Fighting for happiness: Aron’s battle with OCD
- Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015
For Norfolk man Aron Bennett, his OCD has been a contsant presence in his life. DANIEL BARDSLEY talked to him about his powerful memoir detailing his powerful memoir detailing his experiences.
Aron Bennett describes the obsessive-compulsive disorder he has suffered from on and off since childhood as 'a very clever way of ruining your life'.
At times when he was a young boy, he would wash his hands 20 or 30 times a day. Much later, as an adult, his condition caused him to develop obsessive – yet completely unfounded – fears he was a sexual predator, making him worry constantly that he was using women that he liked. He was tormented by fears that perhaps, even, he could become a rapist.
This seemingly never-ending anxiety destroyed relationships, and caused him to abandon a promising career in law.
Now, five years into a new career, therapy has brought the condition partly under control and the Norwich resident is better able to rationalise his situation as the product of 'a system in the brain that's faulty'. Earlier this year he released a memoir, The Walking Worried: A Young Man's Journey With OCD, describing his experiences.
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'For me, obsessive-compulsive disorder has single-handedly been the greatest block to happiness I have known,' the 29-year-old Norwich resident writes in the book's opening page.
One of OCD's most malign effects on Aron has been the way it has complicated his efforts to form relationships with members of the opposite sex. After going out on dates in the past, he was often consumed by concerns that he has been too forward or exploitative, and this led on to worries about what else he might do.
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'Darker thoughts came. What if I was capable of rape? This is what I wrote about in the book,'' he says.
The product of his OCD rather than any genuine desire, the thoughts caused him 'untold anguish'. It made him, like others with similar forms of OCD, constantly seek reassurance from others that he was not a bad person. Another manifestation was an obsessive concern about sexually transmitted infections.
'This was just the doubting disease causing me to question things I never needed to question,' he says.
'OCD digs its claws in where there's uncertainty.'
OCD involves part of the brain called the caudate nucleus, which transmits 'worry' signals between the brain's orbital-frontal cortex and another structure, the thalamus. In most people, the caudate nucleus filters unnecessary signals. But in people with OCD, the filtering system is faulty, so the thalamus and, in turn, the orbital-frontal cortex become over-stimulated, causing acute anxiety.
Born and brought up in Essex, Aron was aged around ten when his condition first became apparent. As well as repeatedly washing his hands, he would get out of bed a dozen times a night to check taps weren't dripping. He was referred to a child psychologist and, after about ten treatment sessions, the urges had gone.
'That's what happens to most people when they're young: the OCD is fickle. It went away very quickly,' he says.
Several years later, when, along with his parents, Michael and Roberta, and his younger brother, Joe, he moved to Norwich, his condition was still in abeyance. But it flared up again when he went away to university in Lancaster to study law and criminology.
'OCD is triggered by a change in circumstances or a bereavement or tragedy; some sort of change,' he says.
As well as making life difficult with the opposite sex, the condition also led him to give up keeping a diary, something that, as a keen writer, had been one of his chief enjoyments in life.
When he wrote in his diary about his mother's experience of cancer, he felt he was benefiting from her situation, causing overwhelming feelings of guilt.
'Any moral scenario where I could twist it to inculcate myself and point a finger at myself with the label, 'You're a bad person,' instantly made me recoil. Unfortunately it affected my main hobby,' he says.
'If I got pleasure from writing about other people's tragedies, people close to me, does it mean I get off on it?
'The thing about OCD is that you know one thing to be true, but you feel something very separate. It's called the heart-head lag.'
His symptoms were of a variant known as pure OCD. Although there are no obvious external signs, the individual suffers obsessive anxiety, which in Aron's case centred on concerns he was a bad person. It is sometimes described as a problem of 'moral scrupulosity'.
After university, problems continued when Aron began work as a trainee solicitor in Essex in the demanding world of criminal law.
'There was no scope in the law firm to cater for my OCD… The job was so intense and so is OCD and you cannot concentrate on two at the same time. And I had no free time,' he says.
Aron quit the law after six months and came back to Norwich to live with his father, who worked in the insurance industry until retirement, and his mother, a former science technician.
Determined to deal with his condition, he joined a support group and sought treatment, although finding something that worked was not easy. Hypnotherapy and various forms of psychotherapy fell short of achieving a cure.
Eventually he paid for a therapist who tailored the methods of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to his circumstances. This offered the breakthrough he was looking for.
'Your brain learns you don't need to carry out your compulsion. Your anxiety goes down by itself and you realise your brain is lying to you,' he says.
'You expose yourself to the thing that makes you afraid. If you're worried about contamination, you expose yourself to some contamination. The second part is response prevention – you don't engage in the behaviour. You don't wash your hands – you make a cup of tea or read a book. You habituate the fear.'
For nearly five years now, Aron has worked in Diss for a company that distributes audio-visual projectors to the European market, commuting from Norwich, where he continues to live with his parents. In terms of his OCD, the job is 'safe' because, he says, his actions never impact on other individuals.
It has also given him enough spare time over the past three years or so to write the book, helped by the diaries he kept.
'I thought what I was writing in my diaries was all right. I was always quite literary: I always read Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens and Saul Bellow and classic and contemporary writers. I thought to myself: 'I can do something similar,' so I might as well turn my diary into a book. It's a calling,' he says.
'I don't say I'm the most talented writer to have lived, but I felt my writing was good enough to be turned into a book, particularly to spread awareness.
'Half of it was a status thing as well: I wanted to be an author. It was between passion on the one extreme and obligation on the other. The calling is somewhere in between.'
Already The Walking Worried has sold several hundred copies and if it continues to find a readership, Aron may write a follow-up, because 'the OCD story never ends'. He certainly wants to continue writing in some form.
Another extra-curricular activity is being a south-east regional volunteer for the charity OCD Action, which has local groups where people with the condition can share experiences.
Aron tries to help the groups to put themselves on a more formal footing so they can, for example, apply for funds and offer more consistent help to people with the condition.
Although he is at a stage where he can assist others, his own OCD still complicates life. Currently single, he still finds it hard to form relationships, partly because of ongoing concerns he could be taking advantage of any potential partner.
'I worry I'm not going to stay with them long term, that I'm 100 per cent sure I really like them and I'm not using them … It's like my OCD puts the block on any romance,' he says.
'You cannot go out with anybody. They have to understand all this and not run a mile when they see some very bizarre manifestations.'
The Walking Worried: A Young Man's Journey With OCD is published by chipmunk apublishing, priced £12.99