How I Finally Recognized My OCD

[Please note: If you struggle from Depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, the following post may be triggering. Please only read further knowing that sensitive subjects will be discussed.]

 

I was a first year student in a College of Veterinary Medicine, I had just finished my first quarter and was getting ready for winter break. As a vet student you spend hours in an anatomy lab, learning every nerve, bone divot, muscle, and you come into contact with a chemical called Formalin. Formalin is a solution of Formaldehyde, which is carcinogenic; of course we use proper protective equipment, and the school would never put its students in danger, so this just became a normal aspect of my life. But as I was packing up my shoes for my trip back home, this tiny little thought snuck into my mind. I had worn these shoes in the lab, and like most people, I didn’t make it a habit to regularly clean my shoes. But I was heading home, and I would be walking into someone else’s house, and I would be hugging my family, including my cousin who had just gone into cancer remission. And this little thought came from a voice I didn’t fully recognize, and it said that I needed to be really careful. It said that if I wasn’t careful, I would get her sick, I would get someone sick.

I tried to push the thought out of my mind, and for the most part I was successful.  I went back home and enjoyed Christmas with my family. But that little thought was still there in the back of my mind. I told myself that holidays are hard, that I’m exhausted from school, that this was just residual misplaced guilt from the loss of my mom, and the fear that I would feel that loss again. But then winter break was over, and I had to step back into that lab again.

This time when I went in, I double gloved. When I left, I washed my hands like I normally did, like everyone else did. But this time, when I grabbed my lunch, I was overly aware that I was touching the food, overly aware that while I could wash my hands, I couldn’t wash my clothes. I was overly aware that the shoes I wore in lab had slightly bumped my backpack under my desk where I always kept it on the floor, just like every other student in the room. The next day, I washed my hands twice. The next day, I made sure not to touch my food. The next day I took my shoes off at my front door instead of walking through the house. This new voice in my head kept getting louder and more demanding until I couldn’t eat at school. Until I couldn’t do anything at home until I had extensively showered. Until simple tasks like getting to bed, making food, doing laundry all became too much. Until I felt that no amount of care could keep me or my loved ones safe, until I felt like I would just keep failing. So I stopped trying. Eating was too hard, so I didn’t try. Sleeping was too hard, so I didn’t try. My world was closing in around me, making me feel claustrophobic and afraid to move. I focused on school because I could do that. I avoided going home, practically living in the school library. I studied, I ate when I could, mostly from the vending machine and with a painstakingly complex process from getting the food, to washing, to somehow eating the food without becoming “re-contaminated”.

I was surviving, but that was about it. And I still remember the first time I felt the urge to give up. I was standing in the shower, feeling like no amount of washing could make me safe. I was exhausted, and terrified, and I thought that I was literally going crazy. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, based on my limited understanding of it from the media, could not have explained the way my mind had turned on me. All I knew was that my mind didn’t function the way it used to; every movement I made felt like a life or death situation. All I knew was that there was a new voice in my head that was always scared, and that was becoming increasingly louder than my own. I thought I must be going insane. And I wanted to give up. I wanted to just curl up in that shower and slip away into nothingness. Because whatever this was, it was too hard, and it was too scary, and I was too tired.

It became harder and harder to hide the symptoms from my friends at school. Harder to hide the fact that I never ate or slept. My hands were starting to crack from all the washing, and it was getting harder to hide the fact that I kept going to the bathroom to wash them. The little lies I kept making up kept falling short. But I had no explanation to give them. I was sure if I said anything, I would be locked up, labeled crazy. All of my energy went into just passing my classes. I kept telling myself that I just had to make it through this quarter, just make it through and then I could breathe. So I continued to study and go to class, barely eating, barely sleeping. I lost 20 pounds and my features became so drained by this heavy depression that I didn’t even recognize myself.

Finally I googled some of my symptoms, some of the thoughts that had invaded my mind. All the results that came up referenced Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. My initial instinct was that this couldn’t be it, I was nothing like Monk from the television show, and my house had never been messier, as piles of things too scary to deal with began to take over my floors. But then I found a list of all the different compulsions and obsessions that can manifest for someone with OCD, and I realized that this illness was much more than liking things neat and organized. I sent the link to my sister and said “I think I have OCD”. She read the website and messaged back simply, “I think you do too.”

