How I coped with OCD at university

Esmé has suffered with OCD since she was a teenager. But her biggest challenge was starting student life at university. She tells The Mix how she coped.

True Stories

Sad girl

I had to do everything three times or something bad would happen.

I hate telling people I have OCD. “Oh, I’m a bit like that,” they say. “I like all of my pens in a neat line.” That’s not what OCD is. I can’t control my own thoughts about 80% of the time. I’m constantly counting in my head: one, two, three. I hate it when things aren’t in threes. I get severely depressed and it hugely affects my self-esteem. That’s not the same as liking your clothes folded neatly.

I thought if I didn’t do things in threes something bad will happen

At first they thought I had depression. I hated myself, I hated my life, and I hated everyone and thought no one loved me. I self-harmed, and at 13 I tried to take my own life. My dad started to sleep outside my bedroom door.

Three years later, when I’d beaten the depression, my mum began to notice the rituals. I shut every door three times, circulated the house three times, washed my hands three times, and brushed my teeth three times. It took me ages to leave the house on a good day – on a bad day, I’d triple my efforts and do everything nine times.

I thought if I didn’t do things in threes something bad will happen. I don’t know exactly what, but I have a huge fear of this unknown bad thing. Three has been my ‘safe’ number for so long that I don’t remember why. I hate numbers two and four.

My mum took me to the doctor and he diagnosed me with OCD. He put me on some medication and I was referred to a therapist, who starting explaining my thoughts to me. Like magic, the tight knot in my stomach undid itself. I finally began to tackle it and stayed in therapy until I was 18. I had a wobble here and there during A-Levels, but generally I felt like I’d got my life back.

I got unhappier and unhappier at university

Despite everything, I managed to get a place at university to study medicine. This changed everything. My mum told me I should set up therapy as soon as I got there. But I didn’t. I was so excited about university being a new start; I wasn’t an OCD teenager who couldn’t cope any more, and I decided I didn’t need therapy. That was a big mistake. My OCD got worse and I failed my first year exams. I passed my retakes but got steadily unhappier and unhappier in my second year.

I decided I couldn’t cope. Couldn’t cope with studying medicine, couldn’t cope with people — couldn’t cope with anything. Why was I bothering? Obviously I was going to fail my next set of exams too. I didn’t want to hang out with my housemates and I’d shut myself in my room. I had a stack of paracetamol boxes on my bedside. I wasn’t planning on taking them, but I liked knowing I had that option. My behaviour scared my friends and they called my parents. I was sent to the doctor – basically to work out whether I was a danger to myself.

Getting depressed is the worst part of my OCD. When it gets bad, it’s like I have no control over what I’m thinking. I have no self-esteem or confidence; it’s horrible.

I did fail my second year exams. I applied for extenuating circumstances, but the exam board refused. It’s ridiculous when you think about it. I study medicine of all things – and I failed because I had a medical condition. They should’ve understood. But I appealed, and this time the exam board allowed me to take the exams again. And I passed! It was such a massive relief.

I won’t let OCD beat me

After a few false starts – including six weeks of really unhelpful telephone CBT sessions – I got a therapist again. I’m now doing CBT and psychotherapy, which I think will really help. I’ve told my university friends about my OCD. They’ve been great about it. They don’t understand and they don’t pretend to understand either, but they do accept it.

Having OCD has affected my time at uni a lot, but I won’t let it beat me. I have to concentrate three times (OK, maybe two times) as hard as my friends. It’s like I have two sections of my brain, the OCD bit that wants to just keep counting all the time, and then the other half that has to push that away so I can concentrate.

My OCD won’t ever go away; I’ve had to accept that it’s part of who I am. And even though I’m not proud of it exactly, it will make me a better, more empathetic, doctor.

OCD isn’t just being a little tidy or obsessive; it’s constant intrusive thoughts. I’m always making a conscious effort to hold myself together. But then, I’ve got severe OCD and I study medicine. I’m proof that, with support, you can do what you want in life, whether you’ve got a mental health problem or not.

*Thanks to OCD Action for their help with this article

Photo of girl by Shutterstock and posed by model

Next Steps

  • OCD Action run an online community where you can chat to other people with OCD as well as a phone line 0845 390 6232.
  • AnxietyUK run helplines, email support, live chats and therapy services for people with anxiety disorders. 08444 775 774
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.


Updated on 29-Sep-2015