David Harewood’s Psychosis and Me: Thoughts from someone with OCD

It’s important to preface this post by saying that I don’t have a huge amount of knowledge of psychosis – probably more than the average person but nowhere near as much knowledge as I have about OCD. So if you have psychosis and spot something which isn’t right, feel free to let me know!

First of all, I think I speak for many people who have mental illness in saying how pleased I was to hear a celebrity being so open about his experiences with psychosis. David Harewood: Psychosis and Me (at the time of writing, available on BBC iPlayer) was an interesting programme to watch, and reminded me of some of the similarities and differences between psychosis and my own experience of mental illness.

Similarities

The “third party voice”

The part of the programme that resonated with me most was this quote from a woman who is currently managing her psychosis fairly well. She’s talking about how she deals with the voices when they do come up:

Remind myself that this type of thing has happened before, and it’s just my third party voice. Don’t have to listen to it, certainly don’t have to answer to it, it’s just my third party voice, get on with what [I’m] doing.

person with experience of psychosis

I liked the conceptualisation of psychosis voices as a “third party voice”. The way this woman approaches her voices is similar to the way I used to approach my OCD when I was well and got the occasional intrusion. It’s also what I aim to do with some of my bad thoughts now, when I’m trying not to obey them all (I usually make some attempts in each day, but the number of attempts varies depending on how tired and stressed I am). I’m not always successful, but if I can catch/dismiss/ignore an OCD thought right away, it’s easier to move past it than if I “enter into a conversation” with the thought or give it any serious response. OCD tricks your brain into thinking there is an immediate threat – it co-opts the neural circuitry that was designed to keep us safe from physical danger. It’s very hard for your brain to over-ride that – if it were easy we would have died out as a species many years ago.

So the quote from the woman with psychosis is a good example of what relative recovery looks like, in psychosis and in OCD. For me, recovery from OCD involved maybe 5 bad thoughts per day, all of which could be ignored easily. That was like living in a world of colour, compared to the grey I lived in before it.

The structure and content

Another similarity between psychosis and OCD that came out of the programme was to do with how the psychiatrist noted that the structure of psychosis is similar across people, but the content varies. In addition, the psychiatrist talked about how the content of psychosis varies in line with society and the things that are important to the people involved. So psychosis now can involve social media, whereas psychosis in the past more commonly involved religious themes. This is quite similar to OCD in that the intrusive thoughts and the compulsions are often similar across people, but the content depends on what matters to the individual. I’m fully aware that if I have children, my OCD is likely to focus on causing harm to them, because they will be one of the most important things in my life. My OCD now is focused on religion, because my faith is important to me (and also because it’s been the hardest OCD theme for me to beat).

Talking of which, that brings me to another similarity – a woman who was very unwell on the programme said that the devil put something in her neck, and that the devil was in things and people. This reminded me of when I was younger and I had a bad thought that Jesus was in my dad’s slipper. My dad ended up throwing the slipper against the wall in frustration, which didn’t help.

Differences

Do you truly believe the intrusions?

To someone with no experience of either mental illness, I’d imagine psychosis and OCD can sound similar on the surface. The best way I can think to distinguish them (bearing in mind I haven’t personally experienced psychosis), is that when someone with psychosis gets very unwell, they genuinely believe their delusions, and will express them to others without much awareness that they will sound strange (e.g. David Harewood telling his friends he had three brains). A person with OCD who is very unwell often does know that their thoughts will sound preposterous to a neurotypical person (e.g. I know that “my mum will get cancer unless I count to 10” will sound odd to people without OCD). To varying degrees, people with OCD know that the thoughts are intrusions. But we still react to them because they feel as terrifying as they would if they were true.

David Harewood

To look at another example (this could be potentially distressing, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph), a woman in David Harewood’s programme talked about when she walked in front of a white van because she believed she could save her family by doing so (in a supernatural way – she wasn’t suicidal). Thankfully she survived (she said she ran away afterwards, so I assume she wasn’t too badly injured). But as far as I could tell from her telling of the story, there was no other interpretation in her head at that time, it was just something she “knew” she needed to do. In contrast, I’ve found that if my OCD has to compete with genuine life-threatening situations, it quietens down. For example when I was in an emergency lay-by next to a 70mph road, I was able to walk away from the car without the usual onslaught of bad thoughts telling me where to step. With OCD there is always a tension between our knowledge and our fear. [As a side note: writing this paragraph meant my OCD started trying to convince me to walk in front of a van in order to stop my worst fears happening – OCD works with what’s there unfortunately].

I should point out here that I know that some people with symptoms of psychosis, such as hearing voices, often do know that the voices are generated by their own minds. Similarly, people who used to believe in their delusions wholeheartedly but have since had successful treatment can have good insight into what’s real and what’s a symptom (as demonstrated by the woman on David Harewood’s programme, and David himself). The difference between OCD and psychosis is perhaps clearer when it comes to first episodes of psychosis and the people who are the most unwell. From what the programme suggests, people who are very unwell with psychosis are unlikely to be fully in touch with the real world. In contrast, I am severely ill with OCD but I almost always know when a thought comes from OCD and when it comes from me.

Treatment effects

Another difference is that symptoms of psychosis can show dramatic improvements if people comply with their medicine. At least in my experience, this hasn’t been the case for OCD. Despite my initial high hopes, I’ve never noticed a reduction in the strength or frequency of OCD thoughts as a result of taking medicine (even at high doses, and even having tried multiple medicines). It’s likely that this is partly because I’m not personally very responsive to anti-depressants, for whatever reason. But I suspect that medication for OCD in general isn’t linked with the vast improvements in symptoms that have been described by people with psychosis.

There was a lot of talk in the programme of “if I’d got help earlier” or “if I’d taken those tablets” then things wouldn’t have got so bad. I don’t know how true that is of people with psychosis in general, vs how much it was the programme encouraging people to seek help early. But from what I can tell some people with psychosis can see a big, relatively fast improvement in their symptoms if they are prescribed the right medicine, and so intervening at the right moment can make a big difference.

It’s generally correct that the earlier you can get treatment for mental illness the better the prognosis. However, I wouldn’t say there was a moment where I could have stopped myself getting this ill if only I’d done x at time-point y. [In hindsight, not entering into an emotionally abusive relationship would have given me a better chance at getting well sooner, but I didn’t have the self esteem to make a different choice at that time, and I had already been ill for 8 years by then.] When my OCD was presented with medication (at age 17), it just barreled on through. Maybe it would have been different if I’d been given medication at age 11, but I suspect not – my genetics and life circumstances would have been the same, and both would have continued to play their part in maintaining and worsening my illness. [Note – this isn’t to say that there was never any hope – I did get better at age 23 and I am hoping to get better again]. I’m glad that medicine can have such a positive impact for some people with psychosis, and I hope that one day treatments for OCD will catch up.

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