By J. Grant
The thought of jumping in front of a train as it approaches. The thought of putting your hand in a blender. The thought of murdering your baby. The unswerving thought that you definitely have Aids. Even the thought of abusing a child. We all get intrusive thoughts, it's just that some of us get them more than most.
I remember, at the age of 14, being with my two best mates and the news had finally got out that our youth worker was paedophile. He had been arrested for sexually assaulting a child at a youth camp. For my mates and me this news was of no surprise. For years he had taken us swimming, watched us naked in the communal showers, wrestled with us, tickled us, hugged us and held us close revealing his alcohol-infused breath.
For me, he had also placed his hand up my shirt and rubbed my back which was the same 'trick' for which he had got himself arrested. It was one move too far. All of a sudden I realised that he wasn't the kind, energetic, gregarious youth worker he had pretended to be. He was, in fact, a fully-fledged paedophile who was making his big paedo move. I quickly ran away and after attempting to inform adults, who didn't believe a word of what I saying, I regrettably never mentioned it again.
For some reason, my youth worker's eventual arrest triggered something in my head. It began in my science class the next day when the word 'kids' suddenly bombarded my mind. I subsequently spent what felt like most nights of my teenage years lying in my bed, alone, awake, and scared. Sleep was a Holy Grail that could not be reached. The single word 'kids' followed by accusations of 'You're a paedo' constantly ramming through my head, incessant thoughts and images tapping at the periphery of my mind. All I knew was that I was 14 years of age and I was petrified of being a paedophile.
It wasn't until 17 years later I stumbled across the term 'intrusive thoughts'. I was at a bar with a friend and we approached two girls who happened to be psychologists. Whilst I was wondering if this girl would be interested in my very own consensual, non-paedophilic, hand up the back trick, I overheard her say something along the lines of "There is nothing wrong with intrusive thoughts. They are only thoughts!" Later that night I looked up the term on Wikipedia and was overwhelmed by what I read. I would never have expected that my experiences as a child and beyond could be summarised and defined so easily through a 3am Google search. It put colour to a painting that was already sketched in pencil. It articulated what I already knew: I had never struggled with paedophilia. What I had wrestled with were 'unwanted and unbidden thoughts which appear in our mind outside of our control'.
Obsessional Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is where actions are carried out to try and counteract intrusive thoughts. Primarily Obsessional OCD (Pure-O) is intrusive thoughts, usually abhorrent in nature, which causes mental anxiety without a compulsive action linked to it. Psychologist Steven J. Phillipson explains that treatment for Pure O lies in focusing on eliminating the mental activity which attempts to escape or undo the thoughts as opposed to trying to stop the thoughts themselves. This lack of response will lead to the thoughts decreasing in frequency and emotional intensity.
Following my sleepless nights as a teenager, after time, I too learnt to simply shrug off the thoughts that kept me awake as a child. Even now, some years later, my mind is still not entirely my friend. I frequently think of the word 'jump' as a train approaches on the underground. However, the thought of jumping in front of a train is entirely outweighed by the belief that the last thing I am about to do is take a suicidal jump into the unknown. And as such the intrusive thought does not need to be distressing.
Professional opinion is clear that intrusive thoughts do not lead to the doing of the feared action and do not indicate a moral flaw. However, socially speaking, thoughts of suicide, homicide and child abuse do not tend to make the grade as a general topic of conversation. I wrote this article to try and answer a simple question: how does one say that they have scary thoughts of child abuse without sounding like a paedophile? How does the mother explain that she thinks of harming her child without having to doubt her own sanity? How does the person who fears contracting a disease through seemingly impossible means ever sound OK? In short, how do we explain the horrors of our mind without sounding horrific?
The answer lies in understanding. Understanding that intrusive thoughts are actually just thoughts. We need not be scared or ashamed of these thoughts, no matter how sickening, shocking or horrific. And that is a wonderful thought.