This week, October 10-16, 2021, is known as International OCD Awareness Week, and I couldn’t find a better time to break the stigma of this highly debilitating disorder.
I grew up battling OCD. I was diagnosed at age 6, but I think I battled this disorder since before I could even talk, really. Perhaps I was predisposed. I know childhood sexual assault played a major roll, as it forced me to develop compulsions as a way to keep myself and my loved ones safe. Regardless of the reason (which is pertinent to your healing, by the way), OCD will always be with me. It will always lurk in the shadows on my brightest days, and consume me on my darkest. It never leaves me alone. I guess that’s why they call it “obsessive”-compulsive disorder.
Many people believe OCD is characterized by the need for cleanliness, organization, and perfection. While this isn’t necessarily untrue, OCD is so much more than that. In fact, OCD is one of the top 10 most disabling illnesses by lost income and decreased quality of life. It’s not just anxiety, and it’s not just being particular. With OCD, your brain is literally wired differently, and it misfires often, making you hypervigilant and causing you to be in survival mode almost constantly, which is so hard on the body. Like a record skipping, it replays the same disturbing thought, idea, image, video over and over and over and over.
While we all experience stress and anxiety and irrational thoughts, those with OCD get stuck. The best way I can describe it is like having a bully inside your head at all times, screaming worst-case scenarios while reminding you how weak you are for being so scared of life. The noise is so loud that even just walking downtown or having a conversation can be over-stimulating. It feels like nails on a chalkboard, like a fork scraping a plate, that just won’t stop.
I have had some terrifying experiences with this disorder — I could write a book about it (I actually did write a young adult novel that deals with OCD). But in the interest of time, I’ll go over some of the worst obsession, compulsions, and related issues I’ve faced just this past week battling this relentless demon:
- I convinced myself I was going blind because my eye prescription got stronger. Now, I can’t stop seeing floaters and getting distracted by them, blinking and blinking, trying to make them stop. I spent half a day researching my symptoms and reading terrifying stories, and spent over $500 at the eye doctor to ensure I was safe and to get an updated prescription.
- I obsessed over a particular person (yes, this one is embarrassing) as I compared myself to them relentlessly, noticing only the ways I do not measure up to them and reminding myself I never will.
- I looked over my shoulder in fear while walking alone downtown just in case someone tried to pull up next to me or grab me inappropriately, which is something that happened to me before while working in the city a few years ago. I am always on high alert, waiting for something terrible to happen rather than enjoying my new location.
- I debated deleting all of my social media because I hate the person on my page, and everything she has to share. I question why I seek validation online, then ridicule myself for every little thing, from my appearance and clothing choices to my extreme openness and caring far too much about what other people think of me. I simultaneously feel like a fraud and a completely different person every single day, sometime every minute.
- I spent days worrying about an upcoming retreat, because I still can’t bring myself to drive long distances after a bad car accident last year. I feel as that I will never see my loved ones again if I choose to go.
- I obsessed over a two-minute presentation that’s supposed to be a fun team-building exercise, which my mind turns into an overwhelming trial during which I’ll lose my ability to speak, my hands sweaty and heart racing, unable to catch my breath and humiliating myself in front of all my colleagues.
- I worried I was going to lose my job because I know how much my disorder affects my performance.
- I failed to feel at-home in my own apartment, because no matter how much I scrub the counters and mop the floors, it never feels clean enough for me to be safe.
- I cried and cried in grief, missing the girl I was last year when I was fiercely independent and could exist in my own comfort zone, my confidence finally shining through, the way it only does when I’m alone.
- Worst of all, I felt intense shame for all of this. So much shame, in fact, that I wonder why anyone would want to be with me, or talk to me, or give me the time of day. I compare myself to others who can travel solo and appear put-together and speak in public with ease and feel reassured that they are, in fact, deserving of the love they receive and accomplishments they earn. I discount what I’ve gotten myself through, my resiliency and passion, the independence I still manage through all of this. Then I get angry at myself, because I know how many other people struggle, too. I know I am privileged compared to many. I know others have been through worse. So why can’t I just get over it? Why can’t I just “suck it up?” I feel too unhealthy to be loved, yet I am doing everything in my power to be healthy. I’m going to therapy twice a week. I’m maintaining my full-time job. I’m managing my own mental health blog. I’m forcing myself out of my comfort zone. I’m being active every day. I’m eating healthy. I’m communicating as best as I can, practicing coping mechanisms to better regulate my emotions. Still, this disorder is chronic and relentless.
