"When the plane touches down, John gives me a sweet smile. 'I’ve done it,' he says"by Cathy Rentzenbrink / September 5, 2019 / Leave a comment
My friend John and I are on a mission: flying to Luxembourg and back in a day. For the first time in a couple of decades he is going to try to take a flight without doing the rituals that he believes keep him safe. “It’s very good of you,” he says at the airport, “to risk flying with me when I haven’t got my special pants on.” I tell him I’d do anything for him but, of course, I’m not scared. Intellectually, John also knows that he is not putting me at risk, but part of him believes that we will all crash out of the sky because he isn’t wearing a certain style of underwear, and won’t be correctly aligning the in-flight magazines, or changing the time on his watch at a precise moment.
I’ve known John since we met at university. He is smart, kind, amusing, successful and has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It crept up on him during his mid-twenties. He was under pressure to meet sales targets at work, was travelling a lot, and almost before he knew how it had happened, he was making futile attempts to control the uncontrollable by touching and arranging his possessions in a particular way, and had to do an increasingly complex set of rituals to make sure both the plane and the deals he was working on came in to land.
When John first told me about it all those years ago, I found it difficult to understand. I’m no stranger to many varieties of mental illness but OCD is alien to me and I couldn’t grasp it. We both smoked then and John explained it in terms of cigarettes. “Doing a ritual is like having a fag,” he told me. “There is a feeling of release but then the tension mounts up again and I have to do another one. The more stressful life is, the more I need the rituals, and the more it escalates.”
He saw a doctor who diagnosed him and referred him for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helped him manage—though he describes it as being given a crutch for your broken leg rather than having the leg mended. Still, the CBT has helped him to lead a good life, though the OCD and anxiety are ever present.