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Pure O, Harm OCD, Health OCD

I didn’t know my own strength

By Joseph Gerbino

My name is Joseph Gerbino, I’m 30 years young as of 2022. I’m a New York Native and have lived all throughout the state, as well as in Florida, briefly while in my teens. I’ve always been an animal lover. I currently have four dogs: two Yorkshire Terriers and two French Bulldogs who are all my life! Personal fitness has been a passion of mine since my mid-teens. Fashion has been a passion of mine and I’m a foodie for all cuisines, at heart. This year I’ve been looking forward to expanding my advocacy for the OCD community in any and all ways possible. When this opportunity presented itself to share my OCD journey I immediately jumped on it. I truly believe that it’s something that was meant to be, to share my story. Ever since entering my recovery stage, I’ve always expressed that if I could help even one person who could relate to me in any way, shape, or form, then I would genuinely, love that. Having this opportunity to share my story will hopefully help as many people as possible and that’s important to me. Not only for just this year but for the rest of my life. 

Trauma and OCD

Thinking and looking back to my life before OCD; I can now pinpoint in time that I’ve suffered from having OCD since as far back as my young childhood. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know what I was experiencing because of my age, lack of knowledge on the subject, and also not having been diagnosed until my adulthood. The signs were always there, both mentally and physically when it comes to rumination, compulsions, etc. Thankfully, I was able to overcome the majority of my physical compulsions by the time I entered my teens. Unfortunately; it pains me to admit that some still exist to date (despite my desperate attempts to refrain from acting upon them). Looking back, I grew up and lived through an abnormal amount of trauma. I lost my late mother at the age of five years young and had been separated from her side of the family. This left me to wind up in a mentally, physically, and emotionally abusive household being raised by my late father whom I lost at the age of 23 years young by suicide.

Despite all of these hardships, my life coincidentally also had a positive side to it that masked all of what I was mentally, physically, and emotionally enduring. I grew up in both upper/upper-middle class communities throughout New York. I went to both private and well-respected public schools. I always had friendships (despite adversity eventually infiltrating my social life throughout my pre-teen through teenage years). What I’m referring to is my sexuality; I’m now an openly homosexual man who is proud of my overall identity in life. However, growing up in a strict, old-school, Italian household and living in stereotypically “cookie cutter” communities, didn’t make it easy for me to be compared to anything other than being both stereotypically and traditionally “normal.” What I’m getting at is, I truly, feel that having been in both of those negative positions until I was able to break free from them at the young age of 17, had a major contribution to my overall well-being and specifically my mental health. Which, I feel was a major contributing factor to winding up with OCD.

At 17, after having cared for my late father after he had been in a head-on car collision that physically debilitated him, I was able to move back to New York and begin starting my young adult life. Thankfully this was alongside my loved ones (my Aunt and Uncle) who truly accepted me for who I was and am. They love me unconditionally still to date. By the time I’d turned 18 years old, I didn’t know that I would be meeting the man who has since become my partner, now 12 years later. Over the course of these past 12 years, we’ve managed to build a life together despite my OCD. It had been dormant for the majority of the time that we’ve been a part of each other’s lives; or so, we thought. I’d be lying to both myself and anyone else reading this if I said after looking back throughout our years together that there weren’t signs. Times when I was stemming from intrusive thoughts that didn’t stick at the time, ruminating after they’d surfaced, and compulsions in order to attempt to control them and reduce my anxiety. But unfortunately for myself, my family, and the friends around me, it was sadly me just suppressing a beast inside my mind. This beast would unfortunately and inevitably manifest itself into a monster that eventually came to the surface in my adulthood.

Throughout my adulthood, my primary theme was “perfectionism”. It started to shift, but not all at once, there were hints of “harm,” throughout my twenties, but nothing that ever stuck. All of these were bothersome, but none of which were sticky, until I had my first intrusive harmful thought towards my first dog, Lucia. Lucia’s one out of the two of my Yorkshire Terriers. Lucia has been in my entire life to date. Coincidentally, as I’m writing this piece, her 11th Birthday was on October 1st and that’s why I refer to her as my “Halloween baby.”

I first heard of harm-themed OCD

Back to my first, initial thought dating back to 2016. I’ll never forget that night while blow-drying my hair after taking a shower. Lucia sat beneath me at my feet, when my original thought of hitting her with the blow dryer surfaced. I’ll never forget the feeling of my entire body going numb and feeling as if I was paralyzed. It was as if I was stuck in a horror movie in my own mind. The only way I could get out of it was to somehow, someway, neutralize the thought by reassuring myself that I did not truly, want to do that to Lucia. I would try to replace that thought with a positive action to follow. I remember dropping to my knees while tears ran down my face. I was sulking while both holding and hugging her. It was a purely selfless moment for me. My heart was broken because of her innocence in the situation and not being aware of why I was emotional and consoling her randomly. Ultimately this lead to me doing research overnight that night when I couldn’t sleep because of the afterthoughts of what had transpired. The thoughts were replaying in my mind like rapid-fire.

