Jonas Eriksson

A Lifetime with autoimmune basal ganglia encephalitis

At age 7, my nightmare started. I told my mother I didn’t want to be in my body anymore. The anxiety was so severe. Little did we know, but my brain was under attack by my immune system, creating a firestorm in the brain. 

Sadly, it took 28 years to diagnose. Autoimmune basal ganglia encephalitis is a rare neurological autoimmune disease that attacks the basal ganglia, creating inflammation in the brain and turning the mind into the worst enemy.

My first symptoms were severe anxiety, hyperactivity, intrusive thought, and repetitive behaviors; the severe anxiety triggered the fear part of the brain, the amygdala. Ounces activated; it never stopped or went down to the baseline again. I can compare it to somebody with severe arachnophobia (spider phobia) looking in a rum full of spiders. That’s the feeling, a pure terror.

If you have never suffered from intrusive thoughts, it can be hard to understand the amount of suffering it can cause. It was like a demon terrorizing my brain, and it behaved like tinnitus that never stopped. When flaring up, every thought in my head was so upsetting that it felt like torture.

When I finally got diagnosed, the doctor could not believe I could even function; he had never seen anyone with such high markers indicating autoimmune basal ganglia encephalitis. That explained the unbearable anxiety and madness I suffered. 

Misdiagnosed for so long because it’s a rare disease most doctors have never heard of, at least in the 80s and 90s. Autoimmune diseases are often hard to diagnose because they present with symptoms that mimic other illnesses.

Autoimmune basal ganglia encephalitis is a severe disease that requires immediate treatment. It’s often misdiagnosed as a mental illness. For example, OCD, ADHD, psychosis, and schizophrenia because symptoms of paranoia and delusions can also be present. 

I hope to spread light on this little-known autoimmune disease by sharing my story, hoping that other sufferers can be diagnosed sooner.

First, I was diagnosed with severe OCD and ADHD, but those were my symptoms, not my disease. When I was 32 years old, I was finally diagnosed with autoimmune basal ganglia encephalitis.

Sufferers have a good chance of recovery with early diagnosis and aggressive treatment. Treatment typically involves high doses of steroids and IVIG (Intravenous immune globulin) to calm the immune system and long courses of antibiotics, sometimes several years. It’s to prevent new infections, which can be very dangerous for people with the illness.

With me, the doctors consider using chemotherapy to reset the immune system. When the anxiety is so severe that you want to jump out of your skin, chemotherapy sounds like a good option.

But I’m in remission after years of different antibiotics, more than 30 sessions of aggressive IVIG, and cognitive behavior therapy.

Please stick to the end where you can read a story from an OCD sufferer explaining what he calls madness but can’t stop anyway.

What is OCD?

OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, is a mental health condition affecting millions of people worldwide. OCD is characterized by persistent and intrusive thoughts (obsessions) that lead to repetitive and compulsive behaviors (compulsions) in an attempt to ease the anxiety caused by the obsessions.

What cause OCD

There is no single cause for OCD. Instead, it is thought to result from genetic and environmental factors.

Some people with OCD may have a family history of the disorder, which suggests that there may be a genetic component. In addition, specific brain structures and chemicals have been linked to OCD, which suggests that there may be a biological component.

Autoimmune reaction to an infection can also contribute to OCD. The immune system attacks healthy cells in the brain in addition to foreign cells. This leads to inflammation, which has been linked to OCD behaviors.

Finally, specific life experiences like trauma can trigger OCD symptoms. This suggests that there may be an environmental component to the disorder.

OCD behaviors and Intrusive thought 

Depending on the severity of the encephalitis, common symptoms include severe anxiety, depression, doubts, delusion, and memory loss. During all these years, I have experienced many different OCD themes; the hardest ones have been false memories OCD and magical thinking OCD.

Because of my terrible memory, OCD liked to play tricks by removing or adding things in my memory, which I found very anxiety-provoking.

I was terrified because I knew it was like a snowball effect when OCD was at its peak; it came unstoppable. I knew what OCD said was not true and madness, but the anxiety communicated otherwise. You can say that I was brainwashing myself.

Brainwashing is when somebody controls another person’s thoughts and ideas by making them repeat something over and over again. This could be done with phrases, words, or actions. The aim is to break down the victim’s personality and make them think what the abuser wants them to think. In my case, it was the OCD that was my abuser.

False memory is not so uncommon for people to experience, but when having OCD, it can get stuck on things you find sensitive. The more sensitive it’s for you, the more intrusive thoughts your brain will feed you.

For example, a mother with her newborn child might have intrusive thoughts about harming the child. Such thoughts are so anxiety-provoking that they can make you believe you’ve done something when you haven’t.

To relieve my anxiety, I did reassurance behaviors, repeatedly checking things over and over again or thinking a neutralizing thought to counter the obsessive thinking and avoiding places and situations that could trigger my intrusive thoughts. 80% of my compulsion was in my head, so it was hard to detect by people around me.

During the worst years of my life, I could not work or study. I was too ill, and my symptoms were extremely severe. It felt like my brain was in overdrive all the time, and I could not shut it off.

Intrusive thoughts can be about anything that the person is sensitive to. They are called intrusive because they come without warning and feel like they are real and not under your control. Many people with OCD have themes of intrusive thoughts, such as:

-Fear of harming yourself or others

-Fear of contamination or dirt

-Fear of losing control

-Fear of sexually harming someone

-Fear of being gay

-Fear of doing something immoral

Studies have shown that up to 99% of the population experience intrusive thoughts at some point in their lives. Ordinary people can sort these thoughts as spam with no meaning or relevance, but people with OCD can’t correctly process these intrusive thoughts because of a missing anti-spam filter.

