“I once thought I’d burnt down a bus station” – James’ story


James, who now works in mental health transformation, shares his lived experience with anxiety disorder and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). For Mental Health Awareness Week, he recounts a time in his life when his intrusive thoughts were at its worst.

In 2004, I found myself having to repeatedly check things at work and at home. Locked doors and taps were my triggers. I lived in Chesterfield but worked in Derby, so would travel back home and have an overwhelming burning sensation of worry about the office in Derby being locked. I can’t tell you how many times I was late home from work due to doing the 60 minute journey each way, to try to reassure myself that everything was ok. Worse still, getting home, having dinner and then making the round trip back to Derby, at all hours of the night. I can’t tell you how many photographs of doors/taps were on my phone. There were also the days of being stuck in a checking cycle of leaving work and walking to the train station, only to have to go back to work to check a door. I’d often end up doing this two or three times before I got on the train.

I didn’t want to spend so many hours doing this multiple times each week. It was embarrassing for me to try and explain what was happening in my head. Of course, I didn’t explain it, rather I masked it, even though my partner and other people close to me could see something was wrong for me.

  • I didn’t want to have these intrusive thoughts, yet they were some of the most powerful thoughts that wouldn’t go away.

In 2006, I had one of the most awful experiences, yet now I can’t help but see the humour. Spoiler alert! I’m not an arsonist! Imagine: the big night out, travelling to Nottingham to see friends for the night, with the 2.30am return coach home booked. Chesterfield bus station had benefitted from a makeover of wooden cladding. The coach was late and I remembered a friend telling me: “if you smoke, the bus will arrive!” I decided to apply this and hey-presto, as if by magic, the coach arrived! Five minutes into the journey, panic struck to my core! Even worse was not being able to do anything with my thoughts: what if I have burned down the bus station?... There will be CCTV… I’m going to go to prison!… what will my partner and family think?... the thoughts went on, increasing my anxiety.

Anxiety is really person centred. It might sound selfish, but this was all about me! Not in a self-centred way, rather it was because I was terrified by what I believed to be true, as if it was a certainty. I didn’t want to have these intrusive thoughts, yet they were some of the most powerful thoughts that wouldn’t go away. I needed to do something to reassure myself. Trying to find a soothing solution, I had ‘an idea’… the police station was next door to the bus station! There are loads of police cars passing the coach station! Simple, isn’t it? I telephone the police station and explain: “I’m worried that I may have burnt down the coach station. I hope this isn’t true, but could you send one of your police cars to check?” Of course, the coach station was absolutely fine, although I did spend days afterwards anticipating a knock at the door from the police, for being perceived as a prank caller or worse!

  • I found myself having to repeatedly check things at work and at home.

After my partner encouraged me to see my GP, I was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD. I was prescribed anti-depressants and referred to the local IAPT (Improving Access to Psychological Therapies) service (now called NHS Talking Therapies). It took two times in IAPT for me to learn how to control my thoughts and even today, I still have the occasional wobble. This is ok, apart from the door handle on the back door that gets increasingly loose from being checked. In a work capacity, my conditions rarely impact me as I can make complex decisions and deal with uncertainty. My anxiety and OCD only strike me in my private life, unseen by others.

If you or someone you know is experiencing similar problems, please do encourage them to reach out to the wonderful support that is available. Living with anxiety, I’ve learnt that embarrassment and excuses isn’t helpful. Equally, all of your support is confidential and doesn’t define you. In the healthcare world, which likes to put people in boxes, I am a gay man with anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. But I don’t fit in a box and that is actually brilliant for me.