Worrying about Worrying
by Thomas Harrison
But somewhere in my soul,
I know I’ve met the thing before.
–Real Riches, Emily Dickinson
It is healthy to worry. It is okay to worry. If we didn’t worry, we wouldn’t plan for things and have backups and contingencies in place. Worry can be useful. But worrying too much can be devastating and if you’re the type of person who worries about pretty much everything, and worries about worrying, it can be completely consuming. I have always been a worrier. I have always been anxious to some degree. As a child I fretted about stories on the news. There was a nurse who was found guilty of killing babies in the hospital she worked in. I cried about it and asked my mum why someone would do something like that. That event and the anxiety I felt about the actions of another person outside of my own control would follow me for years. Well, for the rest of my life, really.
I’d wake up in the middle of the night and worry about something going wrong with my car and have to Google various scenarios to see if my car would breakdown or blow up. I’d worry I had cancer or a virus or HIV and spend hours looking at my tongue and skin in the mirror to see if there was a rash or a white spot. The worrying would latch from one thing to another, so that when I was ‘over’ one worry (not that it ever really went away) it would grab onto something else and loop and spiral and loop and spiral and loop spiral loop spiral loop loop spiral spiral… If the cooker hob in my kitchen had a mark on it, that would be a sign I was dirty, and when I couldn’t get the mark off the hob that was because I had bought the worst cleaning products because I’m not a proper adult yet and can’t even get that right and because the hob is stained I will lose my rental deposit so that when I move out I’ll have no money and will become homeless, therefore I need to start saving money now to try to prevent living on the streets so I won’t buy that loaf of bread today but will buy that one instead because it is 5p cheaper and that 5p will come in handy when I am homeless.
These obsessive thoughts are very common in people suffering from depression and anxiety. Ruby Wax has spoken openly about her battles with depression and her own mother’s obsessive-compulsive disorder. In an interview with The Guardian from 2017, she referred to her mother’s need to “be incredibly clean… constantly wiping up” and questions whether “mental health is nature or nurture.” Research has suggested that there is a link between depression and family history; indeed, Stanford University M.Ds Douglas F. Levinson and Walter E. Nicholas, as of 2019, stated that depression could be up to a 50% hereditary based illness. Like Ruby Wax, I believe there is likely to be a mixture of nature and nurture involved. Certainly, Iris Elliot’s 2016 research and review Poverty and Mental Health suggests that men and women from “the lowest social economic class” could be up to 26% more likely to a develop mental health disorder. I don’t expect this to be a surprise to anyone. But why then, if someone is raised in a family which has not had financial struggles, parents who did not divorce, why would they suffer from a disease which is essentially about being unhappy? What do I have to be miserable about?
To an outsider these obsessive worries perhaps seem small – a first world privileged concern and situation. Maybe they’re right. But inside my head, and inside the head of someone who suffers from obsessive thoughts, it is a nightmarish landscape of darkness and sorrow and utter shame. Everything you perceive as being wrong in your life is because you are a bad person. And everything has a deeper meaning to it.
My childhood was happy. I never went without. My parents stayed together. My brother is happily married with three wonderful children. Why then would I suffer from depression? Why would I loop and circle and rotate with obsessive thoughts? Why on earth would I need to worry and stress? I don’t know…. but the following story is a perfect example. We’re back in Malta and I am discovering Tori Amos’ Under the Pink. I bought it second hand from a market. I also bought From the Choirgirl Hotel, an album which would speak to me for years to come. I am listening to Under the Pink, legs crossed on my hotel room bed, CD Walkman spinning away. I really like the song Icicle. The piano in it is gorgeous. I go downstairs to access the one PC in the hotel and use the dialup internet (this was the early noughties) and look for a review of the album. I read a Rolling Stone write up which also regards Icicle as a standout track on the album. The review reveals that this song is partly about child sexual abuse. I hadn’t picked up on this on my first listen to the track, but now that I have read this review the lyrics fall into place. And then the voice comes, as it always does, sudden and unbidden:
Voice: Of course that’s your favourite song on the album you sick fuck. God you’re disgusting. Humming along to a song like that on your own. Freak. You’ll probably abuse someone one day, too.
