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Rituals, OCD and a trip to Luxembourg: how my friend conquered one of his greatest fears

"When the plane touches down, John gives me a sweet smile. 'I’ve done it,' he says"

By Cathy Rentzenbrink   October 2019

Illustration by Kate Hazell

My friend John and I are on a mission: flying to Luxembourg and back in a day. For the first time in a couple of decades he is going to try to take a flight without doing the rituals that he believes keep him safe. “It’s very good of you,” he says at the airport, “to risk flying with me when I haven’t got my special pants on.” I tell him I’d do anything for him but, of course, I’m not scared. Intellectually, John also knows that he is not putting me at risk, but part of him believes that we will all crash out of the sky because he isn’t wearing a certain style of underwear, and won’t be correctly aligning the in-flight magazines, or changing the time on his watch at a precise moment.

I’ve known John since we met at university. He is smart, kind, amusing, successful and has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It crept up on him during his mid-twenties. He was under pressure to meet sales targets at work, was travelling a lot, and almost before he knew how it had happened, he was making futile attempts to control the uncontrollable by touching and arranging his possessions in a particular way, and had to do an increasingly complex set of rituals to make sure both the plane and the deals he was working on came in to land.

When John first told me about it all those years ago, I found it difficult to understand. I’m no stranger to many varieties of mental illness but OCD is alien to me and I couldn’t grasp it. We both smoked then and John explained it in terms of cigarettes. “Doing a ritual is like having a fag,” he told me. “There is a feeling of release but then the tension mounts up again and I have to do another one. The more stressful life is, the more I need the rituals, and the more it escalates.”

He saw a doctor who diagnosed him and referred him for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which helped him manage—though he describes it as being given a crutch for your broken leg rather than having the leg mended. Still, the CBT has helped him to lead a good life, though the OCD and anxiety are ever present.

Now in his mid-forties, he was spurred on to seek therapy by reading an article about what people regret on their deathbeds. He wanted to find out if it was possible to be less dominated by his disorder. The therapy is working. Gradually, John has been living an increasingly ritual-free life. Flying is his last area to conquer, and he invited me along to keep him company. He’s scooped me off the floor many times in our long friendship and I am happy to have a chance to pay it back.

“Intellectually, John knows he is not putting me at risk—but part of him believes that we will crash out of the sky because he isn’t wearing the right underwear”

It’s not dramatic, in the end. There is nothing to see. We have agreed to talk throughout the flight, but not to discuss flying, fear, mental illness, politics or anything else that might raise our stress levels. So we chat about our families and all our mutual friends and marvel that we have known each other for 25 years. When the plane touches down, John gives me a sweet smile. “I’ve done it,” he says, with wonder in his voice. “I’ve flown without rituals. I feel fantastic.”

We stroll around Luxembourg. John chose it as our destination because an hour seemed the right amount of time to spend in the air and neither of us has ever been before. It’s a pretty, down-to-earth city and we have a bit of lunch—no booze—before getting the bus back to the airport to go home. After years of hiding his vulnerabilities from almost everyone, John tells me that being more open is helping him feel a little better.

Back on the tarmac at Heathrow, John gives me another smile. “Mission accomplished?” I ask. He nods. There is still more to do. He thought the anxiety would disappear with the OCD but sadly it turns out that it exists on its own, though he is calmer and more grounded without the rituals. The therapy continues: “I’m having to accept that it’s fine to have emotions, that I’m an emotional being. Who knew?”

We laugh and agree that no matter how you try to repress them, emotions will have their way with you in the end. We walk through the terminal and head into London. It has been a good day.

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