A guest blog post by Cara Rothenberg
Today we’re lucky to share this story from Cara Rothenberg, who writes film scripts, articles, personal essays, and just about everything else. She has a unique ability to write things about her own experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder that are viscerally relatable for anyone with OCD. Her stories blend honest accounts of how difficult things can become with a hopeful insistence that they can get always get better. Now I’ll let Cara introduce herself:
“I’m a 27-year-old pizza enthusiast navigating the world with OCD and trying to laugh as much as possible along the way. I’ve found that the only thing harder than talking about my mental health is not talking about it. We don’t have to hide. Not anymore.”
OCD might be part of you– but it’s not who you are
By Cara Rothenberg
Labels are inescapable. Every single one of us uses them, whether we mean to or not. It starts off simple enough: Mom. Dad. Boyfriend. Girlfriend. Best friend. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. But the labels get more nuanced as we get older. I’ve been in situations where I’m catching up with friends or family and someone’s name will come up, and to remind each other who this person is we’ll say something like, “You know, that guy who lost his mom in a car accident?” or “Remember? The girl who went to rehab in high school?” Why do we do this? Is it simply because labeling people makes it easier to distinguish one person from another?
It makes you doubt everything you know, everyone you love, and everything you are. But it also tries to reduce you to a label– and never a positive one.
Or is it a lot more twisted than that? Do we do it because, deep down in the depths of our souls that we’re too afraid to explore, we point out the darker side of someone else’s life so that we can deflect attention from our own demons? We reduce people to the worst part of their lives when our biggest fear is the same thing being done to us. None of us want to be defined by the most “troubling” thing about us. Maybe it’s an addiction, a past mistake, a family tragedy, a bad relationship, a mental health disorder. Our traumas and mistakes and afflictions are certainly part of us, and denying their existence is dishonest and unhealthy. But I simply have to believe we’re all more than that.
OCD is known as the “doubting disease.” It makes you doubt everything you know, everyone you love, and everything you are. But it also tries to reduce you to a label– and never a positive one. You just thought about cheating on your spouse: you are a philanderer. You just wondered if you’d ever be able to harm someone: you’re a violent psychopath. OCD tries to place you into a category based on events that, more often than not, never even happened. Even if they did happen, OCD dramatizes and exaggerates them so much that you barely have a hold on what’s true and what isn’t. Your own mind becomes unreliable, and that’s really scary.
Reason and logic don’t work with this disorder.
I’ve done this my whole life. Oh, the places OCD has taken me! I’ve been a sociopath, a cheater, a liar, a deviant, a bad friend, a disappointing daughter, a terrible sister, an all-around awful person. These thoughts pierce your heart and your brain until you succumb to the idea that maybe it’s all true. If you don’t have the proper help and support, it’s very easy to fade away into those concocted labels. I almost did. Not once, but approximately 3,652 times. Here’s an example of one of those times:
Last year I wrote an article where I basically “came out” as having OCD. It was featured on a pretty well-known website, and the obsessive and neurotic side of me was absolutely sure I’d receive backlash from it. Why was I so certain? Well, as my therapist would say, “It’s not you who was certain. It was your OCD.” Reason and logic don’t work with this disorder. But really, it made no sense how unbelievably anxious I was that this article would break the internet. It was actually a little (a lot) narcissistic. I’m not even remotely well-known. I have virtually no internet presence (unless you count my tweets to Survivor host Jeff Probst, which went unanswered– still a tough pill to swallow).
I wasn’t saying anything slanderous or scandalous. But even still, my OCD manufactured this “gut feeling” that there’d be some kind of fallout. Not from the people closest to me — most of them knew about my OCD and were unbelievably supportive. It was everyone else. I waited for the whispers from my past to surface: old classmates, colleagues, teachers, coaches, general acquaintances. I waited for the nasty comments from complete strangers declaring either that OCD is made up or that I should stop complaining because some people have “real problems.” Worst of all, I’d get slapped with the label of “crazy.”
(As my mom always says, “No one is thinking about you as much as you think they are.” I could devote another ten paragraphs to how OCD warps your sense of reality and people’s perception of you…but I’ll save that for a rainy day. You probably hate me now for getting so off track. You hate me, don’t you? I knew it. Shit. I did it again. I digress).
The day of reckoning never came. In fact, the response was overwhelmingly positive. People I hadn’t spoken to in years, as well as complete strangers, reached out to me, thanking me for writing it. I was blown away by how many people could relate to the article. That’s when I realized that the only person, at least in that moment, who was labeling me…was me. I was preemptively and internally labeling myself as “the crazy, attention-seeking OCD chick” because I wanted to beat people to the punch. I wanted to inflict the pain before they could.
Writing that article was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life, and I almost didn’t do it because of how fearful I was of the labels that might come my way. It was so humbling to see how decent and understanding people could be. I really wish I could say that was the last time I ever let OCD define me, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t because OCD isn’t curable and it will always be there. But you know that dark, twisted part of us I mentioned earlier?
Well, I think that next to that tiny dungeon in our souls covered in cobwebs and dead bugs and other sinister accoutrement is a really good part filled with light and goodness and — dare I say, hope. We all have that part of us too. That’s where we store our love for other people and ourselves. It’s where we keep the parts of us that make us good and kind and complicated and flawed and beautiful and a whole list of other adjectives that make up who we are as people. Nothing, not even OCD, can touch that. So I say we try as hard as we possibly can to visit that part of ourselves more. It’s a pretty spectacular view.
Thanks very much to Cara for bravely taking on OCD every day and sharing this part of her story with us. This blog is better when I’m not the only person (or even the main person) writing on it. So, if you’d also be willing to share your story with us, please fill out a quick form. We’ve received a bunch recently, so it might take a few weeks for us to get back to you. But rest assured– we read all of them and we’ll be in touch soon.
Lastly, if you’re looking for a great way to treat OCD, take a look at the free nOCD app. It features treatment strategies from ERP, CBT, and ACT– the most clinically supported forms of therapy for this condition. It’s available now for iOS and coming soon to Android. Tell your friends, show your family, use it yourself, ask your clinician about it! And let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any questions.