I’m writing this excerpt for both myself, and for the countless number of people who suffer from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) on a daily basis. My hope is that, by documenting and ultimately sharing my own personal experiences with this debilitating disorder, I can relieve some of the pain and anguish that OCD continues to cause me today. Just as importantly, however, I hope that by purging my own experiences with OCD, I can reach out to some of those other long-time sufferers of this disorder and let them know that they are not alone!
The Celtics had just won their eleventh NBA title in thirteen years. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Edison Lighthouse was flooding the AM radio airwaves with “Love Grows”. Not that I knew any of this at the time, as I was only 9 years old. I was beginning to realize just how different I was from those people around me. I can’t point to a specific day or an actual event that occurred. But that summer made me realize just how different I was from others. I just know that I behaved and acted differently on a daily basis. I remember this timeframe as being the gateway to what has since been several decades of classic OCD suffering.
To the best of my memory, the symptoms began showing up in full force early that summer. I would do such things as make sure that I never walked around an obstacle without walking back around it in reverse order (e.g. If I walked a lap around my house, I would do a subsequent lap in the reverse direction, as if I were untangling an invisible bungee cord that was attached to me during that first lap.) I would ritualistically perform tasks, whether these tasks were mundane or significant, a specific number of times. For example if I inadvertently touched or grazed the dining-room table while walking past it, I would then go back and touch it again a given number more times so as to have a nice even number of touches, before moving on. What I recall most about that particular summer however was that I always dragged my right foot as I walked. I remember thinking that by dragging my foot, I was symbolically protecting my family from harm by not leaving them behind as I moved. In essence, my right foot was not just one of two feet that propelled me forward, but it was also a scoop to make sure that my family got dragged along with me.
My educated guess is, to the classic OCD sufferer and or to those healthcare professionals that deal with and treat OCD regularly, this all makes perfect sense, and by divulging these symptoms I am not breaking any new ground in the general understanding or symptomatic knowledge of OCD. But as a 9-year-old boy in 1969, who went through this type of behavior not just daily but on a minute-by-minute basis, it was terrifying.
As crazy and scary as that summer was, in retrospect, it was nothing more than the first chapter of what has since been a decades-long OCD run for me. The ensuing section of this story will fast-forward you to some of the more memorable OCD-related events that occurred during my childhood, some of which were so severe that daily functioning was close to impossible. It is important to note that the examples of OCD incidents that I mention next represent just a microscopic percentage of the many OCD battles that I had during my childhood and or over the course of my life. In other words, the total list of debilitating OCD-related time cycles and or OCD-related events is far too large to recite.
The back alley incident
As a 9-year-old who looked up to his older brother, who was an easy-going, successful, college athlete, there was one particular time when I decided to try and have a little fun at his expense. Early one evening during that summer of 1969, I was walking through the center of a Cape Cod town, when I noticed that he and one of his girlfriends were walking about 100 feet in front of me. I eventually caught up to them, covertly snuck up behind them, and then finally jumped in front of them yelling “hey” in the process. They both laughed, my brother made a mock gesture to try and grab me, and I jokingly ran down the nearest alley that ran between two stores, as if to try and get away. So, was this the end of a short story where a pain-in-the-butt kid brother sneaks up on his older brother and his girlfriend for a quick laugh? In most cases, that would have been, but in this particular case, it was a resounding no.
As I came back out from that alley and noticed that my brother and his girlfriend had continued on and progressed about 100 feet down the street, I also at the same time realized that I had only run down that alley once. Immediately, the OCD told me that one trip down that alley was not enough, so I ran back up and down the alley again. Sure enough, the OCD let me know that two trips down that alley were no better than one, so I did two more cycles up and down the alley to make a grand total of four trips. Needless to say, that did not suffice either!
By the time I was done, I had spent about an hour running up and down that alley, probably doing it over 100 times. To answer the question that you’re probably wondering, yes, someone who worked in one of the stores that abutted that alley did come out and ask me what the h&*^ I was doing. I told him, in a calm and believable tone, that I got reprimanded earlier that day by my baseball coach for not being quick enough when running the bases, so I was practicing in hopes of getting quicker and better. He bought it but asked me to be careful as someone might get the wrong idea of seeing me sprint up and down that alley continuously.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? Throughout my 20s, 30s, and 40s, I couldn’t find the mental tools or coping mechanisms to control my OCD much of the time. However, at age 9, I was still resourceful and clever enough to account for my OCD rituals. Or as I like to say, successfully lie about it, to other people.
The doorframe dilemma
Shortly after New Year’s, 1974, I had one of the more memorable and most lingering OCD events of my youth. As I was walking through a doorway inside my house late one evening, I inadvertently grazed or made minor contact with the doorframe. Like clockwork, the OCD kicked in and told me that one single incident of contact with that doorframe would not be enough. This time, however, the OCD added a twist in that the ensuing touches that would be needed to fulfill the correct number of touches criteria, would need to come on different days from each other.
Being obedient to my OCD demands, and not wanting to mess up the ritualistic guidelines it had set for me for touching that doorframe, I spent every night over the next few days waking up between 12:00 and 12:30 am, so I could go downstairs and touch that doorframe at the official beginning of each new day. In retrospect, I don’t remember if I chose that time of day to touch the doorframe because the OCD told me to, or because I simply wanted to get this ritual over with at the very beginning of each new day.
