I once thought I’d burnt down a bus station… now there’s an introduction you don’t get to write every day! Spoiler alert! I’m not an arsonist!! In a healthcare world which likes to put people in boxes, I am a gay man with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I don’t fit in a box and that is actually brilliant for me as it means ‘I am James’!
Welcome to Mental Health Awareness Week 2023 which runs from Monday 15th – Friday 22nd May. This year’s focus is on ‘anxiety’ which aims to shine a light on the difference between anxiety and anxiety disorders.
Some of you reading this may know me as James who works in mental health transformation. This is the public part of me I show every day but isn’t the whole me!
If I was reading this, I’d want to know about the bus station… so let me give you the background before telling you!
In 2004, I found myself having to repeatedly check things at work and at home – locked doors and taps were my triggers. I lived in Chesterfield and worked in Derby but would travel from Derby back home and have an overwhelming burning sensation of worry about the office in Derby being locked. I can’t tell you how many times I was late home from work due to doing the 60 minute journey each way to try to reassure myself that everything was ok. (Let alone how many photographs of doors/taps were on my phone by me trying to reassure myself). Worse still, getting home, having dinner and then making the round trip back to Derby at all hours of the night. There were also the days of being stuck in a checking cycle of leaving work, walking to the train station only having to go back to work to check a door (I’d often end up doing this 2 or 3 times before I got on the train).
I didn’t want to spend so many hours doing this multiple times each week. It was embarrassing for me trying to explain what was happening in my head…. of course I didn’t explain it, rather I masked it, even though my partner and other people close to me could see something was wrong for me.
In 2006, I had one of the most awful experiences (yet now I can’t help but to see the humour)… Imagine the big night out, travelling to Nottingham to see friends for the night, with the 02:30 return coach home booked (that was then, I’d never consider it now if you asked me today!).
Chesterfield bus station had benefitted from a makeover of wooden cladding. The coach was late and I remembered a friend telling me ‘if you smoke, the bus will arrive!’. I decided to apply this and hey-presto!, as if by magic the coach arrived. I quickly stamped out the cigarette and boarded the coach.
5 minutes into the journey panic struck to my core! ‘What if the cigarette was still burning?’ Even worse was not being able to do anything with my thoughts! ‘What if I have burned down the bus station?’ ‘There wiil be CCTV’ … ‘I’m going to go to prison!’ … ‘what will my partner and family think?’ … the thoughts went on, increasing my anxiety.
Anxiety is really person centred! It might sound selfish but this was all about me! Not in a self centred way, rather it was because I was terrified by what I believed to be true and a certainty with intrusive thoughts I didn’t want to have yet they were some of the most powerful thoughts that wouldn’t go away. I needed to do something to reassure myself….
Trying to find a soothing salutation, I had ‘an idea’… the police station was next door to the bus station! ‘There are loads of police cars passing the coach station!’. Simple, isn’t it? Telephone the police station and explain ‘I’m worried that I may have burnt down the coach station’ … ‘I hope this isn’t true, but could you send one of your police cars to check?’ Of course, the coach station was absolutely fine, although I did spend days afterwards anticipating a knock at the door from the police for being perceived as a prank caller or worse!
After my partner encouraged to see my GP, I was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. I was prescribed sertraline (which I still take today) and was referred to the local IAPT service (now called NHS Talking Therapies). It took x2 referrals to IAPT for me to learn how to control my thoughts and even today I still have the occasional wobble but that is ok (apart from the door handle on the back door that get increasingly loose from being checked). In a work capacity my conditions rarely impact me as I can make complex decisions, deal with uncertainty and big decisions. My anxiety and OCD only strike me in my private life, unseen by others.
If you or someone you know is experiencing similar problems, please do encourage them to reach out to the wonderful support that is available. Living with anxiety, embarrassment and excuses isn’t helpful. Equally, all of your support is confidential and doesn’t define you. My story is testimony to that as those of you who know me will know me as James, rather than James who has anxiety and OCD.