It was that night in the summer of 2016; that I’d come across my first online article after conducting research about “OCD” and more specifically, “harm OCD.”

Over the course of the next four years, I lived on both Long Island, NY, and throughout Bergen County, NJ. There were multiple breakups with my partner, Although we’ve been back together since 2019. We eventually moved back to Long Island from NJ because of the pandemic. Throughout it all, I’ve had those same intrusive thoughts when blow-drying my hair about Lucia. I have experienced flashbacks of when I’d had the original intrusive thoughts when seeing a blow-dryer in general. However, I’d overcome them on my own and they weren’t sticky enough for me to stay stuck in a negative headspace. Although, throughout those years I was just as emotional about it at times when Lucia would innocently come to lay on my feet in the bathroom while blow-drying my hair. It never fully went away.

Health themes emerge

Fast forward to the transitional period of time from when coronavirus initially surfaced in late 2019 to 2020 when our entire country went into lockdown. It was during that period of time where and when my OCD had latched onto the “health theme” subtype. Truthfully speaking, it is gut-wrenching for me to openly discuss this, I had been unfaithful in my relationship for the first time in my life and it had consumed me mentally, physically, and emotionally. The act in and of itself was enough to drive me mad, but it was the aftermath that I truly feel that drove me crazy. My unfaithful encounter was during the transitional period of time in which my now partner and I were getting back together and blending our families again. But I hadn’t entirely moved on from my former single life nor cut ties with a specific person that I had both a connection and sexual encounters with while being single. All of these were 100% safely practiced, but it was the guilt in the situation that lead me to believe that I had contracted an STD. That scenario in general for someone like myself who always is a very clean, sanitary, and an overall hygienic person would be enough to cause me extreme overall distress. But then you add experiencing severe OCD and it adds another level of complexity into the equation. At that point, it had consumed my life in its entirety and the only healthy option available for me was to come clean about my infidelity. It was simultaneously attacking my now partner’s health and overall well-being. I had truly become engulfed in the idea that I had potentially spread an STD to my partner. The mere thought of God forbid ever having done so had me becoming unhinged.

For the next three months of my life, I lived a daily life that could only be comparable to hell. I had mentally, physically, and emotionally become obsessed with carrying out daily physical compulsions.

These included at-home STD tests, appointments with my primary care physician, and having my blood work routinely tested on a monthly basis. I would even visit urgent care facilities in between, just to have the same at-home tests or bloodwork done in between while awaiting my test results to come back. Daily I was doing online research, followed by mental reviewing, in addition to the physical checking of not only myself but my partner as well. Looking back at that period of time in my life is difficult. In comparison to where I am currently, with all of the resources and tools, I have been given, it goes without being said, that this was my first severe mental episode with OCD. After the three months from hell concluded and I felt my health was okay, I still never felt the same. My mind, body, and soul were attacked in a way that is unimaginable and hard to recover from. I didn’t know which of the two positions was worse to be in, enduring the daily battle of all of the above for three consecutive months, or being left with the carnage from it all as the aftermath.

December 2020 is both a month and a year I will never be able to forget, for as long as I shall live. What I had thought was living in hell on a daily basis for three months had become a period of time I only wish I could’ve returned to. Harm OCD had officially arrived and not without wreaking havoc on my entire life and those of all my loved ones around me. Without warning, my first intrusive thought had presented itself, and not only was it sticky, but I was stuck, in a purgatory web made out of the depths of hell.

Everyone, everything, and everywhere had become a trigger for me.

Every waking, and breathing moment of my life had been what felt like possessed by harm OCD. I was living in a real-life nightmare, the only off switch had become to sleep all day and night or, for as long as my body would allow. When awake I wouldn’t feel safe in my own skin, nor did I feel safe being around anyone or anything else at any given point in time. Although alive, my life had been taken from me and I became bedroom bound. Despite having just purchased and moved into my first home with my partner and our four-fur babies, I no longer felt safe being alone. I also no longer felt safe with the loves of my life and reasons for living, my fur babies. And so, the worst had just begun.

