I am a 23-year-old writer. My favorite pastimes include traveling, reading old books, watching documentaries, and playing the guitar. There are few places I go without my camera or my favorite vintage outfit. You can also see me carrying around whatever book I’m reading at any given time — The Count of Monte Cristo, at the moment. Soon enough, I’ll have original writing of my own published.
I do all these things while suffering from OCD. Sharing my story is something that I’ve realized I need to do, as I want to help end the stigma around OCD so that others can seek the help that they need. Nobody, and I mean nobody, deserves to fight this sadistic and cruel disease in silence and without help, especially children. I want to speak up for my younger self and the 1 in 100 children who suffer from pediatric OCD. I felt terribly alone battling my OCD as a kid. I want a future where kids with OCD and their parents can feel safe asking for help.
A question of family
My upbringing was one of the contrasts. My family seemed to be living the American dream. To the outside observer, my Dad was a world-class lawyer, my Mom a devout Catholic housewife, and we kids were four intelligent, precocious, and lively children. In terms of material goods, we were well off, and we always had food on the table. But, there was a catch. If only everyone else who saw that picture-perfect family snapshot knew the truth.
Some families hide secrets, and mine was no exception. My father has an untreated personality disorder and came from a family scarred by domestic violence, depression, and suicide. My Mom’s family struggles with anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and depression. My Dad was capable of love, but it was fickle. He could be halfway across the world arbitrating some complicated legal dispute or playing a game on his laptop in my living room. Still, he was emotionally distant and frequently angry. My Mom lived in complete terror of him and resolved to get a divorce when I turned eighteen out of fear that a custody battle would end in disaster. The stage was set for a nightmarishly traumatizing and confusing hall of mirrors I had to navigate, all as a little boy.
I suffered constant psychological, emotional, verbal, and physical abuse. For eighteen years, I navigated a confusing and complex web of lies. Significant clashes and fights routinely interrupted this slow-drip terror, especially when I was younger. The police visited my home on several occasions, and I grew up in a terrifying environment of prolonged domestic violence.
Being raised in this environment robbed me of my sense of self and gave me a warped view of reality. It’s as if I grew up seeing the world through a blurry pair of glasses. I grew to learn that I had no voice and that there was nothing I could do that would save me. Despite having many natural talents, by the time I was a teen, I had grown to hate myself even more than I hated other people. I developed elaborate coping skills — a sharp wit, a remarkable capacity for denial, and a persistent attitude — that helped preserve some of my childhood’s more positive and uplifting aspects while repressing the nastier elements. Most of all, I was terrified of vulnerability and deep connections with others, so I hid behind irony, sarcasm, and a youthful temper. It’s taken me many years to unpack and deconstruct my childhood.
My Mom herself has OCD, a reality that made growing up even harder. My Mom refused to get help for her OCD because of my Dad. She was terrified that he’d hurt her if he found out she was mentally struggling, as he ironically perceived those with mental conditions to be “weak” and “pathetic.” I remember being six or so years old and seeing her crying and washing her hands repeatedly until they began to crack and bleed. She would eat tiny amounts of food out of fear of gaining weight. It broke my heart to see my Mom suffer. But I didn’t know what was hurting her then, and I didn’t know that, soon enough, it would hurt me too.
For me, my trauma and OCD go hand in hand. OCD sufferers often experience abuse and mistreatment, making seeking help even more difficult.
The monster has a name
I was nine years old when I went to my Mom with a unique concern. I told her I had been scrolling through random Wikipedia articles on our family computer when I stumbled upon a page discussing something sexual. I told my Mom I was scared that I would go to hell for it. At first, she was understandably concerned that I had seen something inappropriate, but then she realized: I may have OCD.
My Mom took me to a psychiatrist and an OCD specialist: Dr. PSEUDONYM. Dr. PSEUDONYM is one of the heroes of my childhood. He has recently retired, but for the better part of fifteen years, he helped me wrangle my OCD. I remember stepping into his office with my Mom and filling out several forms. The forms asked me all these strange questions about obsessions and what was happening inside my head. I recall reading the questions about religious obsessions, and violent and sexual intrusive thoughts.
