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Why My OCD Demands a Constant 'Witness'

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’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was 8 years old, but I wasn’t diagnosed until I was 28. It began as a way to ensure my safety. Did I touch that pill packet on the floor? Was my water bottle really closed when I opened it? At 14, my thoughts took me down a much darker path. While I was still obsessed over my own health and safety, I became much more concerned with that of other people. Now, my thoughts directed to everyone around me. What if I kidnap that baby? What if I shout out a rude word in public? What if I harm a friend in my sleep? What if I sexually abuse a child?

I managed to get by in school, college and university by always sticking close to friends and family. At school, I always stayed near my best friends so I could be sure I never harmed anyone. At college, I started taking and collecting photographs of all the places I’d have to go to alone, like the toilet. I’d use the toilet, take a photo of the empty cubical to make sure there were no dead bodies or naked children, and then leave. I had my photo and that was enough. Evidence for my mind. Proof I never harmed anyone. By the time university came around, my OCD was completely out of control. I was expected to be a lot more independent, an adult — someone who could handle being alone. 

I couldn’t. No matter how much I tried, I could not let go of the overwhelming fear that I was going to do (or had already done) bad things to people. I carried that fear with me every day, to every class, social event and meeting with a friend. I was a rapist, a murderer, a pedophile and I was just waiting for the day someone “found out” and exposed me. 

My university experience was spent trying to survive. I did this the only way I knew how: I brought a “witness” with me everywhere I went. Friends probably thought of me as clingy. Some, in fact, told me I was “unbearable.” Not my fondest memory. Looking back, I wish I could have opened up about my intrusive thoughts. Maybe someone would have helped me and I am certain I would not have been sent to prison or given the death sentence (even though I’m based in the UK) like I once believed I would. 

OCD took everything away from me. My assignments and exams were dramatically affected by my thoughts, believing I might hide threatening notes to my teachers and examiners in the body of my work. I dealt with this by finishing exams one hour earlier than everyone else, hiding my pen from myself by putting it down the toilet and returning to my desk to check and recheck all I wrote. I could not use the library like my peers for fear of writing “bad” messages in the books. And I most certainly could not walk across campus alone in case I saw a child. Throughout my four years at university, I was often confined to my room, haunted by thoughts and fears too loud, too terrifying to talk about.

Like I said, OCD took everything away from me in the end. Even with my witness beside me, the long walks I used to enjoy in nature were replaced by the abusive and venomous voice in my head. I was no longer focused on the sunset or beautiful lake, but instead the dead bodies I may have murdered and hidden beneath it. 

I recall one particularly traumatic experience just a few years back. What should have been a relaxing trip out the house with my mum later turned into a suicide attempt when she tried to leave me to go to a different aisle in the supermarket. I broke down on the floor, sobbing, crying and screaming at her as she walked away. Shoppers sped by me and no one stopped to ask if I needed help. I was a grown woman crying because her mother left her for a few seconds. What I did next still leaves me feeling ashamed. I stood up in a rush of panic, rage and frustration. My witness was gone. What if I harmed someone because she wasn’t there to stop me? I grabbed the shopping cart next to me and shoved it into a bunch of oncoming customers. Did I want to hurt them? Not at all. It was actually as if I were saying: ‘Please, stay away from me. I am bad. I am evil. Keep your distance.’

OCD continued like this. It was a slow and painful decline in living; so slowly, in fact, that I barely noticed my life wasn’t really my own anymore until it was gone completely.

I could no longer have pens in my room because I was too afraid of writing a “confession” and throwing it out of the window for my neighbors to see. I couldn’t send an email for the same fear. I couldn’t cook for fear of poisoning myself or others. I couldn’t paint or draw, for fear of drinking dirty paint water or stabbing my eye with the pencil. I couldn’t exercise because I was obsessed with the idea that sports bras would cause me to have breast cancer. I was too scared to be alone with my dog, even my parents. Everything and everyone became tainted by my intrusive thoughts. Most difficult for me, however, was the suspected strain it put on my mother, who had to do everything for me, who could never leave my side again – even though she had no idea why.

Fast-forward a few more years, and I now live with my partner who for the past two years has taken on the same role as my mother: my full time witness, my conscience and my memory. I even go as far to say that he acts as my mind, reassuring me when we are outside that I haven’t harmed anyone, that I didn’t touch a child inappropriately or say anything offensive or threatening. We’ve tried lots of different things, such as him not reassuring me, or me trying to go it alone, but the truth is I always become suicidal. The thought is: if I’ve potentially harmed someone, if there is even a tiny chance I might, I would rather take my own life than live with that fear, that unbearable guilt.

I’ve been in OCD therapy for four weeks now. Not long, I know, but amazingly I am already seeing a small change in some things. However, my homework last week asked me to stand outside my house for one minute — alone. I couldn’t do it. I could not bring myself to leave my partner’s side. The intrusive thoughts were unbearable. What if in that minute I see a child? What if I hurt the child? Say something rude or inappropriate to them? Or worse, what if I kidnap them? Murder them? But most distressing of all for me, what if I rape them? The word hung heavy in my head, stuck on repeat every time I psyched myself up to go outside for that one minute.

Last week, I wanted to join a swimming club with my partner, but I found out that they have no disabled path to the pool. This would mean I’d have to walk to the pool alone. No witness. I couldn’t do it. The walk might only be a short one, but it is one I cannot take alone. Not yet anyway. Not if it means I’d fear putting other people at risk.

But that’s just it: without my OCD, I would be free to swim, walk or even run. I wouldn’t be held back by the voices inside my head or my need to always have a witness by my side. I want to be free to be the person I want to be, without my witness, without this illness.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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