Meet the woman whose OCD makes her fear she's a paedophile
In recent years, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder has come to be seen as something positive. People will happily describe themselves as being "a bit OCD". But there is no good way to have the condition. It is an illness like any other and it claims lives.
To shed light on the reality of OCD, VT spoke to a woman named Autumn who has been living with paedophilia-themed OCD (POCD) for over two decades. This is a strain of "harm OCD" which, as the name suggests, centres around a fear of causing harm.
At this point, it's important to note that people with this type of OCD are in no way likely to act on their obsessions. In short, they are paralysed by fear.
VT: For many people living with OCD, it has a distinct trigger, although this isn’t always the case. Did this happen to you?
“Honestly, it’s quite complicated. Looking back, I can see I had OCD long before my POCD took hold. I was generally a very anxious child who feared everything around her. I had issues with contamination and believed people, even close family members, would drug or poison me. I struggled with false memories for as long as I can remember, which made trusting my mind very difficult. I don’t believe I had a distinct trigger for OCD, in general, but I can say with absolute certainty that the themes of my OCD changed throughout my life, according to my situations. Being sexually abused as a child and recalling that most definitely made me fear becoming a paedophile.”
“I knew that paedophiles existed, but I also knew that they wanted to abuse children. They went out of their way to be around children, whereas I went out of my way to avoid them”
VT: How long did it take you to be diagnosed with the condition?
“In total, it took 21 years for me to be diagnosed with OCD and honestly, it was only after reading an article on POCD in the Guardian that helped me realise I wasn’t alone. Before that, I truly believed myself to be the only person in the world living with this condition. Of course, I knew that paedophiles existed, but I also knew that they wanted to abuse children. They went out of their way to be around children, whereas I went out of my way to avoid them. I thought, for sure, I had to be the only one living with that set of circumstances.”
In the video below, Autumn explains how difficult it is to even talk about OCD
“I decided I couldn’t risk being around children so I made a choice, at fourteen, to never go near a child. This made my daily living almost impossible.”
VT: OCD is arguably one of the most trivialised mental health conditions. How has the stigma surrounding the illness affected your life?
“Honestly, it has been a nightmare. I don’t feel as if I can open up to people about my OCD because almost everyone I meet believes that they, too, have OCD. Nowadays though, I tend to tell people about my struggles before I drop the diagnosis because there’s really no way a person would want to claim ‘being so OCD, too’ after hearing what it is I go through.”
VT: Pedophilia-themed OCD is almost completely unknown among the general population. Can you provide an insight into it?
“Like any illness, I think it varies from person to person. I actually know of mothers with POCD, which, to me, is completely unfathomable. My life with POCD is perhaps an unusual one. That said, I haven’t met a great deal of people with the illness. Not because we don’t exist, but because we are terrified of our existence.”
“POCD, for me, began at 14 years old after I recalled sexual abuse I had suffered as a child. As the memories unfolded, my world completely collapsed around me and every inch of happiness was cast in shadow. I started asking myself if I, too, were capable of sexually abusing a child and even though the answer was an abhorrent ‘no’, my OCD latched onto every small doubt and uncertainty. I decided I couldn’t risk being around children so I made a choice, at 14, to never go near a child. This made my daily living almost impossible. I went to school, but never saw friends outside of school for fear of there being children around. Inevitability, and due to the lack of support I received, I failed my GCSEs, before going to resit them. I continued like this and spent 17 years going to great depths to avoid children everywhere I went until I eventually realised I had OCD.”
“I have my partner lock away our house keys in a safe every night. I don’t know the passcode”
VT: OCD can compel people to do things which are completely bizarre, even to them. What is the most outrageous thing that it has made you do?
“Man, I can’t even begin to describe some of the weird sh*t I’ve done. To start with, I have my partner lock away our house keys in a safe every night. I don’t know the passcode. I don’t want to know the passcode because if I do, my OCD tells me I’ll ‘escape’ during the middle of the night and harm a child. That said, now that I’m learning to come to terms with my illness and am trying to recover, we often laugh about the safe and say that one day, I’ll get those damn numbers tattooed on my arm. That’ll be the day I’ll know I’ve truly recovered from OCD.”
“My new therapist told me I couldn’t possibly have OCD because I wasn’t interested in cleaning”
“When I was at university, I used to move furniture across my room every night before I went to sleep and take photos of everything in place. The idea was that I’d have less chance of ‘escaping’ in my sleep if I had to move a wardrobe and a desk. The irony is that I’ve never sleepwalked in my life, but my OCD tells me there’s always the chance I’ll start.”
“I can’t be left alone with my phone out of fear of calling a school or the police and ‘confessing’ to crimes I didn’t commit or threatening them with crimes my OCD tries to convince me I will commit.”
Autumn is pictured below after using a public bathroom alone for the first time.
VT: A combination of ERP (Exposure and Response Therapy) and medication is the recommended treatment for managing the condition. However, access to the former is difficult to obtain. What struggles have you faced on your road to recovery?
“Access to ERP does seem to be incredibly limited in the UK. After being diagnosed with OCD, I was offered a 10-week course of CBT and while we went into ERP a little, it wasn’t nearly enough to undo over 20 years of intrusive thinking. After that, I was put on a two-year waiting list for further CBT, but after my new therapist told me I couldn’t possibly have OCD because I wasn’t interested in cleaning (no joke!), I quit the sessions.”
