The prison in my head Varun Gwalani's fight with OCD

By Tom Higgins

Mental health issues can affect anyone, anywhere in the world. Society often portrays those with mental health issues as weak, or unable to achieve the same things as those without. Though some may view it as a weakness, to others it is a form of strength. It is something they can draw inspiration from. Mental illness acts as something that pushes them forward. Varun Gwalani is but one example of someone using their illness as a means of strength.

Relaxing outside the Café Coffee Day in Deonar, Mumbai, 22-year-old Varun Gwalani sat casually, engaged with conversation with his friends. At a glance Mr Gwalani shows no signs of abnormality. It is what goes through his head, that separates him from the others.

Mr Gwalani suffers from Aggressive Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To most, that term paints a picture of someone with visual compulsive tics, such as washing your hands a certain amount of times, or tapping on a door before opening it. This portrayal demonstrates only one side of the disorder.

“OCD is not how it is portrayed in popular culture” Mr Gwalani said.

“OCD is a much more serious issue than people realise. Over 50 per cent of cases are considered severe, with only a quarter of cases considered mild,”

“What I have is called aggressive OCD, and it involves me imagining violent acts all around me, and getting urgers of violent acts,”

Mr Gwalani explained how he doesn’t act on these impulses, rather these intense visions cause him to be left with a feeling akin to atonement and guilt.

“When I walk into a room and see 50 people, by the time I have scanned the entire room I have seen them all die,” Mr Gwalani said cautiously, conscious not to distress surrounding coffee-house patrons

“Imagine seeing the death of a friend – imagine that feeling every time you look at someone”

Mr Gwalani has always struggled with OCD, but over the last seven years it has affected him more and more.

“[Over time] my OCD started manifesting itself in weird ways. I’d be in an elevator with someone, and I would visualise them attacking me. Automatically my body would turn tense because the imagery is so real,” he said distressingly.

“Or I’ll be walking down the street with a female friend and visualise an oncoming man raping her. I would visualise the entire event before the man has even walked by. But I’d look over to my friend and realise nothing has happened.”

“I can’t even drive a car because I have this fear that someone will just jump out in front the car as I’m driving.”

“It’s like being a prisoner in your own mind,”

Despite Mr Gwalani’s severe case of OCD, it hasn’t stopped him from achieving his goals, having written two novels and conducted a TED talk in 2015.

Varun Gwalani during his TED Talk 'Why Are Mental Disorders Often Associated With Creation?' Source: Varun Gwalani

“I actually did a TED talk about mental disorders and creativity, but it’s a little funny because the person before me was conducting a talk about young people joining ISIS. He asked the audience how many of them thought there was a link between mental disorders and joining ISIS, to which half the audience raised their hands. Imagine following that” laughed Gwalani.

Mr Gwalani’s second novel, ‘The First Storyteller’, was written during a period where his OCD was at its worst.

“My second novel was written while I was going through… what I guess you could call peak OCD – while I was suffering the most. I genuinely believed I wouldn’t be alive to see the end of that novel or to see it get published.”

“But it did get published, and that novel is like an emotional, mental health journey for me. It shows the journey of anyone going through a struggle,”

“The protagonist is genderless, faceless and nameless and is told entirely in first person,”

“I have gotten reviews from all over the world where people have connected with that book, and seen it as a journey of their struggle, for whatever it is they are going through.”

Mental health issues in India are treated vastly differently to that in Western society. It is not common practice for people to ignore signs of mental illness due to cultural beliefs. Mr Gwalani has been working towards the goal of breaking the silence on these issues, be it though his lectures or through his writing.

“There is a lot of misinformation about mental health in the world, particularly relating to OCD,”

“After explaining [aggressive OCD] to people, it will generally generate sympathy. But before talking to me about it, they have no idea of the severity,”

Mr Gwalani said there is a stigma attached to mental health, as some view others with mental disorders as dangerous.

“People often don’t realise that people suffering severe mental issues become self-sensitised to it, and become more empathetic,”

“If I see 100 people die in my head everyday – I never want to inflict that kind of pain on someone else”

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