Many people assume they know what obsessive-compulsive disorder is: Making your bed a certain way every morning. Always being early to class or work. Organizing your toiletries so they’re color-coded in the bathroom closet.
But society doesn’t understand the things they cannot see – the things that people with OCD feel, the obsessive thoughts we cycle over, the guilt and shame we sleep with.
It started when I was in preschool, after a particularly traumatic experience with a boy who was three years older than me. He locked my bedroom door, tugged me into my own closet, and pulled my pants down.
He threatened me not to tell my parents what he made me do, and what he did to me. From that point forward, I felt I needed to tell them everything – every thought I had, even the crazy fleeting ones, the judgmental ones, the panicked ones.
“I just had a thought of putting a knife in your back,” I cried to my mom one evening. I was six.
For sure, that meant I wanted to do it, right? I wanted to put a knife in her back. Because why else would I be haunted by such a vivid image of me doing so?
The more I fought the idea, the more real it became; and I started experiencing similar ones: of hitting my baby cousin because he was crying, kicking my grandpa while he pushed me on the swing set in my backyard, pushing my brother down the stairs.
With every disturbing thought my mind created, I distanced myself more and more from the person it involved. I was afraid to be around my own mother, who I needed more than anything in those moments.
Then came the phobias.
I was so afraid of throwing up that I’d spend the entire winter hysterical, pacing my room all night with a thermometer in my mouth, analyzing possible symptoms. The stomach virus was a death sentence, going on rollercoasters with my friends was a terrifying suggestion, eating cafeteria lunch was a panic attack waiting to happen. I lived off sealed bags of chips in case someone had slipped poison in the sandwich my mom made me, wouldn’t dare to eat meat God forbid it wasn’t cooked enough, and was so skinny from avoiding sustainable meals that my therapist thought I might be anorexic.
This was my childhood. Every single day, I had a routine, certain phrases I needed to repeat; my mom had to reassure me in a specific way that I wouldn’t get sick at school; and my dad, a police officer, had to tell me he wouldn’t die at work.
But as I matured, so did my irrational thoughts. Looking back now, some of these seem silly and elementary. They felt real then – but they were nothing compared to what I deal with today.
In high school, my OCD was the reason I quit soccer. I had panic attacks every day. I still don’t understand why the sport I love brought such terror to my life, but I was tired of crying myself to sleep and waking up shaking.
Every practice, every game, felt like a daunting event hanging over my head, like a medical procedure or a rejection letter from my top choice of college. I carried that stress with me hour by hour, moment by moment.
But college is what really broke me.
Going away to school, even just a short hour and a half drive south, was a trigger for my OCD. In the first few months of school, I experienced cyber-bullying on an anonymous Twitter account where someone said something along the lines of, “That girl Sammi from Willow Hall is as flat as a rail.”
I remember my friend warning me not to check the account for a few days, which only made me more curious. When I read it, I cried for an entire day.
There I was, away at my new school where I barely knew anyone, staying out of everyone’s business to focus on my own education – yet I was being attacked for something I couldn’t control, something as shallow as the shape of my body.
I let whoever sent that message get to me – I started working out every day, counting my calories, lifting weights without a clue how, missing out on parties and movie nights with the few friends I had to perfect my appearance, since it was the only thing I felt that I could control. It was exhausting.
One night, my parents came to take me out to dinner, and I spent the entire evening sobbing, begging them to let me come home and go to community college because I couldn’t take another second alone with my thoughts in my dorm room.
I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere on that campus. But I didn’t give up; I dealt with my circumstances and pushed through the agony.
Shortly after, I met someone when I came home from school one weekend. We went on a group date that ended up going well, and I remember feeling hopeful again. I remember feeling confident again. I remember feeling happy again.
About a month into our relationship, he showed up to my school and, with the help of my floormates, snuck into my dorm room, waiting for me with a rose.
“I know we only just met a few weeks ago, but I want to be with you,” he’d said without hesitation.
I was overwhelmed with excitement. Here was this gorgeous guy, two years older than me, who drove over an hour to surprise me with a Teddy bear and a decorated dorm room. It was like something out of a movie.
The weeks following were spent laughing at the McDonald’s drive-through, ordering way too much food but finishing it all anyway. They were spent cuddling on the couch by the Christmas tree. They were spent teasing each other over the phone throughout the day. He listened to me when I panicked about giving a speech in class, trying to understand how phobias work. He read the first poem I ever shared and encouraged me to post it online.
He was my medication. And I’m afraid I overdosed.
