste and texture?

We have been trying to have one or two meatfree evening meals a week, so we’ve already tried some products. I find the Quorn Mince an unconvincing texture, so we just use it to bulk out a smaller amount than normal of proper beef mince. This week, we’ll have only Quorn mince, so I’ve decided that chilli sin carne would be the best way to disguise it, with kidney beans, peppers & onions adding some bite and texture. 

As well as trying the food, I will also be attempting to cook some of the meals. Normally, I struggle with contamination OCD intrusive thoughts so much that it renders me incapable of handling raw meat products. The decontamination rituals make preparing a meal distressing, prolonged and impractical. So I’m seeing how I deal with veggie cookery. I will still have to face handling things like eggs, so there are some pretty big triggers remaining. It’s still going to be a challenge. I will do my best. 

I’m keen to try a couple of Indian and North African recipes. I’d like the experiment to be a balance between cooking from scratch and lazy convenience foods. 

My wife will be taking professional nutritional, qualitative, cost and environmental impact notes throughout the week, in order to present her findings & experiences to her team. I think that the added data of the whole family participating will make the experiment much more useful. Since it’s only day two, I haven’t yet started to crave bacon sandwiches, but I expect to. From past experience, vegetarian ‘bacon’ is both weird and disappointing. I do intend to try doing a veggie fry-up though, with veggie sausages, which are OK. 

Do I expect to go permanently vegetarian by the end of the experiment? Not a chance. I will always be carnivorous, but it would be good to broaden the repertoire of vegetarian food which could be interspersed among the usual non-stop meat frenzy. 

The experiment ends

It was an interesting week. We set out with a few objectives and achieved some, but not all of them. We had some of our preconceptions challenged and confirmed other things we expected to be true. 

  • We all stuck with the experiment without lapse for the full week
  • We ate more processed products than we intended to, cooking fewer things than planned completely from scratch
  • My vegetarian daughter who still lives at home ate a more varied diet with fewer processed products than usual during the experiment 
  • The range, quality & texture of processed products has improved greatly since I last paid attention to them
  • The texture issue is still variable. Fake chicken nuggets and chicken burgers were convincingly like cheap chicken products, but without the gristle. We’d get them again. Fake meat pies were sub-football-ground quality. We wouldn’t get these again
  • The quality of food based upon price wasn’t consistently equivalent to the meat based version. Processed vegetarian foods aren’t always great value for money
  • Both me and my youngest daughter regularly felt hungry and unfulfilled throughout the week. I tried increasing carbohydrate intake to compensate, but this didn’t help
  • The nicest meal of the week was a chunky veg chilli prepared from scratch
  • The other really enjoyable meal was a barbecue, the highlight being satay kebabs made of peppers, onion, courgette and haloumi. These will be a part of all future barbecues
  • The issue of farting wasn’t as bad as anticipated. I expected a remake of the Blazing Saddles campfire scene
  • I did however find that the instant I woke up in the morning, I had to dash to the bathroom for a “long sit”. The sudden increase in vegetable and fibre intake had a noticeable effect in this respect
  • The flavour of the processed products was often quite strong. It felt over the top at times. Was this to disguise a bland base product? Maybe. 

So, will we repeat the experiment? No, I don’t reckon we will. Will we eat fewer meat based dishes, more vegetarian dishes and more vegetables? Definitely. We will also be trying a more varied diet, with more seafood and less red meat, which is a positive outcome. I’m glad that we joined in with my wife’s experiment. It was educational. 

    The “coming out” thing

    Fear can hold you prisoner; hope can set you free. – Stephen King, The Shawshank Redemption. 

    Since being diagnosed with OCD, I have learned a lot about the condition. I have suffered from OCD my whole life, but I was only officially diagnosed nine years ago, aged 37. 

    I was pretty sure for a long time before that I was an OCD sufferer, but self stigma and shame had prevented me from seeking help. Even before knowing it was called OCD, I had known from a very young age (two years old) that I was somehow “different”. Damaged goods, impregnated with an evil that I had to keep secret. I had badness in me that was trying to leech out. If anyone found out, I would be locked up. My mother reinforced these cast iron beliefs almost every day, when she beat me and I bled or bruised. “That’s the badness coming out of you. When they find out, they’re going to lock you up in The Home”. 

