By Timothy Hillier

    At the age of seven I began experiencing religious obsessions. I became preoccupied with thoughts that I was a sinner and constantly questioned my actions and behaviour, fearing I was going to hell. I had no idea what was happening to me.

    I started repeating certain phrases in my head at just the right speed and with precisely the right amount of emphasis on each word to ensure nothing bad would happen. Strange questions like ‘how much saliva should be in my mouth before I swallow’ and ‘how did I know for sure’ crowded my mind.

    These thoughts and subsequent physical and mental compulsions became normal, changing as I got older. I became convinced that certain clothes or shoes were good or bad luck and became stuck on the idea they didn’t ‘fit’ properly. I’d avoid walking on cracks or over certain sections of the footpath.

    In my early twenties I developed an intense fear of the sunlight damaging my eyesight, just being outside would cause severe anxiety. I started planning my days around where the sun would be, checking the daily sunrise and sunset times. I’d also arrange my room in a certain way to appease the relentless intrusive thoughts.

    My senses became pronounced. A strange smell or sound would cause distress. Even the temperature of a room, often thinking ‘maybe this room is too warm and will damage my eyes’. I’d also worry something was too hot and I may get burnt, spending weeks checking for damage or a burn after touching a warm surface or eating something hot. 

    After talking to my parents at the age of 21 I was referred by my GP to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, formerly known as Monomania or Obsessional Neurosis, has been diagnosed in some form for hundreds of years. The 16th century religious figure Martin Luther is believed to have suffered from scrupulosity, a form of OCD.

    With this diagnosis my psychiatrist started me on a course of antidepressants and we began Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), or more particularly, Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). 

    But my journey with OCD was just beginning. My most devastating symptom occurred at the age of 23. Experimenting with recreational drugs I developed the obsessive thought these drugs would remain in my mouth i.e. how did I know when they’d worn off? The compulsion being to check or lick my lips to remove the ‘residual substance’. 

    My outer world however was much different. OCD is known as the ‘secret illness’ after all. I had an active social life and did well at school and University, despite having a break when I was diagnosed. It wasn’t until the age of 29, when I developed co-morbid depression and had 2 years off work, that the seriousness of my illness became clear to others.

    During my time out of the workforce I tried many medications, hoping for a solution to my increasing depression. These more powerful drugs didn’t help, but one did lead to increased compulsive behaviour and the loss of $90k gambling in the space of a few months. Things were getting worse, and I now had a persistent suicidal ideation. How was I going to move forward from here?

    Talking to family and friends about my OCD was a big help;  something I hadn’t done previously because I was too embarrassed. Earlier attempts to confide resulted in confused looks or denial. But this time I was pleased to receive support and genuine concern. My recovery was beginning. 

    As well as talking more to my family, friends and co-workers I contacted SANE Australia. I was asked to be part of the Peer Ambassador program (formerly SANE Speakers). 

    The staff I spoke with at SANE were so caring and understanding. I was invited to speak at workplace awareness programs and other events, it was amazing to have others interested in OCD.

    My OCD will always be part of my life, part of my brain is constantly ruminating or distracted. But if managed well I can work, travel and socialise. I’ve learnt to live with the thoughts, not to be too hard on myself when performing compulsions or avoidance type behaviours. With OCD the brain is lying to you, but you don’t have to listen.

    Talking to others continues to help me manage. The one thing I’d like people to understand is that compulsions can be mental or covert, as well as physical. So next time you meet somebody with OCD take the time to explore the condition a bit more and listen without judgement. You’ll be helping more than you know. 

    Tim Hillier is a Peer Ambassador at SANE Australia, a National Mental Health charity that supports people and their families affected by complex mental illness.

    SANE –

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