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What Happened When I Reached Out for Help With OCD

Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The mention of this condition is, in my experience, often met with an assumption the afflicted is plagued with physical compulsions such as excessive handwashing, checking or ordering of items. However, the obsessive element of OCD is often just as devastating — repetitive and unwanted thoughts plague the individual, causing profound distress and confusion. If the onset of OCD occurs later in life, as it did in my case, this confusion is magnified as the person grapples with thoughts like:

“Am I going ‘crazy?’”

“Do these thoughts mean I really want to carry out these actions?”

The importance of intervention through a mental health professional to combat OCD is crucial to give the person an opportunity to regain their quality of life.

My OCD began when I was 22, and it arrived with overwhelming force. A relaxed and happy teenager, I had never struggled with mental health issues and always viewed the future with a positive and optimistic mindset. Like most young men, I was still working out exactly what path I wanted to take in life, but things were starting to come together for me. I had moved out of my home shortly before my 22nd birthday to a small, self-contained unit not far from where I had grown up. It was an incredibly exciting time, and I was eager to set myself up in my own little world and start to develop the kind of independent life I had always strived to achieve.

Things started out great for the first couple of months, and I was enjoying the freedom, flexibility and independence of living on my own. The onset of my OCD was subtle at first, disguising itself as minor chest tightness and shortness of breath in the evenings. While this was concerning, I had been managing mild asthma since a young age and assumed it was related to this. A misdiagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) followed by an unnecessary course of steroids to reduce lung inflammation added further fuel to the fire that was starting to burn inside my head.

The first major incident came a couple of days later when I was driving my younger brothers home from school. While driving, an intense idea came into my head about driving into oncoming traffic. Obscure thoughts like this can come and go for anyone, but this felt very different. It had an intensity to it that triggered a massive emotional response within my body. I felt lightheaded, shaky and incredibly confused. My mother later reacted with concern and a clear reluctance to leave the boys in my presence. While this may appear a reasonable precaution for someone uninformed around the basis of the thoughts, it served only to accelerate the doubt and self-fulfilling prophecy that was developing inside my head.

Thoughts of “If I’m thinking this, I must want to do this,” and, “It’s only a matter of time before I act on my obsessions,” began flooding my mind with incredible intensity. Violent intrusive thoughts became severe and unstoppable, and I truly thought I was losing my mind. I had to hide knives in the house and avoided any objects that could inflict physical pain. Major panic attacks ensued which led to an ambulance callout, hospitalization and a deep psychological evaluation by mental health professionals at the hospital.

A psychologist questioned my mental stability for the first time in my life, and I honestly believed there and then I would be locked up in a psychiatric facility. To my surprise at the time, they released me and I went on to spend every second of every day consumed with these violent intrusions. I couldn’t work, socialize or sleep. Every day was a living nightmare and I couldn’t see any way out. I began writing gratitude lists, focusing on things to look forward to in the future to justify pushing through the pain. Eventually, I sought professional help, and was put on a six-week waiting list to see a psychiatrist. I did not know it at the time, but making that call was the best decision I would make in my life to that point.

I did whatever I could to cope for the next few weeks. I immersed myself in two activities that always demanded my full attention: golf and poker. I would play one, or both, every day of the week. I was beginning to see my appointment as a last resort, and it couldn’t come quick enough.

The first session was an experience I will never forget. I arrived like a lost puppy, completely confused and exhausted. I was reluctant to be honest with him, mainly out of fear he would determine quickly I was completely unstable and order me to a psychiatric facility. By luck, I was fortunate to get a psychiatrist who specialized in OCD and he was very quickly able to identify exactly what was going on. I remember leaving the session feeling emotionally battered, but with a glimmer of hope. Finally, I had spoken to someone who understood what I was experiencing and had a plan to treat it.

The years following saw me undertake a journey that would slowly change my life. With an intensive exposure therapy plan, I began to transition from avoiding the violent intrusions that terrified me, to instead deliberately engaging with them. Every day, I would dedicate up to an hour of time to sit alone and use every possible tool to focus on the violent intrusions. This could be in the form of written words, images or videos of violence from the internet or simply just my own creative mind generating its own story of horror. The intention was the more I systematically flooded the mind with the avoided fears, the less fearful I would be of the stimuli.

Progress was slow, but steady. Over several years, I began to regain a life that wasn’t entirely consumed by intrusive thoughts. They have never disappeared entirely, but understanding them and knowing how to handle them when things do inevitably flare up from time to time has given me confidence I can get by in life.

Seeking intervention from a medical professional was potentially a life-or-death decision for me. Seeing a psychiatrist was not something I ever thought I would do. As like many young males, I had the mindset only “crazy” people see them. But it is hard for me to imagine how my life would have turned out had I not undertaken the exposure therapy. It reinforces the importance of mental health professionals in a world where people are struggling to cope more than ever.

If my experience is any indication, I would strongly urge anyone who just doesn’t feel themselves to break the circuit and seek help. It may literally save your life.

Unsplash image by Neonbrand