    So it took 37 years for me to summon the courage to seek help. By then, it was simply a case of either die by suicide or risk being sectioned and locked up to protect the World from me. I had feigned an outwardly normal life until then. In many respects I was “normal” and successful. But the whole time, I carried this burden of latent evil around with me. I knew I was essentially a good person, but my mind told me I was capable of doing bad things and of not doing good things properly, which would result in evil, catastrophic consequences, which would be my fault. 

    I first began to suspect that my “differentness” was partially something called OCD in my mid teens, when I watched two documentaries about people with OCD, one about people living with it day to day, the other about inpatient treatment of severe, treatment resistant OCD. That was a frightening realisation. I was an undiscovered mental patient, like the mental patients on TV. Mental patients were dangerous and needed to be locked up. Everybody knew that. I needed to work harder on seeming normal, in case I was discovered and locked up too. 

    With the benefit of hindsight, I remember that the documentaries both concentrated on the compulsions of the sufferers they featured. I recognised similarities to my own compulsions. Up to that point, my primary compulsions were checking compulsions. I don’t recall much mention in the documentaries of the mechanisms of OCD or the intrusive thoughts which fuelled the OCD cycle. So for me at that time, OCD equated to Obsessively Checking things Disorder. 

    I didn’t realise then that the physical tics I had, the hair pulling, the skin picking, the ripping off of my fingernails and toenails, which had all happened throughout childhood, were also all indicative of OCD and the anxiety it created. 

    So I quietly knew for about 22 years that at least part of my “differentness” was OCD, yet didn’t seek help. Stupid, eh? So many wasted years. Utterly daft. Yet that whole time it seemed perfectly rational. The OCD parasite is cunning. It convinces its host that it is both friend and protector. That the host will be vulnerable, weaker without its presence. So it seemed logical to allow the OCD to remain in control of me. I needed it there to keep me safe, to keep others safe. I couldn’t live with myself if harm came to anyone if I abdicated my burden of responsibility. And so the OCD parasite continued to feed off my anxiety, propagating it with horrific mental images, fear, guilt and paranoia.  

    So eventually, in terminal desperation, I went to my family doctor aged 37 to get help for OCD. In order to realise that we need help and then to seek help, many OCD sufferers necessarily self diagnose. Some people go to their doctor knowing just that something is mentally wrong. Some have an inkling that it might be OCD. I was more organised and thorough. In my typical manner, to confirm my self diagnosis, I had looked up OCD on Wikipedia, as well as looking at the OCD-UK, OCD Action and IOCDF websites. My education had begun in earnest. I listed my “OCD things”, three printed pages of a bullet-point list and showed them to the doctor. He agreed with the self diagnosis. He put me onto medication to help control my anxiety. 

    Looking back at that list, there were also a few things like “straightening picture frames” that I now know are misconceptions about OCD. Crooked picture frames annoyed me; I never thought anyone would come to serious harm if I didn’t straighten the picture frames. But I can forgive myself now for the commonly held misconceptions. It was early in my education about OCD. That’s what many think OCD is – being mildly annoyed at crooked picture frames. So very far from the horrible truth. 

    Perhaps I should be more forgiving of other people’s misconceptions of OCD. They mostly only have media misrepresentations, online memes and jokes to go on. The fact that we OCD sufferers conceal our suffering so well has also helped to perpetuate misconceptions and misunderstanding of the actual condition. I have beaten myself up mentally for concealing my OCD and perpetuating the myths. I’m learning to cut myself and others some slack about that now. We were and are hostages to the parasite in our minds. You don’t shout for help when there’s a gun muzzle pressed to your forehead. 

    So I was diagnosed. What changed? Initially, not a lot. The huge burden of self responsibility lifted slightly from my shoulders. The medication reduced my anxiety slightly, but also made me gain weight and feel drowsy. I didn’t magically get well. I bounced along the bottom of the abyss for several more years. 