The breaking point

From there, we were forced to vacate our new home and temporarily move into my partner’s parent’s home. This was in order to ensure the safety and security of all of us going through this most difficult time. At first, I hoped that being in a familiar place with familiar faces and loved ones surrounding me on a daily basis would in turn have a positive impact on my mental state. But unfortunately it actually, only made matters even worse. It pains me to the core to say, but the more that was around me, the more material my brain, mind, and OCD were able to feast themselves on. My harm-themed OCD intrusive thoughts had become seemingly out of control. Again, everyone, everything, and everywhere had become a trigger for me in some way, shape, or form. The situation at hand had gotten so bad that all of my loved ones had to intervene and become 100% on the same page regarding my well-being. By this time I was bedroom bound and asleep for as long as I could be. This had become my entire life and honestly speaking, all that I could think about was how much I’d rather of been dead. Suicidal ideation had become my only place of comfort and at the time, what felt like the only option for me to move forward. I refused to let the unknown of my mental condition at the time cause harm of any kind to anyone or anything in this world. Especially, if God forbid, it was toward any of my loved ones.

A self-admitted 51/50 hold was agreed upon by all of my loved ones and me. The next step was for me to find the strength within me and gather the courage in order to move forward with admitting myself. I’ll never forget the day I decided to move forward with our plan of action for me, or, so I thought. Being in a state of hysteria had become the new normal for me. I lived close to Stony Brook Hospital, it was only a short drive away. On that drive, I both cried my eyes out and poured my heart out to my partner. We arrived at the hospital parking lot only a short while after. We sat in the parking lot and waited for me to regain my composure. Once I did, we decided that I wasn’t as ready as I needed to be in order to move forward with this life-changing decision. My partner happened to be off from work two days in a row that week. I decided to return home and come back the next day. This day would be the most dreadful day of my life. That night, I’ll never forget speaking with my aunt, who is also my Godmother and living-like mother since my late mother’s passing. We spoke on the phone for what felt like it was well into the following day. It was then time to move forward with the plan of action that all my loved ones and I originally agreed upon. I didn’t sleep a second that night. I vividly remember watching the clock, minute by minute and hour by hour. Awaiting, what my fate was inevitably going to be. The next morning came. I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t slightly relieved and optimistic, even hopeful because I knew in my heart of hearts that I wouldn’t be here writing this very story had I not moved forward with what later that morning had in store for me. And thank God, I did.

The drive back to Stony Brook Hospital that morning was silent because I knew going into this self-admission I had to be the most composed that I possibly could be under the circumstances. I gathered my strength, pulled myself together, and went about saying what I both thought and felt was my final goodbye at the time to my partner. Writing this, I can still feel the pain that flooded within me as we let go of each other and I walked myself through the doors of the hospital entrance. It was after those doors behind me closed, that the reality of my situation hit me and I unraveled altogether. I was placed in a “holding room,” where from what I remember, was only accompanied by another male. This male appeared to obviously be in a similar situation as I. However, the difference between him and I was the fact that I’d become inconsolable and he was silent.

I’ll never forget the thoughts running through my head and the feelings going through my body under the circumstances. “Why me? Why am I here, What did I do to deserve this?” Physically, I felt in total despair.

So, I both placed myself and cornered myself in the private room where a pay phone was at. I immediately called my partner and thought to myself, “Thank God, I know his number by heart.” Shortly after, a medical professional of some sort came into the room and conducted an interview with me. I could both see and hear her overall concern for my well-being. It was almost as if we’d known each other outside of the hospital and she was handling the situation in the most personable, yet still, professional way that she could. At that moment I was broken and what felt, irreparable. The remainder of the day went on and eventually by the night, my transport to Nassau Community Hospital had gone underway.

I’ll never forget both thinking and feeling like an unstable mental patient while being transported in the back of the ambulance where I’d been strapped down. All I knew, was that I didn’t know where I was going, what would come of it, and if or when I’d ever see any of my loved ones again. It made me feel like a monster. Later that night we arrived at the hospital where I had been admitted into the psychiatric unit. It was very late at night and my admission had been taking place during overnight hours. I was greeted by the nursing staff on the unit, provided clothing to change into, and given a room for my stay. I wondered why I didn’t have a roommate because my room had two beds in it, but throughout what I didn’t know would be a two-week stay, no one else ever occupied the room with me. That made me feel even worse about myself because I assumed that might’ve been because I was being viewed as a “risk”. Overnight, I inconsolably cried myself to sleep. It was a feeling as if I’d both given up and no longer had any fight left within me. The next morning came. I’d been woken up for medication, followed by breakfast. I didn’t know what medication I was being administered, or what I’d be eating, but somehow, someway I made it into the dining area and eventually was greeted by other patients. Little did I know or expect, but people of all different genders, ages, ethnicities, etc. were all around me. All of whom were admitted for all different reasons. Surprisingly, I started to feel a little less alone and more so normal, if you will. Throughout those next two weeks, I’d made what I considered to be new friends during the stay. These were people that I engaged in classes, ate meals with, sat beside, during nightly movies, and made what ultimately have become unforgettable memories with. Throughout those two weeks, on what I recall being a daily basis, I had my meltdowns each and every time I would speak with either my partner or aunt over the phone. I knew that they both were ultimately doing anything and everything in their power in order to get me the help I truly needed and get me out of the hospital as soon as possible.

