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What Recovering From OCD Rituals Looks Like

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

Three, three, three. Everything in my life is in threes. My head shouts and screams and makes me anxious if something isn’t done in this “magical” number. I can’t do anything in fours, fives or sixes — that wouldn’t be right, or something would go wrong or harm may be caused — but three makes me feel safe and reassured.

No one knew about my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). It convinced me it was my little secret no one knew about. Just me and it. Together we could do anything. It was my safety net — a friend. It convinced me it made my life easier, my own little guide to surviving life in my head. It told me none of my friends had it; I was special.

I was so special it took over my life and made it a misery. Every second of the day, I was completing these tasks it told me I had to do. It wasn’t until my care coordinator asked me why I stood up mid-appointment, walked to the light switch, touched it and sat down again did I reveal to her how much of my life was taken up with this voice in my head telling me to do certain things to stop bad from happening.

My OCD hated me for telling someone. People knew about my trauma and eating disorder, but OCD told me it would keep me safe if no one knew. Now reaching the end of my CBT sessions, I know it was trying to keep me safe from nothing. There is no danger. My head was just convincing me there was danger and I had the power to create danger.

CBT included exposure and response prevention (ERP) — each session setting up ‘experiments’ to expose me to situations that would trigger a compulsive ritual. It was awful. Every session I ended up in tears, having panic attacks, dissociating. All because I resisted the shouting, abusive voices.

For example, my therapist slammed a door. OCD made me go and touch the light switch because it would mean I wouldn’t get trapped. We repeated the experiment. This time I had to do the opposite of what OCD told me to do. My therapist slammed a door. The rational part of me sat and embraced the anxiety OCD brought. I was disobeying it. It was angry.

As I started to resist OCD more and more, the anxiety started to get better. Each time I resisted my anxiety went up, but as physics tells us anything that goes up must go down. And each time I resisted, the anxiety went down even quicker. But OCD is sly. It shifts. As one thing got better others got worse.

That’s the stage in recovery I am at now. Some things OCD used to make me do, I don’t even think about doing anymore. But other obsessions and compulsions take over my life even more than they previously did. I would rather add an hour onto my journey and get three trains rather than two. I will not eat my sandwich unless it is cut into three pieces. I will not do anything unless it is possible to manipulate the task to be related to a three.

There are other rituals OCD makes me do too, but I know now I can resist them. Resisting something that tells you it’s keeping you safe feels like going against natural human instinct, especially when it is your own head telling you. I know now OCD is a separate thing to me. With further work, it will not be OCD and me. It will just be me. And I will be able to do anything.

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Thinkstock photo via Dreamerjl83.

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My Response to 8 Ridiculous Things People Have Said About My OCD

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1. “Everyone is a bit OCD though, aren’t they?”

This has been said to me more times than I care to remember, and it always sounds more like a statement than a question. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the most misunderstood, stigmatized mental illnesses, and I think this is one of the things people say that gets to me the most. Not only does it belittle and underestimate the condition, but it unintentionally makes a mockery of the people who fight OCD on a daily basis and prevents an understanding of what the illness actually is.

I could rant about this for days, but I’ll stop (for now) or this will turn into the world’s longest blog post.

2. “Oh, you have OCD? Do you want to come and clean my house for me?

It is the stereotype of all stereotypes. For one, I don’t have contamination OCD. And for those brave individuals who do, they most likely do not enjoy cleaning. Often it’s quite the opposite. This is a common stigma attached to OCD, which is unfortunately enforced by the media and certain TV shows… *Cough* “Obsessive Compulsive Cleaners” *Cough*…

3. “You don’t seem like you have OCD.”

I don’t know what they were expecting. OCD doesn’t have a “look.”

When I figured out I had a problem but was too embarrassed and scared to tell someone, I got quite good at performing my compulsions subtlety so I didn’t get teased. Other rituals I perform mentally, whether that be counting in even numbers or repeating certain phrases over and over again so bad things don’t happen. This is constant, whether I’m at my desk at work or with friends or in bed.

What about the days I cannot leave the house or have to cancel plans because I am terrified the unthinkable will happen? It is exhausting having to be on constant high alert and feeling responsible for every awful thing that happens. I would not wish this illness on anyone.

4. “It’s all in your head.”

Yeah, you’re right. It is. A mental illness is one of the mind, which the last time I checked, was in my head. In seriousness though, most people with OCD know their intrusive thoughts are not logical, but they are driven by doubt. The illness creates things for me to worry about. I may think, “If I don’t touch every light switch I pass twice, my mum will die.” But if I try to ignore it and tell myself nothing bad will happen, the what-ifs dismiss the rational protests of the tiny logical voice trying to challenge OCD. I’m too terrified to ignore it. So yes, it is all in my head – it’s a constant raging war.