Second quarter finals were quickly approaching and I made an appointment with a school counselor. It became clear that it was no longer a choice between wanting to be in vet school or not, but instead a choice between wanting to be in vet school, or wanting to be alive. A choice between life or death. Because it was now clear that I was in crisis. I wasn’t sure I would survive another day; those thoughts of giving up became almost constant and much much louder. Everything would be so much easier if I just gave up, everything would be still and quiet if I just gave up.

In the middle of studying for finals, I was diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It was time for my family to intervene. I passed my first final of the second quarter, and then I had nothing left to give. I didn’t have it in me to take another step, to open another book. I was done.

It was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. This had been my lifelong goal, yet somehow I was contemplating giving it up. Somehow I found it in me to choose myself over this dream I had. I left school, went back home, and then the real battle began.

Since then my life has changed drastically. I miss school, I miss studying, I miss the feeling of working towards something, feeling accomplished, and I do miss my dream. But that decision to leave saved my life so I cannot regret it. I fought like hell against that OCD and I conquered it. They told me that OCD is never truly gone, and the fear can change and adapt, that it would come and go throughout my life. But I was convinced I would be the exception, I was convinced I had beat it once and for all. I was wrong of course; it came back, this time a new fear, this time a new contaminant, and this time it felt a whole lot stronger than me. I’m still in the middle of that fight over two years later, but this time I at least know what it is I am fighting.

The Bargain

My life looks very different, it’s not how anyone would imagine the life of a twenty-something year old would look. Most of my time is spent inside, sitting in one spot. I don’t go to the mall with friends, I don’t go out to the movies, friends don’t come over, I don’t even go to work anymore. I’m not staying home because I don’t like going out, or because I’m lazy, or because I’m a loner. I miss all of those things that I used to do. But even when I finally get myself out of the house to do those things, I don’t enjoy them anymore. I’m terrified. Every time I go out, every time someone else comes into my home, it feels as if I am bargaining a piece of my future away. I can go to the mall, but if I do there is a chance that this will be the end; something will happen to destroy my future, take away the last remnants of happiness that I hold on to. A friend can come over, but only at the risk of losing my future. Every time that I want to break my daily routine, my mind is weighing the risks against a few moments of fun. Is an hour at the coffee shop with a friend worth the risk of possibly losing everything? Do I deserve to make such a huge decision? Because in my mind, I am not only bargaining my future happiness for a few moments of fun, but I am also bargaining his, and yours, and theirs. One misstep, and I could tear this world apart; I could lose everything again. So who am I to decide that a few moments of fun are worth the risk, when if I just stay home, everyone stays safe.

Because my brain processes fear differently now, when someone asks me if they can come over, they are not simply asking me for my time, or asking me if I would like to see them, they are asking me to risk my life. That is the threat level that I constantly feel in my mind, that is the amount of fear that I feel when someone stops by the house, or when I’m out trying to have a good time. I feel that I am in life-threatening danger. I don’t sit calmly and have a nice chat with my friends in the living room, even if that’s the way that it appears. What they can’t see is that my eyes are tracking everything that their hands and feet touch, making sure that I can fix everything once they leave. What they can’t see is that I’m only half listening to what they say as the other half of my mind is screaming, asking me how I could have made such a reckless decision, to risk mine and their lives by having them over. What they can’t see is the amount of crippling distress I feel in the moments before I open that door, making sure that I am not putting their lives in danger. What they can’t see are the tears, and the paralyzing fear that washes over me once I’ve finally shut the door behind them, as I try to pick up the pieces of my shattered life. As I try to painstakingly backtrack and clean and make my home feel safe again from this invisible danger that never even stepped into my home. And because it’s invisible, because it’s unpredictable even to me, the effects of that change in routine keep popping up unexpectedly. The aftermath of a few hours of fun can last days, like a ripple effect of fear.

That’s the deal I have to make. Have fun, be “free” for a few hours, but bargain away a piece of my future, risk everything. That’s the deal, that’s the fear.

This is how OCD maintains power and control over you. It finds your greatest fear, and uses it as a bargaining tool against you. By doing so it makes you feel as if it is your choice, it is within your power to risk the futures of those around you. I want to do something as simple and harmless as go out to dinner with my boyfriend, and OCD says “Okay, I will allow you to do that, but if you do, you have to know that you are deciding to risk everything. You are bargaining his future.” Convincing me that by making the choice to go out, I am saying that I value an hour of fun more than his life. By bargaining in such a way, OCD convinces me that I alone have the power to take away his happiness, to destroy our future.