Eventually, I was prepared for discharge, but not before my psychiatric evaluation concluded. I’ll never forget going over the results with my fellow patients at the time. It read generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, suicidal ideation, and homicidal ideation with psychotic features. It was the wording of homicidal ideation that I took the hardest because I knew that wasn’t factual. I never have wanted to or had any desire to harm anyone or anything in any way, shape, or form. Instead of me being discharged feeling better, it was almost as if I’d left feeling even worse about myself. Either way, I’d say to date that the happiest day of my life to date was being released from the hospital and seeing my partner, fur babies, and aunt again. Followed by all my loved ones and friends whom I consider my family as well.

Next for me was meeting with outpatient doctors and being assigned to a psychiatrist and psychologist. This was followed by being admitted into an outpatient program. The next two weeks were spent at home where I spent the majority of my day in my outpatient program which was virtual due to COVID-19 but also being seen by all of the above on a weekly basis in person. My re-evaluation took place and my official medications were prescribed to me. I’ll never forget the project that I had to complete by the end of my program which all patients had to share with each other. Mine was titled “I Didn’t Know My Own Strength,” after the late and great Whitney Houston’s song. Both seeing and hearing my former fellow classmates’ reactions are something I will always cherish. Eventually, I was diagnosed with OCD as well and my subtype was harm-themed OCD. It wasn’t until after being discharged from the program that my new life of living with OCD truly, began.

Shortly after, my partner and I discovered NOCD and I truly believe that it was my saving grace.

Unfortunately at the time, I wasn’t able to receive any therapy from NOCD because I was undergoing an ongoing medical procedure called ECT therapy. This form of hospitalized therapy was conducted on a routine basis and administered by doctors and because of that, I wasn’t able to receive treatment due to potential memory loss that would interfere with my therapy. However, I was eventually and thankfully approved for therapy after being re-diagnosed once again by NOCD with harm-themed OCD, and ECT therapy was classified as a treatment also believed to help with OCD symptoms and as a form of treatment. Honestly, I truly feel that it has helped with my recovery process tremendously.

Therapy with my first therapist Joe Cook from NOCD officially started. I’ll never forget the day that I was given the news of approval and how a sign of hope and a sense of overall relief came over me.  It was as if I had developed a new relationship that I could entrust with areas and aspects of myself. Therapy with Joe was also a form of “Talk Therapy” because I truly felt comfortable, safe, and secure with him. Joe introduced me to ERP therapy and our work together began. Naturally, I wanted to avoid ERP because it was uncomfortable but I put both my trust in Joe and my faith in ERP and we worked together until he took a temporary league of absence. I was upset by the news and worried about to whom my case would be transferred, but thankfully it was passed along to my now therapist, Tiffany Merrit. I cannot thank both NOCD and Joe for this transfer because although Joe and I’s work together laid down the foundation for me and utilizing ERP therapy, Tiffany and I’s work together has truly been taken to additional levels. For that, I am forever grateful.

I truly, genuinely, and honestly believe that NOCD, Joe, and Tiffany are the reasons why I am alive and well today and for that, I cannot express enough gratitude!

Life ever since starting ERP therapy, alongside ECT therapy, has been an uphill battle. But I know for a fact that I am in, a night and day place, in comparison, to where I once was. Even in comparison to when I initially started ERP therapy, I have made a huge progression. I’d be lying to both myself and anyone reading this if I said that it isn’t hard work.

I feel that one must be in a place where they are truly ready to dive deep into the recovery process. That takes time, dedication, strength, and resilience.

However and although not linear, both being on the road to recovery and maintaining are possible! I, for one, am thankfully living proof that this is factual. Unfortunately, OCD isn’t entirely curable at the moment, but it is certainly manageable! What I’ve learned throughout my healing and road to recovery is that it’s not about me versus OCD, but rather me having enough understanding and compassion for myself. I choose to not allow OCD to debilitate me the way it, unfortunately, was able to do for a long time. Recovery isn’t and hasn’t been linear for me and I’ve overcome both obstacles and battles along the way. What I’ve learned most is that my life and I and all that it entails are both worth fighting and living for. Regardless, of what OCD and its sneaky ways may or may not try to convince me of, otherwise. At the time, I didn’t know my own strength, but the only benefit to having OCD has shown me that the toughest battles in life are given to its strongest soldiers on earth and I, am one of them!

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