The Debilitating Type of OCD You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder which feeds on doubt. It causes you to experience obsessions which take the form of intrusive, distressing thoughts and/or feelings, which are only alleviated by performing compulsions. I have lived with OCD for several years, but was only recently diagnosed. Since being diagnosed, I have come to learn my experience and symptoms of OCD can be categorized across a few different subtypes. The reason I was not diagnosed for so long is because my most severely presenting subtypes are less visible than some other OCD variations. The most difficult of these for me to wrap my head around was “real event OCD.”
Most obsessions in OCD relate to a fear something may happen in the future. In these cases, your mind convinces you that if you perform a compulsion, you will prevent this event from occurring. In contrast, obsessions relating to “real event OCD” stem from memories of events which have already happened (or which one perceives to have happened — more on that later).
Real event OCD can be insidious because along with anxious thoughts and feelings, it also presents with pervasive feelings of guilt and shame about something which you did in the past. It conjures up memories of something that you did which was “bad” and plays this memory over and over in your head. When these intrusive memories come up, you feel a gut-punching sensation of intense guilt. What makes real event OCD different to natural feelings of guilt for performing a harmful act is that the past event does not warrant these extreme guilty thoughts and feelings.
With real event OCD, your mind tells you the guilt you feel in response to these intrusive memories is 100% realistic. This can make this OCD subtype very difficult to diagnose, because if you have it, you can easily convince yourself that what you’re experiencing is a normal reaction to your past behavior and not an anxiety disorder. If you feel like you deserve to feel awful for the “bad” things you’ve done, you may believe you’re the last person in the world who deserves help. You may even feel too guilty to discuss your obsessions with a professional out of fear that will confirm what your OCD tells you — that your past behavior is unforgivable and you really are a “bad” person.
Intrusive memories can hit me at several points during the day. It can occur seemingly out of nowhere, like a phantom suddenly popping into my mind just in case I’d forgotten how “bad” I am. Or, most cruelly, it can sneak up on me like a thief in the night when I am feeling contented, happy and relaxed, as if to remind me I don’t “deserve” these positive feelings. It serves as a constant reminder from my OCD to myself that I am “bad,” and I deserve to feel guilt for whichever “awful thing I did” it chooses. However, when I step back and think about the obsession from a place of detachment and mindfulness, I realize it’s just my OCD holding me hostage with a warped version of my true moral compass.
Confession is a common compulsion which can appear in many subtypes of OCD. With the way my OCD presents itself, the urge to “confess” my wrongdoings is my strongest compulsion. With my real event OCD, I feel as though the guilty feelings which accompany my intrusive memories can only be alleviated if I “confess” what I did that was “so terrible.” However, this has proven to be yet another sly tactic of my OCD. When I do “confess” I only temporarily feel some relief before the obsession rises up again or manifests as another memory of a different event. This is because in reality, my guilt isn’t a rational urge that a moral person would feel to confess a genuine wrongdoing.
When confronted with intrusive memories, the guilt can consume me in the moment until it feels as though I’m drowning and the only way I can breathe is to confess. My OCD tells me I must either be forgiven and reassured that I am “good” after all, or face whatever punishment it’s convinced I deserve as a consequence. But now that I know the confessing I feel I “must do” is inappropriate for the situation and is an OCD compulsion, I understand that to give into the guilt and confess would be to seek reassurance. Seeking reassurance is the sustenance that keeps OCD alive, and to starve it is to kill it slowly but surely.
Real event OCD makes me feel that in my core, I am a dirty, tainted, poisoned, “bad” person who can only be scrubbed clean when I have purged myself of all of my shameful memories. But this is impossible, unrealistic and most of all unfair. When I have moments of clarity and can reflect on my OCD thoughts and behaviors through a logical, realistic and most of all self-compassionate lens, I realize I am not a “bad” person. I have done some things that may cause the average person, if they had done the same, to feel a bit ashamed. But then again, everyone in the world has done things they aren’t proud of, that they feel bad about upon reflection, and they can move forward from and take as a learning experience. It’s just that my OCD won’t offer me that same grace.
The fact we can look back at some of our past actions and think, “I would behave differently next time if this happened again,” is a sign of personal growth. It’s a normal human experience because we are all imperfect and we all make mistakes. These sorts of memories shouldn’t haunt you forever. But the feelings of shame that these memories conjure up in my mind and body is an inappropriately harsh reaction, like my mind is a judge condemning me to prison for life for a misdemeanor.
I’m relieved to have learned about real event OCD because it’s helping me to identify that I’m not really this secretly horrid, evil person my OCD tells me I am. It’s just another scary-looking mask through which my OCD is presenting itself. Just because I experience feelings or thoughts of guilt and shame due to an intrusive memory, that doesn’t mean my past actions truly warrant those intense reactions today. I, like everyone else with real event OCD, deserve better than to be my own constant judge, jury and executioner. If you relate to this, my wish for you is that you can also begin to get the help you need. If nothing else, I hope you no longer feel alone in this experience.
Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash