The way I work: Adam Shaw

Businessman Adam Shaw glimpsed what it would be like to live without OCD and was inspired to help others with this debilitating but widely misunderstood condition. Interview: Saskia Murphy

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For as long as I can remember, my mental health problem has been a part of my life. My personal struggle was around obsessive-compulsive disorder. It destroyed me. OCD is sometimes perceived in the mainstream as people who have little quirks and stuff, but mine was debilitating. It was close to mental torture. I had rituals that I thought would save my family. Even at five or six I knew the rituals I was doing were irrational, as most sufferers do.

I didn’t know what was going on in my head. In the 1980s, the only time you saw or heard about mental illness was on the news when they said someone was mentally ill and they’d gone out on a stabbing spree and killed loads of people. It was never discussed in schools. It still isn’t really to this day.

My OCD grew and it got to the point where I couldn’t be around people because I thought I was going to strangle them. I couldn’t be around disabled people because I thought I was going to kill them. People with OCD never carry out these acts. In fact the thoughts are so repulsive to us, it’s a worry problem.

A lot of my rituals were mental rituals as well as physical rituals like touching things. Sometimes it was just a sense of anxiety that if I didn’t do something, something bad would happen. If I accidentally caught my elbow on the door frame I’d have to go back and do it four times, and if I didn’t I thought something bad would happen that day. It was a very troubled life. I didn’t know it was OCD. I didn’t know one in four people have mental health problems. I was trying to fight my mental health problems rather than trying to face them.

We had the perfect lifestyle but my mental health was the worst ever

I got to the point where I couldn’t be around knives. I would carry handcuffs around in case I strangled someone and someone could put the handcuffs on me. I carried those around for two years – I always had to have them in my pocket.

I got to a point in my life where I’d battled with it for so long, but I also had good points in my life. I’m married, I had a successful legal services business and employed 1,000 people. I have children, but a lot of that has been harnessed because of my mental illness, because when I felt the urges and these thoughts I would throw myself into something to avoid the bad thoughts, because I was scared of them.

Because I had OCD I was very particular about things. I was very detailed and I wanted everything to be perfect and the very best in the business, and that allowed me to be very successful. I had points in my life where I did taste success and had nice moments. But in the background, even on the good days, it was always there. It was always on my shoulder.

I got to the point in my thirties where I’d had a massive breakdown but there was nowhere to turn. It was mental torture.

In 2012 my business was still growing and we’d acquired a company in the Canary Islands. I spent a lot of time over there and eventually my wife moved out to Lanzarote with the children. We had the perfect lifestyle. One would look at it and think we had everything but my mental health was the worst it ever was.

I had a lot of anxiety over the business. I got very down and my OCD just came crashing down on me. One day we were taking the kids to the beach and there was a little old lady crossing the bridge above us and I thought I was going to strangle her, and even if I didn’t want to no one could stop me from doing it. It took over my life. I could not get rid of that thought.

The next day I flew back to England because I needed to see someone. I went to see my old therapist, and after having a session I felt no better and I just thought there was nowhere for me to turn. I thought: “There’s no pill that can help me. I’ve had this all my life, I’ve had a good run, I’ve managed to get to my thirties and survived.”

I walked down to a road called Abbey Lane in Sheffield and I’d made the decision to end it over a railway bridge. I sat on the bridge, and for the first time in my whole life a sense of relaxation came over me because I knew I was going to end it all. I thought this is what people must feel like to be normal and not have mental health problems.

And then I thought to myself: “If you can feel this sense of normality now, why can’t you feel like this in the real world? Your mind has just proved it can do it.”

I called a charity called OCD UK and I really opened up to them. They were so good. They’d heard it all before and they assured me that everything would be OK. They asked if I was in a position to fund my own care, and fortunately I was. They gave me two names of psychologists who are both the cream of what they do, and that’s when I started working with Lauren Callaghan.

Lauren taught me a new way to tackle my mental health problem by accepting it rather than avoiding it.

I decided to sell my company in 2014. I had financial security and did well out of the business, and it felt very natural for me to want to give something back. And the way I found I could do that was setting up a charity, and not just in a small way to make myself feel better. I thought if I’m going to do it, do it in the only way I know how and that’s throwing myself into it. I want to make it a global charity and really reach out to people who aren’t as fortunate as me, who was able to afford private care.

The idea was to set up a charity to help people at the point of need who are suffering with mental health problems.

As a businessman coming from the private sector I had to understand how charities work, it’s almost as competitive as the private sector. I wanted to make sure that the foundation didn’t fall short of its obligations by not having the resources to help people.

One of the things we came up with was to create some self-help books. We can use the proceeds to fund and look after the foundation, so we can get our message out there and help people, but from the proceeds we’re able to support the charity.

We aspire to have a call centre. We want to be able to talk problems through with people, even at the point where they’re suicidal. In the meantime what we’re doing is helping people who’ve lost jobs through mental health.

We’re really passionate about encouraging people to write about their mental health problems, because writing can be very therapeutic. It helps you deal with your own mental health but it also helps other sufferers. The charity is very much about having an open mind and encouraging conversation. We’re starting to put people through writing courses in deprived areas so they can express how they’re feeling.

We want to create a community where people can identify with other people’s suffering. That’s what mental health is about. It’s about talking and being open.

Adam Shaw and Lauren Callaghan’s book Pulling the Trigger: OCD, Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Related Depression (Trigger Press, £21.99) is out now

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