I was 14 years old, sitting on my red and pink striped J.C. Penny comforter, the reverse side brown and calcified from the dryer, when the thought occurred to me. “What if I sexually abuse the child I babysit when I change her diaper? What would stop me from doing this? She is so young and helpless, and I could do something awful without anyone knowing.”
I was a Christian, and I wanted nothing more than to be a “good girl.” I loved babysitting-I would watch Little House on the Prairie, braid the young girls’ hair, feed them macaroni and cheese, and tuck them into their white pottery barn beds, getting a check at the end of the night. The thought was troubling. I felt my stomach become heavy with worry, acid dropping from my throat down to the bottom of my stomach like a train of pain. Then came the second thought–the one that caused the most suffering, “Why did I have that thought? Would I really do that? Do I want to sexually abuse her?” I was worried, but I dismissed the thought because I knew that I would never abuse someone. The thought was troubling, but I moved on. A few months later, the thoughts started popping up more frequently, and I would wonder “Why am I thinking this?” I would also picture people naked-especially people I didn’t want to. I was trying my best to stay pure in a period of purity culture of the early 2000s in a highly evangelical church, and the thoughts were especially troubling. I would spend church services doing my best to avoid thinking of my 40-year-old pastor naked, but the more I tried to NOT think about these things, the more I would think about them.
I could tell no one. If I had the thoughts, what did it mean about me? Did it mean I wanted to molest a child or see my pastor naked? Was I going to do it? Was I a dirty, awful creature? Could I be trusted around children? I loved babysitting and everything about it. The way an infant’s head smelled. the way the kids needed me. Laughing with them and their sweet innocent smiles. I loved it, and because I loved it, the thoughts became even more distressing. I felt like a fraud, yet I didn’t want to stop being able to babysit, so I told no one. I went through periods, especially of downtime, like summers, of mental agony, trying to convince myself that I would never molest a child. I would pinch myself as punishment or say prayers and recommit my life to God to feel better. This continued for 4 years, with varying degrees of intensity. At first, I continued to babysit and watch kids while having these obsessions, but compulsions started to form. I checked my body for sensations and repeated phrases like “God please I pray” in order to neutralize the thoughts. Eventually, I avoided taking babysitting jobs because of my anxiety.
False memory-themed OCD
Around 18, while on vacation with my family, I got the intrusive thought that maybe I had already molested a child. I thought if I prayed enough to God, he would tell me whether or not I did the horrible act. I would scan my memory to try to figure out if I did it, and even though I knew I did not, I could not shake the scary feeling that maybe I had forgotten or repressed the memory. This was a really low point for me, and it was the only time I felt truly depressed in my life, thinking about dying so I didn’t have to live with the fear that I had done something so awful. I felt enormous guilt and shame for a crime I didn’t commit. I thought I was going to go to hell because I didn’t know if I committed the awful sin and wouldn’t be able to fully repent for it. I spent nights crying and not knowing how to tell people in my life what was happening. My parents were concerned but I was so scared to tell them the full truth. It felt easier to say “I am just afraid I am going to hurt people.” Sharing the specific details scared me half to death.
When I was in college, I got help at the urging of my mom. I talked to a counselor, and after months of building trust, I finally shared in that small dark office I was concerned I had molested a child even though I never did. I was afraid I would be reported to the police. She diagnosed me with OCD. She described that though I might not have outward compulsions, I obsessed about the possibility that I might molest a child, even though I didn’t want to do it. She explained I was having these thoughts because I was so afraid of doing such an awful thing. In fact, she shared, people who had this type of OCD were the least likely people in the world to do it. This provided some temporary relief, and I made it through college by distracting myself with friends, thrift shopping, working, and traveling.
At age 23, after graduating with my undergraduate degree, my OCD progressed once again. At the recommendation of my talk therapist who diagnosed me, I started Exposure and Response Prevention, also known as ERP. I learned the issue with my OCD was that it wanted 100% certainty that I had never molested a child and that I never would in the future. What I learned was that most people have intrusive thoughts, and we could never get 100% certainty that we wouldn’t. It would take me accepting the possibility that I was an awful, terrible person.
Starting ERP as an adult and a new theme emerges
Though I started ERP therapy in October 2016, it took me until hitting my rock bottom to actually start exposures, which was about 9 months. I originally came in to work on what I learned from the ERP Therapist was pedophilia OCD or POCD, but by the time we started work on that, my theme had shifted. I started worrying I was gay. This fear was one that had lain dormant in my mind since the time I was about 9 or 10, but around 23, the fear moved to the forefront of my mind. Though I had grown up in a religious church, I had become more open-minded and I was okay with the idea of being gay. I had no moral fears about it. The fear itself was my sexuality being different than what I understood it to be my whole life.
Similar to pedophilia OCD, I would scan my body for signs that I was aroused by the same sex. I was spending every day building evidence for why I was either gay or straight, and the mental battle was keeping me from being able to participate in my life. I couldn’t enjoy the delicious food at family gatherings because I was consumed by a mental battle. I was taught to confront my fears by writing scripts that sounded like “Maybe I am gay, and I’ll find out later in life”, I watched movies that intentionally triggered my OCD, went to bookstores that specialized in LGBTQ literature, and attended groups for LGBTQ folks and allies.
Each exposure was designed to raise my anxiety and teach my brain that I could tolerate whatever discomfort came when I confronted the thought “Maybe I am gay and I am living a lie.” I was so afraid I would find out later that my whole life was a lie, and I had to get comfortable with the chance that this could happen. My therapist always said “This could happen. If it happens, you will deal with it then.”
I started to get better. Treating my sexuality OCD through ERP was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It took months of daily work-sitting down with my exposure journal and writing out my worst fears. The craziest thing happened after a few months of doing my ERP around sexual orientation OCD. When the pedophilia OCD would creep up, I knew how to handle it. I would write scripts and intentionally spend time around children even though my OCD wanted me to avoid, pray, and punish myself the way I had as a teenager. When the intrusive thoughts still arose, I now knew how to handle them.
Recovery is a process, not a destination
I wish I could say that at age 24, I was cured, that I never experienced distress from my OCD again. The truth is more complex and compelling. My OCD has taken many different forms throughout my life-whether it is that I am with the wrong person, or if I am making a terrible mistake at work, and everything in between. But my life has become so much more expansive since I received help for my OCD. Though I still get caught in compulsions and rituals and safety behaviors, I don’t stay stuck as long. I see a therapist at NOCD to help me through all the ways that my OCD has shifted over the years. Most importantly, my OCD has not kept me from living a beautiful life. I met and married an amazing man. I reconnected to art, writing, and advocating for people with OCD like myself. I don’t let OCD and fear dictate my life.
I am 29, and I’m sitting on my seafoam green Target comforter, the quilted one from our wedding registry. Earlier today while I was in an exercise class, I had an intrusive thought “What if I want to be sexual with my married friend?” The thought brought on the same feeling of distress I had when I was 14 with my first intrusive thought. “I would never want to do that! I have to get rid of that thought” was my OCD’s response. I felt disgust, anxiety, and distress. But I knew OCD’s tricks. I remembered that the more I try to NOT think about something, the more I will think about it. I knew the only way out was through. “Oh well. Maybe I do want to be sexual with them! Maybe my marriage will fall apart and so will theirs. Bring it on, OCD.” And I kept lifting weights, sweating, and moving to the music.