These are the things my mind is weighing with every simple decision I make. Could this be the end? Could this decision be the one that ends everything? That’s the risk my mind takes with every step. That’s the deal.

 

The Girl Who Cried Wolf

Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder changes the way you see the world, and it changes the way you think the world sees you. I have new fears, new coping mechanisms, a new vocabulary, and a new lifestyle. I say “I’m scared” multiple times a day, and I mean it every time. My mind yells “danger” multiple times a day, and I believe it every time. One of the many dangerous pitfalls of OCD is the “what if it’s not OCD” question. Every time there is a trigger, every time my mind yells “Danger!”, I try to tell myself that this isn’t a real threat, that it is only my OCD lying to me. There are good days, when with some effort I can believe this and push on. There are bad days, when even with all my might I cannot move forward; I get stuck in fear until I can clean my way out of it. And then there are the really bad days, when nothing I do works, not trying to push on, not even the safety behaviors work, because on those days my OCD plays a dirty little trick. It tells me that maybe this fear isn’t my OCD this time. Maybe this time it’s real, this is it, the moment we’ve been dreading, the moment when the threat is real and there’s nothing I can do to fight it because it’s not a trick of my mind, it’s real. In these moments no one can talk me down, no one can convince me that this danger is once again just my OCD bullying me. Because in these moments OCD tells me that everyone on the outside sees me as the girl who cried wolf. The girl who cried danger. I’ve been scared too many times; no one will believe me this time when the danger is real.

“I’m the girl who cried OCD”

In those moments I feel so alone. I don’t know who to believe. And that fear that this time it could be real, that this time it might not be OCD, that only I can decide if it’s safe to keep going, to keep living, that fear is paralyzing. It feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders, that the weight of the lives of all those I love is on my shoulders. OCD convinces me that it’s up to me and only me, to save the world. Because what if it’s not OCD? And only I can see it. Only I can see the danger, and no one is heeding my warning because I’m the girl who cried wolf. I’m the girl who cried OCD.

We all fall victim to the “what if” questions of life; OCD takes that human weakness and turns it into a weapon. Once you get stuck in that cycle it’s hard to climb your way out. So every time that OCD asks “what if it’s not OCD this time?” , I try to ask “What if it is?”. What if it is still OCD trying to control my life? Am I going to let it? Can I get myself to risk that “what if”, knowing that if I can, there is no doubt that I will feel the freedom and the relief of loosening OCD’s grasp on my life just a little more? Because I know from experience that if I have the strength to live with that doubt, the relief I feel from letting go of the need to control life is like finally coming up for breath. Like the weight on my chest that OCD puts there, the weight of feeling like I control fate, is lifted just a little more. So what if it is OCD? That’s the question that’s worth asking, even if it is the hardest question to ask.

OCD vs. Me

Too often we use the phrase “it’s all in your head” to diminish someone’s fears, to try to convince someone that they do not need to be afraid. We have to stop using that phrase in such a way. An internal battle is just as valid as an external one, and in some ways even more terrifying because it can feel like it’s just you against the entire world. It’s you against your fears and it’s you against all those that can’t see or feel those fears. The illness that I battle every day is invisible to others making it that much more isolating. My battle is “all in my head”, but that’s not to say that it isn’t real, or that I’m not brave for fighting it. I may be the only one fighting this particular battle in my mind, but millions of others are fighting their own invisible battles all in their minds too.

Battles are typically made up of two sides and this still holds true in the case of my mental battle, even though it may appear I am fighting nothing but myself. I have often used the words “invasion” or “imposter” when describing my experience with OCD. It’s the best way I can think to describe this fight in such a way that someone else can imagine it too. All the thoughts, feelings, beliefs and viewpoints that were there before my OCD are still there. The difference is that now they are fighting for space in my mind, fighting to be heard, fighting to be more important than the OCD thoughts that have invaded their home. OCD’s fears are not mine; when it’s scared it convinces me to be scared too because at the moment it’s louder than me. But there’s still a small voice back there in my mind, the voice that’s always been there, and it’s telling me that I don’t need to be afraid. For every time that OCD tells me to wash or avoid or perform some safety behavior, the other side of my brain is telling me not to. I feel frustrated, angry and beaten every time that my OCD wins, every time I perform a safety behavior. This constant battle between the two sides makes my mind feel too full, confused, like it’s not my mind anymore. The longer this battle continues, the more unsure I become of which side to listen to, which side is me and which is my OCD.

