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Dermatillomania, Harm OCD, Contamination OCD

OCD is Just A Part of Me, and Not The Whole

By Ashley Marie Berry

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This has always been a part of me. I was born this way. It’s not something that you can catch. It’s not like the flu, or some smashing case of food poisoning that will soon dissipate while you go back to your regular life in peace. This is my regular life. It intertwines itself into each day. My OCD came out of me early in grade school. And I say came out of me because it was a sudden happening. I thought that everyone in my school suffered from these different thoughts, but no one was talking about them. 

We grew up in a safe neighborhood, at the end of a cul-de-sac with a big round patch of grass in the middle where we would meet with our friends. “Race you to the circle” we would say to each other before we would hang up and run to the round greenery. We often rode our bikes to the waterfront, close to downtown where we would get ice cream, and candy from the Old Candy Shoppe. When the city paved the street just past our grade school, we all slid into our rollerblades and let our hair fall free through the wispy air as we cruised to the waterfront. It felt like freedom.

We were on vacation when the serial rapist Paul Bernardo was arrested at his home just across from the waterfront where we often laid our bikes on the grass and watched the sailboats from the hill. My friends told me sirens from the police cars lasted forever. The convicted man lived in the large pink house on the corner on the newly paved lane where we used to collect our freedoms. 

The news blasted through our tube TVs to update us about this awful man. The road runner was just picking up speed when a reporter disrupted the screen to tell us about the latest finds of this murderer who lived comfortably just down our street. Fear was instilled in us through the media. We were no longer allowed to walk home from school alone, everyone’s parents picked them up. We weren’t allowed to play outside. We didn’t call each other to meet at the circle. We gave up being children.

I started to develop these irrational fears that I was going to become the murderer down the way. I had intrusive thoughts pop into my head that I would instantly cram back down. I tried to terminate these thoughts by doing something else, like scratching myself or tapping my fingers aggressively. I thought that if he could live down the street from me, in a house that looked like mine, I could become him. The word ‘rapist’, and ‘naked bodies’ were often said on the news before my mom came running in to turn it off.

Without even having the capacity to know what those words meant, they buried themselves deep in me.

I knew that Bernardo did bad things to girls, and I worried that I was going to do bad things to girls as well. My mind started to picture people naked, like the girls the news reporter spoke of. I couldn’t go to the mall because I worried everyone would look disrobed. 

My world became unsafe.

Every time a sexual image came into my head, I pushed it away which only gave it more power. I avoided my friends, and school in fear the thoughts would take over. The irrational fears surrounding Bernardo went into overdrive and started to pour out into other categories of my OCD with the common obsession– that I would feel this high level of anxiety forever. I had contamination fears, religious intrusive thoughts, checking compulsions, Dermatillamania (skin picking disorder), and the fear of certain numbers. These fears and compulsions grew with me and interfered with most of my day-to-day life. I missed school days because of panic attacks. My hands were raw and bloody from washing too much. And this aching fear that I was going to become Bernardo wouldn’t let up. I saw some psychiatrists along the way. I learned some different CBT skills, but it wasn’t until I found a therapist who specialized in ERP therapy that I started to feel better. 

My contamination fear was surrounding warts. It sounds like something I shouldn’t be concerned about, with just a little bump on my foot, but it took over my life. One day after basketball practice I noticed a bump on my left foot. It was a tiny series of black dots. The doctor confirmed that I had a plantar wart. I panicked. I panicked hard, suffering from daily panic attacks and sleepless nights. I thought of nothing but this wart. I worried that this one tiny bump would turn me into one giant wart. I’d develop horn warts coming out of my face and hands, bumpy warts on my arms and legs, genital warts, and plantar warts covering the bottom of my feet in thick speckled clusters. I’d be committed to the psychiatric ward where the nurses would snicker and call me the unicorn girl because a large horn wart would be growing from my forehead. I would need several surgeries to remove the wart bits from my body. But they would grow back instantly. I wouldn’t touch anyone in fear that the virus would spread to them. I would never be loved again. I would be nothing.

My therapist and I started with a list. I wrote down all of my fears regarding warts and then labeled them from 1-10, with 10 being the most anxiety I would face. We built a ladder together on paper ranking my worries. Just writing them down and seeing them in real-time was anxiety-provoking. I was ready to start ERP therapy, I was ready to get my life back. Number one on my list was to touch a picture of a wart on my therapist’s computer screen. My anxiety went up to a 10/10. She spoke to me throughout the exercise, letting me know that I can stop when my anxiety decreases by half. I could feel my anxiety level fall as my body signaled it to drop.

As we climbed the ladder, it got easier knowing that my fear of ‘having this anxiety forever’ was untrue. I was connected to my body and mind in a way that I hadn’t before.

My therapist took me to the YMCA to walk around the pool, she took me to a spa to touch all of the pedicure equipment, and the last rung on the ladder was walking around the hospital in our bare feet. As I climbed the ladder, my confidence grew every time I felt my anxiety drop. Thoughts that once took over my life were now drifting behind me. She explained how to use ERP therapy in other parts of my life where I was struggling.

ERP is not a fast therapy, but it’s an effective one that saved my life.

I still have intrusive thoughts and contamination fears, some of them are still the same as when I was a child. But after successfully completing ERP, my body doesn’t react the same way it used to. Sometimes I need to refer back to my notes and build a new ladder to see results. When I get overwhelmed in my life, my OCD will swell and try and take over again. Sometimes I need a booster session, but most of the time I can do it on my own.

I started writing about my OCD thoughts when I was younger, to take away their power. I journal when I can feel the thoughts swirling again in my top part. I turned my pages into a memoir about my life with OCD in hopes that it would help someone else. I titled it “Separate Things: A Memoir” with the intention that OCD is just a part of me, and not my whole. I wrote it to own my stories. 

I often refer back to this quote—”One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become part of someone else’s survival guide” – Brene Brown.

Here’s to owning your stories.

Ashley Marie Berry

Author of ‘Separate Things: A Memoir’



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