5. “Just stop worrying. Nothing bad will happen.”

Gee, thanks. I never thought of trying that! If only it was that easy to ignore the constant, unwelcome and quite frankly, terrifying dread that something awful is going to happen. My OCD tricks me into thinking the only way I will be able to stop these bad things happening is to complete my compulsions to prevent them. The OCD voice will get louder and louder, refusing to be ignored. It will “reward” me with a short relief, only to creep up behind me again soon after. OCD is like a boomerang. No matter how many times I throw it away, it will always come back.

6. “You’re being ridiculous!”

Yep, and don’t I feel it. OCD can be a ridiculous disease that does not make sense in the slightest to me because I know everything I have to do is illogical. I am fully aware that agonizing over everything that could possibly go wrong – ignoring the probability of whether or not it could actually happen – is ridiculous. I know believing I have “magical thinking” that can stop bad things happening is ridiculous. But logic is a mouse compared to the roar of OCD. I am not my illness, therefore it is not me that is being ridiculous; it is OCD.

7. “You’re not OCD, your room is messy!”

OK, so there are two things wrong with that statement. For one, the use of the term “OCD” as an adjective. It is not an adjective. And two, FYI, messy people can have OCD too. I have clothes all over my floor and I can’t even remember the last time I dusted the top shelf. Yes, for some people with OCD, obsessive cleanliness and tidying is a trait of the illness, but it is fueled by intrusive thoughts and fear. Not everyone with OCD has a fear of germs or contamination. There are many different types of the illness, so please do not assume we are all the same.

8. “It can’t be that bad.”

This one actually made me laugh. If only they could enter my mind for a minute, then they would understand. The obsessive thoughts are beyond awful. My OCD is capable of convincing me of anything. It can convince me I killed my nan, even though it was cancer that took her away. Every bad thing that happens to anyone I love – it is my fault. It will convince me my boyfriend is cheating on me or my best friend secretly hates me. It convinces me I am capable of killing someone or have inappropriate thoughts about certain people. I can’t even begin to explain how overwhelming and upsetting this is. It’s a different level of paranoia. Some thoughts I still can’t bear to share with anyone. It makes me feel like the most awful person in the world.

I feel like I am being held at ransom. But I still have a little bit of hope to cling on to – and that is the tiny voice of logic. Yes, it might always be beaten, but it’s still there somewhere at the back of my head, hiding. The whisper has not yet been silenced completely.

Follow this journey on Be Kind to Your Mind.

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Why My Recovery Inspired the Reading of an Unorthodox Gospel at Our Wedding

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When attending wedding ceremonies, people generally expect the theme of the readings to be about love and life, rainbows and butterflies. These speeches are known for eloquently explaining why the bride and groom have come together in unity to live a lifetime filled with love, hope, happiness and compassion.

While I have grown up a Catholic and recently married my husband in a full Catholic ceremony, I have always felt that Gospels and readings have the power to influence anyone – regardless of if they are religious or not and no matter what their struggles may be. The Gospel at our wedding (Mark 5: 21-24, 35-43) was unique for any wedding ceremony, to say the least. Often referred to as the story when Jesus heals and raises a dying girl, this Gospel could be mistaken for a funeral story. But it’s actually the opposite. Whether you attend mass every day or consider yourself an atheist, the story is about hope, strength and love in hard times – things we all can value. And those hard times got me to where I am today.

Over a decade ago, during one of the most difficult times in my life, I was in treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and depression. I can tell you it was nothing like what you see on TV. No beachfront views, no spa days and no breakfasts in bed. No iPhones or iPads, just “I.” But “I” had the power to make the best of it and looking back, I wouldn’t trade my experience for anywhere else in the world. Yes, it was scary at first. Yes, I had no control of leaving. And yes, there were people with way bigger issues than mine, but those patients helped bring me back to life – paralleling the theme in the Gospel of the dying girl at our wedding.

If you listen to others, you’ll learn. If you believe in hope – regardless of who you are and what your circumstances may be – you’ll find it. I discovered a new meaning to this term and whether it was finding “hope” in someone else’s journey and struggles with mental illness or simply coming across the word in a magazine, I realized hope is everywhere and can be found in any situation.

This Gospel story represents where I am today and who got me here. While I have felt like I was a dying girl inside at points of my life, without the inner struggle I would not have found my inner strength. And that is a big part of who I am and it is a trait my husband values in me. While everyone’s brain is wired differently, we can always take away something positive from someone else’s story (even in a reading for a wedding!).

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Photo via contributor.