This battle that is “all in my head” effectively splits my mind in half. When I’m talking to someone they only have the “me” half. The other half of my brain, the half controlled by OCD, is focusing on everything that person is touching, everything I am touching, and all the steps it will take to “fix” things when this conversation is over. The truly disheartening thing about this is that this person does have all of me, but the me that’s left is half of what I used to be. All that I can possibly give to someone feels like half of what I used to give, less than what I want to give.

So it honestly feels like there is an imposter in my mind. A new voice that didn’t used to be there and that’s not mine. A voice that is always scared, always loud, and always present. That’s my battle. It is all in my head, but it’s so very real and terrifying. I’m exhausted from this fight that never seems to end. But I’m proud of this battle that’s “all in my head”, because even though I’m the only one that can fight it, I still haven’t given up.

So let’s stop diminishing others’ fears and mental turmoils simply on the basis that we don’t understand them. The mind is a vast and scary place, certainly a masterful foe, and a fight against the mind should not be underestimated. Let us be proud of our fight that’s “all in our head”. Because we are brave for fighting it.

My OCD – The Lava Monster

Remember when you were a kid and at recess you played a game called lava monster? The ground was lava, and the people on the ground were lava monsters. And if you touched the ground or got tagged, you became a lava monster too. The winner was the last one standing. I remember playing that game and while everyone else was running and screaming and having fun, I was actually scared. I had fun, but the fun was tinged with real panic whenever a lava monster got close. It was always the same when I would play tag with my sister; I didn’t like the suspense of not knowing when the “monster” was going to reach out and touch you.

“The lava monster lives inside of me.”

My OCD is a lava monster. The ground is the lava, and anything that the lava monster touches also becomes a lava monster. I am the last one standing. But in this real life version, the game doesn’t end. I am living in constant suspense, not knowing when or what the lava monster is going to reach out and touch. I navigate my house like I navigated that playground when I was a kid. But this time the fear and the danger feel so much more real. I can’t yell “time out” or say that I’m done playing and then get to walk on home. Because my home is the lava, and the lava monster lives inside of me. I can’t touch the ground or things that have touched the ground. Chairs become lava monsters that I must dodge; a whole room can become enveloped with lava.

No one else can see the lava, just me. I’m the only one playing OCD’s game. OCD tricked me into signing up, telling me that this was the only way to survive. It finds joy in playing games with my mind. I can feel it taunting me; every time I start to feel safe, the lava monster will reach out and touch something unexpected and I’ll have to start running again. And because the lava monster lives inside of me, it’s as if my shadow has become the lava, dragging my fear behind me wherever I go.

I don’t want to play anymore. I spend my days trying to stop myself from running away from my little lava monster. If I could just stop running, it would stop chasing me; the game would be over and I would truly be the last one standing.

Who Are You Fighting?

When we live with a mental illness like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, we fight ourselves every day. We become conditioned to do so. I wake up every morning already in fight mode, already exhausted by the knowledge that every move I make, starting with getting out of bed, is going to be a battle. A battle between OCD and my mind. And while I’m told I shouldn’t identify with my OCD, OCD does live in my mind, so fighting OCD often feels like battling myself.

OCD doesn’t only fight my own mind, it’s watching and criticizing the actions of those around me. And when my partner encourages me to embrace the uncomfortable and fight my OCD, my OCD will fight them right back.

I’m so used to fighting myself and my OCD, I often have to remind myself that I don’t need to fight everyone else too. I have to remind myself that when I’m asking my friends and family to support me, I’m asking them to go against all of their instincts when it comes to comforting a loved one. I am often so caught up in my own fight that I forget that everyone else is fighting too. They’re fighting for me and they’re fighting their own battles.