“I can say with absolute certainty that my turning point was the day I discovered I was not alone and that every aspect of my inner turmoil could be boiled down to one thing: OCD.”
“In the end, I decided it was better for me to look into private therapy, but this was a huge strain on my already-limited finances. The sad thing is that, despite this financial strain, I was still able to look towards private therapy and I appreciate that not everyone is in that position. That is not OK.”
“My therapist was based in America, so we’d Skype once a month for about an hour. It was nowhere near enough support, but it did get me to where I am today, which is on the path to recovery. I could have easily continued working with the therapist because he was the only professional to ever make a dent in my OCD. But, ultimately, we came to a kind of plateau. This was mostly due to the distance and lack of physical presence involved. I needed a therapist who would be able to assist me with exposures out of the house, such as learning to be around children again.”
VT: You were housebound because of the illness for a number of years. What was the turning point on your road to recovery?
“I can say with absolute certainty that my turning point was the day I discovered I was not alone and that every aspect of my inner turmoil could be boiled down to one thing: OCD. I cannot explain the relief I felt when I realised that I wasn’t ‘bad’, that I wasn’t secretly an evil person, but that I had a mental health condition that was treatable. Just moments before making that discovery, I had been committed to ending my life, so that news article is very much the reason I am still alive today. That relief, however, didn’t last long and despite my newly found wisdom, despite the official diagnosis, and the therapy, my OCD still tried and tries to drag me down that dark path of ‘what if’s’; ‘What if OCD doesn’t actually exist and you’re just a paedophile?’”
“I have this hope that, a few years from now, a teenager will be sitting in their GP’s waiting room and they’ll see a poster for OCD. That poster won’t be of a woman washing her hands or someone burying their head. That poster will ask ‘do you have ‘bad’ thoughts?’”
VT: Recovery from OCD is possible. In what ways do you think society needs to change in order to afford those living with the condition this opportunity?
“I think we need to start talking openly and honestly about OCD. I have this hope that, a few years from now, a teenager will be sitting in their GP’s waiting room and they’ll see a poster for OCD. That poster won’t be of a woman washing her hands or someone burying their head. That poster will ask ‘do you have ‘bad’ thoughts’ and it will open up a conversation between the child and the doctor. It will break the shame and the silence, and it will save lives.”
“I’ve read a few novels on OCD, but I honestly don’t know that any of them get it right”
VT: You are a writer who wants to help destigmatise the condition among young adults. How are you planning to do this through your work?
“I’m working on a novel about a teen with OCD who, like me, has no idea that the symptoms with which she is living are indicative of OCD. It’s an uncomfortable topic, but it’s one that needs addressing. I’ve read a few novels on OCD, but I honestly don’t know that any of them get it right. They are either greatly romanticised or the OCD is diluted so much that it is actually unrecognisable from what a person living with the disorder truly faces. I’m not saying my novel will be the one to get it right, but I hope its honesty and rawness makes a dent. I hope it reaches those who need it the most.”
VT: Although the road to recovery is never a liner one, what are you looking forward to most now that your OCD is slowly but surely becoming under control?
“Wow. Huge question! Honestly, if I ever fully recover from OCD, the thing I’d love to do most is to go out somewhere alone. I love all the people in my life for the support they have given and continue to give me, but I hate to feel like a burden. I want to be able to go to the shop for something without needing a ‘chaperone’. I want to be able to take a walk alone without fearing I might or may have harmed a child. I want to live independently, freely, and fully.”
According to a recent study, people with OCD are 10 times more likely to take their own lives, which is why every effort must be taken to destigmatise the illness and provide those living with the condition with the support and empathy they need.
However, it’s clear that people's attitudes toward OCD need to change to make recovery possible for everyone. I too have OCD and, like Autumn, I have been asked by medical professionals if I have a penchant for cleaning.
Recovering from OCD is no mean feat. It’s coming face-to-face with your worst fear in the world and telling it - and, perhaps more terrifyingly, yourself - that you’re not going to be scared anymore.
Medication can also make a huge difference to those living with OCD. While it’s far from a quick-fix cure, drugs, which typically consist of an SSRI, combined with ERP, enable many people like me to manage the condition and lead otherwise healthy, happy and productive lives. SSRI’s work by inhibiting the reuptake of serotonin in the brain, which has the knock-on effect of reducing the anxiety caused by obsessive thoughts in the first place.
The condition can be split into five main categories - checking, contamination, symmetry, hoarding and rumination. I have experience of rumination and checking, and it is the former which is most terrifying. It has only struck a few times and once convinced me of a crime so bad that I genuinely considered handing myself into the police even though I knew, on a logical level, I’d done nothing wrong. The only way I could let go of the fear was to text someone I barely knew and ask them if I’d hurt them. I knew I’d look crazy, and even though I explained it was OCD, I probably still did. Needless to say, they replied telling me I’d done nothing wrong. That’s the thing about OCD, you know that the fears are irrational, but it's that smidgen of doubt that you simply cannot let go of.
So the next time you hear someone use the term OCD flippantly, pause for a moment and imagine your worst nightmare - the fear you’d feel if you didn't know reality from fiction - and then maybe politely correct them. Until society recognises that there is a disease which convinces people they’re monsters, those monsters will remain hard to beat.