“Music is the best form of distraction.”
Whether you write it, listen to it or perform it, music brings out your inner escape artist. It is a universal diary of sound that we can associate with the best and the worst of times. Music is an emotional outlet but when you live with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), it is the distraction that makes life that little bit easier.
The current UK estimates suggest that 1.2% of the population live with OCD, which equates to roughly 12 in every 1000 people. Yet, the flippant phrase“I’m so OCD about that…” has wriggled its way into the dialect of many. A phrase used to describe harmless personal quirks influenced by the lack of accurate portrayals of OCD in the media. A phrase that misinterprets the reality of having one of the top 10 most debilitating conditions to live with.
When Ayanam Udoma auditioned for The Voice in February this year, you may not have been aware of his internal battle with OCD.
“Some people are more functional with the condition than others. You could meet me and if I didn’t tell you I had OCD, you would never know. You might see something in my facial expressions but you wouldn’t know what was bothering me.”
The 27-year-old Nigerian opened-up about his anxiety on the show but didn’t reveal the underlying cause. Having lived with intensely negative, repetitive and intrusive thoughts since he was a child, Ayanam didn’t let his condition get in the way of pursuing his musical passion.
“The first moment I can identify of having OCD was when I was about 6 or 7, I wasn’t aware for years that it was definitely that but when I was 21 and my granny passed away, I started experiencing very aggressive thoughts and worried that my memories were negatively distorted.”
Almost everybody experiences the types of thought that people with OCD have. However, most people can dismiss these thoughts. Those with OCD carry out compulsions to reduce the anxiety they feel from an obsession. Common obsessions can surround fears of contamination, worry that you may come to or cause harm, unwanted sexual thoughts, discomfort if things aren’t symmetrical and other extreme doubts.
When Ayanam experienced the worst and most violent thoughts, he found that the best thing to do was to keep himself busy with music. With studies suggesting that music releases a chemical in the brain that has a key role in setting good moods, Ayanam would grab his guitar and sing, often inspired by some of his deepest feelings.
“I worry I might have hurt someone and I’ll try and explore that thought to the point where I have created a whole reality based around it and I’m not sure which reality is true and which isn’t. When I feel like this, I pick up a pen and write my thoughts down as poetry that I then turn into song lyrics.”
From singing in the car on his way to school to getting into music properly at A-Level, Ayanam has always sang and played the guitar as a way of creative expression. Manchester’s vibrant and welcoming music scene became his family when he moved there in 2016 and kick-started his love for open-mic nights and live music.
Last October, Manchester-based musician Liam Callacher, hosted a charity gig in aid of OCD Action UK, inspired by his sister Lois, who has OCD. The event brought together musicians from all over Greater Manchester for a 2-day open-mic event at the Old Pint Pot in Salford. There were 4 artists with OCD that got involved to support the charity close to their hearts.
Liam who goes by the stage name, The Northern Rambler, invited Udoma and fellow musician Heidi Dewhirst to take part in a series of Facebook Live sessions on his music page. This gave the artists the opportunity to sing, discuss their musical journey and answer any questions about their OCD.
“Both Heidi and Ayanam very candidly talk about their experiences with OCD. They are very open, lovely people and their willingness to talk about their conditions has helped so many” said Liam.
Much like Ayanam, Heidi, 27, experienced signs of OCD from a very young age but initially labelled her thoughts as hormonal emotions and believed they were all part of growing up. Her OCD consists of negative intrusive thoughts combined with hygiene and contamination fears.
“When I was little, I used to wish that I was surrounded by a big bubble or that there was an invisible shield protecting me. Obviously, that is quite intense because in the world you need to have contact with things mentally and physically” she said.
With regards to music, Heidi defined herself as a singer/songwriter from her early teenage years. She used her song-writing as an outlet to rant about and explore everything from her intrusive thoughts to tales about boys. After performing her first open-mic night at 19-years-old, Heidi’s musical journey progressed further and was beneficial to her condition – believing she would be stuck in a wallow without music in her life.
“4 years ago, I wrote a song called ‘Nevertheless’. It equates the cold winter night to a bleak mental state and one of the lines is saying ‘hey bully, I’m not going to listen to you anymore’ because that’s the perfect description of having OCD and even now when I sing that, I really sing that line out loud, it resonates in my heart.”
Bonding over their life experiences and passion for music Heidi and Ayanam found support in one another over the 3-years he lived in Manchester before moving to London this year.
“When it became apparent that Ayanam and myself shared almost exactly the same experiences regarding intrusive thoughts, it helped us both so much. We completely, un-judgementally understood each other, we could just bounce our feelings off each other and in turn, offer advice in a way that was less intimidating than speaking to a trained professional” explained Heidi.
For musicians with OCD, getting up on stage and performing isn’t the hardest part. If music is your passion, the adrenaline kicks in and carries you through a song. For Ayanam, going on The Voice was a chance to prove he was capable, regardless of his brain telling him he wasn’t good enough and getting through to the knock-out stages proved that.
“I never thought I’d get that far but I received so much help and support along the way. The Voice team were aware of my anxiety and always made sure I was okay. There is someone there to ensure your mental health is the best it can be and my coach Tom Jones was so understanding.”
View this post on Instagram
A highlight from being on @thevoiceuk was being mentored by @realsirtomjones and @jamesarthurinsta23 – from a popular music perspective, I've lived under a rock since 2009 so I have to admit I wasn't as familiar with James Arthur's music. I knew he was a big name though but he truly came across as such a nice and humble person. His words meant the world to me and he treated me so kindly and, even when the cameras were off, was just so genuinely supportive and encouraging. I likely may never meet him again and I don't know if he'll read this but I just wanted to say thank you for being so lovely and a great example of what an artist should be. Thank you for recently being so open about your anxiety and thank you for creating "Say you won't let go" (I can't stop listening to it!) #MentalHealthAwareness #Anxiety #TheVoiceUk #JamesArthur
Since performing on The Voice, Ayanam has gained recognition as a motivational speaker amongst young audiences. Recently, he was invited along to a school to give a talk about overcoming anxiety in general and how to ‘hush’ the negative voices in your head. Additionally, his active online social media presence has allowed for fellow musicians and people with OCD to reach out and thank him for his ambition and encouragement to follow your dreams.
“My exposure on The Voice has given me a platform to help people just like me. People send me messages on Instagram all the time and I am so happy to reply and give advice. I think it’s because they feel a connection with me as someone who managed to get on television with anxiety. I don’t let my OCD and anxiety limit my dreams and neither should they.”
For any more information or expert advice about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, visit www.ocdaction.org.uk.
To keep up to date with all of the musicians in this piece, follow their Facebook pages below for the latest music, events and other information: