We're excited to share a guest post by M Johnson, and grateful for this generous retelling of a difficult story. It's about the many paths our thoughts can lead us down, the ways they grow into something much larger, and the possibility of getting better despite it all.
If you'd like to share your story or read more from people with OCD around the world, check out the NOCD app! Without further ado...
I knew something was going on when I was a young child and in the middle of my thoughts I’d picture myself falling into a dark hole in the floor. I’d try and think the thought again without the hole in the floor, but I couldn’t.
My parents were divorced, and when I was with one of them I had to do a long goodnight ritual for the other one– I feared something bad would happen to them.
When a neighbor’s dog was hurt by a car, I played it over in my head for the next year, each time convincing myself a little more that it was my fault.
As I got older, these symptoms morphed into other phobias.
My mom moved us from Montana to Los Angeles before I went into high school. As we drove down the West Coast, I couldn’t look out my passenger side window for fear of seeing a dam along the Columbia River.
After a couple years in high school, my anxiety got to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to go. I begged my mom to stay home with me, afraid to be alone. Once I had missed several days of school, I grew too anxious to go back. I was certain my teachers hated me for not showing up. I became afraid to leave the apartment, in case I’d run into them around town.
Around this time, we got evicted from our apartment, so I needed to switch schools anyway. I enrolled in an online high school, comforted by the thought of staying home.
I had to do placement testing for this new school. I needed a fountain soda to drink during the test– not a can, not a bottle– along with two bottles of Purell, one on each side of my paper. By this time I knew something was wrong, but I was so comforted by my compulsions that I didn’t want to risk losing them by admitting it.
Finally, something showed me I was in over my head. I went to the grocery store with my dad to pick up a few things. While waiting in the checkout line, I began straightening the gum and mints. He paid before I could finish, and one Altoids container remained upside down. I thought about it for a few minutes, trying to convince myself that I had fixed it. I knew that I hadn’t. In the car, I started to lose my breath. By the time we got home, it was lost. The night ended with me hyperventilating in the emergency room, collapsing in the hallway.
My mom brought me to a psychologist and a psychiatrist later that week. The diagnosis came quickly: obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.
I breathed a sigh of relief. There was a reason I acted the way I did. Now that I had a diagnosis, I could start getting better.
Things did get better, for a while. I settled into my fear of germs, my phobia of dams, and the daily worry that occupied my mind. But then the obsessions switched. Suddenly, germs weren’t the problem. Fires were: I was positive a fire would consume the apartment. So I checked the stove, I checked the vents, and I checked them often.
Around this time I started experiencing sensory overload. I would reach a limit of noise or touch. We had friends over one night, and we were all having such a good time– such a good time that everyone was speaking at once. My voice rose above everyone else’s, asking for quiet. The overload became too much, and I locked myself in the bathroom with my prescription.
What followed was a visit to the children’s hospital, an ambulance ride to a psychiatric hospital, and a 72-hour hold when I was labeled as a “Danger to Self.” I was never suicidal, but I was completely overwhelmed.
Once I got out, my treatment was ramped up. I got my GED, went to college, had a great boyfriend, made friends. Things were good. The years that followed were filled with obsessions and compulsions, anxiety, worry, and stress, but nothing as severe as what I’d dealt with before. I handled things as they came.
A couple of years ago, I moved from California to Minnesota. The stress of the circumstances surrounding my move was intense and a new fear emerged: a fear for my health. I became obsessed with my fear of pregnancy. The chances were next to nothing, in fact I was on the pill and even took Plan B on top of it. But the fear stuck. For two months, I bought pregnancy tests three times a week, spent hours a day Googling symptoms and stories, and spent every second thinking I was bound to become pregnant. For the first time, I was tired of being alive.
So I got into counseling again after I was settled in Minnesota. I talked about my fear of pregnancy and how it had evolved into full-blown hypochondria. I’d become convinced that I had more disorders and diseases than I can name.
With time, the obsessions and compulsions have lessened. I still fear that I’ve left things too close to the heating vent, that the door’s not locked well enough, that if I leave clothes on the floor my boyfriend will slip and get hurt. Sometimes I forget that I have obsessions and compulsions until I mention a thought or display a behavior that makes others raise their eyebrows. I have a fear of satellite images, like the ones on Google Earth. I don’t like empty swimming pools. I ask my boyfriend every night, “Are you sure the door’s locked? The oven’s off? The alarms are set?”
I live in constant worry. When I’m not worried about something, I’m worried that I’m forgetting something to worry about. Perhaps worse than that, though, is being treated like a child. People think I need to be careful, need to take it easy. I have had a successful work history and I have a well-paying full time job. I am a full-time student with a 4.0 GPA. I volunteer, I run a blog. I maintain a relationship and keep in touch with friends and family.
My obsessions and compulsions have never impacted my work, my schooling, or my volunteer position as a Crisis Counselor. I’m a fully functioning human being who just happens to worry about things that most others don’t. Including that Altoid container that never got turned right side up.
Thanks again to M Johnson for this courageous and detailed guest post. Interested in more stories about OCD? Try the NOCD app!