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.
My name is Natalie, this is my blog. I am someone who has OCD. While I try not to let this illness define who I am, it does define my fight, and my fight defines who I will become. My illness is something I struggle to understand and something I am trying not to hide anymore, because I don’t want to hide myself anymore.
When I first started this blog it was my gut decision to make it anonymous and I never questioned that until recently. The purpose of this blog was primarily to give myself a voice while living with a mental illness that seems to take it away from me at every step. It was also to help me communicate with my family about something so very confusing and difficult to understand. And to maybe drown out some of the many harmful and pervading misrepresentations of OCD in our society. This blog is deeply personal and contains aspects of my life that have taken me a long time to accept about myself, so of course I would want to remain anonymous. However I recently asked myself why? Why do I hesitate to put my name on this, why do I hesitate to share this with friends while I am okay sharing it anonymously with strangers? And my answer to these made me begin to question my reasoning behind my anonymity. Was I hesitant to put my name on a bluntly difficult and honest blog about mental health, or was I hesitant to put my name to OCD – to a person who, like many others, struggles daily with their mental health. The latter possibility made me nervous, because if that is true, then I am hesitant to put my name to me. So I have decided to take a step out from behind this curtain I have created for myself, and try at least, to begin accepting who I am now.
Since I was diagnosed in 2016, I have only told those directly around me about my OCD. With old friends I remained vague, only sharing enough for them to know that I had been having a hard time, but not enough for them to ask any questions about this illness I knew little to nothing about. But with those friends I noticed a wall had gone up between us, and I had convinced myself that that wall was my OCD, when in fact it was me. It was me not accepting my new reality. It was me trying to hold on to the past; by being vague with my friends it gave me a window to be vague with myself, pretend for a little while that I was the old me. All that did was hold me back from moving forward with my recovery. And all this time I have felt divided, angry at myself for not being who I was and angry at myself for not being able to figure out who I am now. But as I have been slowly chipping away at that wall and sharing my new reality with more people, I have noticed that I feel a little less angry with myself.
Hiding behind that wall convinced me that I have something to be ashamed of, that I am something to be hidden. Perhaps it happened the other way around, I was ashamed therefore I hid. Either way, continuing to hide behind vague “I’m fine” answers has further ingrained these feelings of shame and isolation. I couldn’t accept myself, couldn’t accept that I was worth it, that I was still me, and that my emotions were valid. And I projected those feelings of rejection onto those around me. Our society as a whole is not very accepting or welcoming to the discussion of mental illness, making sufferers feel unacceptable and unwelcomed. But that doesn’t mean that we have to be unaccepting, or that our society should remain that way. I want to help change that. And the first step in doing so is to accept who I am; be proud of my fight instead of ashamed of my mental illness.
Humans are afraid of what they don’t understand, afraid of different. It’s a harmful trait, maybe inherent but certainly not permanent. I felt ashamed to have a mind that worked differently so I tried for a long time to separate myself from OCD, from the thing that made me different. In doing so I separated myself from everyone I cared about because I wouldn’t let them see the real me. But there was the answer to my question; I was hesitant to put my name to OCD, I was hesitant to put my name to me.
So I am fighting to be proud. I am fighting to put my name on my triumphs and my failures, and be proud of both. By putting my name on my blog I am fighting to put my name back on to me. In doing so I hope that some people who might be needing it will hear my voice and know that they have one too, and that it is valid; that they are not alone when they feel unwelcomed in the world or in their own minds.
Putting my name on this blog is one of the scariest things I could think of doing. That is why I am doing it.
Who’s hiding behind your “I’m fine”?
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.
“OCD wove that uncertainty into my mind so intricately that I can no longer tell where my mind ends and the uncertainty begins.”
I grew up listening to one voice. Throughout my childhood this was the voice that I could blindly trust, the one that meant I was safe. Her voice acted as a guide, gently telling me where my decisions were taking me yet giving me the space and courage to make those choices myself. Hers was the voice that I could recognize better than my own. Hers was the voice that when I felt lost or scared, I listened for. And when I heard it, I believed it, and believed that I could find my way out of whatever darkness I had found. Because I always knew that voice was waiting for me, and that it would venture into that darkness again and again to find me, for the rest of my life. Hers was the voice I never thought I would forget.
But when that voice got lost, I did too. It was as if my mind was scrambling, grasping for anything to hold on to, anything that it could trust as much as it trusted that one voice. It felt like if I couldn’t find that voice again, I would never stop falling. And I think I’ve been falling ever since.
I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 23, but if I look back honestly I can see that my mind began questioning my voice, and the voices around me, long before that. My mind took the loss of her voice, took the loss of that certainty that her voice brought me, and began to weave that uncertainty into my mind so intricately that I can no longer tell where my mind ends and the uncertainty begins. Without the guide of her voice I began to question my decisions and my own logic. This doubt grew and grew until I began to even doubt what I was seeing or touching without someone there to confirm what my own mind was trying to tell me. OCD corrupted all of my senses, convincing me that I’d lost the only guide I have, and that without it I can’t be certain of anything ever again.
And OCD didn’t stop there. Each time I found another voice, OCD would slowly poison their words until what was finally processed by my mind didn’t resemble what I had heard at all. Until every time this person said I was safe, all I heard was that we can’t know that anymore, and sometimes I don’t even hear their voices at all.
What I haven’t been able to accept is that I stopped needing her voice a long time ago. Her voice and her words had already given me the strength I needed to hear my own voice. She had already given me all the guidance that I needed, already taught me how to trust my own mind. Because her voice had always been there, had always been heard and had always picked me up, I learned how to find my own voice without ever realizing that it was really my voice I was listening to and not hers. It was like she had stopped holding on to the back of the bike and I was peddling on my own without realizing it. I just needed to look behind me and see that she wasn’t holding me up anymore, because she’s taught me how to do it on my own and she believed that I could.
I hadn’t been able to get my head to turn and look behind me, couldn’t see that she had let go because I didn’t want to see it, didn’t want to say goodbye to her voice forever. But it’s not saying goodbye. Because her voice built mine, my voice comes from hers. And I think that if I can accept that, and find the strength that her voice once gave me and know that it’s been here all along, then I could be louder than my OCD. If I can do that, I can find my voice again. I can honor her voice again.
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.