Shortly after, I found myself striving to be enough. I ditched plans with my guy friends because he didn’t trust me to be alone with them. I felt pressured to drink more because he couldn’t seem to stay sober around me. But when I’d get drunk, he’d just shake his head like I was a little girl who couldn’t handle her liquor.
I’d drive all the way home to see him every weekend, just for him to go partying in another state, oversleeping and forgetting what he did the night before, not making it home before I drove back to school for the week.
I felt like I wasn’t enough for him. Enough of what? I couldn’t tell you. But I knew that I couldn’t make him happy.
Was this his fault? Absolutely not. Those were my own insecurities, my OCD-bred flaws, that I couldn’t seem to handle – that he couldn’t seem to handle, either.
It was fine. I was fine. We just didn’t work. We weren’t meant for each other. We both had baggage that was too heavy for us to carry together. It happens. I wasn’t that bent up over it. In fact, I’d already started to pull away. I didn’t feel the spark anymore. I didn’t feel like myself.
So, I ended it. He wouldn’t see me or answer my calls because he knew it was coming, so I was forced to do it through a text message, which tore me apart more than I thought it would.
“If you’re not gonna call me or see me to talk, then I don’t know what else to do. You’re not giving me anything.”
I texted him in my car, pulled over on the side of the road since I was hysterically crying, and he couldn’t even pick up the phone to hear me out.
And that was that. I tried understanding his side, left the Christmas gift I bought him on his porch the next day, offered to meet up a few weeks later to talk things through – but he wouldn’t cave.
“What’s the point?” he’d asked.
I spent the next month crying, spending days on the couch with a swollen face and shaking body, falling right back into that depression, my worries piling up like dusty self-help books I couldn’t bring myself to read.
Pictures of him with another girl surfaced online. Unanswered texts and calls shamed me into oblivion. I felt empty.
This didn’t have to do with him as much as it had to do with myself. I was a mess when I met him, and so I relied on him to pull me out of the hole I’d somehow fallen into. That’s the thing with OCD – often, I feel like I’m searching for someone else’s hand instead of building the strength to get up myself. I crave sympathy from people who know what it’s like to fall apart every single day.
But that’s not healthy. I know this. And now that I’m in a new relationship, my longest and most serious relationship, one that took time to build and patience to thrive, I understand this.
I’m happy now. I’m who I’ve always wanted to be. I’m supported and loved through every fault I bring to light, and even those that hide within me. Every dark notion I contemplate is accepted by my boyfriend. He’s held me in those moments where I was quivering in agony over a fleeting thought.
I met him in high school. We were friends for a while. In the back of my mind, I always knew we were saving each other until we were mature enough to be together. He’d helped me through failed relationships, took me for ice cream when I needed to vent, always knew how to turn my day around with late night phone calls and comical text messages.
I knew I liked him. I knew he would treat me well. I also knew he needed time to get out of his “hookup” phase.
He was always a good guy – everyone’s friend, popular because of how kind and down to earth he is. Hell, when I first met him, I fell in “lust” at first sight. He was the ideal guy for me, the one I always hoped I’d find someday.
So, when we wound up at the same college together, it was like fate.
He helped me through the breakup with my ex. He respected my space, but reminded me that he was just a text away.
Falling for him didn’t happen overnight like it did with other guys. It took time. I felt more for him with every minute we spent together, every dinner he cooked for me, every romantic night he planned in Philly, every pizza we devoured after a drunk night out. It was like falling in love with my best friend.
He is my medication. And I’m afraid I’m resistant.
A few years into our relationship, my ex reached out. It was innocent; he just wanted to catch up and clear the air, thanking me for being kind to him and changing his life. I was shocked at his maturity and genuine feelings toward me, but it was nice to be on good terms again.
So, when he lost someone close to him unexpectedly, I knew he needed me. And I was there. I felt connected to him and the sadness he felt. When you’re immune to heartache and fear, you recognize it in other people – and all you want to do is help, no matter who they are, no matter how poorly they’ve treated you in the past.
And so, I did something that could have caused issues in my current relationship: I talked my ex through his sorrow and mourning. I called him, checked up on him, let him vent on the phone to me. I even turned to him for my own comfort during a rough patch, because I knew he’d help.
But it got to a point where he started consuming my mind again. Whenever I was upset, I thought of him; whenever I listened to sad songs, I pictured our memories.
You know how you wonder about an ex or an old friend from time to time? With Relationship-OCD, what I soon realized I was dealing with, that thought is on a loop until it’s all you can think about.
