I never really saw it when I was younger. Looking back now, I realize that I had OCD. I always thought there was something wrong with me; I always thought that I was sick—but I wasn’t. I didn’t want to say anything to my parents because I didn’t want them to worry.
I remember the first time my OCD surfaced, even though I didn’t know what it was at the time. I was about seven or eight. My family and I would go for walks in the woods behind our house. One time, I can vividly remember my parents saying that they were so thankful for having such a wonderful family and that everyone was healthy. I remember thinking: “I’m not.” Much later, I learned that this is an OCD subtype called health concern OCD.
As the name suggests, health concern OCD is characterized by thoughts that have to do with the feeling as though you are sick or are about to become sick. Though health concern OCD was the first way in which OCD showed up in my life, it certainly wasn’t the last.
When I was a little older, I began to experience anxiety and panic. I started not wanting to go to school because I was afraid of having a panic attack there. Other OCD specific behaviors didn’t show up until I was a senior in high school. At that point, my dad was undergoing quadruple bypass surgery.
I I started folding laundry with the tags on the laundry having to be on the inside. I got it in my head that, if I didn’t, something would happen to my dad. I just remember that horrible thought of maybe losing him and then associating this completely random thing to him. I also had this thing about song lyrics. If I got them wrong, I would need to go back quickly and sing the right lyrics and quickly catch up. If I didn’t do this ritual, I thought that something bad may happen to him.
I didn’t tell anyone about how I was feeling—even my identical twin sister! I certainly didn’t bother to seek treatment. When you don’t know what something is, you don’t know what to do. It’s very isolating and scary. Then, about ten years later, I had my first child. My OCD got really bad.
Getting pregnant was unexpected. We’d already been married for five years, and we had our routine down. I remember realizing what a major change this would be for us and started freaking out about that. When she arrived, it felt as though all hell had broken loose.
I was told that I had postpartum depression or the “baby blues,” but I wasn’t sad. I was just terrified of hurting my daughter. I’d wake up at four o’clock in the morning and beg my husband not to go to work that day because I didn’t want to be left alone with her.
I loved her so much, but I kept getting these thoughts. I had thoughts about dropping her down the stairs, drowning her in the bathtub, or suffocating her under her blanket.
I didn’t understand why I was having these thoughts about this innocent little being that now I’m completely responsible for.
Eventually, my husband said, “Okay, this is enough. You have got to get some help with this because I can’t stay home all the time.”
So I tried to get help, but I didn’t exactly know what I was getting help for. OCD still hadn’t occurred to me, mostly because I had no idea of what OCD was. I knew I felt anxious, so I figured that anxiety was the main issue.
I called a number. The first thing I was asked was, “do you feel like you’re going to harm someone else or yourself?”
I understand why they need to ask that, but it totally turned me off from getting help. That’s because I wasn’t sure that I was going to hurt my daughter. I thought, “if someone finds out that I think these kinds of thoughts, they’re going to take her away from me.”
Even though I scheduled an appointment, I ended up canceling for that very reason. I decided to go another route and saw my doctor. They prescribed me some medication to help me through this period. The medication didn’t really help. I probably stopped taking it before it could have the desired effect.
It was a very difficult six months for my husband and me. When I became pregnant with my second child around three years later, I was terrified that the same thing would happen. However, having already been through it, I already knew what to expect and managed to get through it without too much trouble.
I was beginning to think that, whatever this was, it was finally done with me. It wasn’t. It came back with a vengeance a couple of years later. I had thoughts that were so irrational and strange that I felt like I was coming apart. I kept thinking that the roads I was driving on would suddenly turn up into the sky or turn down into a deep pit. I lost a ton of weight and just ceased to be able to function in a normal way.
Again, I still didn’t know what this was, so I wasn’t looking for specialized care. I started having sessions with a therapist who was doing cognitive behavioral therapy with me. In the beginning, I felt hopeful that the way I felt would improve. Other people who had seen a therapist for anxiety have gotten better. In my case, the opposite was true. Things seemed to be getting worse with every passing session. It was like a nightmare that lasted six months. I felt that I couldn’t be a good mother. I couldn’t be a good wife.
My therapist was not an OCD specialist. If she had been, she would have properly diagnosed me much earlier. However, had she not eventually floated the idea that this could be OCD and would require an entirely different type of therapy, I honestly don’t know what my life would be like now.
Like many people, I had a very narrow idea of what OCD was. Handwashing, checking, fastidiousness, etc. None of that bore any relation to what was happening to me, so finding out that OCD is so multifaceted was a revelation. I recognized the cycle of intrusive thoughts that would become obsessions; the compulsions I would do to try and prevent myself from acting on those bizarre thoughts.
I started with exposure and response prevention therapy, or ERP, which I learned was created to help people manage their OCD and is considered the gold standard treatment for the condition.
With ERP, everything clicked for me. It was as if this code had finally been cracked. My therapist created a plan that challenged me to sit with uncertainty and learn how to handle distressing thoughts. It began with exercises I could take in stride, habituating me to not react to my obsessions.
Soon I was taking trips by myself, acclimatizing myself to uncertainty by resisting the urge to do compulsions. I was doing things that would have been impossible just a few weeks earlier. After months of inadvertently making my OCD stronger with the wrong kind of therapy, I’d found a way to sap its power over me.
My therapist eventually moved away. But by the time that she did, I had all the tools I needed to manage my OCD properly. When the opportunity to work for NOCD arose, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to play a role in getting people into specialized therapy sooner and save them some of the distress that I went through unnecessarily.
As a NOCD Care Advisor, I have conversations with prospective members every day. Occasionally, I find myself triggered by something they say, and that’s when I use the skills I learned during my ERP sessions.
The biggest takeaway from my experience of OCD was that sometimes you have to do something for yourself. It can completely change your life and the lives of the people you love and who need you. While you may think that you can handle the ebbs and flows of OCD, when those bad times come, it can become overwhelming. It’s so important not to let it go that far. Drawing from my own experience, I tell prospective members to reach out and get the tools they need. There are specialists out there waiting to give them to you. Life can be so much easier than it has been while you’ve been living with OCD.