The hidden torment of an anxious extrovert

'I made up this persona - making jokes and being jolly - but I was struggling with repetitive thoughts and anxiety'

Kashmira Gander
Thursday 13 April 2017 15:35 BST

Clive Dunning has suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since he was three-years-old. He believes his mother's ill-health was the trigger. She was in and out of hospital, and when she seemed well he would desperately try to replicate his behaviour - just in case it would stop his mother from getting poorly.

“It started with light switches. I had to turn them on and off a certain amount of times.” Soon, he would turn off taps a certain number of times. Then repeatedly wash his hands.

He was convinced that if he performed these rituals, his mother wouldn't get sick again. But there was always small voice in back of head saying that what he was doing wasn’t right.

Yet, those around him were unaware of what was going on inside his mind. Duning wasn’t withdrawn, quiet or shy like those with mental illnesses characterised by anxiety are stereotypically “supposed” to be.

“I used to be really introverted I would go above and beyond to crack jokes and be loud especially in the classroom,” recalls Dunning.

“I made this persona up in the classroom making jokes and being jolly but of course I was struggling with repetitive thoughts and anxiety.”

Over time, the mental illness consumed his life. Dunning, now 58 and living in Stockton, has experienced “OCD in all its insidious forms”, from “enduring the agony of pointless obsessive rituals and being driven to distraction by persistent and frightening ruminations and anxiety.

However, Dunning didn’t realise it was a mental illness that was debilitating his life. It took years to untangle his personality from his OCD. Outgoing people like him just weren't mentally ill, it seemed.

Suffering in silence, Dunning didn’t seek help until he was in his twenties when his rituals lead him to try to take his life. “At my worst I started suffering from depression because I couldn’t function on a day to day basis," says Dunning.

Gemma*, a 24-year-old PR based in London, has similarly unwittingly used extroverted behaviour to cope with her mental health.

“I've battled low-level depression since I was a teenager but around 19 or 20-years-old I started having periods of prolonged anxiety that often culminated in panic attacks. Sometimes they happen without me even being aware of it until it's in full swing, which can be quite terrifying because I can't identify a cause or a reason,” she tells The Independent.

“I'm quite a loud person anyway but I definitely get louder when I'm feeling particular anxiety,” she says. “In general I think my friends would describe me as a confident, outgoing person. I'm quite loud and I laugh a lot." Unbeknownst to them, it is when she seems loudest and the life and soul of the party that she is suffering the most.

"A lot of my anxiety is social. I assume when people laugh around me that it is at me, when people compliment me I assume they are lying for whatever reason. So whilst I'm often trying to be the life and soul of the party I'm always fairly convinced I'm just boring everyone or annoying them. Unfortunately, this can often lead to me being louder or more annoying, or I can get angry. Mostly I'm angry at myself but sometimes it can manifest in me being surly or rude."

Gemma adds that her feelings of shame towards suffering from anxiety feed into her behaviour.

“If I'm honest, I always thought anxiety was quite a pathetic thing to suffer from, who isn't worried, you know? Even now after years of suffering with it, I'm quite conscious of not wanting to be a stereotypical ‘anxious person’. I realise this is a completely ridiculous stance but anxiety never fit with the image I had of myself as a self-assured and confident woman.”

As her behaviour deviates from that expected of an “anxious” person, Gemma feels that her mental illness isn’t taken as seriously as it should be.

“I wish people wouldn't assume that I'm not anxious because I'm an extrovert, or that my problems can't be that severe if I manage to get past them. I understand a lot of people have it much worse than I do, but it’s frustrating when people write it off as 'just being silly'.”

These are experiences that Head of Information at Mind, Stephen Buckley, says are more common that people might imagine. "OCD and other anxiety disorders such as OCD manifest themselves in many different ways and at different times and can affect people from all walks of life,” he says.

“Even people who appear to ‘have it all’ on the outside could still be experiencing an anxiety disorder. It’s possible for someone living with an anxiety disorder to mask the impact it’s having on their life; for other people the impact of anxiety can be highly debilitating.”

By seeking help, Dunning has managed to control his OCD which now flares up when during periods of stress. This has enabled him to channel his anxiety into learning, and winning the BBC quiz show Mastermind in 2014. Having undergone therapy, practising mindfulness is the now most powerful weapon in his mental health arsenal.

“Being a veteran OCDer, I worried that under the pressure of the spotlight I might succumb to obsessive thoughts and make a fool of myself on national TV," he says. "If someone had told me thirty years ago that one day I would win a national title on TV, I would have laughed at them. At that time my OCD was so severe that I could barely function, let alone conceive of appearing before a television audience of millions. Yet, I am living proof that it is possible to live with OCD and what’s more achieve your ambitions." Ambitions he might have achieved sooner if he wasn't burdened by the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental ill-health.

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