Life & Culture

Understanding Howard Hughes: Living with OCD

As part of our series for Mental Health Awareness week, a powerful first-person story about an often-misunderstood condition


You wake up in the morning, and the first sensation you feel is disappointment.

Why? Because, before you went to bed last night, you prayed, with tears soaking your pillow, for God to take you, painlessly, while you were sleeping. You prayed for death.

But the disappointment soon fades. After all, you have a far more terrifying emotion to cope with; fear.

If you have ever been in a terrifying situation, you may have noticed yourself experiencing a feeling of nausea, a dread which inhabits the back of your throat. For those suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the fear does not leave. That feeling of nausea is always there, haunting your every waking moment.  Your mind is marvellously inventive – now imagine that inventiveness turns against you. Isn’t it a terrifying thought? That is what OCD does to you – it cripples your mind, and leads you to distrust your own memories, even those of a few seconds prior.

Did I insult that person? I don’t remember doing so, but how can I be sure? Did I wash my hands after touching that book? Who knows where that book has been – I could get infected with a terrible disease!

Whatever the fears, they all lead to the same idea – that your actions may result in catastrophic consequences for you and those you care about.

Thank God we live in a day and age where OCD is a recognised ailment with a growing amount of public awareness. Thank God we live at a time when therapy treatments are available to combat and defeat this disease. Through the help of an amazing Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, combined with antidepressants, I was able to confront and beat back my own OCD. But over 2% of the population will experience OCD at some point in their lives. Half of them will begin experiencing it before they are twenty, as I did. And many of these people will never get the treatment they so desperately need.

I have not attached my name to this article, because we still live in a society which judges mental health to be a stigma. Marriage prospects, future employment, even potential friendships – all can be affected by the revelation that someone has experienced mental health difficulties.

People are more understanding when one can point to an event which has happened in a person’s life which may have led to such a condition (a death in the family, for instance), because people find it easier to accept something they can relate to. But I have no idea what originally caused me to develop OCD. There is no cataclysmic event I can point to as the reason. And because I cannot explain it myself, how can people who have never experienced anything like it hope to truly understand it?

But for those willing to try and understand the issue, one can do worse than by watching a movie called The Aviator. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, it is a film about Howard Hughes, an American multimillionaire.

Hughes’ obsession for perfection, and the never-ending search for it regardless of the cost in time and money, enables him to make ground-breaking strides in the field of aviation. But the same obsession ruins his personal life, and alienates those he had been closest to. His obsessive tendencies worsen, until he is suffering from full-blown OCD. And Hughes didn’t have a family to help him – a Mother or Father, or any Sisters or Brothers, to aid him in his time of greatest need.

Here is a story about Howard Hughes from an article I once read in Time Magazine;

‘Hughes once became fond of Baskin-Robbins' Banana Ripple ice cream, so his aides sought to secure a bulk shipment for him—only to discover that Baskin-Robbins had discontinued the flavour. They put in a request for the smallest amount the company could provide for a special order, 200 gallons (750 L), and had it shipped from Los Angeles.

“A few days after the order arrived, Hughes announced he was tired of Banana Ripple and wanted only Chocolate Marshmallow ice cream. The Desert Inn ended up distributing free Banana Ripple ice cream to casino customers for a year. In a 1996 interview, ex–Howard Hughes communicator Robert Maheu said "There is a rumour that there is still some Banana Ripple ice cream left in the freezer. It is most likely true."

That story, which might sound amusing to many people, absolutely terrifies me.

In the bitterness of ironies, Hughes’ great wealth was probably the worst contributor to his disease. He never needed to enter social situations, because his staff purchased anything he wanted for him. On one occasion, staying on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel (the aforementioned Desert Inn) and worried about management protesting his bizarre requirements, he just bought the hotel.

It got to the point where for years he never needed to see another soul, because he worked out a series of complex (and to the unaffected mind, nonsensical) manoeuvres that meant that whatever he required was left in a certain place at a certain time. He died tortured and alone.

I watched this film with a few friends. At the end, they couldn’t understand why I was crying.

But you might.

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