Still here? You must be exhausted. I know I am.
My family will likely read this and say, “You sounded so good this week! Why didn’t you reach out?” or “I thought you told me you were fine. What happened?”
The truth is, this is my version of fine. This is my every day — my every waking second. At its worst, my OCD keeps me in bed with a fever, chills, and pain throughout my entire body while researching the internet for reassurance, all because of a fleeting thought. At its best, it just barely allows me to function. I am always on the verge of panic, can succumb to sobs at the drop of a pin. And I feel guilty for how that affects the people in my life.
If it’s not one thing, it’s another. It’s torture, but it’s my life, and I’ve accepted that. I’ve accepted it because, even though it’s painful and scary and debilitating most of the time, I am still here, and I can still do the things I want to do, and I can still choose to live on.
I will always choose to live on.
I choose to turn my suffering into something productive and helpful for others, choose to embrace my creativity and share my stories, so no one else has to feel alone and ashamed the way I often do.
I think every person with OCD can relate to this. We often are asked why we’re oversharing, people assuming we just crave attention or we’re being dramatic. But no one understands unless they have it.
I remember when I opened up to my oldest brother, who I admire more than anyone in this world, about the things I endure, and he told me he used to question why people shared their struggles so publicly, until he realized just how impactful and comforting it was to create connections and break the silence. He might not know this, but that day changed my life — just knowing he supported me and what I stood for. That he saw me, he saw how I suffered and saw how hard I fought. It meant everything to me.
It’s hard to feel like anyone supports me sometimes (even though so many people do; I have an amazing family and loved ones), because no one can really understand how mean and scary my brain is, to put it lightly. Tough love is helpful until it isn’t. It often perpetuates shame that is already instilled so deeply in me.
This is especially true since my OCD stemmed from trauma. I already learned, from the ripe age of 4, to hate myself. To blame myself. To doubt myself. So when someone tells me, “It’s really not that bad” or “You just gotta push yourself,” it’s hard not to feel like a failure who is too weak and sensitive for this world. It makes me want to crawl into a hole and isolate myself from everyone around me, because they’re only fueling the negative thoughts I already hold true in my heart. What many don’t realize is just how small my comfort zone is, because with OCD, almost everything is a threat.
Therapy does wonders, but it can also do damage. The exposure therapy I endured in childhood reinforced the idea I wasn’t safe. I had to imagine my entire family dying before I went to sleep each night, because apparently the only way to get over your OCD is by facing your worst fears head-on with little to no resources accessible to you. I also had to look at photos of people vomiting, printed out on computer paper and kept organized in an “OCD Exposure” folder tucked neatly under my bed, which seems a bit ironic to me now.
My whole life has felt like a series of unfortunate events I didn’t want to attend. I guess that’s why I say “no” so much now — I only recently learned I was allowed to do that. I’d never felt empowered to do so before.
I wanted to share these raw anecdotes and this unorganized rant because I want others to understand that people are never who they seem on the surface. Even those people you think have it all together, those people you compare yourself to, struggle in some way — and they likely see versions in you they wish they could be.
We are all fighting our own demons. OCD happens to be mine. It’s an asshole, and it’s a part of me — but it’s not all of me. I will never stop fighting, even if that means I do it my whole life. There are so many reasons for me to keep fighting, to face my OCD (when the moment is right; remember: it’s okay to give in sometimes) and learn to coexist with it. One of my reasons is being able to educate society and comfort those who endure similar struggles the only way I know how — through writing. Through being brutally honest and exposing my vulnerabilities for all to see (or read).
No matter who you are, no matter what you battle, I hope you feel proud of yourself today. You don’t have to be strong or carefree like her, or laid back or confident like him — you just have to be yourself. Authenticity is what attracts others, what attracts the things and people meant for you.
And if you have OCD, I see you. I’m proud of you. And I understand. As a way to celebrate International OCD Awareness Week, I encourage you to make a decision for yourself this week — one that feels good to you, even if it lets someone else down. I encourage you to take your power back without forcing yourself to suffer.
I promise, there are ways to heal that don’t feel like torture.