Two weeks ago I was sitting alone with David, an experienced counsellor. Together we were unraveling the recent family counselling sessions I’d had with my two teenage children. It was his suggestion, a chance to take stock since the children and I had started counselling after a very difficult 12 months, where there had been no contact.
It was at that point, with one simple but well-constructed question, David was able to help me uncover why it was I had been unable to let go of the guilt, which I'd carried around with me for seven-and-a-half years. It was a ‘light-bulb moment’: a moment of absolute clarity.
"Every time the children mention the breakdown of your marriage, it triggers emotions that are still very close to the surface; why is that? Why haven’t you managed to let go after all this time?"
So I thought for a moment, and replied: "I just wanted someone to share the blame, some forgiveness I suppose?"
"But that's not coming, is it? So why don’t you forgive yourself?…. Give yourself permission to be forgiven."
My marriage separation occurred when the children were still very young. There was pressure on us from all angles: OCD, running my own business after being made redundant, to mention just a couple. Looking back, paradoxically I think the OCD became my most constant and faithful friend, some calmer waters amongst the tidal wave of life's problems.
I was ‘clinically’ diagnosed with OCD at 19. It was noticed, while I was working abroad and I was ostensibly carrying too much responsibility for myself and for my parents. Since then, there have been periods where it's put profound limitations on my life, wellbeing and any form of enjoyment in life and, diametrically, other times when I’ve shown that when I set my mind to something I can produce outstanding results.
I had no idea what provision there was for a mental health condition, but I can tell you I was very fortunate to receive treatment from a specialist Consultant at St George's Hospital, Tooting, which at the time was the pioneering centre dealing with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the UK. I remember my nervousness of going to a hospital that the dealt with the Mind not the Body - this is 30 years ago of course.
I was shown the principles of CBT therapy and I set to work on tackling my ‘checking’ and ‘washing’ ( this encompassed ritualistic hand washing, checking light-switches, cupboards, clothes etc.) I was able to get the behaviour under control within three months and pursue the kinds of activities a young man in his 20s should be able to.
Did anyone notice? You betcha. As anyone who suffers with an anxiety condition will tell you, once you feel conscious that you’ve started ritualising, it’s almost as if you’ve put a high-vis waistcoat on with ‘hey everyone, I do rituals!’ - but in reality, it’s not as prominent as the sufferer believes and our societal tolerance towards mental health has improved markedly in recent years.
So why was I feeling guilty? Well, maybe this is embedded in the circuitry of anxiety disorders (it would be interesting to hear other people’s views or experiences). However after being told repeatedly that the root cause of our marriage failing was my OCD, your confidence and self esteem plummets to such a place, that you agree to accept the the blame.
Lived experience tells us when a relationship breaks down, it can be exclusively one person’s doing, but largely long-term relationships fail for multiple reasons, and those are attributed to both parties.
What happens next? You do what you need to, you get on the best you can. If you’re able to, you continue going to work and trying to meet your responsibilities and for me this was accompanied by using OCD’s well-practised coping mechanisms. I’ve been fortunate enough to have received treatment during the most problematic periods, but I cannot say why it didn’t bring me to the conclusion that David managed to It needs working at, the belief that you can restore your identity - find the ‘OK' part of you again.