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The Best Way I Can Describe Living With OCD

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I’ve never had the chicken pox.

My sister did, my friends did, even my parents did. But never me. I avoided those tortuous weeks of itch — salves and scabs and scolding.

But I didn’t get off scot-free. I still itched. In fact, throughout childhood I experienced an itch that was deeper and more persistent than any itch you can imagine. And it was a real head-scratcher. For years, I barraged my mother with questions that, to her, made little logical sense.

Why can’t I stop washing my hands? They hurt, Mom. Why do I always have to do things in sets of four? They think I’m weird, Mom. Why can’t I stop thinking about that horrible dream? Make me stop, Mom. Please.

Unfortunately, these queries remained unanswered. And I suffered. Not because my family didn’t care — their love was a constant in my life, no matter my “quirks” — but because they simply didn’t have the words to describe what I was experiencing. And neither did I.

As the years passed, my itch became part of my identity. No matter how hard I tried, or how many interests I pursued, I could not separate that incessant itch from who I was and who I would one day become.

It wasn’t until college, malnourished and barely functioning, that I finally made this separation. On a random weekday, in a stuffy room with a university therapist-in-training, my itch was finally given a name.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The Great Itch.

And suddenly, my eyes were open. Tears fell as she read my symptoms verbatim from the diagnostic handbook she slid off her shelf. I was not broken. It was not me.

The words I received that day gave me power. And since then, I have searched for ways to abandon my shame, speak truth to my experience and help others to understand. And one of the best ways I can describe this condition that has so impacted my life is simply this: an itch.

But not just any itch. Imagine the worst itch you’ve ever felt. You can’t get it out of your head. You try to distract yourself, you put oven mitts on your hands. Internally, you scream: get a hold of yourself!

But there it is. Unceasing. Intense. Absolutely maddening. Eventually you’re going to have to scratch it, right?

OK, now I want you to imagine that itch is somewhere really embarrassing, somewhere you can’t even talk about with your closest friends. And the only way for you to finally get relief is to expose yourself to the entire world, just for a moment, a second. Because to you, this itch is unending, unbearable, unmanageable.

To everyone else? Invisible.

Welcome to my world.

I wish I could tell you that after that fateful day in my therapist’s office, OCD‘s tortuous itch lost its hold on me. But as it is with most mental health challenges, it’s not that simple. Instead, it is a daily struggle, an inner battle that demands much of my thought and energy.

If you’re reading this, maybe you are well aware of this inner battle. Maybe you, too, have wondered why you just can’t seem to fully control yourself. But if you’re new to this, and you’ve never struggled in this way, let me give you a piece of advice. The next time you see a family member, or a friend, or a stranger fighting OCD, take a moment.

And remember the itch.

Then, imagine standing in a crowded room, with someone asking: Where is your secret itch? Why is it there? How long has it been around? Why do you have to scratch it so much?

That’s personal, isn’t it? So embrace empathy, and know that the itch exists. And I personally am fighting every day not to scratch. I am pushing back against that sickening feeling of anxiety that if I ignore that itch, something terrible awaits. I am constantly at war. And that doesn’t make me weird.

It makes me strong.

Image via contributor

Originally published: October 10, 2020
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