It took mental health campaigner Aaron Harvey twenty years to seek help for the brutally violent thoughts that were consuming his mind. By that point, he had started to struggle separating his visions from reality.
“I finally sought treatment when I started challenging my harm OCD thoughts,” Harvey tells The Independent. “I remember having an image flash into my mind where I was standing in front of a mirror in a dark room holding a butcher knife to my neck. Normally, that would be just one of thousands of daily obsessive images. But in that moment, I realised it was a memory, not an unwanted thought. The night before I must have self-medicated so heavily I didn't remember. I was terrified.”
Now, the 36-year-old from Orlando, Florida, is speaking out how OCD took over his life in a bid to encourage others with the condition to get help, and to hit back at the idea that the mental illness is just about being anally retentive about tidying.
OCD is an anxiety condition which manifests itself in obsessive thoughts. Having thoughts dominated by cleanliness is certainly one of the ways OCD will show itself. However, symptoms can also include repetitive thoughts about killing others. Or scrupulosity OCD, where a person fears they will be punished for blasphemy. Meanwhile, those suffering from sexuality OCD will constantly question whether they are gay or straight. And paedophilic OCD will cause a person to be gripped by unwanted sexual thoughts about children. In Britain, around 740,000 people will experience the condition at any given time according to OCD UK. Around half of these will experience the severest form.
After struggling to understand his own condition for two decades, Harvey set up the mental health non-profit organisation IntrusiveThoughts.org. Under this banner he established the Intrusive Thoughts Project which invites people with OCD to share their stories online through YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, message forums, and publications. Contributors have included everyone from artists and psychologists to personal trainers.
Like Harvey, many contributors grappled with their internal monologues for years before opening up to someone else. On average, it takes a person with OCD seven years to seek professional help for their intrusive thoughts. This is due to their disturbing and emotional nature, explains Harvey.
“Violence. Sex. Murder. Pedophilia. Blasphemy. It's all so taboo that you spend your entire life trying to prove to yourself you're not capable of acting on the images in your head," he says.
When Harvey finally mustered up the courage to tap “violent thoughts” into Google, he landed on an article describing a phenomenon known as “Pure O” - an amalgamation of many forms of OCD.
“My heart was in my throat as I read each one, all of which I had been experiencing at some point throughout my life. Obsessions about hitting someone with my car. Killing a loved one. Unable to determine my sexual orientation. Existential obsessions. Religious obsessions. Self-harm, mutilation and suicide obsessions.
“The feeling is indescribable. It's the ultimate relief coupled with the ultimate fear. I might not be crazy after all! But what does this mean? Does this condition mean I'm more likely to act on my thoughts?”
The journey of detangling his OCD from the rest of his personality, with the help of medical professionals, had just begun. And although he has been treated for his OCD, the condition can still flare up, particularly when he is experiencing depression.
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Sometimes, Harvey will be hit with a dozen intrusive thoughts a day, with the images coming in waves. These then transform into racing thoughts which are hardest thing for him to cope with.
“It disrupts all the beautiful moments in my life, and all the mundane ones, too," says Harvey. "Here's what an average day might look like. Stepping into the shower, the sight of the shaving razor triggers images of mutilating my genitals. Slicing a piece of toast triggers images of cutting my wrists open and bleeding out over the plate. Walking to work I spot a well-dressed man and have thoughts about being raped by him. Likewise passing by women I picture all kinds of bizarre sexual scenarios. I get into the boardroom and mid-pitch, I am mutilating a client.”
“It's unbearable. When I am depressed or experience depressive thoughts, my brain is constantly telling me to cut or kill myself, and showing me visual ways to do it.”
Understanding how extreme OCD can be, Harvey’s goal with Intrusive Thoughts was simply to save one person’s life when he started.
“If our resource helped to do that, the entire effort was worth it. In just over a year, we've received hundreds of beautiful messages from the community. And while it's beautiful to hear, it's also devastating to learn about people's stories. People who turned to meth to cope. People misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. People whose jobs were threatened or lost. Stigma is a real thing. It affects the people we love the most.”
Next, Harvey plans to re-launch the Intrusive Thoughts website in the summer with new professional guidance, and set up an advocacy non-profit to tackle broader issues surrounding mental health.
And for those who feel that Harvey’s experiences chime with their own, he urges them to gain as much an understanding of the condition as possible to avoid misinformation online and being misdiagnosed. They need to seek help.
“Be honest with yourself. If you are experiencing mental health issues, get educated. Education is empowerment. And if you are not experiencing mental health issues, you know family and friends who are or who will be one day. Get educated for them.”
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