Because just as fighting OCD goes against our instincts, so does supporting those with OCD. A common safety behavior across many types of OCD is seeking reassurance. Asking someone else to validate my decisions, to tell me that I’m not doing something wrong, or to confirm what my eyes are seeing and tell me that I am not touching something dangerous. When you see a loved one in distress and they ask you for reassurance, your instinct is to give that to them. Unfortunately when we give in to those safety behaviors we are feeding the OCD.

I can tell my support team not to accommodate my OCD all I want, but I know it’s easier said than done. I know I’m asking them to watch me be tortured by my mind, watch me panic in absolute terror, and do nothing. Just be there. That’s their fight. All they want to do is to help me move on, help me be comfortable. But we all must embrace the uncomfortable. In fact what I should do, and what they should do by not accommodating, is create that discomfort.

Again, this is easier said than done. And to make matters worse, OCD is conniving and manipulative. OCD recognizes their reluctance to add to my discomfort and teams up with my own desire for reassurance, to fight for that accommodation and for those safety behaviors that it demands of me. OCD manipulates me to believe the safety behaviors are necessary. And OCD manipulates them to believe that in order to help their loved one, they must accommodate as well.

“Sometimes to win the fight, we must first stop fighting.”

To beat OCD I need to stop fighting my support team and I need to stop fighting myself. When I spend hours and all of my energy fighting to stay on top of all the contamination and perform all of my safety behaviors, it’s easy for me to feel like I’m fighting the good fight. I’m fighting to keep myself and others safe. But in reality I’m only fighting myself. If I listen carefully, my voice is back there, disagreeing with everything that OCD is telling me. So the reason I feel like I’m running with all my might but getting nowhere, the reason my OCD keeps getting more powerful and I keep getting weaker the more I fight, is because OCD has tricked me into fighting myself. Sometimes to win the fight, we must first stop fighting. Stop fighting myself long enough to gain the strength needed to outsmart OCD. Give up some of the safety behaviors to gain back some of the power.

… easier said than done, but worth it in the end.

I Don’t Want To

There are many common misconceptions about OCD, more than misconceptions they have become dangerously interwoven into our everyday language, categorized together with truly harmless descriptors such as tidy, quirky, or persnickety. OCD is programmed into our vocabulary early on as something harmless, something trivial. As with other misused words, this creates a damaging barrier to those truly suffering. For those still confused about what they are experiencing, this can delay diagnosis and therefore treatment because to many, OCD would not be on the list of debilitating illnesses that could be affecting their lives to such a degree. And for those diagnosed, and all of us battling the illness, it creates an isolating wall between us and the rest of society, as we feel we cannot be open about what we are fighting in fear that we will be ridiculed and judged.

One of these indoctrinated ideas is that a person is “so OCD” because they enjoy tidying, they enjoy organization. But no joy and very little relief, if any, comes from OCD compulsions. We do not clean, avoid, wash, perform mental rituals, etc. by choice. We are compelled to do so.

The compulsions are just as distressing as the fear itself.

And while OCD is once again forcing me to wash against my will, it’s convincing me that it’s necessary, it’s the most responsible decision. And while I’m washing, with every last bit of the me that remains screaming for me to stop, OCD is in my ear telling me I’m doing it wrong, it’s not sufficient, it won’t be enough. Making all of my efforts feel futile and hopeless. I am lucky if I feel the tiniest bit of relief when I’m finally done. The compulsion that my OCD says will keep me safe is almost just as distressing as the fear I am trying to save myself from. That is the strength of OCD, that it can convince you to do this time and again. And that is why the “she’s OCD about her closet” misconception is so misleading and harmful.

OCD wipes your mind clean, sculpts it into its desired form and function, takes over the control board and tries to erase you.

OCD brainwashed me, and used my own hands to do so.

How We Fight

OCD keeps you down with fear. It sneaks into your mind and convinces you that you are it, that it’s fears are yours. So how do you fight something that feels so completely to be you? This is how we fight back. You are not your OCD.

The treatment for any illness is never easy and OCD is no exception. Even I, who has successfully made it through treatment before OCD regained it’s power. Even I who can acknowledge it’s effectiveness, even I who can see how dark and unhappy I have become once again under OCD’s grasp. Even I find it extremely difficult to drag myself to treatment, to commit to the fight.

I wish there were some magical pill to cure OCD. But there isn’t. Many people have asked me what treatment looks like. And while it can be hard to explain, when I am able to find the right words, not only does it help them understand the process, but also to understand and respect the illness itself.