I completed the paperwork, and soon enough, he gave my Mom and me my diagnosis. Turning on a small computer monitor, he explained how OCD worked. He masterfully described the obsession-compulsion cycle, how my little amygdala was causing an excessive fight-flight response in my head, and what I needed to do to “win the game of playing OCD.” He told me the only winning move was not to play! I couldn’t give in to the compulsions and instead needed to expose myself to anxiety. Simple enough, right?
Feeling scared and alone
I may remember life before OCD, but it’s a distant memory. From my diagnosis onwards, I struggled with intense, primarily mental obsessions and compulsions. My OCD revolves around several core concepts: shame, a fear of moral transgression, and a fear of my identity. Shame over being a “bad” person who does bad things, fear of hurting myself and others, and fear based around my identity: who and what I am.
For the first few years of living with OCD, it kept targeting my religious beliefs. As I got older and hit puberty, I learned more about sex and began to experience even more graphic and disturbing sexual thoughts, typically about family or my teachers. I worried that I didn’t believe in God and would pray obsessively or ask for reassurance from family or clergy.
With enough time and my waning religiosity, the OCD lost interest in questions of faith and shifted to an even more distressing subject matter: pedophilia. I constantly worried that I was attracted to small children. I remember being an altar server at Mass and panicking whenever a parent with their child would come up to receive Communion. I remember avoiding my relatives at family gatherings because I was so terrified that I was sexually interested in my younger family members. I remember crying in the bathroom at my Grandma’s because I was so scared that I was a pedophile or a rapist.
I practiced exposure and response prevention to these worries and effectively dealt with them, at least to some extent. Yet I constantly struggled to keep up with how my OCD would adapt and morph over time. I honestly don’t know how my younger self managed to keep track of such a slippery and resilient condition.
My family environment mellowed out during this time. My Dad’s constant rage gave way to a relatively more benign emotional distancing, while my Mom, unbeknownst to me at the time, began to seek help for her problems. I still felt alone and had to live in a fake, plastic family environment, but things were slightly more manageable.
It was around the age of 12 or 13 that OCD, among other issues, led to depression. I felt so alone and worthless like nobody understood what I was going through. I couldn’t tell my family or friends about my problems because I was scared my Dad would hurt me or my Mom. My home life shifted away from overt conflict and violence and more towards consistent emotional neglect: death by a thousand cuts.
Although I still had my childhood friends, as I went to the same school from Kindergarten to Eighth Grade, I became more socially anxious and afraid of my peers. I turned 14 and finished middle school, eager to experience something different and new. Yet, my OCD was about to take advantage of this significant life transition. I was barely a teenager, yet my OCD was trying to convince me that I was a sexual sadist who wanted to hurt children. I struggled with the most vile and disgusting mental images one can imagine.
Navigating high school with OCD
The transition to high school was brutal. Even with many peers from my old school at my side, I found myself lost and afraid in a student body roughly six times the size of my old school. My OCD honed in on me and manifested as crippling social anxiety.
I was terrified of being perceived by other people. I struggled to make eye contact, and many people would ask me to raise my voice. My brother, then a Senior, had many people ask him: What on Earth is the deal with your little brother? My posture was tense, and more often than not, I preferred to drown out my pain with music than to engage with my peers. I didn’t know how to connect with people, and even though many people reached out to me, I never knew how to respond.
My OCD sometimes takes over my life, slowly but surely, working until my obsessions dominate every aspect of my life. It hollows me out from the inside and captures my brain.
My OCD continued to challenge me with violent and sexually intrusive thoughts. But, with enough time, I got a grip on these obsessions. It instead shifted to a new yet terrifying obsession that I refer to as “media contamination.” Essentially, my OCD targeted music, movies, and books I loved and relied on for survival during these tumultuous times. It tried to convince me that if I had sexual or violent intrusive thoughts while engaging with the media, it was “ruined” forever, as I would have no choice but to think of those distressing images whenever I engaged with the material in the future.
