The man who lived in fear
How one tutor faced his obsessional disorder by writing about it
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Tuesday 04 February 2003
Samuel Johnson once urged his readers: "Look around. Tell me which of your wants is without supply. If you want nothing, how are you unhappy?" It's a reasonable question but even the legendary lexicographer could not find the words to answer it. For Johnson – respected, feted and wealthy – could never shake off what became an obsessive inability to be at ease with the world.
Even his gift for the written word could not help him. "It came into my mind to write the history of my melancholy," he haltingly set down. "I purpose to deliberate; I know not whether it may too much disturb me."
Biopsychology academic Dr Frederick Toates must have experienced similar fears before writing Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, an intensely personal work combining his battle with the same condition with strategies for trying to overcome it.
For Dr Toates has spent years trying to cope with irrational fears of almost impossibly unlikely disasters. We all doubt occasionally that we closed the front door, or turned the oven off. But few of us have refused to buy grapes for fear they have been poisoned by the CIA. Or, as teenagers, been scared to start university in case we began a doomed love affair. Or torn open an envelope we were about to post, fearing we'd put the wrong letter inside – then realised it was the right letter, gone home, written a fresh envelope and then got to the postbox to face exactly the same dilemma.
Dr Toates is honest about his emotions when recalling these demons. "I was afraid to write this book," he says. "Setting down dark thoughts keeps them on your mind."
Half of this recently revised work, first published in 1990, details fears that meant even the simplest tasks threw Dr Toates into a state of morbid terror. "I'm satisfied I wrote it," he says evenly, indicating how joyless a task it was. "When I returned to it 12 years later, some chapters were still difficult. There was no catharsis."
Dr Toates, now 59, recalls his problems began in his early twenties while teaching in Denmark. A period of euphoria was followed by inexplicable depression. "I tried to explain [to a girlfriend, Mette] that it was because life was so good that I felt so sad," Dr Toates writes, adding: "But this inverse logic made little sense to her."
As he slid deeper into depression, even touching Mette would ignite worries about her future. And he felt compelled to check everything. And then check it again. In the mid-Seventies, he hit rock bottom.
His fight back to health was boosted by a job at the Open University, where he still teaches as a renowned motivational theorist. But he admits that, 25 years on, he is no more "cured" now than he was then. "I'm like a diabetic who remembers his insulin," he says. "Danger is always lurking."
This new edition, written with his wife Dr Olga Coschug-Toates, suggests coping strategies including hypnosis, prayer, exercise and having constant company. But he knows they will not work for everyone.
"It's about getting by," he says. "When I go out I shut my door while saying the name of the place I'm visiting. If I doubt later on that I shut it, I'll remember that. And I'll still believe I've dropped a letter instead of putting it in a postbox – but now I can blame such confusion on growing old."
Dr Toates is grateful his career has allowed him to explore the condition, but even that raises inevitable questions. "Does the study of psychology make you madder than you would have been?" he says. "Certainly it's a subject which centres far more around misery than happiness."
And he accepts now that the melancholy will probably never leave him. "The frustrating thing," he says "is that I could be indescribably, blissfully happy, if only I wasn't neurotic. Take that away and I'm there."
'Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Second Edition): Practical, tried and tested strategies to overcome OCD' is published by Class Publishing (www.class.co.uk), £14.99
Asteroid narrowly scrapes past Earth: how to watch the closest space rock for decades as it flies by
Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
Greece elections: Greek PM Alexis Tsipras takes aim at 'neo-liberal' Europe as country gears up for prolonged austerity battle
Pornhub star Mia Khalifa receives death threats after being ranked the site's top adult actress
Prince Philip set to be knighted by Australia: Celebrate by reading his greatest gaffes
'We would evict Queen from Buckingham Palace and allocate her council house,' say Greens
French court convicts three over homophobic tweets, in case hailed as a 'significant victory' by LGBT rights campaigners
Greece elections: Syriza and EU on collision course after election win for left-wing party
British Muslim school children suffering a backlash of abuse following Paris attacks
Islamic history is full of free thinkers - but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd
30,000 reasons why the rhetoric on immigrants claiming benefits can stop now
- 1 The BBC has just done more to eradicate ‘terrorism’ than all our wars since 9/11
- 2 Dog thinks owner is drowning in lake, dives in and tries to pull him out
- 3 Saudi preacher who 'raped and tortured' his five -year-old daughter to death is released after paying 'blood money'
- 4 Chilling drone footage captures Auschwitz ahead of 70th anniversary of liberation
- 5 Narendra Modi: Indian Prime Minister wears suit with pinstripes that spell his name to meet Barack Obama
£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...
£12000 - £14400 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Experienced Cover Supervisor...
Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...
Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunity for you to jo...