The severity of the illness dispenses on how many spam emails the faulty spam filter is letting through. Experts estimate that the mind produces around 6000 thoughts a day. That’s an average of 375 thoughts per hour. Think of it like this, you receive 6000 emails every day, and you can’t delete them or stop them from coming. For OCD sufferers, many of these emails are spam smart enough to break the anti-spam filter; when these emails reach the OCD mind, anxiety is triggered, leading to even more spam coming into the wrong mailbox.

This leads to doubt and confusion; I understand why the early scholars called OCD the doubting disease. The higher the anxiety is, the more doubt the brain produces. People with OCD can’t let go of these thoughts; they get fixated on them and start believing they will act, do, or have done something wrong. It always sticks to something you care about or is against your values and morals.

For me, the OCD came in episodes with very severe spikes. It would start with an intrusive thought and end with the idea that I had done something wrong. Even if I knew it was not true, I could not dismiss this thought due to the severe anxiety I experienced.

The spikes could last months just because of an intrusive idea that got stuck in my mind. To survive, I developed both mental and physical rituals. I didn’t know that I only reinforced my behavior, which became even more imprinted in the brain.

I now understand that my spikes in OCD were probably due to my being in contact with some infection or stress over extended periods, which triggered my immune system to attack the brain, leading the brain to produce intrusive thoughts.

At its peak, I can compare it with Jason Statham in the movie Crank, poisoned and must keep his adrenaline constantly flowing to keep himself alive. In my case, compulsions were my adrenaline, the behaviors I used to fight off the intrusive thoughts.

This episode always led to a total crash, resulting in severe depression. Depression was probably my brain’s way of protecting it from totally overheating.

Early on, I noticed that when real fear and adrenaline ran through my veins, the intrusive thought stopped. So I started doing things that scared me. I developed a strategy the same way an adrenaline junkie does.

The combination of an adrenaline junkie and OCD made for a cocktail of disaster. I would do things that would put myself in danger, not because I wanted to but because I knew it would give me the high I needed to push away the OCD thoughts.

I preferred real fear to the fear that my mind created. It was more manageable, and it had rules and boundaries. I knew when it would start and when it would end. The fear that my mind created had no end.

Intrusive thoughts are not voluntary, and people with OCD can’t control them because of the extreme fear of a specific thing. That’s why it’s so important to seek treatment.

It took 28 years to understand that my fears were never real, and it was just my brain creating false messages; better late than never đŸ™‚ I am grateful to be alive today and have finally found a treatment that is helping me recover. I’m sharing my story because I want people to know that they are not alone and if I can get my OCD and anxiety under control after having it for 30+ years. You can too!

Writing this blog post releases how trapt I have been in my mind. Life was only about surviving the next episode I knew was coming. It’s weird how thoughts can destroy so much and create such madness. But It is estimated that 2 to 3% suffer from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), making it one of the most common mental disorders.

OCD is named one of the top ten disabling disorders by the WHO. OCD affects men, women, and children of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. The course of OCD can be variable, with some people experiencing symptoms for only a short period and others dealing with the disorder for a lifetime. Symptoms may also come and go or change in intensity over time.

I also want to add a disclaimer that this is just my story and my experience with OCD, and everyone’s experience is different. If you are struggling with OCD or know someone, please seek professional help.

If you don’t suffer from OCD or anxiety, it can be hard to understand why intrusive thoughts can produce such madness, but the thoughts are not the problem. It’s the reaction to them that causes the pain. The compulsions will only reinforce the anxiety by making the brain believe that this is something dangerous and real.

How OCD symptoms can manifest

It can be hard for family and friends to understand what OCD is and how bad it can affect the one suffering. To better understand OCD, I will add a short story from a fellow OCD sufferer.

OCD sufferer – Will

I was hunting ducks on a cold, beautiful January day. I was in a small boat in the middle of the lake. I remember feeling so happy as I sat there in the boat, enjoying the peacefulness of nature. 

A couple of days later, I was watching the news when I heard that a plane had crashed somewhere in the area where I was duck hunting. My first thought was, “what if I shoot down that plane?” It’s, of course, an absurd thought if you think about it, and I knew it was not realistic, but the idea gave me severe anxiety, and that’s when OCD strikes.

I could not stop thinking about it. My brain started to link and feel anxiety, which meant there was a real danger. I needed to do something to get rid of this feeling, or I would go insane. I started to research why the plane had crashed.

“I told you it was you!” that thought gave me a panic attack, and the OCD circus started. For ten years, I obsessively researched why the plane crashed. I knew it was not logical, but my anxiety didn’t let me stop until I was 100% sure. If I was not 100% sure, there was always a chance that I was responsible.

I talked to the police, airplane mechanics, and specialists in-plane crashes. It was a total nightmare. They all said it was an engine failure

 causing the plane to crash. But this answer didn’t satisfy me just for 15 min after that; I needed more reassurance to find peace.

I understood something was wrong with me, so I decided to get help. It was the best decision I ever made in my life. I was diagnosed with OCD and started therapy and medication. After a lot of struggle, I am recovered and living a happy life.

Helpful resources on autoimmune encephalitis

The book and film Brain on fire: My month of madness by Susannah Cahalan.

She was almost lost and looked up in a mental institution because the doctors thought she was psychotic. But thanks to her parents, who never gave up on her, she finally received a correct diagnosis and treatment in time and made a full recovery.

Brain Inflamed: by Kenneth Bock, M.D.

Dr. Kenneth Bock shares a new view on mental health, suggesting that many common mental disorders may share the same underlying mechanism: systemic inflammation. He details how imbalances in the immune system and microbiome can generate neurological inflammation.

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