I'm Finally Opening Up About Growing Up With OCD
October 9-15 is Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder Awareness Week. All my life, I’ve felt too ashamed to share the full extent of my life with OCD… that is, until now.
I guess I first started to suspect I had OCD when I was about 8 years old. But looking back knowing what I now know about obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s evident to me I’ve been this way for as long as I can remember. I have memories of having “scary” thoughts when I was as young as 5 years old, which I now realize were intrusive thoughts.
Around the summer between third and fourth grade, I started noticing I had a growing list of worries. I worried about things like my house going on fire in the middle of the night, a plane crashing into my house, getting into a car accident, getting kidnapped, the list goes on. These are known as obsessions — unwanted intrusive thoughts that play over and over again, causing anxiety. In response to these thoughts, I would pray every night asking God to keep me, my family, friends, and pets safe, and to not let anything bad happen to me or the people I loved or my my house and belongings. I truly believed if I didn’t pray, any one of those thoughts would come true. OCD made me acutely aware of the safety of both myself and others. I was excessively cautious and believed if I didn’t prevent a loved one from doing something to ensure their safety, I would be responsible should anything happen to them. This profound concern with safety prohibited me from enjoying many things as a child and sometimes caused me to forgo certain activities altogether.
I felt an emotional attachment to my belongings and would make plans in my head about what I would bring in case of an emergency. Because of this attachment to my objects, I would keep unnecessary things, like tags from stuffed animals, packaging from toys, and candy wrappers, and I had a hard time throwing things out.
The thing is, people with OCD know many of their thoughts are completely irrational. But OCD causes them to doubt themselves, and the obsessive thoughts still cause them major anxiety. Additionally, most children with OCD don’t realize their thoughts are irrational, and many kids also experience what’s known as “magical thinking,” in which they believe if they think about something or talk about these thoughts, then they’ll somehow come true. So it wasn’t until my early teenage years that I realized these thoughts were unrealistic, and even now I still sometimes experience magical thinking.
OCD can cause violent, disturbing obsessions. I can’t believe I’m even writing this, but I have had thoughts of losing control and harming myself or someone I love. I can assure you I absolutely do not, nor have I ever felt that way about myself or anyone else. It’s the OCD that’s causing these thoughts, and they are not reflective of my actual feelings or beliefs. Trust me, I definitely do not want to be thinking these things. Since OCD can cause extreme self-doubt, having these thoughts just makes it even worse, and I often question my whole identity and morality as a person. And obsessing over whether you’re a “good person” is, yep, you guessed it, another thing OCD can cause. It’s really difficult to separate OCD from me. However, my therapist told me something recently that really helped put things into perspective. She said I know these thoughts are wrong and I don’t want to be thinking them, and the fact that I recognize that proves I’m not a bad person.
As my childhood progressed, I developed many “strange” behaviors. I would bite my hands, I would bite spoons or forks when I ate, I would scratch my papers in school, I had to constantly retrace my letters while writing, or erase it completely and start over, I would have to reread the same paragraph or sentence over and over again even though I comprehended it the first time, I had to touch objects a certain number of times, I would “kiss” objects, I would often count to myself while I was walking. I would also repeat many of these things several times, usually in multiples of 3 or 5. This is not even close to being a complete list. These are just the things I’ve done over the years that I can think of off the top of my head. These “weird” behaviors are called compulsions — an action or ritual done to ease the anxiety caused by obsessions. My obsessions and compulsions have definitely changed and evolved over the years, but the anxiety they cause me remains the same.
A huge component of my OCD is contamination. My compulsion associated with this obsession is using hand sanitizer. But you see, I don’t just use it on my hands… I rub it on my arms, legs, and even on my face. I also put it on my personal belongings if I feel like object has become “contaminated.” If I don’t use hand sanitizer right away after I feel that I’ve become “contaminated,” I have intense anxiety until I am able to use it. Of course, this only provides temporary relief from the obsessive thought, and OCD is a vicious never-ending cycle.
Another one of my big compulsions is “kissing” my arms two times each (yes, I know it sounds really weird). This is directly related to my extreme phobia of needles. It’s so bad that I can’t even say that word out loud without feeling severe anxiety, and even just typing that was incredibly hard for me (and yes, I did just kiss my arms after typing it). If I happen to see it on TV, see a picture of it, or even if someone’s arm is outstretched a certain way, I shudder and have to immediately kiss my arms. Over time, though, this compulsion has progressed to me doing it even if I’m not thinking about my phobia. I often do it as a form of grounding and comfort when I’m just feeling anxious in general.
Earlier in 2016, my OCD/anxiety were at an all time high. I was using hand sanitizer close to 200 times a day, I had almost daily panic attacks in school during lunch or gym class, and my racing thoughts made it extremely difficult to even get through the school day. I hardly left the house because my fear of contamination became so intense. But I didn’t even feel comfortable in my own house, either. It became impossible to enjoy anything because the only thing I felt anymore was anxiety. It was my senior year of high school, and what should’ve been an otherwise exciting time in my life, was anything but exciting; I couldn’t even function in the present, let alone think about my future.
After months of struggling, I was finally able to see a psychiatrist. Now, I’m on medications for OCD/anxiety. My meds help immensely with my intrusive thoughts, and I only have a couple of them each day now, if that, whereas before they were nonstop and constant. But my compulsions still remain somewhat of an issue. Namely, using hand sanitizer and kissing my arms.
I’ve been in therapy for three years, but my old therapist just recently retired. So for about a month now, I’ve been seeing a therapist who specializes in utilizing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to treat OCD and anxiety. CBT involves working on becoming more aware of your thoughts, so you can in turn gain more control over your behaviors.
It often feels like OCD is in charge of my life. I still have a long way to go, but I’m hopeful for my recovery, and I know I’ll eventually be able to live life on my own terms, in spite of OCD. I’m slowly learning to overcome the shame and separate OCD from Gessie.
The next time you say, “I’m sooo OCD” because you like things a certain way or like to be organized, please stop and think about what you’re saying. Because OCD is so much more than that.