The OCD Symptom I Was Afraid to Tell Anyone About
I’ve known I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) for over a decade now. I wasn’t officially diagnosed until high school, and that diagnosis was reconfirmed again in college. But I can identify some of those behaviors starting all the way back in elementary school. My OCD really started to interfere with my life in junior high. So it would seem strange that my husband of nearly four years, who I dated for four and a half years before that, only found out about everything my OCD entails a few months ago.
The reason why is because I didn’t know either.
In high school, a psychiatrist confirmed I had OCD because I told her about all of my compulsions: hand washing, turning the lights on and off, preferring everything I did to be in multiples of seven… After that, my parents sent me to a therapist, but mostly because things at home were rough and I wanted someone to talk to about those issues, so I didn’t mention my OCD much during the sessions. Then in college, I decided to take advantage of the free mental health services that were offered as part of my tuition. It took me a while to get in, because there were plenty of other students seeking help as well. When I finally got an appointment, there were only a few weeks of the semester left, which meant I would have to wait until fall to start up my sessions again.
But I went to a few appointments, one of them being my initial evaluation, where, again, the doctor confirmed I did have OCD, based on all the compulsions I told her about. After that, I had a couple more sessions with the doctor, where we focused some of our time on ways I could cope with my OCD. But the last week that the clinic was open for the semester, I forgot about my appointment and missed it completely. I was so embarrassed and upset at myself for taking up a session slot that someone else could have used I never called the clinic, and never scheduled another session for the rest of my college career.
Even after speaking with so many doctors about my mental health issues, there was still one part of my OCD I was unaware of: intrusive thoughts. All of my compulsions were more than enough to diagnose me with OCD, so no professional I had met with ever asked if I had thoughts that bothered me. But the thoughts were there. They had been there since I was a child, and I had never shared them with anyone, including my husband, for fear that I would be utterly rejected and disowned. Some of the worst thoughts were that someday I might physically hurt my spouse, my family or worst of all, a child.
Thinking back, a lot of these worries probably stemmed from the talks that my father had with me. Like a good dad would, he made sure to tell me that if someone ever made me uncomfortable, or touched or talked to me in a way I didn’t like, that I could always tell my parents, even if it was a family member who hurt me. The problem was, he had these talks with me almost weekly. It instilled a sense of fear in me that anyone, anyone, could turn into someone who would assault children, even me. I now realize my own father struggles with at least some symptoms of OCD, and especially the intrusive thoughts, which is why he felt such a need to constantly remind of the dangers of the world. His behavior played a part in pushing my worries across the line from a healthy awareness of what was going on around me, to a consistent nagging that something could go wrong at any minute, and that one day I might be part of the problem. I avoided (and still do) watching any shows, or reading any news, that reported stories about people who hurt children.
In high school, while I enjoyed babysitting, I dreaded changing diapers or giving baths. What if, even without any intention of doing so, I did something that made the child uncomfortable? These thoughts made me afraid to have my own children. What if someday I ended up like the monstrous family members my father warned me about?
Fast forward to last December. While scrolling through Facebook, I stumbled upon a shared story that came from this very site. After reading through that first article on The Mighty, I read another, and another, until I decided to see what stories people had shared about their OCD. I came across a story where someone described her greatest worries: the constant nagging that one day she would hurt someone she loved, or even a child. I read through the article, tears welling up in my eyes. Afterwards I started doing more research, discovering that doctors recognized this as a common symptom of OCD, and that being afraid of hurting a child was indicative that someone had no inclination or desire to do so. I began sobbing uncontrollably. Twenty years of self-hatred and worry were pouring out of my eyes, providing relief from the isolation I had been feeling. I was crying with joy, finally feeling like I had permission to let out what I had bottled up inside since childhood.
At the time of this epiphany, I was out of town, staying in a hotel for a work conference. My husband was on his way to meet me there. We were planning to go out for a nice dinner and relax in the hotel before he got on a plane in the morning for his own job. While he was on the road, I called him; I couldn’t wait. I think part of me also wanted to give him a chance to turn around in case what I was about to tell really was as horrifying as my own mind told me it was. When he picked up the phone, I immediately began to sob again, the kind of sobbing that doesn’t allow you to breathe, let alone talk.
When I finally gained a thread of composure, I said I needed to tell him something, something I’d never told anyone else. I told him I would understand if he wanted to leave me after our conversation, and apologized for hiding it from him for so long. My husband knew I had OCD; my compulsions and anxiety made that pretty obvious. And so far, he had been an absolutely wonderful partner in helping me navigate this disorder. He didn’t get angry when I turned the lights on and off seven times, or when I rewrote words over and over again. But he also rubbed my back when I told him I needed some help to stop myself from washing my hands for the 10th time before bed. And on difficult days when it felt like I couldn’t get anything “just right,” he cleaned the bathroom or swept the floor without complaining so I wouldn’t have to spend extra time dealing with my compulsions while completing those tasks. Everything in our marriage and courtship told me that my husband supported me, that he would always love me. But I still had a terrible fear that this would be the final straw. This is where he would draw the line.
But out came the words. I poured out the thoughts that had bothered me for nearly two decades. I told him about my worries, about how my greatest fear was that I would one day hurt a child. I apologized for being so closed off about the reasons I was nervous to have children, and for keeping this from him for so many years. I told him about the article I read, and about how I learned that at least I wasn’t alone, that at least doctors had a name for what I had been feeling. Through my sobbing and apologizing, I waited for his response. Finally, he said, “Of course I don’t hate you. I don’t want to leave. I love you.” He told me that more than anything he felt sorry that I had to live with these fears and thoughts, and he was happy that at least I didn’t feel alone anymore.
He stayed on the phone with me until he got to my hotel room, then let me collapse in his arms when he opened the door. He held me as I continued to sob and apologize, running his fingers through my hair and continuing to love me and my tear-stained face. He reassured me that I’m a caring, compassionate person who loves kids so much that I would never hurt them. He reminded of how much joy it brought me to see students and younger siblings succeed, and how sick to my stomach I became when anyone even brought up the topic of hurting a child. He agreed to read through blog posts and doctors’ articles about this newfound piece of my OCD symptoms. He offered to still take me to dinner for seafood, one of my favorite meals, but insisted that if I just needed time to relax and stay inside that he would be present there too.
Since last December, I’ve found the courage to tell some of my other family and friends, as well as a therapist, about these intrusive thoughts. And though I’m always nervous about their reaction, every time my fears are calmed, at least temporarily, by their reassurance that I’m not alone, and that they know my great fear of hurting others is one of the very reasons they know I never would.
However, these thoughts still nag at me. I often find myself wondering, But what if I’m different? I know they say these thoughts are a common symptom of OCD. But what if that’s not what’s going on? What if I really do grow up to be a terrible person? So the fear is still there, but I have found tremendous freedom in simply being able to talk to my husband about it, to say my thoughts aloud, and to know that others understand what I’m going through.
Even now, I’m nervous about submitting this story. What is the world going to think of me? But without somebody else pushing through fears to share her story, I never would have found the courage and relief that overwhelmed me last December, so I only hope my story does the same thing for someone else. Telling my husband the truth about my OCD didn’t cure it. But I don’t feel like I have to live in isolation anymore. And for that, I am so, so, thankful.
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Thinkstock photo via sSplajn