It’s common for people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to wonder if its symptoms might change over the course of their lives. While everyone’s experience will be different, as someone who’s lived with OCD for almost my entire life, I can say that my experiences with the disorder have changed drastically over the years.
I can find traces of OCD in my earliest memories. At the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that I’m not defined by it. OCD no longer holds the same power over me. Through sharing how OCD has evolved throughout my life, I hope to bring a sense of understanding and hope to anyone who might be struggling like I once was.
As a child, OCD can be confusing
Symptoms of OCD usually begin to appear between childhood and young adulthood, with most people receiving a diagnosis as young adults. OCD can also begin to appear later in a person’s life, though this is not the usual course. Sadly, even with an early onset of symptoms being common, people with OCD can still go many years without a proper diagnosis and treatment.
I think it can be very confusing to be a child who is just starting to have symptoms of OCD. After all, you’re just learning your way around the world. Everything is new to you. When OCD creeps in during childhood, it might take time to be able to see and understand all of the ways in which it was present.
I know I can look back on my own childhood experiences with OCD with more clarity now. When I was around 5 or 6, the focus of what I now know to be OCD was on safety, as well as if I was “good” and what that meant. I now recognize this as the sense of hyper-responsibility that can be common among people with OCD. I felt an urgent need to know when and if something bad could happen, and how to prevent it. It became all-consuming.
Like other children, I was taught the typical, “Look both ways before you cross the street.” Unlike other children, however, I became hyper-focused on this directive, repeatedly reminding everyone to look both ways and then double-checking and triple-checking before deciding it was safe to cross. Ensuring that the people I cared for weren’t hit by a car became an endless pursuit.
“Don’t talk to strangers,” another common childhood lesson, would also trigger my fears. To 6 and 7-year-old me, the idea of being taken away was terrifying. Thus began countless rituals to ensure I would never be kidnapped. I was always on high alert. If OCD told my childhood self to be afraid of something, I listened. I had no idea what I was experiencing, after all, let alone that I could talk back to it or question it.
Feeling “different” in the teenage years
As a teenager, the fear remained but its focus shifted. It was as if my brain would just keep adding to the scenarios that lived in my head. Just when I believed a thought couldn’t get any worse, it would. I remember having that exact thought: “How can this thought be any worse?” OCD was just like that—it was mean, it was heartless, and it demanded all of my attention.
I think the teenage years are the time when some people with OCD begin to understand that their minds are working against them, and that maybe other people aren’t thinking about the same things in the same ways they are. It’s a lightbulb moment, in a sense. Maybe they’ve always felt different and didn’t want to accept that or believe it, but now, it’s becoming more clear. Through doing compulsions, through seeking reassurance, they’ve learned that not everyone thinks like they do. Realizing this can be an isolating experience.
During your teenage years, your identity is being shaped and you’re learning who you are. It can be a confusing stage of life under any circumstances, but the doubts and insecurities of OCD can make it even more so. They certainly did for me.
Around this time, I started thinking in more existential terms. As religion and my beliefs became more important, naturally, OCD hyper-focused on them. As I paid more attention to peer relationships and social dynamics, OCD attacked these things, too. Thoughts of being different, weird, or somehow “bad” crept in more and more frequently.
In the midst of these confusing messages, the rebellious teenager in me started to become upset with how OCD had terrorized me relentlessly. As a result, I would become more daring and fight harder to resist the rituals and compulsions that exhausted me. More times than not, the OCD still won, but it was a starting point.
The new responsibilities of adulthood
With young adulthood came a new level of worry. In my younger years, my fears felt less realistic, like bad dreams that I could wake up from. They were also more focused on myself and what I thought could happen to me. But when you become an adult and start to take on the responsibility of caring for others—being a good citizen and fulfilling your role at work, in your marriage, as a parent, as a family member, and a friend—your focus can extend outward. Things are no longer all about you.
This heightened level of responsibility can have a positive effect, to be fair, but for those with OCD, it can also lead to an intensification of symptoms. For me, it felt like there were so many things to be afraid of that I hadn’t even considered before. Suddenly, I experienced fears and obsessions ranging from “Am I ‘going crazy’?” to “Could I be capable of harming someone? What if I accidentally hurt someone, poisoned them, or wished something bad happened to them?”
My fear turned from the possibility of the outside world hurting me to the possibility that I could hurt someone else. That was perhaps the scariest thought of all. To make matters worse, OCD made these fears seem so real. Every horrible thing I imagined felt plausible.
Gaining wisdom as we grow
As we move into adulthood, OCD can continue taking on new themes. There may be times when it seems like OCD will always feel harder and harder to manage, but within those struggles, there’s an opportunity for an incredible change to take place.
For me, this change happened when I began to learn. I began to study the enemy of OCD, even before it had a name in my life. I familiarized myself with OCD’s patterns and how it could attack. I became skilled at identifying its game.
That’s not to say that OCD didn’t still torment me, or that it was easy to cope with. It wasn’t, by any means. But once I had a better idea of what OCD was, I was able to seek out specialized treatment for what I was dealing with. Of course, this process took years and there were bumps along the way, but each challenge taught me new things. Over time, I became stronger and stronger.
As I came to understand what OCD was, how it worked, and how much it had affected me, a determination set in. I resolved that I would not let OCD control my entire life. The wisdom that we often gain with time and age can be an amazing thing. It can bring strength and a willingness to fight for something. In my years working with people who have OCD, I’ve seen this sense of purposefulness grow in so many people.
Sometimes—oftentimes—we have to travel through life’s rocky valleys in order to reach its peaks. I think this is especially true when it comes to living with OCD. Our climb may be difficult but when we look back, the views are full of insights and life lessons that ultimately strengthen us for the rest of our journey.
Just as OCD can change, so can you
So, yes, OCD can change with time. It may evolve in different ways for different people, it may look different during certain periods of your life, and it may shift from one focus to another.
What’s more important is that you can change with time.
Along your journey, you will grow, more than you could ever expect—and, often, in ways that may have once felt impossible. You can gain confidence in who you are and what you value. You can become braver, smarter, stronger, bolder, and, dare I say, even more trusting in yourself and what you’re capable of.
And if you’re doubting what you’re capable of, as I know OCD can make us do, allow me to remind you: You’re capable of ignoring OCD’s noise, no matter how loud it might be, and of focusing on the here and now. You’re capable of no longer living in the past or future, but taking life day by day and moment by moment. You will always have the ability to grow and change, no matter what OCD decides to do.
Treatment can help at any stage
I understand that you might be at a very different point in your journey, whether you have OCD yourself or know someone who does. In any stage of life, you can find yourself questioning if you’re strong enough to battle OCD or feeling like there’s no hope of things ever changing. I know it’s hard to feel that way—I’ve been there, too. But as difficult as things might seem right now, they don’t have to be this way forever.
Making the decision to ask for help, to seek treatment for OCD was one of the best things I’ve ever done. My life is no longer driven by anxiety, fear, and distress, but by my desires and values. What was possible for me is also possible for you or your loved one.
Whenever you’re ready to take the first step in your recovery journey, NOCD is here to help. Our therapists deeply understand OCD, are specialty-trained in treating OCD with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and receive specific training in treating children, adolescents, and adults. ERP, the most effective treatment for OCD, is an evidence-based form of therapy designed to break the cycle of obsessions and compulsions, helping OCD lose its power over time.
We work side-by-side with the OCD experts and researchers who designed some of the world’s top OCD treatment programs, ensuring the best care for our members. If you have any questions about starting ERP therapy or need more information about the treatment, please book a free 15-minute call with the NOCD team.