I would also constantly worry that everything I did and said wasn’t real and that it was all fake and not what I “really enjoyed.” I remember seeing a Star Wars movie with my family when I was fifteen or so, only to spend the entire film obsessing about whether or not I was enjoying the movie and whether or not my OCD was going to ruin the memory of the experience. It did this, over and over again, whittling away at me and my strength. Going to therapy and practicing ERP helped, but as always, managing my OCD felt like a game of cat and mouse.
By the end of high school, I had come into my own. I had successfully subdued my OCD, and while it was still there, I could handle it. I even had a period of remission. I made a close-knit group of friends, got leading roles in my school’s drama department, and had a wide circle of friends, admirers, and lovers. I felt comfortable in my own skin and enjoyed every day of my life.
However, my cheerful and engaging persona had a darker side. I still worried about whether or not my OCD would ruin my life. I could forget about it all while on stage acting in a play or reading a book by a lake near my house, but it would come back. My OCD would constantly try to remind me that it would never go away and that no matter how much fun I had, these memories would also be tainted by it. I remember going swimming with friends and acquaintances late one summer night and looking up at the Moon, basking in a moment of youthful innocence, only for my OCD to remind me that it was never going to leave me alone for as long as I lived.
By graduation, the cracks had begun to show. I had turned eighteen, and now my Mom was ready to file for a divorce. My family was a pressure cooker waiting to explode. I had gotten into a good college but was completely unprepared for what lay before me. My anger and antisocial tendencies had begun to show more and more, alienating many of my peers who had previously admired me. My world was about to fall apart.
OCD and my college experience
Many people describe college as the best four years of their lives. For me, they were among the worst four years of my life. They were transformative and fundamental to my current identity, however. These years were a journey of self-discovery that ended in me learning the truth about who I am and what I needed to do to reclaim my identity.
As soon as I arrived on campus, my OCD took a turn for the worse. My social anxiety, which I had thought to be long gone, came roaring back, and my OCD was constantly telling me that everyone hated me. It was as if I had traveled back in time to the beginning of high school. The only solution to this, according to my OCD, was to isolate and stay away from others.
My family began to fall apart. My Mom and Dad entered the long-awaited divorce process that ate away at my self-esteem and pride. It was as if turning eighteen had ruined my life. Even if my family environment was toxic, it was something familiar, and selling my childhood home and watching my family members descend into constant feuds made my OCD so much worse.
I almost flunked out of school due to attention and memory issues. I cut ties with most of my old high school friends and didn’t replace them with new friends. I felt like a burden and a failure. That old life was gone forever, and in its place was a confusing and scary new world.
I remember walking around my campus late one night, deep in an OCD spiral, when I ran into someone I knew from high school who also attended my university. I will never forget the look on his face as he saw the once confident and proud person he knew reduced to someone he probably could not recognize.
I began compulsively researching and memorizing articles and facts about political issues. Perhaps I had some genuine interest in the subject matter, but eventually, it became a rabbit hole that I stumbled down. I spent every waking moment with random trivia and historical information swimming around my mind and constantly talking about these subjects only alienated my few remaining friends. I was still seeing a therapist but was phoning it in and not trying anymore. I became a recluse, obsessing over things beyond my control. I went from receiving standing ovations and having dozens of friends to feeling completely alone, all in less than a year.
Things got better during my sophomore year. But I was now experiencing somatic OCD. I would become hyper-aware of my breathing and worry that I would never be able to forget that I was breathing. I remember running out of class all the way back to my dorm room because I was having a panic attack. I would wake up most days with a racing heartbeat and in terror. Whenever I tried to focus on my studies, my OCD would tell me that I didn’t like what I was reading and that I was going to fail. I recall sitting in my dorm’s kitchen, staring out at the evening sky while crying, telling my Mom that college and my OCD had taken everything from me.
