Today’s story is written by Joe Antonellis, a student-athlete at Pomona College in California. Joe has the kind of enthusiasm about writing that makes you want to sit down and write too, and brings all this passion to his work writing about mental health and personal journeys.
My family gathered around the table, full of jokes, laughter, and smiles. The balmy weather, combined with the picturesque view of the golden Arizona sunset, created an observed inner peace amongst my surroundings. From the upper balcony of the restaurant the desert panorama exuded a dangerous trust to its inhabitants. An owl perched on a Saguaro cactus seemed to smirk at me, laughing at the pain in my eyes.
Too bad that day I never enjoyed the warm presence of my loving family. Never even glanced at the colorful fires setting to the west. Never enjoyed the once-in-a-lifetime view that opened up the desert environment to my senses. I was too busy trapped in my own mind, OCD taking over my twelve-year-old body like it always did, controlling my every facet, pushing me to the brink of insanity.
The knife to the right of my plate beckoned me. “Take me and cut yourself.” Over and over again in my head I fought the internal battle. No, you don’t have to do this. Please don’t do it. The knife was relentless though, grinding into my head its constant message.
“Honey, do you know what you want to order?”
I stared at her with a blank expression. All I could think about was the knife. I had to get away from it before it was too late. I feared the next time I laid eyes on the knife, it would be protruding from my skin.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” I quietly stated, avoiding eye contact with my family as I scampered out of the dining area.
I will never forget the way I felt when I was locked in the bathroom that night. I felt I had disappointed my entire family, confused them, made them scared. I was too terrified to open up to them about how I felt. Helpless, I had no answer to what was going on in my head, and didn’t even know what was causing it or what it was. Tears filled with uncertainty flooded down my face, covered in anguish. All I knew is that I had to get away from that knife, or else I would lose all control.
It wasn’t only the knife though. The compulsions didn’t stop there. They followed me everywhere I went. There was no safe place for me with OCD, with my mind creating a new obsession the moment I got over the old. Throughout my entire childhood, I struggled with this torturous disease, with no clear path to liberation in sight. I never knew what it was until I was brave enough to talk to my mom about it. Opening up was the first of the two-step process that led me to defeat OCD, and I would like to expound upon the first steps I took in my long battle with the evil disease.
Opening Up and Finding the Root of the Issue: Experiences in Therapy
I was so afraid to disappoint my parents that I held in all the turmoil that was going on in my brain for years. Eventually, it got to the point where my life was an actual living hell. Happiness was a thing of the past, as every good moment quickly turned into another whirling obsessive tirade in my head. I remember one day on a mountain biking trip with my family when I sat behind at the trailhead all day waiting for them to come back, in fear that I would ride off the trail and hurt myself on purpose. My brothers always thought I was crazy, and my parents viewed these incidents with fear and confusion. I knew I had to tell them why, and eventually that time did come.
When I told my mom about the way my brain worked, and how I couldn’t control my thoughts, she immediately knew it was OCD. Before I told her, I expected her to immediately outcast me as the freak, the child that didn’t live up to expectations. But, it was quite the opposite. Right away, she tried everything in her power to help me. Reluctantly, I agreed to go to therapy. After having a few OCD panics before the first couple sessions and skipping them, I finally made it to one, and it was the first step to my eventual freedom from the disease.
The feeling of being and talking with a stranger has a calm and free beauty to it. You know that you will never see them in the context of your daily life, and that whatever you say to them will not affect your life no matter how they view you for it. These therapy sessions allowed me to explain in entirety what I was going through on an everyday basis. I felt safe to say things I didn’t want to say in front of my family members, knowing I couldn’t scare them or make them change the way they look at me. Through the first few sessions, I often wasn’t honest with myself or the therapist. This, of course, was useless, and I quickly realized that. A voice in my head would encourage me to keep everything inside. Eventually, I was able to conjure enough strength to break this barrier, which leads me to the main strategies I used to beat my OCD.
OCD hits with you obsessions constantly, and to beat it, you have to use all of your mental strength to ward them off. After working with my therapist for months, we were able to come up with a mantra I would ask myself in my head whenever I would feel like doing a compulsion. Do I have to do this right now? Do I have to think this right now? Who’s making me? I’m in control. As the popular phrase goes, sometimes you need to “fake it to make it.” Whenever I would start obsessing, I would just focus on these phrases, and truly ask myself these questions in my head, providing myself with honest answers. Almost always, I would repeat, No, I don’t have to do anything I don’t want to. I don’t have to think anything I don’t want to. I’m in control. This mantra helped me stay grounded, and it was always there to fall back on. It was my first defense mechanism against OCD, but often it wasn’t enough. I had to create something more physical to pair it with in my fight against the full-body disease that OCD is.
Breaking Barriers: Getting past obsessions for the first time
Breaking an OCD barrier is much like solving a math problem that has stumped you for hours. It seems impossible to solve, no matter how much effort you put into it, but eventually you get that lightbulb moment. Suddenly, the answer just comes to your head, and you realize what you were doing wrong the whole time and come to a speedy conclusion. With OCD, it is like being trapped under the ice of a frozen lake. Suffering and drowning, you pound on that ice as hard as you can with your fists, but the effort is futile because your fists are simply not hard enough to the break the ice. But once you are equipped with the right tools, you can smash right through the ice, pull yourself up, and take a deep breath of fresh air.
One of my most common compulsions can be observed when I’m walking down city sidewalks. In my head, it is absolutely essential that I step on each crack on the path in front of me. If I miss one, I often “have to” go back and step on it, and then go catch up with the people I am walking with. Whenever I catch myself doing this now though, I break the barrier. I ask myself, Do I have to do this? I’ll say No, and I will force my body to keep walking. The further I get away from the crack, the less I think about it. The first time you break the barrier of a compulsion is always the hardest, but once you accomplish it, it gives you immense confidence. Everytime you get that recurring obsession, you can think back to the time you beat it, and it will give you the innate willpower to overcome it again. Much like a pianist practicing a piece, the more you break the barrier the easier it becomes to do on an everyday basis, allowing yourself to master the practice.
Although my OCD was most present when I was younger, I still apply these strategies every day. Instead of my attacks lasting hours or even days, they just last a few minutes, because I have built up the skillset to both recognize and kill off any attachments to these obsessions quickly. But, they still do exist in my mind, and I find myself doing things compulsively on an everyday basis. There is still a fear in my heart that it could come back and haunt me like it used to, as those memories still persist in my brain today.
Even starting to write for nOCD has scared me, as I thought that rehashing all of the old memories and thinking about OCD in detail again could bring it back in full power. But, all of this is just fear and lack of confidence. Once a barrier is broken, it can never be unbroken, and it will always be wedged in your brain that it can be accomplished. I hope I have inspired all of you to open up about your OCD, question it, and break those barriers, no matter where you are in your journey of recovery. Have confidence in yourselves, and know that millions have fought OCD and succeeded before. You are just the next to overcome those obsessions and start living free.
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