In the end, I wound up not actually touching that doorframe the number of times that were needed to fulfill the demands of that ritual, mainly because the number of touches needed exceeded the number of days that I was willing to commit to this event. Some might classify this as a victory over OCD, however, it was anything but. In the immediate days and weeks that followed, I tortured myself over the decision to not complete that ritual. In the years to come, I often looked back at that event and determined it was the potential reason why normal things in my life went wrong (e.g., If I lost a baseball game, I assumed that it was possibly because I never persevered back in 1974 in touching that doorframe the required number of times.)
OCD-related events like the two you just read about were commonplace during my late childhood and early teen years. Some incidents would come and go and not have long-lasting or lingering effects (like the doorway incident had), while others were far more excruciating. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that most of my obsessive thoughts from those OCD-related events that occurred during that timeframe revolved around the idea that bad things would happen to myself, or to other people that I cared about if I didn’t do things certain ways. Consequently, the rituals that I spent countless hours performing were like a ‘preventative measure tool’ to keep those bad things from happening.
My late teens through my early-twenties
As I became older and entered into my late teens and early twenties, my OCD was relatively constant in that I would often have to perform routine daily tasks given a number of times or a certain way to keep bad things from happening or to prevent the circumvention of good things from happening. For example, if I was going to a party or a concert on the weekend to come, I would obsess about getting a phone call saying that the event was canceled, and consequently, I would perform rituals to head that phone call off.
In spite of its constant presence during this timeframe, however, I would today classify my mid-teens and early twenties as the most benign OCD period in my life, or at least the most benign-OCD period since before my OCD symptoms began. I say this because in my case, OCD always attacks whatever is most important to me, at any given point in time. Throughout my high school and college years, my priorities revolved around parties, Red Sox scores, and landing good summer jobs on Cape Cod.
The translation here is relatively simple, although my OCD was as constant as ever during this timeframe, my life priority stake was so low that it could only do so much emotional damage. As my early twenties faded, however, my mid-twenties and early thirties ushered in whole new eras of OCD behavior, rituals, and suffering that I can only classify today as excruciating and often debilitating.
My mid-twenties through my thirties and beyond
With adulthood came real responsibility. Summer jobs that were used as a means to purchase beer and compile cash for weekend frolicking were now replaced by real jobs that were needed for survival. Part-time girlfriends were replaced with serious relationships. Ultimately, bachelorhood and apartment-style living were replaced with marriage, children, and home ownership. With these adult-based responsibilities and lifestyle changes came a new set of traditional fears and anxieties that were exploited by my OCD.
My first adult fear came in the form of the possibility that one of my children, or my wife, would pass away. This is obviously the sum of all fears for any family man that loves his wife and children. The next fear that crept in was that I will lose my job, never recover financially, and my family will be out on the street. Though not as scary or as devastating as fear number one, this is a real possibility for many people and I think of it often, even though we (me and my family) are relatively financially okay.
Although the two specific fears that I just mentioned and many others like them are common for most adults, those of us with classic OCD are reminded of these types of fears several times every day. OCD tells us that not only do these fears exist but that we have the capability to foresee the events that these fears represent and to let them happen or circumvent them by our actions (hence my many complex compulsions.) Needless to say, this is usually a recipe for some long and lonely bouts with OCD ritualistic behavior.
In any form, or at any age, OCD is a brutal foe to cope with. Whether you are a child who has this ailment and who does not understand it or, you’re an adult who has it and you have to negotiate its’ potholes every day to get through life’s routines, I’m sure you are suffering.
The knowledge of what causes this disorder, as well as how to effectively treat it, seems to be growing exponentially. The field of healthcare professionals who are treating OCD sufferers seems to be getting better by the year, and if nothing else they seem to be becoming more specialized in OCD diagnosis and treatment. True sufferers of this disorder seem to be coming out in the open and getting help more than ever before, thus leading to more venues for help, like support groups.
As stated initially, I hope to be able to relieve some of my own pain and to also be able to help others, by sharing a small percentage of my OCD experiences. Consequently, I tried to write this excerpt up as light-heartedly as possible to make for easy, if not interesting reading. The truth is however that OCD is a deep dark disorder that often has sad and debilitating effects on its subjects. This said these are important takeaways that I can offer from my own personal OCD experiences;
- Get professional help: If you suspect you have OCD, please get help as soon as possible. Going the OCD route alone is no longer a necessity. The help you receive should ultimately provide you with some if not much relief.
- Get the right help: Ensure that the help you receive is from a healthcare professional who truly understands what OCD is, and how to treat it. There are many good healthcare professionals out there that treat OCD who fall into this category, but there are also some who do not. OCD, in any form, is a specific disorder that needs to be treated as such, not a general anxiety disorder that can be treated blanketly like other anxiety disorders.
- Parents, be on the lookout: This is as important as any takeaway that I can offer. OCD is extremely prevalent in both kids and adults throughout the world, and it always has been. Kids who suffer from this disorder don’t understand it, and I’m speculating that in the past most suffered in silence. Today, however, accurate diagnosis for kids with OCD, as well as proper treatment is far more available than it has ever been.
- Be cognizant that there are other themes of OCD than those that I described: There are many other manifestations of OCD than those that I described. You may have OCD, and it may look different than my experience.
- Take heart, you’re not alone: This is specifically important for kids. They will almost always believe until they get help and are informed otherwise, that they are alone in the world in their OCD thoughts and behaviors. Once they are informed that what they have is not unique to them, they immediately begin to feel better. How much better they feel after that, however, depends on the help that they receive.
- Read up: Don’t do this in lieu of getting help, do it supplemental with getting help. As with those healthcare professionals that deal with OCD, there are good books and bad books that cover this topic. Good books, ones that are informative and accurate about what OCD is and how its’ symptoms work, tend to significantly help people who suffer from this disorder.
Thank you, and good luck.