When the Hardest Fears to Conquer Are Based in Truth
I was a junior in high school, about seven years before my obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) diagnosis, when we had a fire in my house. Although it didn’t burn to the ground, the damage inside was severe and we had to live in a trailer in our driveway for months until it was rebuilt. Both of my parents, my youngest brother and me were home at the time and my other two younger brothers came home to see the fire engines.
Was it a traumatic event? Absolutely. Would it make sense that I would have to check to make sure the iron or curling iron was unplugged multiple times for fear of fire? Sure. My friends and family even indulged me in my compulsion to check over and over again thinking It was just my response to the fire. I would drag a friend to the bathroom with me and ask them to watch me run my hand over the outlet so when I asked them later they could confirm I had checked. Sometimes I would have to call my mother from a pay-phone to ask if she could make sure they were unplugged. As long as my family was safe, I was OK.
This all consuming fear of something happening to my family would make sense too, wouldn’t it? Everyone got out of the fire unhurt, but what if something else happened? What if someone came into our house while we were sleeping and hurt us? This particular fear would keep me up at night until I got out of bed on the third floor and checked every lock and window in the house to make sure we were safe. When I finally got back under my cozy blankets I couldn’t get my mind to believe I had checked everything. I might have to get up multiple times to check the locks before I could finally get to sleep. If I didn’t, and someone did get in, it would be my fault my family was hurt or killed. We lived in an area that houses from time to time would be broken into and you heard these things on the news! So they did happen. Am I not justified to be afraid?
Could that explain my terror when I hit a pothole on a worn down back road, convincing myself that I had hit a person and needed to go back and make sure they weren’t dead? I would drive around the block in circles because I couldn’t get my mind to believe it didn’t happen. Isn’t the news full of stories of hit and run drivers? It does happen, it could be possible.
When I realized there was more to my fear than these twisted up truths it was the early 1990’s, my last year of college. The paralyzing fear that engulfed me was about AIDS. At the time it was something everyone was afraid of. They used words like epidemic, incurable and death sentence. I knew it came from blood and bodily fluids, yet I had an unrealistic conception of how it could be transmitted. I saw “it” everywhere! Public restrooms were a nightmare; eating utensils at restaurants that had spots from the dishwasher I was convinced were contaminated. I couldn’t enjoy the things I loved to do anymore. Not only would they make me sick, but in turn I would pass that on to my friends and family and they would get sick and die too! Of course I had to wash my hands with straight bleach, how else would all those deadly germs get off? I had to save the people I love! The bleach causing my hands to dry and crack and bleed only fueled the cycle of fear, now I was sure to get AIDS because I had open sores for the germs to infect.
Many of the intrusive thoughts and fears that are my OCD are based in reality. I think this is why, despite the “reasonable fears” I have had since I was a kid, I was not diagnosed until my last year of college when it got out of control. It is also this truth hidden in the lies my mind would tell me that made overcoming them seem impossible. They were justified. My friends would say they must have “a touch of OCD” because they hate to use public restrooms or have to carry hand sanitizer with them for fear of catching a cold. I appreciate them trying to comfort me, yet it reinforces that these fears and thoughts are based in truth.
The part that differentiates the truth from OCD is I believe these things will literally kill me and or the people I love. That and the lack of control I have to stop them. It is a terrifying thing to not be able to control your own thoughts and feelings. Over the years (and with medication) I have come to understand and deal with the tricks my OCD can play, even the ones that start with a kernel of truth.
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