The Gremlin and the Superpower: How OCD has Shaped my Academic Journey by Simon Fox

 It wasn’t until a friend died that I suddenly realised time was precious. Through the grief, a transformative experience occurred within me. In my mid-thirties, I flung myself back into education at undergraduate level to pursue a new career in healthcare. I relished every opportunity and for the first time in my life, I felt that I had direction. More than that, I had a purpose

However, I was acutely aware that there was still something missing. I knew that deep within me, there was a piece of the jigsaw in my psyche that didn’t quite make sense. The more I looked for it, the more it would hide, like trying to remember a dream when you wake. There were vivid flashes, but it quickly slipped away. That was until my undergraduate final examinations. 

If you had asked me then, I would have said everything was fine. My grades were great, I had made friends on my course, and yes, that purpose in life that had been missing before was now burning brightly. That was when things began to happen that I couldn’t explain. There were missed instructions for assignments, despite my diligent attention. Conversations began to play on a constant loop in my mind. I would show up for seminars early and I couldn’t understand why no one else was quite as eager as me. Yet, I was going to the gym more than ever and I was on the verge of an exciting new career. How could anything be wrong with me?

Crisis Point And Diagnosis

My crisis point came in two halves. I flunked a viva I was absolutely sure that I would pass. At the time, it was devastating. Secondly, I became convinced that I had committed terrible wrongs, despite knowing that no such things had occurred. A crippling fear subsumed my mind until one appropriately stormy night, my mind caved in on itself. When I woke in the morning, exhausted, I knew something was deeply wrong with me. I booked an appointment with my GP and described everything to her. The verdict was straightforward and concise – I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Sitting there in the GP’s office, the piece of jigsaw that had been missing my whole life had finally slotted into place. I got a referral to a stress course and one-on-one therapy. 

The diagnosis – and the excellent UK National Health Service treatment which followed – changed everything. Lots of little events over the course of my life suddenly made sense – such as spending ages checking taps were off as a child and being so frightened on an occasion in my twenties that I hadn’t locked a friend’s car properly that I checked the handle repeatedly until I ripped it off completely. Another memory was of going back to my place of work after finishing a shift because I was convinced I had inadvertently burned it down. The memories seemed endless. Many of the events and quirks of behaviour in my past were beginning to make sense. Suddenly, I had a context in which to frame them. 

There were new obstacles too, namely telling people. My family were lovely about it, as were the staff on my course. By then, I had finished my finals and I had received a lower grade than I had hoped for. Someone suggested that I go and talk to the student services department. Through them, I secured more support than I ever had done before. The disorder that less than six months previously had been unknown was now a thing that had very real implications for my life. I found that OCD is categorised as a disability. I had to stop and think hard about this, but I soon realised that it had indeed had a lasting and severe impact on my functioning since I could remember. 

To illustrate this, I always describe my OCD as being “mentally deafening”. When the voice in my head is lying to me (which is most of the time), it is very, very loud. Imagine driving with a bullying gremlin in the back of your car screaming through a megaphone that you’re not driving correctly, and you’ll get somewhere near the volume of my internal voice and what it shouts at me. Until therapy in my late thirties, I thought everyone thought like that. It was an assumption and I never questioned it. Thankfully, therapy has given me a volume control where it is less Spinal Tap’s 11 and nearer a soothing and less exhausting 5. 

A word of explanation: OCD isn’t always about cleanliness, and yes, people who say they’re “a bit OCD” is massively annoying. That’s why when it crops up in conversation, I refer to it as the full, “obsessive compulsive disorder” in the hope that it will make people think about the words and not some glib aphorism relating to tidiness.

I am perhaps the messiest person you will meet, a point which amused both friends and relatives on my diagnosis. I often forget where I put my keys and I keep pencils in my beard. However, leaving the house used to take me an age. I used to pack and re-pack my bag for university or the gym several times before departing. I once had an assessment at nine in the morning and turned up at seven, just in case. For me, caution often tips over into ridiculousness.

In the Men In Black films, there is a character who can see every possible future. That’s me in a way – I can see all the harm and risk and danger in every action. Right now as I type this sentence, I’m thinking about the consequences in multiple futures of writing this blog post. It’s a great ability to possess for academia and working with theory, but it’s often mind-bending and always, always mentally exhausting. 

OCD And University 

Despite the setback of receiving poorer undergraduate results than I had hoped for, I set about applying for a postgrad course. Looking back, it was the disappointing results that spurred me on to do this – I wanted the proper university experience and to do well. However, this time I would be armed with my new-found self-knowledge. I notified the members of staff who I felt needed to know. This was no mean feat. It occurred to me, not without some gallows humour, that now I have to come out twice – once as gay, and once as having OCD. It takes guts. You have to judge the situation and the person you’re imparting personal information to, not to mention what the consequences might be and the environment you’re in. 

