#ThisisOxford is Oxford SU’s mental health anti-stigma campaign, aiming to raise awareness of those in our community who are studying with a wide range of mental health conditions. Today’s spotlight is on Magdalen first year Chemist Luke Richardson, who talks about his experience of having OCD at Oxford.
Coming to oxford will always be daunting no matter who you are. No matter what school you’ve come from, what grades you got, how much you know about the system; everyone will feel intimidated upon arrival. You’ll have been told that it’s hard and you won’t be able to breeze through like you did at school. What you most likely won’t have been told is the possible effect on your mental health, particularly if you arrive here with an issue.
I have OCD.
Looking back, I think I’ve always had it to some degree but it started to significantly impact my life about 6 years ago after a bad case of food poisoning. Fast forward until a few years ago and the skin on my hands was perpetually dry and flaking off because of constant hand washing. There were things I wouldn’t touch because of fear of contamination. I wouldn’t eat food with my hands even if I had just washed them - I even perfected eating crisps with a knife and fork! I had a bottle of hand sanitiser on me at all times. I was constantly spitting to avoid swallowing imagined dirt in my mouth.
And that is just a small portion of my compulsions at their peak. Everyone’s are different though: some focus on repeated touching and counting, others on an obsession with morality and following rules, others hoard seemingly useless objects because they are convinced they may be crucially important in the future. Whilst I had all of these to some degree, my obsessions were, and are, primarily about food hygiene.
I arrived in Oxford with my OCD under control after over a year of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and medication. Thinking I would manage, I didn’t arrange therapy here. Come second week, I had hit a low and the compulsions were returning. A good start then.
Chemistry being a tough degree even by Oxford standards hasn’t helped matters. Working in labs with highly toxic, irritant and carcinogenic chemicals gives a very real threat of contamination. This makes the task in hand that much harder as I can’t focus on it completely. The adjustment from being ‘the smart one’ to being average here quickly takes its toll on your self-esteem – welcome imposter syndrome followed by 5th week blues!
A distraction often helps, at least in the short term. I love the theatre and embracing my queerness to the fullest extent possible. In both worlds my anxiety is ever present. During auditions, rehearsals and performances thoughts that I am not good enough to be there are ever present. In the LGBTQ+ community I am still figuring myself out, and that uncertainty of where exactly I fall in the spectrum gives rise to identity anxiety. I have anxiety about relationships; does the other person actually find me attractive? Are they just being polite? Taking pity on me? Because surely there must be some other motive for them spending time with me because it can’t be because they like me. In both communities I have found many other people with mental health issues. LGBTQ+ people who have struggled to realise and accept who they are, actors drawn to the stage as a chance to be someone else for a few hours – to be removed from their own problems and adopt another’s whilst already knowing what the next scene will bring. Plus it’s a chance to be weird for a bit without anyone judging you for it!
When something is a major factor in my identity, I love to talk about it. Ask me, or virtually any other LBGTQ+ person, about our community and we could probably out talk the rowers! I find the same to be true for mental health issues. I really welcome the chance to talk about my experiences. If they’ve also had problems then the mutual sympathy is always nice. If they haven’t, I still love talking about it because it shows that they care and are willing to be educated on an issue that is so often overlooked or misrepresented.
I am fond of likening anxiety to a dream. When you are in the middle of a dream or an anxiety episode the situation your mind has created seems perfectly real, although it never seems that way to an observer. People sometimes say “just snap out of it” but that never works. No matter how much you know there is no threat, it doesn’t stop your mind from convincing itself that there is. Because that’s what you’re fighting; your own mind attacking you.
A truth that I have often been told but only recently accepted is that I will have OCD for the rest of my life. There is no ‘cure’, only being better able to manage it and not let it take over your life. So, if you have identified with anything I’ve been talking about then I urge you to talk about it. Talk to your GP, your friends, your family if you can, anyone you can trust. Get help. I can promise you that you will never be able to get better on your own – trust me, I’ve tried, and not believing this same advice was one of the worst mistakes I’ve ever made.
But I am more than just my mental illness. I am an actor. I am a Chemist. I am a singer. I am intelligent. I am queer. I am valid. I am enough. I am fabulous! I am strong to have fought for so long and I am determined for continuing to do so. I am beautiful in my own way. I am proud of myself and of what I have done with my life. I love who I am and I would never change that.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this blog:
The SU runs a Student Advice Service which aims to provide a space for students to talk over their worries in confidence, and to offer information on a range of issues which you might encounter. Visit the Advice Section of our website to find out more: https://www.oxfordsu.org/wellbeing/student-advice/.
OCD Action runs an independent, peer-led support group in Oxford for those affected by OCD, which provides an opportunity to share thoughts, ideas and strategies, and to provide mutual support. They meet at Restore on Manzil Way, and more details can be found here: http://www.ocdaction.org.uk/support-group/oxford-ocd-support-group.
In an emergency, you are able to call the Samaritans free any time, from any phone, on 116 123, www.samaritans.org.