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The Therapy Session in the Passenger Seat of My Doctor's SUV

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I sobbed in the passenger seat of a parked navy SUV, while someone I met 40 minutes before sat in the driver’s seat, in front of a brick office building with a blaring alarm in suburban Western New York. My concerned mother handed me a tissue. She listened from the back seat and did her best to stay out of the conversation. She heard things she never knew about her daughter. The woman sitting next to me, Alice, contradicted all of my expectations for therapists. Alice’s wide eyes stared into my soul from across the console. I looked at her with teary eyes as her wrinkly mouth said my problems can get better if I learn some new skills.

My first therapy session, about four years ago. My mom brought me in to meet her therapist after I mentioned I couldn’t stay focused while doing homework. My therapist agreed to work with me despite her typical refusal to work with patients’ family members who want individual treatment. She and my mother expected the treatment to consist of only a handful of sessions and possibly medication. All three of us thought I would get an Adderall prescription and that’d be the end of it.

I fearlessly walked into the office with my mother, ready to get help with my undiagnosed ADHD. The room looked like a movie set of a living room: a couch along the back wall with two lounge chairs forming a triangle around the carpet, with a dimly lit floor lamp and an orderly bookshelf to the right. I sat on the couch next to my mom, facing Alice’s chair. She asked me for details about how I study, what distracts me while I do homework, and when I noticed an issue. I explained I get anxious about how much work I need to do and then waste time worrying about it. I check the time at least once per minute of studying. Every day I make a list of everything I have to do, then make a new list of the order in which I will do them, and continue to make new lists when I go out of order or something interrupts my schedule. I plan every minute to minimize wasted time. I despise wasted time because it takes time away from sleeping – my favorite part of the day.

Ready for Alice to give me some tips and medication, she kept digging for more. The questions shifted from study habits to why I care so much about time and why I get so tired despite prioritizing my life around getting enough sleep. An unexpected fire drill went off in the midst of this interrogation. Being forced to evacuate into heavy rain, Alice decided our only option was to sit in her car to finish the session. I giggled about the situation but started questioning how this appointment would end. We got in the car, and Alice continued. She pushed for the deep shit. Why do your grades matter so much? Why do you need to be on High Honor Roll? Why do you spend your days looking forward to sleeping? She explained that rumination – repeatedly contemplating the same thing extremely or unnecessarily – can be linked to anxiety and depression. In this case, she was considering obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

I cried at the terminology. The vulnerability and potential diagnoses overwhelmed me. I dreaded the pending conversation with my mother that night. Alice suggested I come back for another visit.

I reluctantly admitted I needed her help, pained by the thought of being “weak” enough to need a shrink. Within two months, I felt like nothing more than my diagnoses. I was no longer a typical teenage girl just surviving the breakups, drama, exams and the other hells of high school. I was anxiety, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and attention deficit disorder. My physician started me on low doses of daily antidepressants and “as needed” stimulants. I saw Alice every two to three weeks, depending on how I was doing. She taught me there are no “shoulds” with emotions – it doesn’t matter what I think I should feel, it matters what I actually feel. I slowly forced myself to confront emotionally distressing circumstances rather than dismissing my negative thoughts as my own unsolvable issues. My father didn’t take it seriously and dismissed the fact that his daughter takes medication for mental health. My mother thought she knew all about the mess in my brain after that first session, but that was just the beginning. She tried to talk to me about it, I gave her attitude. She still doesn’t know about all the reckless actions I tried for the adrenaline, not caring if they killed me. She doesn’t know about the pot I smoked every weekend with all my High Honor Roll friends as we tried to dull the pain.

With each therapy session, I felt less embarrassed and tried to believe Alice when she said it’ll get better. It did get better. After four years of moderately consistent therapy, I no longer check the time every 30 seconds. I only made one to-do list today. I don’t schedule two hours to write and cry after school every day to get it out of my system before anyone comes home. I learned to process my thoughts through journaling, without using that notebook to just dwell in my misery. If my boyfriend breaks up with me, I think I’ll be able to feed myself this time. Still, too often I think I recovered, my mental instability cured. That’s when it smacks me in the face, reminding me of its ever-looming presence. Suddenly I’m crying in the driver’s seat of my own car four years later, all because I can never do enough to feel satisfied with myself.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo by Antonio Guillem

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The 'Rules' of My OCD

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I live(d) a life of rules.

This is allowed.

This isn’t.

If you do this, then you have to do this.

Before you do that, make sure this is done.

My brain never stops.

My rules are made by my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). They are strict, nonsensical and ever-changing. The rules are made by fear and are carried out because of the threat. The “what-if” in breaking a rule is always so much worse than following the rule. So I buck up, do it anyways, and think maybe next time I’ll be able to fight it.

My life was full of rules.