I am no expert, but I will do my best to put into words how we fight this debilitating illness.

To understand the treatment, we must first understand at least a very basic picture of how an OCD brain functions. I personally struggle with Contamination OCD, so I will be using that as a framework for my examples, but please keep in mind that there are many types of OCD.

Let’s start with someone who is not battling OCD. If they touch something that is dirty, whether it just be dirt, or a mild chemical of some sort, their brain has a process, or pathway to handle that. First they touch the contaminate and their brain says “That’s dirty, should wash hands”, which sends the signal further down the pathway and instructs the person to wash their hands. The person does so, which then sends the signal to the brain that their hands are now clean, and finally signals the person that they are safe, and can move on with their day. A linear, cause-and-effect pathway.

For someone with OCD, that pathway becomes stuck on a loop, feeding back into the original signal of “dirty, contaminated, etc.” and magnifying it to a signal of “extreme danger”. In this case, I would touch the contaminate and my brain says “That’s dirty, should wash hands”, which sends the signal to my hands to wash. I do so, but instead of sending the “clean” signal, my brain says “Wow, whatever you touched was so dangerous that you had to wash your hands, so you should wash again just to be safe.” So the normal response of washing hands further validated and intensified the original signal of “dirty”, rather than produce the normal response of “clean”. And the next time I wash my hands the signal will again get looped back, most likely adding to the list of suggested safety behaviors.

“Better wash your hands again just to be safe” becomes “Wash your hands, also you touched the faucet to turn the water on, so wash that too” becomes “wash your hands and what else could you have POSSIBLY touched on your way from first coming into contact with the contaminate and making your way to the sink”, and so on and so on, deeper down the spiral.

Every time I give in to another safety behavior I am magnifying that fear, getting stuck in a never ending cycle, never reaching that final stage of “Clean”. It’s like running with all your might, but never moving an inch.

So the way we fight this is by retraining our brain. Retraining it to have the proper amount of fear, and only require the proper safety procedures. But retraining your brain is not easy. Especially when your brain is sending you signals of “DANGER” and you are in the habit of believing your own brain. It is very frustrating to say the least, to have someone tell you that you can no longer believe what your mind is telling you, that you must go against those very real feelings of danger. That doesn’t come naturally and it is very distressing. Not only must you stop doing the multitude of safety behaviors you have been performing, but in order to successfully retrain your brain, you actually have to go above and beyond the normal. Deliberately go past gross, go past scary, so that you can come back to the “normal” and not feel any fear. Until “normal” is boring again.

This process is called Exposure-Response Prevention (ERP). I must purposefully and deliberately EXPOSE myself to the contaminate that I fear, and then PREVENT the RESPONSE for as long as possible. In doing so I can hopefully retrain my brain that those responses (safety behaviors), are not necessary to be safe.

Basically, when I or anyone else is asking me to go to treatment or to fight my OCD, they are asking me to do the thing I am most afraid of. Do the thing that my brain, the brain I have trusted my entire life, has told me could mean life or death.

I feel like even this far in the description, it is hard for someone without OCD to truly grasp the magnitude of this process; the sheer amount of willpower and strength it takes to battle this illness head on, simply because it can be very hard to wrap your mind around an OCD fear. Because OCD usually takes something minor, something the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily associate with that amount of fear, and turns it into a monster. So if you can’t see or understand what I am afraid of, if it looks to you like I am afraid of the invisible, then this will be hard for you to grasp.

So what are you most afraid of? Spiders, snakes, the ocean, sharks, heights? Whatever it is, picture that. We’ll use snakes in this example, specifically non-poisonous, harmless snakes. Because your therapist, while they will encourage you to face your fear, they will never tell you to do something that would actually put you in harms way.

