I have been under the influence of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder for as long as I can remember.
As a child, I was frequented by intrusive thoughts that would turn me into a wide-eyed, shaking, withdrawn ghost of myself. For weeks on end, episodes would possess me – theme by theme – until I experienced almost every OCD type I’ve ever read about.
Theme #1: Suicidal OCD
The first theme that I can vividly recall was suicide. I remember learning what the word meant when I was about nine years old. That knowledge – the concept that someone could take their own life – led to me being haunted by intrusive thoughts about taking my own life.
Questions arose in a chasm of doubt swirling around me, enveloping me until the obsession completely took over. Everything became a potential way that I might commit suicide. Every balcony, every knife, every rope, bottles of detergent or bleach, any rafter or tree branch – my brain would remind me (so generously!) that any and all of those items could be used towards my demise.
What many people don’t understand about OCD is that we don’t WANT these intrusive thoughts. Our overactive limbic system and hyperactive amygdala hook into ego-dystonic fears that we have and cause us to play the thoughts over and over. It feels as though the more we resist our obsessions, the more they persist.
Theme #2: Fear of Developing an Eating Disorder
As all OCD themes do, mine slowly morphed into a fear of harming myself by “contracting” an eating disorder. I had learned about eating disorders at school and I couldn’t get it out of my head that I too could somehow develop an eating disorder – I even started worrying that I may already have one.
I was so anxious about this thought that I could barely eat for weeks. This only intensified the vicious obsessive cycle because it seemed to confirm my fears that I had an eating disorder.
Theme #3: Homosexual OCD (HOCD)
On to the next theme! When I was about eleven I learned that my aunt was a lesbian, and I learned what being a lesbian meant. I became convinced I possibly could be gay too and I might be harboring secret feelings for my friends.
I kept thinking, “What if I’m sexually attracted to them? I probably shouldn’t even be alone with them anymore or attend sleepovers, right?”
This affected my ability to connect with my peers. I was afraid that I’d somehow make an advance and be found out to be a lesbian, which at the time for me seemed very frightening and isolating.
Theme #4: Harm OCD
I also struggled with typical Harm OCD. I couldn’t look at or touch knives for fear that I would harm my family or friends. This has persisted on and off until now.
As I learned to deal with my various forms of OCD, I learned that OCD has a tendency to attach itself to the things we love and value, the things that would scare us if we ever lost, and the things we would never want to harm. Things like family, self, children, and even our own sanity.
I have what doctors call “Pure OCD”, which is marked by compulsions that are not physical. My rituals are largely hidden, as they revolve around overanalyzing, overthinking, and seeking reassurance from others to prove my obsessions are untrue. Whether your rituals are mental or physical, they can be agonizing, draining experiences – trust me!
What People Don’t Know About OCD
The media shapes a lot of the mainstream conversation around OCD and it tends to draw attention to compulsions without really giving any context.
This is especially true as I’m writing this, during the COVID-19 crisis. The media is hyper-focused on the cleaning rituals that some of us with OCD engage in. The problem is, media coverage tends to be tone-deaf and insensitive because it almost never tries to explain why we are stuck with these behaviors in the first place, or why they are so debilitating.
For example, disturbing thoughts about harming our loved ones might cause some of us to try and deal with our anxiety by:
- Spending an exact amount of time in the shower and then turning the knob to the right and to the left a certain number of times;
- Alternatively washing our hands a certain number of times and then sanitizing the light switch;
- Checking all of the outlets in the house to make sure everything is unplugged – but checking once isn’t enough, so the checking ritual gets repeated multiple times (sometimes for hours).
If a bad thought manifests WHILE we are doing these rituals, we may have to start all over again from the beginning. This can prevent us from leaving the house on time, performing at work or in school, and taking care of our children.
If we have harmful thoughts about our loved ones – especially our kids – we may feel like monsters. It can make us question if we’re even fit to be around our own children.
But the point that I want to make crystal clear is that we aren’t doing these acts because we WANT to – we are prisoners to these rituals.
Instead of presenting this wider picture, though, the media tends to focus on a few isolated rituals. Even then, compulsions are portrayed as funny little personality quirks and squeaky clean kitchens, instead of deeply debilitating behavior.
Finding Treatment Through ERP
OCD can feel like it’s controlling everything – but there is hope. It is possible to break free from this painstaking disorder and reclaim our lives.
The right kind of therapy (and for some, medication) can be lifesaving. It just so happened that during a particularly painful episode, I found Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy through the NOCD App. It set me up with an ERP therapist and connected me with millions of other sufferers.
ERP works by deliberating spiking your anxiety and then controlling the urge to perform a related compulsion. As you see that your anxiety comes down naturally, by itself, you can start to retrain your brain to react differently.
I have had so much success with ERP and medication that I am now able to identify OCD thoughts when they come in and then pay them little to no mind at all.
The journey was arduous and painful. For months, I was doing therapy twice a week and working on exposures for hours each day.
But, with all that work, I have been able to find relief. And the best part is that without the obsessions and anxiety, I now have space in my brain and in my life for the things that I love:
- I have more time and space to study;
- I enjoy playing with my daughter, to a degree I hadn’t felt for years;
- I can engage in relationships and friendships without OCD looming in the background;
- I feel free of the stigma that comes with having OCD and fears about how people might react;
- I can reflect and understand my experience with a sharper, more focused lens;
- I enrolled in school full time with the intent of getting a master’s in clinical psychology and becoming a licensed clinician and helping people like myself.
As I learned more about OCD, I’ve noticed certain similarities with dysmorphic disorders. With both, there’s often an element of inherent self-distrust. I plan on writing my master’s thesis on this connection, which I call “cognitive dysmorphia” Or CDOCD.
I have found new space and peace of mind since committing to the treatment and recovery process. It has helped me understand myself and my thoughts without immediately getting trapped by them.
If you are struggling with OCD, I hope my story gives you something to relate to. You are not alone! NOCD is an amazing place to find help and get connected with a community of people who experience the same things as you. Don’t give up on yourself, it is possible to live a normal and healthy life with OCD.