One thing has been clear throughout history: mental illness has been misunderstood. OCD is no exception. People tend to be afraid of what they do not understand. Many are scared of using labels and scared of the impact OCD may have on their relationships, career opportunities, and even how they are perceived by others. It’s no wonder that people hide their symptoms, given the nature of how people with mental illness were treated or dismissed historically. The fear of becoming an outcast still persists.
The stigma surrounding mental illness
When I was growing up in the 1980s, very little was known about OCD. I don’t think I had even heard of it until around 1995. There were no TV shows depicting characters that even represented the misguided, stereotypical views of OCD we see in today’s media. During my childhood, there was a vast silence when it came to this topic, at least in my household (and I suspect in the homes of many others). So when I began to experience symptoms, I knew something was going on, but I had no words for it. I saw it as a mysterious thing that would show up and torment me.
Now, over my years of being a therapist and specializing in OCD, I have found that this air of mystery surrounding OCD still exists in many ways for the people I’ve treated. They, too, experienced the struggles of having a condition that very few people truly understand, let alone know how to treat. Many lived in shame and guilt, wondering if they had done something wrong to deserve this or if they were somehow contributing to the severity of it. If they had it as a child, as I did, they may have been scolded or told to simply “knock it off.” They may also have been seen as attention-seekers or as having behavioral problems.
It’s no wonder that so many with OCD would want to hide their symptoms. They learn very quickly that when you allow people to see the symptoms that you experience on a daily basis, there may be negative consequences. But it doesn’t need to be that way. It is important for more people to talk about their experiences, as this leads to more understanding and helps educate people so that no one else needs to go through those experiences ever again. That is what makes platforms that share OCD stories so powerful, and that is why I have chosen to share my own struggles.
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Before it had a name
Before I really knew what OCD was, I tried to put my experiences into words, which proved to be challenging. As a young child, this must have been terrifying for my parents. They could tell I was in some sort of distress, but they didn’t understand what was happening. I would ask puzzling questions and demand answers to questions that could not be answered with certainty. I would confess the most mundane things and look for reassurance that I was okay. I wanted approval that these things were acceptable. I was consumed with things that no one 6 years old should be concerned with, like my family’s well-being.
Part of my story is that I grew up in a very strict household. I learned from a very young age that showing emotions that were seen as negative was often unacceptable. I was punished for things that were often innocent mistakes. For example, I would constantly throw away brand-new clothes because I had intrusive thoughts that they were contaminated. Or I would refuse to eat specific foods for fear of choking, but in my house, you were taught to eat everything that was on your plate. I would have to sit at the dinner table for hours because no one knew that’s why I wouldn’t eat. My parents’ rules had to be followed, no exceptions. My dad once told me that if he had a rule, he always stuck to it – even if he regretted the rule later. “Say what you mean and always follow through on it” was his motto. I believe that this was where I learned a lot of my rigidity in my thinking from.
Experiences like this, along with the negative stigma surrounding mental health, led me to turn inward. I decided it was best not to share my thoughts or my feelings. Instead, I would deal with whatever this was on my own.
Closing myself off allowed me to seem like an ordinary, obedient child on many levels. I was able to bury things when I needed to and to do things that most children do. I was able to produce the impression of a child who was very polite, conscientious, and very well-behaved. People often referred to me as the shy one. I was also seen as a rule follower. I was a “good” kid. To this day my parents still tell me I was “angelic” or a “dream” child.
I would like to attribute this to my personality traits, but to be frank, much of this was a facade: OCD made me behave a certain way, for all intents and purposes. I was scared to death of defying it, or of its wrath if I dared to. I knew that if I did something “wrong,” it would attack with a vengeance and I could spend days, weeks, months thinking about it. I learned quickly how to manage these thoughts to some degree.
I internalized everything. I had no outlet to express what I experienced. I had no one to tell me getting stuck thinking about these intrusive thoughts was actually a symptom caused by OCD and my anxiety was created by me giving these thoughts attention and meaning. I didn’t have a sounding board to check my emotions against. I felt alone most of the time. People couldn’t help me, not because they didn’t want to as I falsely believed, but because they didn’t know the suffering that I was experiencing. They didn’t get a chance to see that part of me.
I hid my symptoms to protect myself, but it backfired. In the end, it would do more harm than good. The “normal” childhood that I thought I was living was a false persona. I missed out on a lot of things that most children take for granted because I was so lost in my own inner world of thoughts and compulsions.
The worst part for me has always been the wasted time. One of the things that I try to relate to members I work with, especially children, is the amount of time that can be lost if this disorder goes unchecked and is improperly treated. To me, that is one of the saddest parts of OCD. It steals your time.
Thankfully this doesn’t have to be the end of the story. If you suffer from OCD, it doesn’t have to define you, and your story can look much different. That is why it’s so important to get the word out about what OCD looks like and help people get the best treatment possible.
Finding others who understand
Thankfully, today we as a society have come so far with gaining knowledge about mental health. Many of my members tell me that they have never met anyone else who has symptoms similar to theirs. In the past, they felt alone and didn’t know that this was a mental health condition. That’s why it is so important to connect to others who understand and who can be the sounding board that so many have never had.
What makes the community on the NOCD platform so life-changing for many people who would otherwise be suffering in silence is its ability to reach others with similar experiences. Having the space to discuss your most intrusive and worrisome thoughts can be healing in and of itself. The idea that there are so many people who may have never heard of this condition who are being helped and reaching out for treatment is astounding. You are not alone.
A therapist with specialty training like myself will also be there to guide you every step of the way and will become a critical pillar of support for you. Because OCD specialists deeply understand OCD, they won’t judge you for your thoughts or experiences, so there’s no need to hide your symptoms. They’ll also be able to help you get better with exposure and response prevention, the gold standard OCD treatment.
Having others who understood me and practicing ERP is ultimately what changed my life and allowed me to live the life I wanted. I no longer had to hide from OCD; I began to face this condition head-on, and now I’m here to help others do the same.
If you’re ready to stop suffering in silence, it’s important to see a specialist because they’re specifically trained to treat OCD with ERP and understand intrusive thoughts, the resulting anxiety, and how this leads to physical or mental compulsions. They also understand how to break this cycle. A specialist will teach you how to accept the uncertainty behind OCD fears and will give you the tools and knowledge needed to learn how to manage OCD.
At NOCD, we have licensed therapists that are specialty-trained in treating OCD with ERP, and you can book a free 15-minute call with our team to get matched with one and get started with OCD treatment.