Picture that you are living in a world where snakes are as common of a siting as dogs. Currently your fear of snakes has become so severe that it prevents you from leaving the house in case you might encounter one. Now someone presents you with a deep, dark pit of snakes, and tells you that the only way to get over your fear is to stick your arm in it (remember, deliberately go past normal so you can come back). And if you don’t stick your arm in, then your fear of snakes will intensify to include objects that look like snakes, including hoses, cords and headphones, shadows that move like snakes, a whisper or a plastic bag blowing in the breeze that sounds like a snake. You will be afraid of things that may have touched snakes, until you can no longer let people into your house without a grueling process to protect you from what they may have touched outside your house in the real world. You will be afraid of the color green, so much so that you flinch when green passes by your peripheral vision. You will be afraid of small green crumbs and pieces of plant life, for the chance that it could have come off of a snake. Your mind will convince you of the presence of invisible, ethereal snakes that float around in your home. You won’t be able to see them but you will be sure of their phantom touches, as real to you as if a 6-foot boa constrictor brushed passed your head. What began as a fear of snakes will be magnified to a fear of almost everything.

And while you are standing there with your biggest fear staring back at you out of that pit, you are going to tell yourself that it’s not worth the risk. That you may be limited by your fear of snakes right now, but that you’ve still got your house, and being stuck in there is not so bad. Much better than the possible alternative if you were to stick your hand in that pit. But what you are not seeing is that your house will soon turn into just a single room, and that room will turn into a chair, and you will be afraid to blink.

So you start with something small. You’ll simply sit and deliberately imagine snakes. You will do this until your spike of fear begins to subside, you will do this until you are bored of thinking about snakes. Then you will open your blinds and look outside, watching for snakes, again doing so until you are bored. And will continue to increase the magnitude of these exposures, until it’s time for you to step outside. Until you find yourself in front of that pit again. Now truly imagine yourself standing in front of a pit containing what you fear most. It will not be an easy decision to put your arm in. Every fiber of your body will be fighting against any movement towards that pit. It will feel like someone is playing tug-of-war with your arm.

Even so, you eventually bring yourself to do the unimaginable. You’ve decided that the chance of freedom from this crippling fear is worth the risk.

You did it! And after weeks of distress, unbelievable willpower and effort, you can now… finally… plug in the lamp because you are no longer afraid of the cord.

And this is the moment that you realize you will have to continue facing your deepest fear again and again in order to fully regain your independence. You have a long way to go. But you did just take a giant step towards freedom. One you thought impossible, but now know to be possible.

This is what treatment looks like for someone battling OCD. This is a daily battle, you don’t get breaks; OCD won’t give them to you, and if you get tired and slip back into old safety behaviors, you’ll feed the fear. It’s crucial to build a support team for yourself; family, friends, a therapist you can trust to walk next to you through the fear. While they cannot fight it for me, I have found at least, that I cannot fight it without them.

Keep in mind that once one fear is conquered, a person still must continue to maintain it, as it will always be right behind the veil trying to find a way back in. And on top of that, OCD is now like a hurt little bully, who had it’s toy taken away. So while you are maintaining your control over the fear, OCD is waiting on the sidelines looking for a new trigger to turn into a monster. And this time OCD has learned the same tools that you have during treatment, and it has adapted. So you must do so too, again and again.

I don’t paint this picture to seem hopeless, although it can feel that way, and it will certainly be a long battle. But I do so in the hopes that someone will pause when they see someone struggling to conquer their mental illness and it may appear that they are doing nothing. In truth they are doing quite the opposite; they are fighting the monster in their brain, the monster you can’t see. Because this it what they are asking themselves to do. What they are trying to muster up the courage to commit to, all while OCD lives in their brain gleefully playing whack-a-mole with every bit of courage that pops up.

Not a Game

“My wiring has gotten all mixed up.”

My life with OCD is like a game of operation. You know the one, with the tweezers and the inaccurately-sized organs and the overly-loud buzzer that lets you know every time you have failed. Except my buzzer is broken and instead of reaching for little plastic organs, I’m reaching for goals, loved ones, basic necessities. My buzzer goes off constantly whether I’ve touched something or not, an incessant alarm going off in my mind warning me of a non-existent danger. It’s loud; much louder than you or me.

My wiring has gotten all mixed up. And while your buzzer only goes off when necessary, mine goes off always, a constant impending loss or risk. Unlike the game, there are no laughs or do-overs when the buzzer goes off. No longer a game.

Though you cannot hear my broken buzzer, I can. It has become my reality; the world I live in. Though you cannot see the danger or feel the fear. I do. I feel it all too much and too convincingly. But I do feel it. It is just as real as your buzzer.

From the outside it might look like a silly and trivial excuse. To you it’s a game. But to me it’s real life. Life with a broken buzzer. Life with OCD.

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