Despite everything arrayed against me, I managed to branch out during my sophomore year. I returned to the stage with a new play and joined a fraternity, trying my hardest to make new friends. My grades improved, and I began to see a future for myself in college. Renewed therapy efforts with Dr. PSEUDONYM and other providers began to show results. Right as everything started to turn around, I turned 20 years old, and the world came to a standstill, lying at the mercy of COVID-19.
Confronting my past to overcome my OCD
COVID worsened things for me in the short term. My OCD deepened, and I eventually gave up on managing it. I stopped going to therapy and struggled with serious side effects from the medication I was taking at the time. Yet again, I had put considerable time and effort into regaining control over my life, only to lose it all in one fell swoop.
But I did not give up. In the Spring of 2021, I made the tough decision to take a break from college. I prioritized my mental health and returned to therapy for OCD and depression. I eventually moved out of my Mom’s house and re-enrolled in college.
My OCD was mostly manageable during my senior year of college. I still struggled with coursework, but I could handle it. I made new friends, reconnected with old ones, and worked with renewed purpose toward my career goals. I graduated in the Fall of 2022.
After all that effort and hard work lay another nasty surprise. I will not go into details, but something terrible and traumatizing happened to me that shook my sense of self and security, something related to my family. It was by no means my fault but I blamed myself nonetheless. This personal crisis overwhelmed me during the second half of 2022. I withdrew from society, feeling defeated, betrayed, and alone. I had tried my best to overcome my problems only to fail, or so I thought. I let the OCD consume me with bizarre fears about my life. I was so convinced that my life was over that I began to replay my life events to check if I had anything to regret and if I had ever hurt anyone with my words or actions. Hours spent replaying past events to feel “safe” turned into days and weeks.
For the third time in four years, I had experienced a taste of success and stability, only for it to vanish underneath the weight of adverse life circumstances, made so much worse by my OCD. I could no longer take this cycle of intense success and resounding failure. Three strikes and you’re out, I told myself, and for a while, it did feel like it was game over for me. I dreamed of a world beyond Earth and wrote my own obituary. In the interest of transparency, it was the closest I have ever been to taking my life.
But the flip side of this intense crisis was that it finally opened my eyes to the true nature of my childhood. I found the root of my shame and self-hatred. I realized that I needed help for my traumatic past and could only get a grip on my OCD once and for all if I treated these issues. I learned that my OCD, ADHD, major depression, and social anxiety all stemmed from experiencing extremely complex trauma and abuse in my youth. My mind and body were screaming for help for so long, and I finally knew what to do. Challenging my past and healing from my trauma gave me new strength to keep fighting my OCD.
I worked with a wonderful NOCD therapist for the first half of 2023. Mr. PSEUDONYM and I applied everything I had learned during ERP in a more structured and consistent format. Together with other mental health professionals, I stabilized myself and began to heal from a lifetime of abuse and mental suffering. Repairing my self-esteem, I began to undo decades’ worth of trauma and establish a coherent sense of self-worth and respect. I got a job in my field and moved out of my home, and today, I’m doing better than ever.
I am beyond proud of myself and, for the first time in my life, I feel nothing but love for who I am. I have experienced extreme adversity, over and over again, only to overcome it, growing stronger and more mature with each passing moment. Life can truly be so wonderful if you give yourself a chance.
My message to others suffering from OCD is simple, you are not alone. Millions of people just like you struggle with the same condition. OCD is vicious and unrelenting, targeting everything you love and care about. But you can do more than just survive with OCD: you can thrive. There are so many wonderful therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists ready to help you, and with consistent effort and a long-term approach, you can implement life changes that will get you back on the right track.
You can live a wonderful life in spite of your OCD. I sure do. There are good days and bad days, and it’s okay if your OCD gets the better of you from time to time. The road may be long and the path arduous, but with the company of friends, family, and professionals, you can enjoy the journey.
These days, I occasionally think of the scared little boy or the rebellious, angry teenager I once was, and I smile. I smile, knowing that I survived to tell my story.