I was scared I was a paedophile: 17 years of living with intrusive thoughts and pure OCD.
Eternal sunshine of the not so spotless mind.
The thought of jumping in front of a train as it approaches. The thought of putting your hand in a blender. The thought of murdering your baby. The unswerving thought that you have AIDS. Even the thought of abusing a child. We all get intrusive thoughts, it’s just that some of us get them more than most.
When I was a teenager, I didn’t know what I know now. I didn’t know about thought disorders or how my mind works. All I knew was that I was 14 years of age and I was petrified of being a paedophile. I knew I wasn’t one, but I had unfortunately encountered a paedophile, and for some inexplicable reason that led to an ongoing battle with intrusive thoughts. I remember the day we found out that my youth worker was a paedophile. I was with my two best mates when the news finally broke that he had been arrested for sexually assaulting a child at a youth camp. For my mates and me this news was no surprise. For years he had taken us swimming and watched us naked in the communal showers, wrestled with us, tickled us, hugged us and holding us a little too closely, revealing his alcohol-infused breath.
For me, he had also used the same ‘hand up the back trick’ for which he had got himself arrested. I was 12 and I went to visit him. On this particular occasion, I was upset and in tears. He put his arms around me, held me, slowly placed his hand up my shirt and rubbed my back. It was one move too far. In that moment I suddenly knew what he was doing. All of a sudden he wasn’t the kind, energetic, gregarious youth worker he had seemed to be up until that point. He was a man trying to take advantage of a vulnerable minor. The well-hidden penny had finally dropped and I ran away as fast as I could. I told some adults what had happened, but I had the disadvantage of being a terror of a child and, unfortunately, they trusted the youth worker (who was seen as being one heck of decent chap), so I was told not to say such outrageous things. Regrettably, I never mentioned it again.
For some reason, my youth worker’s eventual arrest triggered something in my head. It began in my science class the next day when the word ‘KIDS’ suddenly bombarded my mind. In that moment I found it almost impossible to not think of that word. I can’t explain it perfectly, but from that moment on unwanted thoughts and accusations started popping up in my head and I became terrified that I was a paedophile. I subsequently spent what felt like most nights of my teenage years lying in my bed, alone, awake and scared. Sleep was the Holy Grail that could not be reached. That single word ‘kids’ followed by accusations of ‘You’re a paedo’ constantly rammed through my head. Incessant thoughts and images tapped at the periphery of my mind.
From a young age I realised that my mind was not my friend. I spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to quieten my thoughts. I would focus on a black space of nothing and think of something safe, something neutral and then hold on to that image until the unwelcome thoughts at the fringes of my mind disappeared. It wasn’t until 17 years later that I stumbled across the term ‘intrusive thoughts’. I was at a bar with a friend and we approached two girls who happened to be psychologists. Whilst I was wondering if this girl would be interested in my very own consensual, non-paedophilic, hand up the back trick, I overheard her say something along the lines of “There is nothing wrong with intrusive thoughts. They’re only thoughts!”
Later that night I looked up the term on Wikipedia and was overwhelmed by what I read. I would never have expected that my experiences as a child and beyond could be summarised and defined so easily through a 3am Google search. It put colour to a painting that until this point had been roughly sketched in pencil. It articulated what I already knew: I had never struggled with paedophilia. What I had wrestled with were “unwelcome involuntary thoughts, images, or unpleasant ideas that may become obsessions, are upsetting or distressing, and can be difficult to manage or eliminate.”
I do not have any medical credentials or a degree in psychology and, in an academic sense, I know very little about intrusive thoughts or their association with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). All I knew was that I was a ‘normal’ kid and I turned out to be a ‘normal’ adult – I simply experienced some horrific thoughts along the way. Until that night I had no idea that there were terms for what I had struggled with.
Intrusive thoughts, often referred to as obsessions, are unwanted and unbidden thoughts which appear in our mind outside of our control. OCD is where behavioural actions known as ‘compulsions’ are carried out to try and counteract the intrusive thoughts. Primarily Obsessional OCD (Pure-O) is intrusive thoughts, which are particularly abhorrent in nature, without an outward compulsive action linked to it.
Psychologist Steven J. Phillipson explains that Pure-O as a combination of an originating unwanted thought and a mental activity which attempts to escape, solve or undo the thought. He suggests that treatment lies in focusing on eliminating the mental activity as opposed to trying to stop the thoughts themselves. In time, the lack of response will lead to the thoughts decreasing in frequency and emotional intensity. The point being that whilst the thoughts are beyond our control, they are not beyond our influence.
That too, has been my experience. I learnt from my sleepless nights as a teenager that it is my conscious response that is important. After time, I learnt to shrug off the thoughts that kept me awake as a child. Even now, some years later, my mind is still not entirely my friend. I still have intrusive thoughts. I frequently think of the word ‘jump’ as a train approaches on the underground. However, the thought of jumping in front of a train is entirely outweighed by the belief that the last thing I am about to do is take a suicidal jump into the unknown. And as such the thought does not need to be distressing.
My experience is that both the horror of the thoughts themselves and the reluctance to explain them to others can cause deep emotional distress. Having to deal with this can become a very isolating experience. Professional opinion is clear that intrusive thoughts do not lead to the doing of the feared action and do not indicate a moral flaw. However, socially speaking, thoughts of suicide, homicide and child abuse do not tend to make the grade as a general topic of conversation.
I wrote this article to try and answer a simple question: how does one say that they have scary thoughts of child abuse without sounding like a paedophile? How does the mother explain that she thinks of harming her child without having to doubt her own sanity? How does the person who fears contracting a disease through seemingly impossible means ever sound OK? In short, how do we explain the horrors of our mind without sounding horrific?
The answer lies in understanding. Understanding that intrusive thoughts are actually just thoughts. They are intrusive and unwanted and not a barometer of morality or normality. As such, they need not trap us in fear of becoming what we are not. The point is simply that thoughts do not define us. Choices define us. We need not be scared or ashamed of these thoughts, no matter how sickening, shocking or horrific. And that is a wonderful thought.
Intrusive thoughts as a topic needs to be in the consciousness of mainstream society. My hope is that people who spend their waking days struggling with what goes on in their mind will not need to fear what other people may think. Instead, the thoughts and anxieties which form in our minds can be unashamedly mentioned and understood. So here’s me, mentioning them.
This is an edited version of an article first published on planetivy.com