I tell Millie Farrow, at the end of our 40-minute interview, that she is about to help more people than she realises. In making the decision to open up about this often misunderstood mental health condition, I find her wonderfully brave.
She might already know this. Farrow will be familiar with the frustration, as someone who has spent years tangled and imprisoned in her own mind, of hearing someone suggest they are “a little bit OCD” because they like their CDs alphabetised or keep the contents of their stationery drawer colour-coded.
Only someone with the condition, such as Farrow, a footballer at North Carolina Courage in the NWSL, knows its relentlessness, and the stigma that persists even as the world becomes better at discussing depression and anxiety. OCD, in comparison, commands little focus — a sad irony, given how much attention it demands of those who have it — and the full spectrum of its reach remains dangerously misunderstood.
Farrow is releasing a book, Brave Enough Not To Quit, on a football career that was almost derailed by mental illness and the litany of injuries that she describes in visceral, gruesome detail. It is a searingly honest, and sometimes salutary, read, and the culmination of four years of work. Part memoir and part self-help, Farrow has used diaries, written from the months lost to torn knee ligaments, to take in the broader story of her fight with her own mind. Only in the past year has she felt she has the perspective to “recognise why I was feeling the way I was”.
“This is a very vulnerable place to put myself,” she says, her gaze peeling off to the window beyond, “but that’s the sort of thing that needs to be done.”
The 26-year-old is guarded, initially, but once warmed up it is as though a tap has been turned on. From her sister’s bedroom in England, the country where she has spent the majority of her playing career, she recalls her agonies with honesty.
Scouted by Chelsea at 15, Farrow spent her teenage years playing alongside today’s Lionesses and rubbing shoulders with stars of the men’s game. She played against Leah Williamson in the 2012 FA Youth Cup final, and later alongside Lauren Hemp at Bristol City. She also shared treatment rooms with David Luiz — “when I was doing my strength tests, he’d be in the background going: ‘COME ON! COME ON!’” — and tells a story of how Petr Cech lent her his portable drum kit to take her mind off her injury.
But with her talent came pressure. She had her first panic attack — she refers to them as “the breathing thing” — on a football pitch aged 10 or 11. “As soon as things started to go wrong, I would just have waves of panic and my throat would close up,” she says. “There was a lot of crying, a lot of, ‘I don’t understand why I feel like this and what’s going on?’.” A doctor prescribed an inhaler — “they assumed it was a physical problem, but it was all underlying mental issues” — but her anxiety spiralled into OCD.
Obsessive compulsive disorder has several strands: first, the obsessions, the unwelcome thoughts or worries that cause the anxiety and discomfort, and then the compulsions, referring to the acts, physical or mental, performed to alleviate the fear the obsession causes. Some with the condition worry they have killed someone and wiped the memory, others have the irrational worry they are about to harm someone, or that they are contaminated and dirty and need to clean themselves.
As young as nine, Farrow would “be doing weird things that children wouldn’t necessarily do. I wouldn’t just Hoover around the room, it would be under the bed, the mattress. Every single part of the bedroom would have to be analysed and assessed and I wouldn’t be happy until it was done in the right way. I knew nothing bad was going to happen, it was the fact I couldn’t sit with the anxiety. The way it made me feel was so strong and powerful, I just had to listen to it every single time. As I grew up, those compulsions and rituals sort of changed. The anxiety manifested in other ways.”
Farrow prefaces her list by saying she knows it “obviously sounds very irrational”. If she made a mistake at school, she would have to cross out the word five times or rip out the page completely. If she had touched something she had perceived as dirty, she would have to wash. She would not touch door handles. She convinced herself others were contaminated and made lists in her head of everything she needed to wash once she got home. When her England team-mates were on their periods, she agonised over whether they had washed their hands. She once left a sleepover at 6am, walking four miles home, because she had seen a stain on the sheets. Once home, she cleaned every door handle and surface she had touched.
“It is a very strange place to be — being controlled by a thought in your head,” Farrow says. She would see someone “contaminated” touching a certain surface and “I would be assessing it, analysing it. I wouldn’t be concentrating on a lesson — I’d be concentrating on what that person was doing or touching. ‘Right: I need to avoid that, and if I touch that, I need to wash this. If it touches my clothes, or my hands…’” she tails off.
“There would be situations where I couldn’t react how I wanted to. I’d be in a training session and be paying attention to, ‘Right: it’s on my hands. They’re contaminated. And now I’ve touched my face, my hair’. That would lead to me putting hand sanitiser on my face or in my hair, just to try to get rid of that feeling for that moment. It was absolutely exhausting. I’d get home and I’d be completely wiped out. Emotionally drained, physically drained — it was a 24/7 thing. It got to the point where it controlled my life.”
Farrow would avoid interacting with certain people, avoid using public toilets. “I couldn’t bear the thought of, ‘What if this touches me?’. I knew the repercussions in my head that would happen. It is a bizarre place to be, but it is very real. That’s what I was experiencing and feeling.”
This, she says, is the hardest thing to share. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries — she was 16 when she had her first ACL reconstruction — are “understood in football. You have a scan and it’s there. You tick off your rehab and after however many months, you’re back on the pitch”. OCD is a more formless fear. “Some of the stories in the book are quite embarrassing. At the time, I was so ashamed that I felt that way and acted that way because of how it made me feel.”
A diagnosis, and therapy, came aged 14. Farrow’s mother did most of the talking at the first doctor’s appointment — “I just couldn’t vocalise how I was feeling” — and since then, her OCD has been somewhere between surging and manageable. “There’s still a lot of niggly things in the back of my mind, a lot of things that I’ll do, but they’re nowhere near as traumatising and drastic as when I was younger,” Farrow says. “It is something I will have for the length of my life, but it can be dealt with and can be under control. That’s the place I’m in now.”
Her OCD receded during the pandemic — “there was hand sanitiser everywhere and people were washing their hands because they were so conscious of catching COVID” — but it would “go through the roof” when she didn’t meet her expectations of herself. Those two ACL injuries left her with the feeling she was chasing lost time. She drew a picture for the book of her brain being struck by arrows: those marked ‘worthless’, ‘not good enough’ and ‘not valued’ find their target, while ‘positivity’ and ‘self-value’ miss.
This is how she felt in those moments when injuries snatched her football career from her. Her book paints a picture of a career stuck between stations, of 78 league appearances across spells at six clubs. “Women’s football as a whole is a very unsettling, unpredictable career,” she says. “You can go from club to club and contract to contract and city to city. One minute, you could be on good money, next minute you’re on all right money. So much of that was out of my control and it almost just exploded in my head.”
The same followed an on-field mistake. “I would just get stuck. I didn’t know how to let it go. The thought would be like a loud noise or a dark cloud in my head.” Hence “the breathing thing”. “It’s crazy how it happens so quickly. I couldn’t stop and anchor myself. I just completely let my mind take over.”
The cycle would leave her exhausted; she would curl up in bed utterly defeated by the pace and nature of those thoughts. “It was just loud noise in my head all the time. I was just like, ‘Is this worth it?’. But what was the alternative?”
It was always going to be football, and she will return to the United States on Monday ready to show the NWSL — and the football world — what they have been missing, happily in the best mental space she has been in for some time.
Acceptance — of who she is, of where she is, of where she has been — has freed her, and she feels no urge to compare herself with the Lionesses with whom she once shared a pitch. What is the point, she asks, when she doesn’t know their full stories and they, until now, won’t be familiar with every aspect of hers?
She feels filled with strength. Her thoughts upon arriving in the US were, “Wow — I’m so glad I didn’t give up.”
(Top photo: Pitch Publishing)
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