I punish myself by not eating for the rest of the day. I tell my parents I’m just full and tired. But for me, there are hidden messages everywhere that I am wrong, evil and horrid. Clearly, my choice of music and song is a sure-fire sign of my depravity.
Looping worries such as these would then manifest themselves into what felt like a weight inside my head, as if the crown of my skull had been replaced with metal, pushing and pressing and forcing itself down onto my brain. It felt genuinely painful, as though the emotional and mental impact of my anxieties were so strong that it became a physical illness too. There has been lots of research into how the body holds trauma and emotions related to memories within muscle: there is an entire industry dedicated to massage therapy, helping to explore, identify and release traumatic stress from peoples’ bodies. In the 2019 Netflix series which documents Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle company Goop, one episode focuses on this so-called ‘Energy Healing’. Chiropractor John Amaral and “body-alignment specialist” Lauren Roxburgh explore how energy moves through the body and can become blocked, with techniques such as Reiki helping to release “stored stress, pain, and trauma.” I am not sure how much I believe in ‘less medical’ methods of treatment, for want of a better phrase, but on the other hand, when stressed, people can experience pain in their shoulders which are often tensed when under pressure; so, who’s to say that emotional and mental trauma couldn’t be stored somewhere in the body, needing to be treated and eased and massaged out of a muscle?
Over the years, I have done a lot of reading around obsessive and intrusive thoughts, their potential causes and impacts. For anyone who has ever experienced them, they will know that they can be painful, humiliating, scary and debilitating. For anyone who hasn’t experienced them, I just wish that you trip and break your nose on the pavement. Am I allowed to say that? No, not really (maybe). Just be thankful for your looping-thought-and-inner-monologue-free existence. My biggest worry when I first started having these thoughts, and even sometimes now, despite having a better understanding of the illness, was that these thoughts were inside my head and therefore were things that I wanted to do and would happen as a result. If I saw a carton of milk in a supermarket as a carton of cum, that meant I was perverse and… wanted to drink semen? If I was reading a magazine or book and when looking at the middle fold of the pages I saw an open vagina, that meant I was sex obsessed and… straight? If I was walking past different people in the street and the words “cunt” or “dick” echoed in my head, or images of one person giving me a blow job and another person fingering me appeared in my mind, then that meant I was a nymphomaniac and… liked sex outside?
I remember when I went to see a psychotherapist for the first time. I was terrified. Terrified that whatever I said would be noted, recorded, logged and kept as a way to prevent me from graduating university, getting a job, seeing my friends and family, being around children. It took me a few sessions to open up and start saying what was really on my mind, and, what was in my mind. It is an incredibly vulnerable place to be in a therapist’s office, revealing the darkest and, to you, most disgusting parts of your brain. The therapist asked me when I first became aware of my intrusive thoughts. I paused, unsure whether to say what I wanted to, knew I needed to, but had worried me for years. But I did: I said that when I was sixteen I had been away with my parents for a weekend to the Lake District and when walking home from the pub one evening we stopped and looked at some lights that were hanging and blowing in the breeze outside of another pub. My parents were talking about how picturesque the place was and suddenly, out of nowhere, “rape” bulleted through my head. That single, horrid word, stabbed itself into my head – why? What had caused that? It had no connection to any part of the previous day. Surely, I thought and rationalised, that had to mean something. It had to mean I was evil. I cannot tell you the relief I felt when I said that out loud and the therapist just said, “Okay”, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. It was then when I realised that I wasn’t insane or going to be put on some kind of register, that I started to open up and talk more about my worries and fears, the words and images that penetrated my head without my consent.
