I was first told I had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in my childhood basement when I was 6 by a family friend who was a practicing therapist. And then again, formally, at 20 at the behest of one of my many ex boyfriends who was convinced I was making it up. Long before either proclamation of mental illness, however, my parents had been very aware of my incoming diagnosis. My father suffered from OCD and his father before him. When my mother found out she was pregnant it was an inevitable outcome, and after my birth my countdown clocked started. Did I cry when my father moved my blocks because of usual child frustration or was it a budding compulsion? Did I refuse to eat my mashed potatoes when they touched my chicken nuggets out of annoyance or fear of contamination? Did my stuffed animals have to be arranged a specific way around the periphery of my crib because of childhood superstition or irrational anxiety? It was an endless game of ‘if’ or ‘when’.
My OCD became unavoidable around my 6th birthday when my father went away for a business trip and I was convinced he was going to die on the plane ride home. My anxiety was so uncontrollably severe I couldn’t go to school. Pretty soon afterwards my parents called our family friend and he sat me down in the basement of my house and asked me the questions you’re supposed to ask and I answered them the way everyone had predicted I would and the countdown clock stopped. I had OCD.
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a disorder characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviors. Most people associate it with perfectionism or cleanliness. Having to put things away in their exact right place or performing the same tasks in the same order everyday. And while that definition is certainly true, OCD encompasses so much more than that for so many people.
I can’t remember a moment in my life when I wasn’t aware that something felt wrong with me. I couldn’t sleep over at friends houses without calling my mom to come pick me up in the middle of the night. I was adamantly opposed to using mechanical pencils because I was convinced the lead would imbed itself under my skin and I would die a slow death of poisoning. Every plug had to be disconnected before I went to sleep out of fear of an electric fire. I had to chew my food an even amount of times on both sides of my mouth. Everything felt difficult and strange and wrong.
What heavily differentiates OCD from other mental disorders is the awareness that the things you’re doing and the things you’re thinking are irrational. I’m not plagued by delusions or hallucinations. I don’t experience unexplainable paranoia. I know exactly what is happening and I know why it is happening but I cannot dismiss or dissolve the fear that it holds.
When I try to explain my disorder I often say it’s like my brain is split in half, right down the middle. One half holds my rational thoughts and one holds my irrational thoughts, but the problem is I have no idea which is which and they are both yelling just as loud and at the exact same time.
For example at night when I go to lock the front door and I turn down my hallway I hear a voice in my head say “I don’t think you locked it”. Someone with a neurotypical brain would dismiss that thought, but I can’t so I turn around and check the door. It’s locked. I start back down the hallway and hear the voice again. “I think you actually unlocked it that time.” And again, the panic rises and I turn around to check. I can try to dismiss the thought as irrational but the issue lies in ‘what if I’m wrong’? If I’ve mislabeled a rational thought as irrational that is a big mistake, usually with pretty big consequences. So I check and check and check and suddenly its been 30 minutes and I’m crying in the front hall of my apartment, exhausted and frustrated. Along with the clear weight that the disorder carries, I felt and occasionally still feel overwhelming shame. As a child I was so embarrassed and confused and incapable of sharing my diagnosis. I didn’t tell anyone. I didn’t want anyone to know. I didn’t want people to think of me as the girl who washed her hands until her fingers were burnt or who was convinced kissing her boyfriend would get her pregnant. I was so afraid of judgement and cruelty I hid a huge part of myself away from everyone.
Healing came very slowly and very gradually. I didn’t start going to therapy until I was living alone in New York. The stamp of shame that comes with therapy was deeply imprinted on my fathers hands and he was convinced I could overcome this on my own as he did.
After a particularly bad episode I started taking medication. 50 mg of Zoloft that was soon 75 and then 100 and now 150. Maybe 200 soon, we’re not quite sure.
A big lesson therapy has forced me to learn is that I will never not have OCD. It will never go away. No matter how many times I wish on a birthday candle or a lost eyelash to "not have OCD anymore" it won't come true. The chemistry of my brain is quite literally different and will always be so. Things are certainly better for me then they were when I was a child and I think and hope and pray things will continue to get better.
I think with any kind of mental illness it can seem impossible to not hold yourself to a standard you would never give to someone else. The judgement and frustrations I place on myself I wouldn't put on my peers. The self imposed timeline I run my life by I never expect of my friends.
So today, while we head into spring, I’m going to write the things I hope for myself and the things I hope for you as well.
I hope you give yourself the grace and patience you give others.
I hope you understand that everything is temporary. The bad and the good things do not last and that is the price we pay for being alive.
I hope you know things may get worse but there is never a time where they won’t get better.
I hope you believe that peace is inevitable.
I hope you share your struggles with the people who are worthy of your honesty and I hope you allow the people in your life the opportunity to be there for you.
I hope you advocate for what you need when you need it.
I hope you find moments of rest and the periods between them get smaller and smaller.
I hope you stay vulnerable and moved and trusting.
And I hope you heal and I hope I do too.