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The First Time I Felt Hope After Silently Struggling With Intrusive Thoughts

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Eleven years ago I went to New York City to celebrate a long St. Patrick’s Day weekend with friends, and I was miserable the entire time. From the outside looking in, nothing was out of place: My boyfriend had booked a unique hotel for us, and my friend was the perfect guide to her city. We went to Irish pubs, shopped, hung out on a rooftop and had delicious dinners out. I should have been having the time of my life, wishing the weekend would never end.

But all I wanted to do was lie down and sleep. I’d been struggling with ugly, immoral intrusive thoughts for months, and by the time we left for our much-anticipated trip, I’d lost almost all hope that I’d ever feel like myself again.

By the end of our long weekend, I’d been brought to my knees, desperate for help. The day my boyfriend and I got back to Minneapolis, I called a psychology clinic to make an appointment with someone who could prescribe antidepressants. It took an unbelievable amount of courage to dial the number and tell a stranger a small piece of my story – and I was met with an emotionless, “We’re booked for the next three months.” Click.

I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. I knew it. I knew no one could help me. I pulled myself together. I couldn’t live like this any longer. I had to at least try. So I called my gynecologist’s office of all places, and told that small piece of my story again: I need help, I’m feeling really depressed. I think I need to go on an antidepressant. This time the voice on the other end of the line was understanding, and when we hung up I had an appointment for that very afternoon.

A few weeks later a psychiatrist diagnosed me with OCD. Although the antidepressants had already started to work, the day I was diagnosed was the first day I felt hope. Real hope. For so long — years and years — I’d thought I was the only person in the whole world who’d ever felt like I had, who’d struggled with the same intrusive thoughts I had. Convinced I was a monster, I’d walked through life feeling hopeless and alone. If only I’d had the courage to tell someone sooner.

The day I called the psychology clinic and eked out a sentence of my life story, I never would have imagined I’d be where I am today. I’ve told roomfuls of people about my most shameful and embarrassing obsessions. People I’ve never met know details of my life that actually make me blush. I’m spreading hope, and it’s all because I got hope first.

You don’t have to wait as long as I did for hope. You don’t even have to tell anyone your story if you’re not ready. Just go to Project Hope Exchange and listen to messages of hope left by other individuals with OCD as well as therapists and family members affected by OCD. And if you have some inspiration to share, call 1-855-975-HOPE and leave a 30-second message of hope for individuals with OCD. It could be the push they need to move forward in their recovery.

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Thinktock photo via Halfpoint

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The One Aspect of My OCD I Am Certain About

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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.

The “doubting disease.” This is what obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is sometimes called. I have found it to be completely true that having OCD makes me doubt absolutely everything.

In fact, one aspect of my OCD I can be certain about — ironically — is when I am doubting, I know it must be OCD.

Just imagine this for a minute. You are in treatment for your OCD and the night before your weekly session, a wave of anxiety comes washing over you. You think to yourself, I can’t go. I just can’t. Why can’t you go? OCD might tell you if you go, you could be taking advantage of a service you don’t really need. Maybe it says if you go, it must mean you are a terrible liar who is manipulating everyone around you into thinking you have OCD, but you really do not. OCD might say if you go, you are heading into a session that costs more than it’s worth and more than what you deserve. It might say if you go, you are pretending your OCD is really bad enough to even be there (if you even have it at all). You crawl into the fetal position and let the tears roll down your cheeks. How can you believe what anyone is telling you? You can’t trust anyone. They are either lying to you or you are deceiving them into thinking you have something maybe you do not really have! How do they know if you have OCD or not? There is no brain scan to identify your obsessive-compulsive disorder. They can’t see inside your head, so how can they possibly know? And how can you even know for that matter? Because at this point you are too confused to sort through anything.

This is what the doubting disease is like. This is what OCD feels like. In fact, I am taking a big risk in writing this because even saying the words “I have obsessive compulsive disorder” heightens my anxiety. Because I still worry if it is true. I battle my brain in this way every day. OCD takes the most important aspects of my life — the things that mean the most to me — and plays this “what if” game and makes me question it all. From my morals and my faith to my character to whether or not I even have OCD. It causes me to question every little thing. It is isolating. It is like a bully who never leaves me alone. It is never as simple as, “I have OCD because the professionals tell me I do, and I can recognize it in myself.” Rather, I think What if they are wrong? What if I am a faker? What if I am looking for attention? How do they know it’s OCD? Where is the proof?

But even with proof, I still question. I still doubt. I still ask the same questions over and over. My fears and doubts are recurring. I have been given proof of my medical conditions, tests that came back positive. One would think this would shut the OCD up. Yet, I still doubt whether or not I am really sick. What if those tests are wrong? What if…

The “what ifs” accompany the doubt and the constant worry and second guessing makes for a perfect storm, leading me into crying spells or anxiety attacks. But the one thing that seems to be able to pull me back to reality for a brief instant is knowing this debilitating worry and never ending doubt is the very essence of what OCD is.

The doubting disease.