    But then I began to read more about OCD. I began to interact on an online OCD-UK forum. I read a lot about other people’s experiences of OCD. So much of it was like reading someone else’s description of me, but interestingly, a fair chunk of what I read surprised me. I have a bad habit of assuming that my experience of a thing is absolutely typical and indicative of that thing. I’m not good at golf. Therefore I don’t enjoy playing golf. How can anybody enjoy this stupid pastime that I loathe? Only an idiot could enjoy golf. You see? Just like that. 

    I had assumed that everybody’s OCD would be exactly like mine: Always present, at maximum volume, every waking second of every single day. Primarily focussed (in adulthood) on contamination, with consistent minor themes such as checking. I was wrong. I discovered that whilst there is a core mechanism to OCD, there can be big personal variations. 

    I discovered that some people’s OCD can be less severe. I envied them. I discovered that a few people’s OCD was more severe. I pitied their suffering. I learned that some people’s OCD could fluctuate in severity, depending on the time of day, week or year. This was a revelation!

    I also started to learn about the different main themes of obsessional focus: contamination, checking, fear of harming others – accidentally or deliberately, fear of sexually harming others, sexual identity fears, magical thinking, fear of harm from others, religious obsessions, moral obsessions, relationship obsessions, rumination or hoarding. I recognised that I had experienced more of the themes than I had realised and was surprised that I hadn’t encountered others. Given that I was sexually abused for the first 11 years of my life, I’m still amazed that OCD has never latched onto suggesting the possibility of the phenomenon of abused becoming abuser. I simply know unequivocally that I would never repeat the actions of my mother on anyone and the OCD has never tried to suggest otherwise. A good example of the random, unpredictable nature of what OCD does or doesn’t torment its host with. 

    Sometimes, when I read or hear of someone else’s experiences of OCD, I consider myself lucky not to have experienced their variation of the torment. Oddly, several of those people have said the same thing in reverse when I have described some of my experiences. We are typically empathetic people. Other people’s suffering seems worse than our own. We are also stoical and determined. We quietly endure years of suffering alone – typically 12 years from onset to diagnosis. It’s hideous mental torture, yet we consider ourselves lucky in comparison when we hear of the horrors in other people’s minds. We are all victims of the same torturer – OCD, which uses the same torture techniques on us. It merely varies the subject matter of what it tortures us with. 

    It is good to have now heard and read the experiences of so many other OCD sufferers. It makes me realise that we have a common enemy, which behaves in consistent, predictable ways. That enemy is weak. We are strong. That is why it parasitises us, because it can feed off and drain our strength, but as soon as we learn to control the anxiety triggered by the intrusive thoughts it latches onto, we begin to deprive it of its source of nourishment. 

    The thing which had the biggest positive impact for me was attending an OCD sufferers’ support group. I had spent the years since formal diagnosis continuing to endure the OCD parasite, but in a medicated state. I had previously improved my knowledge of OCD, but I hadn’t done anything else, other than attend a one-to-one talking therapy course, which was only briefly beneficial. The support group increased my knowledge of OCD exponentially. It made me challenge my self stigma and see that my shame as a sufferer was unwarranted. It made me start to feel better about myself as a person. 

    The most practical things to come from starting to attend the support group were learning about the benefits of CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) in overcoming OCD and gathering the courage and motivation to ask my family doctor to refer me for CBT treatment. 

    Other OCD sufferers gave me support at one of the lowest ebbs of my life and indirectly helped to save me from death by suicide. OCD sufferers are more empathetic and supportive than the general population. It’s in our nature. It’s one reason why we fall prey to OCD. It makes us doubt the innate good in ourselves and feeds off the resultant anxiety. I have been very glad of the support of other sufferers and it is a privilege to return that support in kind. 

    Coming out as an OCD sufferer is difficult, frightening, daunting. It is a big thing to do. But it is liberating. For me it was like being reborn and learning to be a proper human being for the first time. I’m still learning: about OCD, about what “normal” is, about self care, about how to be free and untortured. But it’s good. It’s a new adventure. It’s good to feel the rain on my face. 

    If you believe that you might be suffering from OCD, these blog posts can help you to seek support and treatment:

    • How to first get help if you have OCD – click here 

    • Going to an OCD support group – click here

    You are not alone. You are not a freak. You are not a bad person. You can recover. You too can break free. 

