How a ‘Better Safe Than Sorry’ Mantra Gave Me Anxiety

Sam18th January 202111 min

Hi, I’m Sam, the founder of Anxious Extrovert. I’m a big black guy and therefore someone you stereotypically wouldn’t label as ‘suffers from mental health problems’. I have a lot I’d like to share with you about my mental health journey and I initially didn’t know where to start. A large part of my journey started 3 years ago, but in an effort not to minimise the experience (and make this post too long), I’ll dedicate a separate blog post to that in the future. After all, most stories start at the beginning, so let’s try something different and start in the middle - with my most recent experiences of mental health. 

The covid outbreak has been a sh*t show for the majority of people, especially for those suffering from a mental illness, whether they know it or not. For me, things just seemed normal.. until one day they didn’t. Before the Coronial era I had a normal routine: come home from work and chill (and yep, someone close to me started calling 2020 the Coronial era and it made me laugh, now it’s stuck with me). During the Coronial era, my routine changed. Like many others, I started working from home, but my new routine when returning home from essential trips now included washing my hands and cleaning the door handles. “Better safe than sorry” was the motto I started to live by, and the motto that triggered my mental health problems.

Cleaning the door handles seemed normal and sensible. I don’t want to help spread the virus, so cleaning the door handles with anti-bac wipes or Dettol spray was the least I could do. This became the very least I did, as I progressively started to add items to the list: spraying my keys, all letters and packages, the car doors, the steering wheel…

Skip forward a little while and it got worse again. My imaginary list of ‘what ifs’ grew and I’d now spend 30 mins following a circuit around my house, at each stop wiping down surfaces again and again until my eyes started to water. I realised what I was doing, but I was scared of the what ifs. What if I missed a spot and now the virus has spread? What if my girlfriend touches that one sport I missed and she dies from the virus? Better safe than sorry…

I didn’t think it could get much worse, but my better safe than sorry mantra added more tasks to the list. Soon every time I stopped at the front door I’d check to make sure it was locked, the chain was on and I’d look through the peephole to make sure there was no one on the other side. “I might have to wipe the handle again if they’ve touched it” I’d tell myself. I’d carry on with my other tasks and then check again, just in case I didn’t check properly the first time.

My limit was when the routine started at 1 am and ended at 2:15 am, so I decided to ask for help. I first spoke to my girlfriend about what was going on and she recommended a therapist I could go to for advice, who was running virtual sessions (as we were in a lockdown). I self-referred online and was assigned a therapist. In the first appointment so many labels were thrown around: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), Anxiety, Stress, Depression… I think even Bipolar came up at one point. I was advised to try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to dig deeper and find out what was causing my irrational behaviour. I agreed to the sessions (which were also running via video call).

Working with my therapist, we determined that I suffer from General Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and that my OCD was a symptom of a wider problem (anxiety). I learnt that deep down my anxieties stemmed from a life of not thinking I was good enough, believing the world was against me and people were out to get me. I learnt that a lot of these feelings were irrational and had triggered my obsessive cleaning habits during the pandemic.

After weeks of practising really useful techniques as suggested by my therapist (such as the worry tree - charting my negative thoughts and seeing if they were rational or not), I started to feel more in control of my thoughts and behaviour. I was able to finish my therapy, having gotten a lot out of it. Looking back, I wonder why I waited so long to get help. I think it’s because I justified each step to myself and made it okay to keep going. I didn’t think it was worth wasting someone’s time by asking for help and figured I’d get over it one day. CBT helped me, but it might not suit everyone - and that’s okay because the mental health journey is a lot about self-discovery and with each step, no matter how difficult, you’ll slowly become a stronger version of yourself. You will find something that works for you, it might take time, but you will.

I’d be lying if I said things feel completely normal again now and that I’m ‘cured’, because as aforementioned, recovery from mental health problems is a journey and not a quick fix. I still get negative thoughts and self-doubt, but now I’m a lot better at pushing them back. I also still clean surfaces down, but it’s less excessive, time consuming and problematic. I don’t ignore my negative thoughts now, I challenge them.

With the help of people who care about me (people who aren’t trying to get rid of me like I used to think everyone was), we’ve set up our first limited company - Anxious Extrovert, so more people can find the help they need and open themselves up to understand the world of mental health. I hope these blogs bring comfort to others going through similar things. I hope you learn it’s okay to not always be your best self and to seek help in some form. I hope you remember mental health can affect everyone, no matter their gender, race, age or background.

Sam, founder of Anxious Extrovert.

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