We discussed my relationships and my job. I explained how scared I was of coming to therapy and talking about these issues; what if I was deemed unfit and unsafe to be around children? What if secretly this was all being recorded and would be sent to my school or a work colleague and then everyone would know how crazy I really was. We discussed my moods, how these thoughts made me feel, how I reacted to them, what I did to try and prevent and control them. My self-harm. How I tried to push the thoughts back down, only for them to explode like shaken pop through a loose bottle lid. We explored some mindfulness techniques, ways to calm myself and the anxiety created by the thoughts. Before these sessions, I hadn’t even known that obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) could be related to thoughts. I believed, like many people, that OCD was about physical actions: cleaning hands, checking locks, worrying that a candle hadn’t been blown out. But that is exactly what my illness was – obsessive compulsive disorder with the repetitive intrusive thoughts that would loop and spiral out of control until I would find myself still stressing about a word or image thirty minutes after the fact, the only way to get out of the vicious cycle being to cut myself, hit myself, write on myself, try to do something else to preoccupy my mind and fail miserably, or drink. The National OCD Charity (ocduk.org) state that in the U.K., OCD affects 12 in every 1,000 people, roughly 1.2% of the population. Interestingly, the charity’s research and work revealed that most people with OCD will have started to develop symptoms by the age of 14. Therefore, like many other mental illnesses, such as depression, it presents itself when people are still young – still children. Looking back at myself as a child and teenager, I can see how I had the symptoms of OCD from a young age: obsessive about items being straight on a shelf, stressed and upset about stories on the news, brushing my teeth in sets of four, having a constant sense of impending doom.
One of the best representations of anxiety and intrusive thoughts that I have seen on television is in the show Pure. The show, based on a memoir by Rose Cartwright, focuses on a young woman who is plagued by intrusive thoughts of a sexual nature: she imagines kissing her mum, she sees her friends’ private parts, she can’t be touched or hugged without suffering from aggressive sexualised images in her mind. The role is played wonderfully by Charly Clive, who herself dealt with a devastating diagnosis of a brain tumour in 2015, turning this awful experience into a one woman stage show which she performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, called Britney (the name she gave to her tumour). Radio Times writer Ellie Harrison reviewed the program in 2019, as well as interviewing a number of OCD sufferers in order to discuss how accurate Pure was in portraying mental illness and obsessive thoughts. One interviewee, Josie-Anne Searl, spoke of diagnosing herself as “sick in the head” aged 17, worried, stressed and anxious about the thoughts of murder and incest banging around inside her head. Searl said that watching Pure is a “a tonic that will help and heal thousands.” Another interviewee, Michael, reported similar distressing and sexualised thoughts about his family, an issue raised in the programme with the protagonist Marnie. He reflected that these unwanted thoughts “caused (him) untold shame, pain and suffering” but that Pure “accurately reflects the pain and confusion (he has) lived with.” For me, the most important part of watching the show was that it portrayed how OCD is not just a physical illness; it is not the stereotypical person frantically cleaning hour after hour after hour. OCD is a mental illness, where one becomes obsessed with thinking about thinking, wrapping themselves in endless loops of misery which often feels inescapable, because how can you escape from your own mind? I would often (and still do) lose time with fretting and panicking, finding myself half an hour later and miles down the river of anxiety, with thirty extra worries on top of what had initially started my concerns. It can be a constant spiral of what if, when might, how could, but then, why would, what should… which will eventually manipulate themselves into will happen and going to. As Catherine Benfield stated in the Radio Times article, Pure “is challenging outdated misconceptions of OCD”, many of which I too had about the condition.
I know that psychotherapy and talking about your problems isn’t for everyone, but for me it was the start of a very long journey of recovery. It didn’t instantly cure me, it still hasn’t fully cured me, but it did and does make me feel better, more in control, less weird, and less alone.
About the Author
Thomas Harrison is currently an English teacher in Higher Education. His writing focuses on issues that matter to him, such as removing the stigma around male mental health and the feeling of shame. He also records and releases a weekly podcast titled ‘That One Time I Dated a Mormon’ on Spotify. He uses this medium as another way to highlight and discuss the timely issues raised in his book, alongside topical stories in the news, allowing him to reach a wider audience.