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The Five-Alarm Fire in My Head That Is OCD

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Five-alarm fires are complicated.

All fires are loud and chaotic, but five-alarms are uniquely burdened; there is a visceral desperation that heightens in intensity as departments keep arriving. One crew is not enough. Neither is two, or three or even four. The name of the game is reinforcements upon reinforcements, a calculation of exponentiation that no one wants to make. Like getting a snake bite flushed in the hospital, there is no such concept as too much water. One cannot simply douse a fire; the flames must be smothered with an avalanche that is just as unrelenting and merciless as the blaze.

Firefighters from all over town create what must look like an ant hive from the skies, all zeroed in on the burning remains as triage happens on the fly. How many people were inside? Who got out? Pets? What was the catalyst? Will we ever know?

In the fantasy in my head, there is always a small kitchen fire. The moment the smoke detector goes off, every firefighter within the county pours through the door, canvas hose snaking through scuffed boots and ashen pants. The adrenaline is palpable as they descend upon the kitchen, packed tightly the way Lego bricks fit together. The kicker? The homeowners did not have to call 911.

One might say that there is something wrong with this picture of mine: why all the firefighters, and why the automatic response? Doesn’t one need to make a call? I say, welcome to my brain. Everyone has alarm bells in their head, but usually they lay dormant and peaceful until an event truly worthy of the warning trips the wire, like a near-collision on the freeway or a bruise that refuses to fade.

Sometimes, though, this wiring can be a little faulty, and the signals do not match the circumstance. A constant state of high alert results, and this is an exhausting way to live.

There is always a five-alarm fire in my head.

I have severe obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is like being in a plummeting plane with the other passengers playing monkey in the middle with your oxygen mask; periodically you can fill your lungs, but the rest of the time, you are simply holding on until you can breathe again as the ache builds a bonfire in your chest. Life becomes an exercise in grit and nothing else. My earliest memory of my constant companion is when I was 5, in kindergarten. I do not remember a time without my evil imaginary friend, always in the background whispering lies.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is often thrown around in conversations about cleaning, pickiness and quirks. Despite being one of the most common—and most debilitating—anxiety disorders in the country, the media frequently portrays the disorder in terms of a neat freak or a germaphobe with a penchant for hand sanitizer. The reality of the situation is that society dances around the cruel truth in favor of humor at a devastating cost.

OCD is not an adjective, but it is heartless; without a second thought, it will attach itself to whatever the survivor loves most, and spin webs of lies with more adhesion than super glue. OCD hates what you love and can make one doubt everything from your own sanity to your level of responsibility for plane crashes in China.

OCD is an anxiety disorder that ropes you into a cycle that will not hesitate to take everything from you. The dance goes like this: your brain gets stuck on something important to you, say the fear that you hit a pedestrian in that crosswalk you just drove through, and the anxiety builds like a tsunami. To stop the anxiety, you do what is called a compulsion—a behavior that your brain makes you believe that you absolutely must do to stop the crushing panic within you. In this case, the most common compulsion would be circling back and revisiting the crosswalk multiple times, checking for police and blood both on the street and your front bumper. But then the doubts come faster, rapid-fire like an M-16: what if you spaced out and it is days later, so the crime scene is already cleaned up and you are on the run, or what if you did not check properly the last time through, and you need to drive by again?

The result of all of this? You are late for school, work or wherever you were going before your brain was highjacked. You cannot focus because all your brain cares about is that thought that got stuck. OCD is not content with uncertainty. What if you left the heater on and your cat will die in a house fire before you get home? What if you only thought you locked the door, but did not?

Sometimes one finds themselves turning in a circle to prevent their beloved grandmother from dying; if they do not perform correctly, her death will, because of some error in the cosmos, be their fault, and no one will understand their guilt. Or they get lost in confessing the images running through their head of heinous acts they did not really do, their friend bewildered but trying their best to comfort and reassure—which in truth makes it worse, teaching the brain that they were correct in flipping out.

Before medication, I lost hours and hours of my life every day to my OCD, could not focus, and every homework assignment was a struggle. I was barely functioning and did not always see a way out. I sometimes doubted if things would ever truly get better, and worried that this constant circle of obsession (anxiety—compulsion—relief—obsession) would ever truly end. While medication is not for everyone, it was a huge component for me, as well as therapy, and these taught me that there is always hope, and that the struggle in my head was not because I was “crazy,” or simply a figment of my imagination.

Most days now, I can manage the fires alone, confidently turning the calvary away at the front door—with a fire extinguisher in my hand—before they have a chance to overwhelm my kitchen. I used to completely surrender to the panic in the firefighters’ eyes as they came crashing through my home, thinking these adrenaline-fueled figments knew my brain better than I. Most days now, I get to watch them fold up their hoses and carefully drive away, the bolts in the fire hydrant untouched.

While there is no cure for OCD, there are ways of managing it and living with the disorder that has an exceedingly high suicide rate. I share my story in the hope that others who need a hand in their darkness can find it within my words.

You are not alone.

Getty image by SkyAceDesign

Originally published: February 9, 2022
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