Cue inner head monologue about making food as an example:

Open the fridge by the top of the door, the handle is dirty. Cupboards are open from the bottom, grab a plate, inspect it. The cutlery drawer is fine if you use the left side of the handle (even though left is “bad,” it’s clean). Cook food. Try hard not to burn it,but cook it long enough that it won’t make you sick. Read the instructions one more time. Maybe call Mom and ask a question if something looks weird. Send a picture for good measure in case you didn’t explain it well enough. Dishes in the sink, I only wanna do the dishwasher thing once this meal. The food goes on the plate, and finally you can eat. Don’t let your fingers touch your lips. OK, it happened, but just wash your hands. Turn in tap, get soap, put soap on tap, wash hands, turn off tap. Make some comment about how your hands are sticky or something so you don’t look like weird. Go back to eating and don’t let it happen again or else they will get suspicious. Need a drink. Cups are fine if you touch the bottom two thirds. The food is done. Pick up the plate from the bottom so you don’t touch where the food had been, cup is the two-thirds rule. Open dishwasher, place dirty items, wash hands. Close dishwasher, wash hands. Move on to the next thing.

I know I am so much better than I was before, but they always come back. I am trying to be strong because these are habits and my habits can be broken when I create new ones. My instinct is to do things how I did them before because that was “safe.” But it also sucked. The rules ruled my life. I was living my life based on what my OCD let me do and how it let me do it. That is not the life I deserve. I knew these rules did not apply to anyone else, yet they were still alive, healthy and happy. Why can’t I break away from these rules and be the same way? The hold they have on me is strong, but guess what? So am I.

I will never not have OCD, and I know this. My mind is wired to do things certain ways. I however, am not a flaw, and I am damn tired of living as though I am. I will never be perfect, but I will be better. I know where my OCD took me in the past, and I have no desire to ever go there again. The world is scary to me and full of things I truly believe will ruin my life. I wish I could un-see them, un-think them and un-know them, but I can’t. The fear is as real to me, as the computer I type on. I however will fight like hell to live fully despite these fears. I will fall, stumble, and break, but I will also get back up and fight on for another day.

One of my favorite quotes is “Be a warrior, not a worrier.” Anyone else with OCD, or any anxiety disorder, will probably understand how powerful this statement is. When people used to tell me “not to worry about it” my answer was always, “But that is my number one skill.” Well not anymore. I am going have a new number one skill: my ability to fight.

I have a note on my phone and it says, “In the grip of a compulsive urge there is nowhere to hide and nothing to reason with. To resist a compulsion with willpower alone is to hold back an avalanche by melting the snow with a candle. It just keeps coming and coming and coming. The obsessions and compulsions of OCD are linked by a force of nature so strong that to break the connection demands almost supernatural effort.” It’s by David Adam from his book, “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop” (a book about OCD I haven’t read but found a load of excerpts from). This quote used to serve as an excuse. I was not superhuman, so why could I ever think about beating something an expert thought so indestructible? This quote made me think it was OK to not fight because this demon was too big for me. Now it serves as inspiration. How amazing is it that I have the chance to prove my strength against this beast, every minute of every day? Look at how tough people think this is, and I can do it. I feel almost lucky to have been given the brain I have because I know every moment free is a moment I earned for myself. My life is not easy, but it is so rewarding.

My head is a battleground, and I was defeated. The enemy had gained ground, and I was no longer trying to take it back. I had accepted my fate and was “making do.” Now I say, fuck that. I will work my tail off to gain that ground back and hold it for the rest of my life.

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Thinkstock photo by Be Silvestre.

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The Battle You Don't See Between My Logical and Obsessive-Compulsive Brain

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From the outside and by society’s standards, I’m the perfect woman with the perfect life. I’m educated and have a great job in a major metropolitan area full of culture. I have an amazing husband and a cute cat. But what people can’t see is the battle waging in my mind every single day.

This battle, which has been going on for more than ten years now, is constant and permeates every aspect of my life. It’s the battle between my logical brain and my obsessive-compulsive brain.

Every day I worry I’ve hurt someone, done something illegal, betrayed my husband, screwed up at work and a myriad of other things. I even worry I’ve done things I don’t remember doing. These obsessive thoughts led to a compulsive need to exorcise my guilt by confessing my thoughts and actions to someone who will tell me I’ve done nothing wrong or that it’s not a big deal. That reassurance gives me solace until the next thought inevitably pops up, sometimes only seconds or minutes later.

I remember thinking in college, Will I still be obsessing about these things in a year? In two years? Five?

Unfortunately, the answer turned out to be yes. But after years of therapy, medication and incredible support from my family, it’s getting easier for my logical brain to drown out my obsessive-compulsive brain. I still have bad days (and weeks) during which the voice in my obsessive-compulsive brain is pretty damn loud. Those days can be brutal. And sometimes I still give in to the compulsions. On those days, I try not to be hard on myself.

But then there are the days when I resist. When I have hope and think to myself, This, too, shall pass.

All this has been going on for years and almost no one knows. My situation made me realize appearances can be incredibly deceiving. I encourage everyone to live by this quote: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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