14/09/2015 11:55 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

I Have Sympathy For The Devil In My Head

The 'healthy' brain works like an email system. It knows which messages are important, and which aren't. My email system didn't come with filters. Instead, my inbox is flooded with spam. Inbox management is challenging; OCD is ridiculous.

Keystone Features via Getty Images
Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones in a London recording studio during the filming of French film director Jean-Luc Godard's 'Sympathy For the Devil' (aka 'One Plus One'), 30th July 1968. (Photo by Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Are you OK?

RUOKDay fell last week, but I want to ask you this week. And next week. And I'd love to check in with you in October, too.

I'm OK, by the way. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, affectionately known as OCD. I've had it since I was 15. It is, to put it as simply and bluntly and inarticulately as possible, shit. It's shit, but I'm OK.

I'm OK because I talk about it, joke about it; occasionally I write about it. I'm OK because I have incredibly supportive family, close friends and colleagues. I'm OK because I have the means and access to proper care. I'm fortunate enough to be well educated and live in an increasingly liberal society where to live with mental illness is not to live with weakness. In fact, to admit I have OCD (I have it, I don't suffer from it) in 2015 is OK. And it's to be empowered.

It's not an easy condition to explain. For me, at least, there is no flicking of light switches, no washing of hands, no checking the iron is still plugged in. I'm not a 'little bit OCD' in that quirky way where I'm compelled to match my outfit (though I am wearing double denim today and I am pulling it off). I'm a 'lot-a-bit' OCD in that not-at-all-quirky way where it sucks. It just sucks.

My brain, quite simply, is wired incorrectly. The best I can offer is an analogy. The 'healthy' brain works like an email system. It knows which messages are important, and which aren't. My email system didn't come with filters. Instead, my inbox is flooded with spam; outrageous messages are red-flagged as important! and I spend most of my day stuck in reply-all purgatory. Inbox management is challenging; OCD is ridiculous.

It's not the overactive brain that's particularly bothersome; in fact, professionally at least, that comes in pretty handy. It's the crippling anxiety that comes with it. Red-flagged thoughts and ideas trouble me deeply, even when the rational part of my brain knows it's spam. Those messages can seem as imperative as any other, creating an endless cycles of maybes, what-ifs and doubts. They're as seductive as the guitar solo from Sympathy For The Devil; if only my biggest problem was having The Rolling Stones stuck in my head.

One night when I was 15 years old, recently gripped by this terror, I was sitting in a bathtub in Japan, paralysed by fear. Was I crazy? Was I born this way? I don't understand this. Certainly it's my fault. Tears streaming down my face, I resolved to take this secret -- that my brain was flooded with incredibly troublesome thoughts and images beyond my control -- to the grave. I could never admit that out loud. I also resolved to stop contemplating the future because I could no longer imagine a life for myself where I felt OK.

But many years later I made a different resolution: I cannot and should not hide from this any more. Trying to push this thing out of my mind, sometimes even locking myself inside my room to feel safe, doesn't work. I sought a referral to a psychologist and he told me I wasn't crazy. I drove home, embraced my parents and buried years of tears into their shoulders.

And I felt free.

I'm not alone, by any stretch. One in four Australians will have anxiety at some point in their lives. Fewer will have anxiety chronically, and fewer still have OCD. That means nothing other than to say that, despite the scarcity of others with my condition, it's more apparent than ever that many of us are dealing with something. It can be anxiety, it can be depression. It can also be an incredibly stressful job, a relationship problem, the challenge of raising children or the financial grip of mortgages, bills and a volatile stock market.

While mental illness and Australia's suicide crisis require special care, no one should feel as though their daily struggle is a burden to those around them.

So I'd like to issue you an invitation, which is two-fold:

1) If you're struggling, or your mate is struggling, or your sister is struggling -- with anything -- please call for help. You can contact your GP, or if you're at a crisis point contact Lifeline on 13 11 14;

2) Ask your friends and loved ones if they're OK. And not because it's that one day a year where we're encouraged to do so, but because we need to ask people these tough questions. It's how people get noticed, it's how people get better and it's how Australia's deep mental health wound can begin to heal.

I'm OK. Are you?


If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.