    Alternative therapies

    I had an interesting discussion on Twitter recently with a “Cognitive hypnotherapist” who was very keen to treat people who have OCD. If they had also been a BABCP accredited Cognitive Behavioural Therapist with good experience of treating people with OCD, I would have said, “fair enough. Please work on unhindered by me”. 

    But they weren’t. There wasn’t a single mention on their entire website about OCD treatment and only one mention of treating anxiety, not anxiety disorders. Mostly it was the usual hypnotherapy stuff about weightloss, stopping smoking, business success and confidence boosting. But disturbingly, there was also mention of curing the infertility caused by polycystic ovary syndrome with hypnotism and also past life regression using hypnosis. And this person wants to get into the minds of people with OCD?! She may sincerely believe that she can help, but OH-MY-GOD! There was also reference to NLP (neuro linguistic programming) and life coaching. Whenever I see the unholy trio of hypnotherapy, NLP and life coaching, it sets off the QUACK ALERT alarm bells. Every single one of these life coaching people I have met at small business networking events, I would guess 17 or 18 of them, have been lovely, earnest, keen, deeply damaged individuals who should NEVER be allowed to tinker with another person’s fragile mind. 

    I was wary about letting anyone into my head, even a properly trained, accredited, experienced medical professional. It only eventually happened as a last resort, when it was a choice of either that or death by suicide. I’m glad that I chose the former, not the latter. But even then, it was difficult to trust someone else. Now imagine if I had been looking over the edge of the abyss and a friend who had lost some weight by going to a hypnotherapist had recommended them to me because they “did OCD too”. It makes me shudder in fear and disgust. That person would have “had a go” at treating somebody, using hypnosis, who needed immediate crisis care from specialist mental health professionals. 

    It’s this kind of example which makes me instinctively wary of all alternative remedies and therapies. There are just so many jolly, well meaning, utter fruitcakes out there, willing to “have a go”. If the laws were less strict, would they “have a go” at being amateur dentists too?

    I have seen the following “therapies” and remedies touted online as suitable for curing OCD:

    • Number therapy
    • Hypnotherapy
    • The Linden Method
    • The Lightning Process
    • NLP
    • Life coaching
    • Crystal healing
    • Herb therapy
    • Nutrition therapy
    • Vitamin therapy
    • Dietary supplement therapy
    • Vegan diet therapy
    • EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique
    • Exorcism
    • Faith healing
    • Prayer therapy 
    • Experimental electric current therapy

    The U.K. National Health treatment regulator NICE (national institute for health and clinical excellence) recommends none of these for treatment of OCD. The only one to have shown evidence of even a short term benefit is hypnotherapy and there is still no objective scientific evidence of any kind of efficacy. The approved therapy is CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy), sometimes used in conjunction with medication. CBT works for many, but not universally. I’m not an unquestioning cheerleader for CBT, but it has worked and does work for me. 

    I am not totally closed to the idea of using other things to help improve mental health and resilience, just very difficult to persuade. 

    I reluctantly tried mindfulness. With its links to Buddhism, prayer bells and incense sticks, it seemed a bit hippy-drippy and ethereal to me. It also smacked of being the latest fashionable lifestyle fad bandwagon to jump aboard.

    But a couple of trusted friends had achieved some success in using mindfulness, so I chose to give it a go. In my usual thorough way, I investigated the possible ways of trying it out. Local practitioners? Surprisingly few. And heavy on the prayer bells and zen. Online then? I looked for mindfulness apps and discovered Headspace. 

    After persisting for several weeks, with my OCD conditioned mind wrestling with the completely alien concept of letting thoughts go, it started to work. I’ve found it to be a useful, real life tool and technique to use, alongside CBT techniques, to expedite my own recovery. 

    So, you see, my mind isn’t closed to a broader approach to achieving recovery. I just recognise a snakeoil salesman or dangerously wellmeaning amateur when I see one. I believe there should be tighter regulation on what supposed “therapies” can be offered commercially as being effective for overcoming serious mental illness. I can’t set up a business as a mender of broken legs using a hot bread poultice, but I could set up a business tomorrow offering hot bread poultice cures for depression, #OCD, #PTSD and other anxiety disorders. This would be laughable, if it wasn’t so incredibly dangerous and happening RIGHT NOW. 