I gave it some serious thought beforehand and settled on a strategy of how to inform them. I would tell them I have OCD, what that is, and what it means for my study, based on what I had learned about myself through therapy and mentorship at the university. For example, I sometimes get stuck in a loop and I need someone to kindly nudge me along to other areas. It’s happened far fewer times than I expected, but the support I have received has been exemplary. In turn, this taught me a lot. 

There is a positive side to having OCD. I have always known that I think differently to others, and that what seems obvious to me has never occurred to the majority of people. I see connections where others don’t, in part because I churn problems over and over in my mind until I know every single part of them. It’s why I used to take things apart as a child to see how they worked. For the first time in my life, I felt like this was an asset, providing me with the originality needed to make headway in postgraduate study. Suddenly, the recently diagnosed disorder that had dogged my life felt like a superpower. I passed my Masters with a Distinction and segued into a Doctorate. All that hard work had been worth it. Then the Coronavirus hit. 

A Shrinking World And Current Challenges

At the start of lockdown, I naively thought that without distractions, I would have the peace and quiet to just crack on with work. Looking back, it was as though I had learned nothing over the past couple of years. The university with its lovely big library and gym and having interesting chats over lunch was suddenly inaccessible. The campus shrank down to the messy box room at home I ironically call my study. Instead of reading books looking out over a square of students eating sandwiches on the grass, I now sat at my little desk looking out over a deserted suburban street. In-person contact with staff was replaced with online video conferencing. Everything seemed so distant. 

The comforting anchors of academic life had been hoisted up amid a storm and I was waving madly from the proverbial jetty. Worse, every other ship had sailed away too. Amid all this – somehow – I had to keep going with work. New OCD narratives began to emerge. As time lost meaning during lockdown, I began to obsess about it more. Deadline dates, the more I looked at them, became meaningless. I began to question my work ethic whenever the constant bad news of the global pandemic overwhelmed me, and I felt unable to concentrate. I felt guilty, a curious emotion in search of a reason. I drank more alcohol and I ate rubbish. 

One day, I was typing away on my laptop and I realised that I had glanced at the scrawled assignment deadline date on my whiteboard twenty times in half an hour. It was as though I expected the numbers to start counting down like a dramatic timer on a bomb in a movie. In a fit of apoplexy, I scrubbed it off the board so I could concentrate. It was then that I reasoned that I would need a plan if I were to come through this time with my sanity relatively intact. The plan was simple: to reach out and to go easy on myself. 

If I couldn’t concentrate on any given day, I would turn off my laptop and go to do something else instead. I did this knowing that the bullying gremlin with the megaphone in my head would be screaming in panic. Let him scream.

Gardening became a major hobby, and for the first time, I took up growing fruit and vegetables. I missed exercise, so I took apart the patio in the back garden and rebuilt it. I began to sketch again, after years of not drawing. Reading, too, became a pleasure again. Anything to not look at a screen for a while. 

Ironically, my social life vastly improved during lockdown. I became a regular fixture in two Zoom groups. We would have conversations and do watch-a-longs of mutually agreed films and TV shows. Some of them went on so late that I was exhausted the following morning, like I’d been out on the town the night before. They were a godsend to me. I’m not going to lie – I still wrestle with the guilt of having downtime when I could be working – but the importance of switching off rose in my estimations during lockdown through the desperation to give my poor brain a break. The results on the two assignments I had been working on during lockdown proved it – I aced both of them. I don’t think that would have been the case had I not found a healthier work-life balance. 

Maintaining my mental health has become an important priority since then, especially during these uncertain times. It is a daily battle. Some days, I get loads done, take on extra responsibilities, and feel optimistic about the future. Sometimes, I get a lot done, but I tell myself I haven’t done enough. Other days, my brain does not work, and I have to step away and do something else. The chatter in my head that I should be working to full capacity at all times may not have diminished, but the counterargument that I work more effectively after taking a break has grown in volume. If I’m not much mistaken, that’s a good result for employing effective coping strategies. I also hope that if I can achieve a Masters qualification so soon after such a mental health diagnosis, and that if I can achieve a doctorate during a global pandemic, then I am able to achieve anything. 

Simon Fox

Simon achieved an undergraduate degree in Media Arts before going on to teach English in Hong Kong. Since then, working in health and social care inspired a return to education, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Occupational Therapy. Segueing into Public Health, he achieved a Distinction at Masters level and is now working on a doctorate with a specialist interest in the healthy ageing of LGBT+ populations. Befitting his occupational therapy roots, Simon is passionate about keeping his body and mind active, from gardening and growing produce to being keen on the gym.