This knowledge does not make it any easier to deal with, but knowing this isn’t me, it’s OCD, can give me a little peace of mind during an attack. I remind myself I must have it, because I am going in circles.

When this realization eases my mind, it never lasts, because I know those same fears will arise again and the doubt will overwhelm me. And this is what keeps me going to therapy, even when I do not want to. There is still a lot of work to be done because I am in the beginning stages. I will keep trying because I do not want to live my life in constant doubt and disbelief.

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Thinkstock photo via bruniewska.

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Watching My 12-Year-Old Son Grow Up With OCD

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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.

I watched my son from across the room, waiting for an answer to my question about his day at school. It’s our routine; he walks in and grabs a snack and I ask him to share the favorite part of his day.

This time, I only heard crickets.

I could tell my son wasn’t ignoring me; he was deep in thought, mumbling something to himself, over and over. This went on for over a minute.

“Another one. Another one. Another one. Another one. Another one,” he would say in almost a whisper.

Finally, as if no time had passed at all, he turned to me and apologized. “Sorry Mom, it’s my OCD. I have to say that phrase so many times.”

This is only one of many compulsions my son struggles with, his brain telling him to do something he desperately wants to stop. His arms and legs bear scars from picking his skin to the point of bleeding. When I ask him if it hurts, he says yes, but he needs to pick anyway.

He has tried sitting on his hands, wearing gloves and trimming his nails very short. He often rubs his hair between two fingers, feeling the texture of the hair gel on his strawberry blonde locks. He tries to stop, but the compulsion is bigger. He can’t stop shooting basketball when it is time to eat dinner because he can’t end on a miss, even if that means he will be there 10 more minutes and miss 23 free throws. Dinner often goes cold.

He has to have that just-right feeling or the world as he knows it stops turning.

During homework, I once made notes in pencil on his math workbook (that allows for doodling) and he couldn’t turn the page until he erased the markings. “That bothers me,” he would say, erasing the paper until he created a hole where the marking was once located. When he was younger, my son would spend minutes lining up his stuffed animals along his bed, then repeat the same routine when they toppled over after he crawled under the covers. My heart sank for how difficult just going to bed was for a 9-year-old boy. No sooner had I said goodnight and walked downstairs would I hear his tiny voice shout from bed:

“Don’t forget to make my lunch! Ok, Mom? Make my lunch.”

I would reassure him it was already made, knowing he couldn’t fall asleep until he was given some words of comfort. I learned to make his lunch early every evening so there was no chance of forgetting. An hour after going to bed, he would surprise me at the top of the stairs, still awake, asking me if he put his homework back in his folder because he couldn’t remember.

“You did,” I would promise. That didn’t always convince his active mind, so he would walk down to the kitchen and check his backpack one more time. Just in case. Just so he could tell himself all was right with the world.

“One more time” has become his mantra. Because surely checking one more time will be enough to fill his satisfaction. I often think how exhausted he must be, constantly wondering, constantly needing everything to be just so.

As a parent that’s the hard part, because life isn’t just so. Things happen. Things come up. The menu at school changes, even when my son had Chicken Nugget Tuesday penciled in on his mental calendar. That rigidity is sometimes a devastating reality.

Every time we see another dog, whether in a pet food commercial on TV or in our neighborhood, my son will repeat the exact same phrase: “He’s not cuter than our dog.” He never misses. Every time. Something about seeing another pet provokes an urgency to make the statement. He will say it under his breath — not always to us, but as a formality.

My son hates says he has these rituals caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). His frustration peaks and we occasionally hear him say things like “I hate OCD. I wish I didn’t have it. I wish I was ‘normal.’” Those are tough words to hear from a young boy who should be focused on video games and ice cream and who won the Super Bowl. As a mom, it’s hard. I’ve watched it creep into his life and invade his thoughts. Yet, ironically, OCD is also the force that drives him to excel:

He will not allow himself to miss a deadline at school. A project assigned on a Monday and due on Friday is completed on Monday.

I never have to wonder if he brushed his teeth. The kid brushes his teeth like a boss, checks them in the mirror and then rechecks them one more time.

He cleans up every dish, every fruit snack wrapper, you name it, and tosses it in the trash. He also cleans up his brother’s trash (who isn’t so tidy). The mess bothers him to a point of unrest.

It’s easy for any parent who has a child with OCD to feel helpless in their journey, so I embrace the moments when I catch my son enjoying life, laughing with his friends, not trapped in time by worries or compulsions. Seeing my son at ease with his life is priceless, like the time he swung open the door after seeing a movie with my husband and exclaimed: “I feel happy inside!” OCD had temporarily freed him, even for a moment.

My son deserves the chance to be a kid.

To scrape his knee playing basketball. To eat gummy worms and talk about girls. To drink his milkshake too fast and get brain freeze, all without intrusive thoughts.

I wish that for him every day.

Editor’s note: This story has been published with permission from the author’s son.

Follow this journey on Raising The Blinds.

If you or a loved one is affected by body-focused repetitive behaviors, you can find resources at The TLC Foundation for Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors.

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Thinkstock photo via John+Howard

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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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