“My intrusive thoughts made me feel afraid and alone – until I started talking about them”

Comedian Hayley Morris has lived with intrusive thoughts for as long as she can remember. It was an experience she was ashamed of until she began sharing it with her social media following.

Content note: this article contains references to and descriptions of suicidal ideation and intrusive thoughts that readers may find upsetting.

I’m gliding along the motorway on a crisp, sunny Sunday in mid-January, heading back to my flat after visiting some friends down south. It was a wholesome weekend; I feel happy, at peace… until:

Brain: Swerve into the middle barrier!

Me: I’m sorry… what?

Brain: We should drive into the front of that lorry.

Me: Oh my god. WHAT? Are you insane?

Brain: Pull up the hand brake.

Me: We’re driving 70mph and we’re on a busy motorway. We’d die!

Brain: Fine! Let’s just pull the key out of the ignition then.

The wheel wobbles slightly as I tighten my grip, slow down and mirror-signal-manoeuvre into the hard shoulder.

Brain whispers to me: “Open the car door and ninja roll out into the road.” 

What the hell is going on? I’m suddenly not at peace anymore. These thoughts have come from my head, my brain. Am I OK? I don’t think it’s normal to be thinking these things. I should call my mum and get her to come pick me up, I think. But it’s embarrassing. I haven’t had to do that since I pooed myself in primary school.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with intrusive thoughts like these. They’re what the French call l’appel du vide – the call of the void – which, in my opinion, sounds far sexier and a lot more mysterious.

Despite spending years terrifying myself with dodgy WebMD self-diagnoses, I’m not a doctor – but from the extensive reading I did on it (ie watching TikToks), intrusive thoughts can rock up for a multitude of reasons. Conditions such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder can be a trigger.

They can show up in a plethora of ways: you can have the ones where your brain tells you to kiss your boss, howl like a fox in the middle of a silent library or open the exit door on the plane mid-flight. Or you can be like me and have all of the above, everywhere all at once:

Shave off both your eyebrows, whip out a tit while doing jury service, kick a small Yorkshire terrier before purposefully clamping your earlobe between your GHDs (before you call the RSPCA on me, I can confirm these are all just intrusive thoughts).

Before I knew what intrusive thoughts were, I was convinced something was wrong with me; surely no sane person is having thoughts like these? I couldn’t even hold my friend’s fresh-out-the-womb newborn baby without my brain telling me to drop it. I felt like a menace, a danger to society, someone who clearly needed professional help.

Of course, I never actually did any of these things (spoiler alert: I’m still here), but they happened a lot, especially when I was nervous/anxious or going through a stressful period, which is always because I don’t think life as an adult is ever truly stress-free.

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I’d sat with these thoughts for years; I always listened but never acted on them. I feared them. I’d shudder as I walked down a steep set of stairs, imagining myself tumbling to the bottom. I’d wince as I tripped slightly up a curb, envisioning myself falling and knocking all of my teeth out.

One day, after suffering from a particularly bad case of Covid-19 (perhaps you’ve heard of it?), I decided to make a video about these thoughts.

I set up my tripod and camera and acted out holding up a box and some scissors before my brain popped up to say: “How wild is it that if you fell over right now, those scissors would probably go straight through your eye, into your brain and you’d die?”

As I hit ‘post’ on Instagram, every single organ in my body twisted. I felt hot and panicked as I imagined a white van turning up to my door to take me away and lock me up forever. Moments later, as I lost my bottle and went straight back to the post to delete it, I found tens of comments agreeing with me. People were relating to me, telling me about their intrusive thoughts. Every single intrusive thought I’d ever had was suddenly being written back to me by strangers on the internet. The video had somehow gone viral and people were telling me they had no idea that it was ‘normal’. And for the first time ever, I felt ‘normal’ because they felt ‘normal’, so we all felt ‘normal’ together. 

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For years while I suffered in silence, it never occurred to me that talking about these thoughts publicly on the internet for everyone to see would be the secret to finally getting them to quieten down. When those intrusive thoughts were at their loudest, I was far too afraid to tell a therapist about them. But it turns out that if I had, I would have been free of them a lot earlier.

It’s been three years since I posted that video and the intrusive thoughts are like a faint whisper to me now. They still appear from time to time, but only when I’m especially stressed or anxious. They hold no power over me anymore. What I’ve found helpful is to look for the funny in those thoughts. That in itself can be hard to do in the beginning, but when you imagine they’re coming from a menacing-looking characterisation of your brain, it’s hard not to laugh. The videos I’ve posted online have shown me that no matter how different we all may feel, it turns out that most of our brains are wired the same way. That said, if your intrusive thoughts are interfering with your ability to go about your normal daily life or frightening you, you should seek professional help.

Something that helped me is realising that all thoughts are just that: thoughts. They aren’t you and they aren’t something to be afraid of. Most importantly, briefly having those thoughts doesn’t make you a bad person. If you’re worried you might act on your thoughts, then definitely talk to someone about it – a friend, a family member, a doctor. And remember, intrusive thoughts are not an actual representation of who you are, what you want or what you believe.

Every time I have a moment where I feel alone in something, I remind myself that there are 8 billion people in the world and I’m sure at least 1 million of those have imagined their elderly neighbours 69-ing. Intrusive thinkers, you are not alone.  

Me vs Brain: An Overthinker’s Guide to Life by Hayley Morris (Century; £18.99) is out now. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’s list of mental health helplines and services.

If you are struggling with your mental health, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

For confidential support, you can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email [email protected]ans.org. In a crisis, call 999.

Images: Getty

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