    In the meantime, whenever I encounter an enthusiastic, well meaning idiot, I try to persuade them to leave treating actual mental illnesses to trained, accredited medical professionals and for them to stick to business performance coaching. And I also report the few genuinely cynical charlatons I come across, preying on vulnerable, fragile people who may be at the lowest ebb. 

    If you’re going to let anyone inside your mind, it’s reasonable to be cautious, even with trained, experienced professionals. It is a great thing to be helped towards recovery, but the mind is as delicate as the human heart and more intricate than the human cardiovascular system. You wouldn’t place your heart into the hands of anyone but a highly skilled, experienced professional. Why risk the mind with anyone less capable or trustworthy?

      What is contamination?

      Such a simple, direct question. Somebody asked it recently during an OCD support group meeting. I was slightly taken aback. I didn’t know how to answer succinctly. This was someone else with OCD who had never experienced a contamination obsession. It just goes to prove that even we sufferers aren’t immune to being influenced by the misconception that OCD is “that handwashing thing”. 

      What is contamination? It’s a reasonable question. For different OCD sufferers it can mean different things. For some that meaning can alter over time. 

      For me contamination primarily means “contaminated by humans”. What does that mean? That somebody sneezed on something? Well, it can mean that, but it can also mean lots of other things. 

      It can be the mere fact that another human has touched something or breathed near it. Or the possibility that someone may have done so. To me the mere presence of other humans means the presence of contamination. The fewer humans, the better. The further away, the better. Humans are dangerous. 

      For me it’s not even just the risk of contracting a communicable disease or a parasite from other people. It is also their “difference”. I don’t want to catch “being like them”. In the past, this has had some unpleasant undertones. My father was an extreme racist. He had drilled into me fear, distrust and loathing of anyone culturally different from us. My OCD latched onto this fear and turned it into a fear of “becoming like them”, as if, for example, being ethnically Chinese was contagious. Or Orthodox Judaism. Or Presbyterianism. I had fought hard to be me. I didn’t want to become somebody else against my will. If I had been Ethnically Chinese, I would have been just as fearful of contracting Northern European whiteness. 

      My father also despised the “untermensch”. The physically weak. The physically disabled. The mentally disabled. My contamination fears expanded to include these forms of “contamination”. I used to hold my breath as I went past disabled people, for fear of contracting “untermensch”. As if you could catch having an amputated leg by brushing past a one legged person. Or become mentally disabled. 

      Yes, contamination for me is mostly the fear of communicable disease, but I’m ashamed to admit that it has been these other things too. 

      I’m not racist. I’m not prejudiced against disabled people. I don’t care about anyone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. I was just taught to fear these things literally like the plague. Being “different” was as bad as being diseased. My dad had some very weird views about the world. OCD will happily piggyback the most illogical concepts. Logic doesn’t often have much to do with OCD obsessional focuses. 

      Most people understand the contamination focus to be “fear of contracting illness from others”. What few realise is that the converse applies just as much. If I have a cold, I will go to great lengths to ensure that I don’t contaminate others. If I’m not totally certain that I can prevent me being a source of contamination, I don’t leave the house. I couldn’t forgive myself if I gave a bad cold to someone with asthma or COPD and they died as a result. 

      When depression has had its firmest grip on me, my personal hygiene has been poor – not showering, shaving or brushing my teeth. This has played right into the hands of the OCD contamination fears. Someone unclean is surely a source of contamination to others, therefore I must isolate myself further from the world, in order to keep people safe. The depression feeds the OCD and the OCD returns the favour. A nasty cycle of self destruction and social isolation. 

      For others, contamination fears can have a focus on blood, bodily fluids, animal faeces, unidentified substances, stains or smears, chemical contamination, pollution, radiation, genetically modified organisms, contamination by dangerous foreign objects like glass shards or rat hairs in food.

      It’s not by any means just about avoiding catching the latest headline grabbing exotic death virus. So, can you see now why I struggled to answer a question as simple and direct as “what is contamination”?