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Why It Doesn't Matter When OCD Rituals Are 'Ridiculous'

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Editor’s note: If you struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. To find help visit International OCD Foundation’s website.

I’m afraid of my underpants. They have the ability to cause death and destruction. These aren’t like the Wonder Woman underwear I wore as a child, which totally made me a superhero. This pair of undies, adorned with a blue and white Argyle pattern, turns me into a supervillain. If I wear them, everyone I love will die. Plus, there’s the socks. I can’t forget about the socks. If I wear the ones with the multicolored hearts, there’s an increased probability my dad will have a heart attack. If I wear the ones festooned with four-leaf clovers, bad luck will visit me for the rest of my days. These thoughts are irrational, and the outcomes I describe highly improbable. It’s not that I believe these thoughts, but they do have a tight grip on my imagination. It’s my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that conflates wearing an item of clothing with bad luck, death or disease. There’s no way Argyle is my family’s kryptonite and shamrocks don’t have anything to do with luck, good or bad.

And yet.

OCD is so pernicious that it’ll make a person run in fear from her closet. I really don’t want you to know about my underthings, but I do want you to understand OCD. If you have the disorder, you become incredibly distressed about your thoughts. In my case, I’m confronted with thoughts about everyone I love dying. My parents are getting older, so it’s natural to worry. It’s also natural to have fleeting thoughts about a friend dying or succumbing to disease. The world is capricious. Most people, in fact, have uncomfortable thoughts. One study concluded that more than 90 percent of people have intrusive thoughts. Ultimately, these thoughts are normal, but if you have OCD, you attend to them far too much. If I have a thought about a family member dying, I believe the thought is significant. I must want them to die. I must be a terrible person. Then I get anxious and afraid and there’s no way to shake this feeling except through ritualizing, which only provides relief for a brief period of time. One of my rituals is to watch the second hand on the clock tick by four times. If I still feel anxious, I’ll watch the clock over and over again. Other times, I envision each member of my family getting in an accident, and then I’ll replay this vision over and over again. After all, life never turns out the way you imagine. And still other times, I avoid wearing my favorite socks and underwear.

It’s silly really, this avoidance. But that’s the thing about OCD — you know your actions are ridiculous, but you do them anyway. So what’s so significant about my underwear? Nothing. And everything. They make me happy in a tiny way. I like fun socks and silly patterns. That makes me smile, but my OCD “logic” has told me I can’t be happy. If I’m enjoying myself, surely others will suffer. They will be consumed by disease. They will die.

But I can’t really believe that, right? I don’t, but I do. What I want people to understand about OCD is that our symptoms look ridiculous, but the intrusive thoughts are incredibly compelling to those who live with this disorder. We know our thoughts, tangled as they are and disconnected from reality (underwear isn’t evil!) are foolish, but we’re bound to our rituals because we’re so afraid that not doing them will lead to horror. Instead of only seeing the surface, the odd rituals and thoughts, and joking about how absurd they are, look deeper and consider why such seeming absurdity inspires so much fear.

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Getty Images photo via megaflopp

Originally published: November 29, 2017
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