I am anxious nearly all the time and anxiety has been in my life for as long as I can remember. There are three different types of anxiety that I am going to touch upon: Obsessive Compulsive anxiety, anxiety connected to interests, and anxiety triggered by sensory confusion and other people.
I have had Obsessive Compulsive anxiety from at least the age of 7. It was initially connected (and still is to a large extent) to my very literal way of understanding information. At the age of 7 the teacher at school told a boy to wash his hands because he had touched the sole of his shoe, and this could give him a disease. This information, combined with warnings about dog dirt, germs, and instructions given by teachers to wash hands before lunch, all added up to make me very worried about contamination. No-one had explained the intricacies and subtleties of these rules to me, and so I erred on the side of absolute caution by being fanatical in my pursuit of cleanliness. For example, before lunch at primary school, I spent ages in the toilets, where I washed my hands until they were chapped and raw. However, as a child my OCD was very episodic in nature. It would occur in intense waves, as happened during one summer holiday, when I walked around for a couple of days with my arms folded because I was convinced that dirt could somehow travel up off the ground and touch my hands. There were, nonetheless, long periods when the OCD did not bother me. Indeed,as I started secondary school it seemed as though the OCD had almost completely disappeared. It is possible that this happened because the new school felt like a fresh beginning, and I was feeling quite optimistic. However, my OCD came back with a vengeance from the age of 14 onward. The food technology teacher had told the class about food poisoning, and in an attempt to protect myself, I became progressively anxious about food. I also stopped travelling on trains and buses because of the terrorist attacks. The world felt very unsafe, and by the end of my teens, I seldom left the house.
My teen years were incredibly isolating. Secondary school was huge compare to primary school, there was more work, less structure, and I really struggled to make friends. I struggled to understand my place in this world, and this might be why my OCD grew worse. I had no-one to confide in, and no-one explained the world to me. I was left to work the rules out on my own.
It was only when I finally got diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 21, and started to receive the correct support from an Autism charity, that I could start tackling my OCD. Seven years have passed since diagnosis, and although I am still very anxious, I can travel on trains and buses again, eater a greater variety of food, and I have learnt how to manage the OCD in a slightly more productive way. I think diagnosis helped me feel more confident and less alone, and this new understanding about my place in the world, reduced the intensity of my OCD.
I am a very intense person, and when I am interested in something, I like to understand the subject in its entirety. Having intense interests can be positive, and it has helped me to deal with anxiety. For example, as a teenager, I became very obsessed with the actress Kate Winslet. This interest made my life feel more ordered and meaningful during a time of great change. The interest inspired me to do things that would ordinarily be too anxiety provoking to even contemplate. For example, after watching Winslet’s sister perform with a local theatre company, I auditioned for a role in the next year’s play. I attended weekly rehearsals that went on for hours, and I played the part of a peasant girl in front of a huge crowd of people. I also went dancing after school and took a drama A level, all because of my Winslet obsession. I am currently interested in public speaking, and this interest has helped me to overcome my anxiety when travelling to new places. However, my intense interests can also make me anxious because I worry that unforeseen events will get in the way. Therefore, before a speaking event, or any event that I am looking forward to, my OCD gets a lot worse. I spend longer washing my hands, and I worry more about contamination. I worry because, if I get ill, I would not be able to attend the important event. And because the interest is so strong, this would feel as though the world is coming to an end.
Finally, another huge source of anxiety is noise and too much information. I can only concentrate on one thing at a time, and so I get very anxious if there is any noise when I am trying to read or do any other mentally taxing activity. Noise can also affect my sleep because I can only switch off if it is completely quiet. When I am walking down the street, the movement and noise from passing cars is incredibly distracting. I am also very aware of other people, and I worry that they are judging me. I have experienced a lot of rejection in the past, and consequently I feel quite insecure. People are a huge source of anxiety and tension because I really struggle to understand them, and socialising is very hard work. I have to process what they are saying, and this is hard because of all the sensory input that is going on around me.
I would like to conclude by emphasising how important diagnosis and appropriate support has been in helping me to cope with my anxiety. Since diagnosis I have felt more confident, and this has helped me to challenge my fears. My interests have also helped. Battling my anxiety is a daily challenge, but I feel very pleased whenever I beat a fear. I don’t want to ever give up, even though my life is very hard.