Living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder


So how do I even begin to talk about this? When I was 14 I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Now, I know OCD has become a bit of a buzz word and is frequently used to describe something it's not. I don't think that people really grasp what it entails or might assume that it's one thing when it's another. OCD has been idealized in a way that seems quirky or normal (cue Type-A characters on tv rearranging pillows or something) but in actuality it's a really distressing illness. Not all sufferers have an obsession with cleanliness but this is a widely-used example that's easy to grasp because the compulsions of perpetual hand washing/cleaning tie in. In many cases, compulsions can be vague and indirectly related. One of the worst parts of OCD is that sufferers are aware of their irrational thinking. It's like being in a prison in one's mind and looking at the key but never being able to reach it. This frustrates a lot of people on the outside because they assume that if a sufferer is aware of what's going on then they should be able to control it.

It's very difficult for me to share this because I still don't feel comfortable talking about it and find it a bit triggering. I gather it comes off as very paranoid and superstitious. Also, I'm not a very organized person, that's a misconception about sufferers. I'm actually very disorganized because I'm so busy with compulsions. I've found that there is stigma attached to mental illness or it's not taken very seriously and is dismissed pretty quickly. I don't know what it is about mental health that makes people think "Those kinds of issues don't really affect me or people I know. It doesn't happen to friends or family who seem highly functioning. Perhaps they're over-reacting or self-diagnosing." It's like you have to walk around in a straitjacket or something but I digress...I thought it would be good to finally write about this as I've been toying with the idea for a while.

When I was a kid, I didn't know what the deal was, I just used to jump up or down stairs and count things or walk on certain stones. I'd touch railings or cars and all I knew was that I had to in case something bad happened if I didn't. I would also notice things that other people found hard to see like specks of dirt, something on my food or a glass that wasn't clean enough. When I became a teenager, it had changed a bit and my OCD began interfering heavily with my life so I soon discovered what was going on. I still worried about heinous things happening and my compulsions evolved to touching wood, saying or thinking 4 different phrases, flicking light switches, re-examining something several times or washing my hands repeatedly. Soon I couldn't get to sleep on time because I was busy with my routines and to this day, I still spend the most time completing my nighttime routines. While these surface actions might sound innocent, let me expand on what OCD actually does to a sufferer. 

The obsession is about intrusive thoughts. Maybe you stumble upon a thought of something heartbreaking like a car accident. Instead of doing what most people do and dismissing it, the obsessive will be stuck on this thought like a broken record. Perhaps they'll start to think, "I really don't want that to ever happen. Am I tempting fate by focusing on this? I need to find a way to let this thought go and to get rid of the possibility of that becoming a reality". That's where compulsions come in which provide temporary relief from anxiety. All OCD sufferers have different issues. Some worry that something might have occurred when in reality, it didn't. Checkers might worry that they never locked their door or turned off their oven - this is where normalcy can be seen to intersect with the disorder. A lot of people can relate to thinking that maybe they forgot to do something and this will result in a negative outcome. Imagine feeling like that a lot of the time, irrationally. Checkers will keep checking even when they've checked before and know the answer because they just don't feel 'right' about it.

For me, the obsessions can range from horrifying fears to doubting things. Sometimes there's nothing specific but I'll feel uneasy if I don't do something. As I've said, the compulsion is the ritual or act one engages in to make the thoughts go away but not everyone's compulsion can actively banish their fears because they're usually abstract and completely imagined so we'll invent our own rituals to relieve our worry. This is where 'magical thinking' comes in. We understand that we're being irrational but we find it almost impossible to fight against our urges so just in case, and to be sure, we have to make things 'right'. I do a lot of checks and repetitions and it mostly goes unnoticed. Sometimes I read things again and again, get into bed a few times because it's not 'right', put things down 'perfectly', tap things, think about positive outcomes, walk within tiles, repeat actions a certain number of times (4 or 16, specifically), check the door, check that my phone hasn't been taken, get dressed multiple times or rearrange my bag. If anyone has ever found me to be late or find that I take a long time doing things...yep. There's only a handful of people who have ever noticed my compulsions and if they did, they weren't sure of what I was doing or they thought I was perhaps not paying attention.

Brain scans on those with OCD show different activity than in those without the disorder but this doesn't make sufferers crazy. Most sufferers were found to be highly creative with above-average intelligence. Living with this disorder has been difficult because intrusive thoughts are relentlessly terrifying and compulsions take up a lot of time. I've tried to manage without ever taking meds or trying cognitive behavioral therapy. I'd like to go back to plain ole therapy again when I can afford it and I'm definitely open to exposure therapy.  I find my disorder gets worse when I'm tired, depressed or stressed. It's awful living day-to-day like this because I know that I can have a fuller life without it. OCD hurts sufferers and at times, the people closest to them but with patience, understanding and compassion, it can be helped. It's unfortunately something that I feel will always be a part of me because I'm not sure I'll ever beat it but I hope I shed some light on this or made someone feel less alone. Here's to living the best life we can. x

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