When Harm OCD Leads to Constant Intrusive Thoughts
As someone who’s been in recovery for years from bipolar disorder, I’ve grown very used to talking about my mental health with professionals, but there were always some things I was unable to discuss. Bipolar symptoms were safe to talk about, but what I would later learn are obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) symptoms? Those weren’t so safe. They were terrifying, actually. Because I thought the intrusive thoughts that came with harm OCD meant I was secretly a terrible person, and by terrible, I mean possibly even a murderer.
When I say intrusive thoughts, I mean really intrusive thoughts. When I finally sought treatment for it, it was to the point where they were leading to constant panic attacks, so I knew I had to talk about it. However, that was also terrifying, because I didn’t know what harm OCD was, and because of that, I frequently panicked, thinking these obsessions were homicidal thoughts — and homicidal thoughts are something I did not want to share. Homicidal thoughts meant I could have it in me to be a murderer. And the last thing I want to be is a murderer.
To those who have never heard of this subset of OCD, it comes in the form of intrusive thoughts of harming loved ones, yourself or a stranger. For me, they mainly show up with vivid mental images of hurting (or killing) my pets. When they come up, they don’t go away and I obsess over them to the point of having suicidal thoughts because I don’t want to do these things. And that’s the key point with harm OCD — the thoughts are beyond distressing, because you don’t want to do the things you graphically see yourself doing.
The hard part of harm OCD is it often goes undetected until the person struggling talks about it — which, as I mentioned before, is super hard to do. I graphically see myself hurting and killing my pets, including how I’d do it, so it was probably the scariest thing I’ve brought up in therapy. And a large part of why it was so scary is because I had never heard of harm OCD, so I assumed these thoughts meant I was secretly an animal murderer deep down inside. That was petrifying. However, people with harm OCD are some of the least likely people to hurt anyone due to our intense fear of it.
Also, to be clear, harm OCD doesn’t need to be just your pets. It can come in the form of obsessions over harming loved ones, strangers or even yourself. And while it’s common for everyone to have these thoughts, someone with harm OCD will obsess over them or view them as facts, which will cause them a great deal of distress. Additionally, the thoughts don’t go away like they probably would with someone who doesn’t have OCD. Most of the time, they last an extremely long time, which causes a lot of anxiety for the person struggling. Because to us, it feels like this might one day happen. We might lose all control and unintentionally hurt or kill the people we love.
For example, when my OCD symptoms are present, I truly believe I will one day go into a black rage and kill one of my pets, and I fixate on it to the point of it causing severe panic attacks that have led to hospitalizations. I see these thoughts in the most graphic and disturbing way possible, and then I can’t get them out of my head. When I was untreated, it became a cycle of seeing it and not being able to let it go. I’d just fixate on it, replaying it over and over, analyzing everything in my head of why these thoughts would never come true, yet not being able to make them go away.
“I’ve never hurt anyone before,” I’d tell myself. When the thoughts persisted, I’d continue my self-validation. “I would never hurt anyone. Or, I don’t think I would, at least. Because I’m a good person. Yeah. I’m a good person. I’m really gentle. I love my pets so much.”
And then comes the panic attack. The racing, constant thoughts of, “I love my pets so much, I love my pets so much — I don’t want to hurt my pets because I love my pets so much.”
Like all subsets of OCD, harm OCD can be debilitating if it goes untreated. Before I was diagnosed, I remember walking around with severe anxiety all day every day, trying to do everything perfectly due to the belief that if I excelled in every area of my life, I wouldn’t lose control over myself and go into that black rage. However, that’s a lot of pressure and eventually it led to a mental breakdown.
The good news is harm OCD is entirely treatable with therapy, time and a lot of hard self-work. The thoughts will never completely go away, but with treatment I learned how to manage them, eventually turning them into inconveniences rather than debilitations. From my experience, that in itself empowered me to get my life back.
So, if you’re experiencing symptoms of a mental illness, reach out to a professional for help immediately. I know talking about it is hard, but it’s also the first step to getting the help you need and deserve. I promise life gets so much easier when you do.
Unsplash image by Ashton Bingham