As I walked I thought to myself; “If I see a blackbird, then everything is going to be okay.” I spotted one and felt a huge sense of relief: the day was destined to be a good one. But when I did the same thing the following morning I didn’t see a blackbird. On that day I saw two sparrows which, I decided, meant everything was going to be particularly bad.
This was not good.
To counterbalance the whole bad-two-sparrow-scenario, I made another quick rule that if I touched a lavender bush in a front garden I passed in just the right way, then that would cancel out the bad sparrows and I’d be back to it being a good day again – not as good as if I’d seen a blackbird, but better than it was. This went on for a couple of months and then we moved house. I decided I would change schools after all and the whole episode was forgotten.
Although Obsessive Compulsive Disorder can manifest itself in routines or superstitions such as this, I do not believe I had OCD; those thoughts I had as a twelve-year-old did not manage to take a hold of me or affect how I functioned each day, apart from a walk that became increasingly more anxious. I am certainly not an expert but as I understand it, OCD tricks your brain to become stuck in a particular groove and once it’s stuck it can be pretty hard to get yourself out of it. For whatever reason, those twelve-year-old thoughts didn’t stick.
A few decades later I wrote a short story called ‘Bedroom’ about a reclusive boy who witnesses something shocking from his window. I went on to write more short stories but this boy’s ‘voice’ stayed with me. I decided to work on the idea of him watching the world from his window and Matthew became the narrator of my first novel, The Goldfish Boy.
For the book, I needed to explore Matthew’s anxieties and explain why he was so scared to leave the safety of his house. I remembered seeing a documentary on Channel 4 presented by the comedian Jon Richardson: A Little Bit OCD. This programme shocked me. The condition I thought to mean that you were just a bit ‘extra tidy’, you washed your hands more often or you liked arranging your books in a certain way, was far from being like that at all. The programme showed how debilitating OCD can be and, if it takes hold, can completely ruin a person’s life.
I met with a psychologist who specialises in the condition and she explained the various forms that OCD can take. Most people think of a fear of dirt or germs when they think of OCD but there are many ways in that it can manifest itself; from intrusive thoughts through to routines that can take so long to complete to feel ‘right’ that the sufferer finds themselves unable to leave the house.
A friend of mine who has suffered with OCD since he was a child gave me a real insight as to how it was to live with the condition and how he hid it from his family until he was into his twenties. I also read posts on forums from young sufferers who were trapped in a continual cycle of compulsions (the charity OCD-UK has a fantastic website with a wealth of information for anyone affected).
The more I learned about the subject, the more I knew that this was why Matthew didn’t like going outside – he was suffering with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which gave him an overpowering fear of germs. I wanted readers to see that there are other anxieties associated with OCD, so in The Goldfish Boy, Matthew becomes increasing stressed when he sees the number thirteen (or ten-plus-three as he prefers to call it). I also wanted the reader to feel a sense of hope that he will one day conquer this condition. Another thing I’d learnt was that OCD is treatable, although the road to recovery can be a long and difficult one.
Although I had my main character’s issues fully formed in my mind I knew I didn’t want him to just be about OCD. Matthew is a funny, kind, likeable twelve-year-old who just happens to have a much-misunderstood mental health condition overwhelming his young life.
I didn’t set out to write a book about a boy with OCD, I set out to write a book about a young boy who solves a mystery and who happens to have OCD.
I hope my readers will see it that way too.