Woman’s OCD about sex has her seeing vaginas everywhere
With her flowing blond hair and sweet smile, Rose Cartwright looks as if she is thinking calm thoughts but she’s actually imagining naked bodies.
She’s crippled by a mental illness called purely obsessional OCD (pure O), a form of OCD characterized by repetitive thoughts. Hers just happens to be about sex.
Cartwright, an author, was just 15 when she had her first attack of pure O, with a mental image of a naked child entering her head as she ate dinner with her family.
After that, the condition became so extreme she spent years fearing she was a pedophile, kept imagining everyone around her to be naked, and even saw vaginas in the background of TV shows.
Cartwright was helped by a form of therapy that meant she had to watch porn three times a day, and released a memoir, Pure, which has been adapted for TV on the UK’s Channel 4.
‘What if I’m a pedophile?’
After her first attack, the more Cartwright kept trying to stop thinking about the image of the naked child, the more she saw it.
“I mouthed the words slowly to the dark, ‘What if I’m a [pedophile]?’ And with that question I was sucked inside my head,” she recalled.
In a bid to “purge” her anxiety, she began to look back over every “pretend kiss and cuddle I’d had at sleepovers, when my friends and I had re-enacted neighbors weddings, pressing our faces together and giggling at the ‘kiss the bride’ bit.”
“Or when we’d renamed Barbie and Ken as Fanny and Dick and made them ‘make babies’ in a shoebox.”
“All these filthy sparkles of a child’s imagination were twisted into something threatening because they seemed to support my obsessive fears about my capacity for depravity.”
Wondering whether she was a pedophile was the “big, pressing question” of Cartwright’s adolescence.
A teenage boy obsessed with having sex with his sister
The World Health Organisation says that OCD is one of the top 10 most debilitating mental health conditions in terms of the effect on quality of life.
Pure O is called this because the compulsions are usually invisible, and not acted out in the better-known ways such as hand washing and counting out loud – and it’s thought that due to the secretive nature of it many people suffer in silence.
The thoughts aren’t always sexual, and can also include repetitive thinking about taboo subjects such as murder. It’s unknown as to what causes it.
“Pretty much everything about it is secretive,” Cartwright said. “These are things you’re not even supposed to think about, let alone talk about. How would a teenage boy tell his parents that he thought about having sex with his sister, a thousand times a day?”
“Needless to say, I don’t feel too ‘pure’ when I’ve woken every morning for a fortnight to the crystalline thought of a–holes.”
‘I saw cliffs turn into vaginas’
When she was 17, Cartwright’s thoughts changed. She recalls playing bingo with friends and seeing the images of their naked breasts flashing into her head.
Back at home that night, she wrote that she tried to watch “the most innocuous TV program I could find … hoping to snatch a few minutes respite from the thoughts.”
“But as the camera panned down across a cliff face, each crevice became a startlingly detailed vagina,” she added.
Because of this new fixation, Cartwright wondered if she was gay – but not only that, instead of images of naked children, she suddenly saw everybody naked.
When going to college, she says she would “try out” being gay some days, but was straight on others.
“I’d describe my gay thoughts to my friends and use their reactions to gauge the plausibility of my homosexuality. I’d browse profiles on lesbian dating sites, trying to imagine myself kissing each stranger’s face,” she wrote.
“I’d oscillate between these periods of intense immersion in sexual content and periods of avoidance, during which I wouldn’t watch TV or read the paper, to starve the sex out of my head, the anxiety from my chest.”
‘I had to watch porn over and over again’
By the age of 20, Cartwright had quit college and considered suicide on a daily basis due to the thoughts.
It was through a Google search that she found a Wikipedia page about pure O, and realized this described what she was going through.
“This was the proof that I was neither a closet case nor a homophobe, that I’d never been a pedophile. I was just ill,” Cartwright said.
She began reciting the content of the Wikipedia page back to herself every time she had an intrusive thought, in an attempt to shut them down. While that initially worked, the sexual thoughts began intruding again.
Eventually, she saw a doctor with her self-diagnosis and was referred for therapy.
After being diagnosed with pure O formally, and trying various forms of treatment, finally, a meltdown prompted by meeting film star Jake Gyllenhaal and seeing his face turn into a vagina led her to seek private help.
Every Monday for a year she had a 45-minute session of exposure and response prevention therapy.
It required her to watch porn three times a day for months, gradually being exposed to more explicit scenes until her anxiety faded.
Since finishing the therapy, Cartwright said she, for the first time since being a teen, had moments where the pure O “lifted.”
“Since I was 15, pure O has underscored everything I’ve done, and I may never be without it. But in a small way, I’ve come to love it for the far-reaching wisdom lurking within its fetid little heart,” she added, in a piece she wrote for the Guardian Weekend.
And now, with the TV drama on the way, it will help more people become aware of this little-known and little-understood condition.
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