October 11-17th 2021 is Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Awareness Week. We sat down with New Zealand Olympian track cyclist Sam Dakin, to talk about his experience as a high performance athlete living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), and how he’s choosing to use his platform to help others experiencing similar mental health challenges.
Sam attended his first World Championships for track cycling in 2020, and has recently returned from his first Olympic Games in Tokyo. He first began experiencing symptoms that would later be categorised as OCD back in 2018.
“I was twenty two years old - happy days - and then woke up one day and just... boom. There’s just one thought on repeat. It started for an hour a day and then eventually just got worse and worse. And then it was 16 hours a day and I could only escape it when I slept, which was just horrific.”
“I did a lot of Googling, a lot of reading. Eventually one day in my deep reading I stumbled across OCD - it just felt like I was reading my brain on a piece of paper. It was quite liberating in a sense.”
“I'm someone that likes to have answers to questions, and I never had the answer to this one. I think that's what frustrated me the most, the questions or the thoughts or the doubts in my head. I couldn't make sense of them, no matter how hard I tried. So when I finally found this Reddit forum - of all places - and found that other people had some of the things I had, it was instantly a feeling of relief that, hey, this is a thing.”
For Sam, discovering that there was a name for what he was experiencing allowed him to feel validated in what he was going through, and connected him to a community of people that had similar experiences.
“People go into hospitals every day with a broken leg or kidney failure or whatever, and you can see it. You can see it on a scan. But this stuff you can't quite pick up unless someone talks about it.”
“I'm a relatively outgoing character and have my heart on my sleeve - and I never talked about it for two years and I hid it from my closest friends and my family. I was battling in a really, really dark place and no one knew, and that scared the hell out of me. So I was like: Well, if I've had that as an outgoing person, what are the rest of the people in sport doing?”
Sam’s mental health journey inspired him to try and reach out to other athletes - and to wider society as a whole - to start a conversation about mental health.
“I decided that along with my teammate, Callum and our psychologists, that we would do the series called Tales of the Top Two Inches. It’s an in-person discussion, with free breakfast and coffee. [At the first one], I shared my story, our coach talked about his mental health struggles from being a dad, our psychologist talked about it from an expert view, and then Callum talked about what it's like to support someone that has some pretty serious mental health issues.”
“We thought we'd get 10 or 15 people and we had 70 or 80 people turn up for the first one, and it was at 7am in the morning as well. So that was really cool.”
“It takes a bit of courage to be vulnerable, but then all of a sudden you've helped all these people. So I thought if I can continue the conversation where I can, it'll help heaps.”
Sam also took the opportunity to speak to the OCD community specifically.
“I've talked to some pretty amazing kids that are eight years old and have OCD worse than I could have ever imagined. And they just truck on each day. And that's inspired me, you know, and somehow they're inspired by what I had to tell them too.”
Sam’s OCD symptoms have dramatically decreased since 2018, due to the support he received from his family and friends and engaging with professional counselling and therapy. However, he still experiences some challenges with intrusive thoughts.
“I still have thoughts that come in, but now I know it’s the OCD. At times when it's kind of overwhelming, I just let it sit there and let it glide in and glide out.”
“To use the analogy of a fire, you keep throwing gas and it's just going to get bigger and bigger. It's the same with OCD and the thoughts. If I keep fighting it like, ‘go away, go away, go away’, it’s just going to get bigger and bigger. I did a lot of work with our psychologists to accept that those thoughts weren’t me, they were just thoughts coming into my head. And whilst I understand I don't have control over what they are, I have control over what to do with them. And I think that that's how I live with it now.”
“Having the tools like group therapy and writing stuff down helps a lot. [My] therapist got me to literally record the thoughts in my head and then listen to them back. It’s a bizarre thing to do, but it actually helps quite a lot. I haven't done that in a while, but I definitely do that if it gets really, really gnarly.”
“I also put a positive spin on it. Being obsessive is what’s got me to the top of sport. I think it's important to kind of reflect on it as somewhat positive, while it's also important to acknowledge how terrible it was at the time.”
For others in the OCD community, Sam’s advice is clear and simple: “Find someone you trust and lean on them pretty hard.”
“I was lucky I had four or five of these people, my parents, my best mate, my girlfriend, and I leaned on them pretty hard. They gave me a space where nothing was off the table.”
“Find someone that you trust and you feel you can lean on, and in turn they'll understand and they'll want to be there to help you. And if you don't have someone directly in your life, psychiatrists and psychologists are amazing. That's what they're there to do, they're professionals.”