A high-flying professional told how her obsession with the number four became so intense that the joyful news of her sister's proposal triggered a terrifying fear that the bride-to-be would die unless she performed certain rituals, like going to the bathroom four times.
First becoming aware of her fixation with the number four on her 16th birthday, when she tapped her head four times for luck, senior account manager Leah Jones, 25, of Kingston, south west London, said her behavior finally became unmanageable in August last year.
Diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental health condition causing obsessive thoughts and compulsions, she said:
“People don't realize how difficult it is being held to ransom by your brain. That's why I'm speaking out, to break the stereotype that OCD is all about hand washing and organized drawers."
Leah wants to raise awareness about OCD (PA Real Life/Collect)
“That's a big part of it, but there's so much more to it and until we start talking about that, people are going to be suffering."
Growing up, Leah's fixation with the number four crept up on her until, when she turned 16, she realized it was developing a ritualistic power over her life.
“My first real recollection of it was on my 16th birthday, on September 8, 2010, when I had a party with friends. I said something – I can't even remember what – and to avoid bad luck I tapped my head four times when I couldn't find any wood."
Leah on holiday (PA Real Life/Collect)
“You don't wake up one day suddenly in the throes of OCD, it creeps up on you slowly. I had a few habits like that, but for a long time they weren't disruptive."
But, after graduating from Royal Holloway, University of London, in Egham, Surrey, with a degree in English literature in 2016, Leah's compulsive habits were starting to take over.
“It began with checking the back door a certain amount of times before bed or leaving the house," said Leah, who has been dating a man she does not wish to name for nine months."
“Then it was checking the windows, which progressed to checking the oven – and on each occasion I'd have to check everything four times."
“Before I knew it, it was taking half an hour longer to get to bed."
“I felt very responsible for the house I lived in and my flatmate. I truly believed that not carrying out certain actions would result in something bad happening."
Leah on holiday (PA Real Life/Collect)
Laughing off compulsions as “nothing more than old wives' tales," if anyone broached the subject with her, for a long while Leah believed her need to repeat certain actions was normal.
But it became clear just how unmanageable her compulsions were during a flight back from a 10-day holiday in Whistler, Canada, in July last year.
“I spent 10 hours – the entire length of the flight – repeatedly tapping my chin four times, utterly convinced that if I didn't we would crash."
“It's not like I believed I was controlling the situation with my mind, but rather that the stakes were too high for me to stop, once the idea had entered my head."
“I kept thinking, 'What if the plane did crash and I hadn't tapped my chin? Then it would be my fault'."
“Looking back, I joke that no one on that flight knew that I was keeping us all airborne."
Landing feeling “exhausted and drained," Leah finally admitted to herself that something strange was going on.
“I pulled up Google and every symptom checker page was saying the same thing, that it was OCD."
And her fears were confirmed a month later when her sister Alana, 28, a dance co-ordinator, received a marriage proposal from her partner Joe, 28, a doctor.
Leah at work (PA Real Life/Collect)
Delighted by the news, Leah said:
“Alana and Joe were going on a big trip to Italy and he told me before they went that he was planning on proposing."
“I was disgustingly happy for them, but when they set off for the holiday my mind went into overdrive. I got up to go to the toilet one night and that was it – I had to go three more times, to total the number four."
“I truly made myself believe that if I didn't, she'd end up dead before he proposed."
Leah has been undergoing CBT since the end of last year (PA Real Life/Collect)
In the morning, Leah finally decided to ask for help and referred herself to her local mental health services and was put on the waiting list to receive cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – a talking therapy that helps manage problems by changing the way people think and behave.
In the meantime, the only refuge from her compulsive thoughts came when she was distracted by work or asleep.
“At work, my mind is so busy that I hardly get any compulsions at all – it's when my mind is free and quiet that they are at their worst."
“On the night when I decided I had to go to the toilet four times or Alana would die, obviously I couldn't wee four times, but I still went through the routine of sitting on the loo and washing my hands four times."
Luckily, in September 2019, Leah saw a mental health professional and opened up about her obsessional behavior for the first time.
“I'd never spoken about all these intrusive thoughts and compulsions before."
Leah's OCD leaves her feeling 'guilty and anxious' (PA Real Life/Collect)
“I cried so badly, properly opening up like that."
Told she was displaying all the signs of OCD, she was referred for 12 CBT sessions, lasting 50 minutes each.
“It's nothing like sitting on a couch and discussing past memories."
“In the sessions we talk through my compulsions and have made a map of my OCD behavior."
“My compulsions are very much based on feeling responsible for other people's health, wellbeing and happiness."
“My intrusive thoughts go away if I repeat certain actions. The goal in therapy has been to retrain my brain about the relationship between my intrusive thoughts and my compulsions."
“I have to bring thoughts like, 'This person is going to die,' to the front of my mind, without carrying out the compulsive actions."
“The idea is to realize that my thoughts aren't going to make it happen."
“It sounds easy, but it's very hard to unlearn all this behavior."
Leah is undergoing CBT for her OCD (PA Real Life/Collect)
When Leah does not act out on her obsessions, she is left with a crushing feeling of guilt.
“When I don't carry out the compulsions my whole body and mind are screaming inside – I feel so guilty and anxious."
“With more and more CBT sessions, though, I'm getting better and I've definitely noticed a change – although I'm not cured."
How to help a friend (or family member) with OCD, in your words. 💬 Screenshot, share and send to raise awareness! 💚… https://t.co/Wu0GEczAaX— OCD Youth (@OCD Youth) 1580205465.0
“For instance, before bed I only have to touch the backdoor four times, instead of everything else in the kitchen."
Having treatment has also given Leah the confidence to talk about her condition more openly, although she claims people can be "too understanding."
“Everyone has certain habits and rituals, which is completely normal, but the amount of people who tell me they have OCD, simply because they like the volume at an even number on the telly or something similar makes me want to scream."
“I was given a 10-page document of intrusive thoughts when I began my therapy, but it doesn't mean if you display one or two that you have OCD."
“What isn't normal is spending over an hour a day on satisfying these compulsions, which starts to take over your life and daily mood."
“My OCD makes me feel so upset, like I'm being held hostage by my own brain – and it's very disturbing feeling like that."
Alana and her sister, Leah (PA Real Life/Collect)
Now, Leah is bravely speaking out to help highlight the complexity of her condition.
“People think OCD is just about being obsessed with hygiene and germs, but there's so much more to it than that."
“When I tell people I have OCD, I add, 'Not the cleaning kind!'"
“And I want to change people's perception, so they realise that this condition is about so much more."