Why? Why why why? I’m in love with someone else – not him. So why?
I thought that maybe he could just be a familiar face, a voice from the past that might get my mind off the daily terror of my life. Maybe that’s what I was craving – someone who understood. Maybe if I just talked to him like a normal friend, all of this would fade away and I’d gain some clarity again.
Or maybe I just care too much about people I shouldn’t even think about. I can’t handle being on bad terms with anyone. I have a sick desire to be friends with every person that’s ever meant something to me.
And all the insecurities he sparked in me during our relationship were burning within my mind yet again.
I didn’t hide anything from my boyfriend. I was open and honest about speaking with my ex. I didn’t lie or cheat or say anything disloyal. But all the sudden, I was crushed with guilt and horror at the size of the hole I’d dug myself into.
And then a new irrational thought surfaced: What if I don’t love my boyfriend after all?
This is for certain the most disturbing and emotionally draining obsession I have ever experienced, which is how I know it is purely OCD and not at all how I feel.
I bet they don’t tell you in the movies, or on social media, or even in psychology class, that OCD can affect the way you love, too.
Forget scrubbing my hands until they’re numb. Forget tucking the sheets into my bed so it’s like a straitjacket when I climb in to sleep. Forget the skin picking and foot tapping.
I now live in fear of loving someone that has no business in my life.
And this fear has brought me to even darker corners: Shaming myself for thinking another guy is attractive. Preventing myself from speaking to male friends in fear that I’m flirting. Coming home from class and crying over a guy I sit next to because I had a split second of butterflies when I talked to him. Feeling petrified that I will someday run into my ex and still feel affection, or be devastated if I find out he’s with someone else.
I’ve been with my current boyfriend for three and a half years now. I feel more than enough to know that I see a future with him, to know that I’m ready to move out with him, to factor him into my long-term plans, to discuss the idea of growing old together.
But here’s the catch: I can never dwell in the happiness he brings me, because I’m always hearing the lies my brain feeds me.
You’re still in love with your ex.
Sure, he’ll always have a part of me. But I’m in love with one person – and that’s who I’m with.
You think other guys are attractive. Maybe you want to be single.
I’m human. This is normal. It doesn’t mean anything.
You enjoy other guys’ company.
I’m allowed to have guy friends. Just because I like being around someone doesn’t mean I want to sleep with them.
But no matter how I respond to these disturbing thoughts, they’re always there. And they grow stronger with every rebuttal.
I think about other guys all the time because I try to fight the momentary thoughts of them, giving them more meaning than they actually have, because that’s how OCD works. It deceives you until your left exhausted from fighting a mental battle that only makes the fear louder.
When I’m trying to be intimate with my boyfriend, my mind is submerged in images of someone else – a stranger I passed in the city, a guy I used to talk to in high school, a celebrity I find attractive.
When I’m enjoying a date night, my mind thinks: What if I was here with my ex instead? Would I have more fun? Would I be happier?
When I’m going through a tough time in my life, I have this overwhelming desire to search elsewhere for support.
I cannot simply exist with my soulmate because my OCD needs to attack everything that I love until I’m alone yet again. The way it did with my mom in elementary school.
Not to mention, the guilt, the shame, the confusion, the agony that comes with these thoughts. The temptation to reach out to an ex or to a guy friend to make sure that my OCD is wrong, that I don’t have feelings for them. The need clear the air so I can stop being taunted and enjoy being in love, so I could be the girlfriend my boyfriend deserves. The empathy I have for everyone I’ve ever cared about, misinterpreted as lust and attraction.
God forbid I have normal feelings. God forbid I want to help the people that I care about. God forbid I get stuck on a thought that I don’t even want to have in the first place, consumed until I’m scratching at my face and picking out the hairs in my eyebrows for a distraction. Until I’m a shivering mess in my lover’s bed, unable to get close to him because I’m a monster who has inappropriate thoughts and deserves someone who’s just as conflicted as I am.
God forbid I am human.
OCD is not what it seems. It’s reliving the worst breakup imaginable every morning, even though you’re in a happy relationship. It’s feeling like you’ll never be content in your own mind, then shaming yourself for being so complicated and self-destructive. It’s the moments when no one can reach you, and all you can do is beg the clock to move quicker until you’re old enough to leave this behind. It’s the confusion, the doubt, the physical pain in your stomach and head. It’s drinking to clear your mind, then crying about feeling out of control.
It’s walking on hot coals, and losing balance with every step.