The following post contains some sensitive topics, including mental health struggles, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. My purpose in writing this article is to help bring the conversation about mental health out into the open. Please practice self-care if these are sensitive topics for you.
I’ve been wanting to write a post about my experience with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) for a while now, but I haven’t for several reasons: 1) It’s a very personal thing to share, 2) it is painful and anxiety-provoking to talk about, and 3) it never really fit in with the spiritual theme of the rest of my blog.
However, now that we are literally facing a global pandemic – I figure it is as good of a time as any.
The reason it feels so salient now (other than the obvious “germaphobe in a pandemic – what could go wrong?”) is both the severity and relative lackadaisical nature of my reaction to COVID-19. Don’t worry, I’ve still pretty much self-quarantined even though I’m not sick, and I will still cuss someone out for breathing too close to me. I am committed to not being a disease vector. We are in the middle of a modern-day plague, and I expected to be in abject terror – but I’m not.
Why am I not cowering in a corner with fifty bottles of hand sanitizer? Because the panic that everyone is feeling right now about coronavirus – the panic that is causing schools to close, governments to issue states of emergency, and the stores to run out of toilet paper – is the panic that I used to live with EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. even when there wasn’t a pandemic.
This realization started when I saw the recommendation list from the CDC that was released a few weeks ago. You know, wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap, making sure to scrub under your fingernails. Sanitize the commonly touched surfaces in your house. Open public doors with your shirtsleeve to avoid touching the doorknob. Don’t touch your face. Liberally use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands. Avoid touching things other people have touched. Maintain a personal space bubble.
Pretty much everything except the social distancing and actual quarantine – I already do on a daily basis. And I don’t even think about it. It is part of my normal life, with (now) very high functioning OCD. I no longer panic while I do these things (which is definitely an improvement from when my OCD was at its worst), but I still do them. Part of my reaction to the CDC’s recommendations was “What do all you people normally do, you disgusting barbarians! Wash your fucking hands!” But part of my reaction was (just like all the introverts are saying about social distancing) “I’ve been preparing for this my whole life!” (Though, dear introverts, I guarantee I have you beat.)
My ancestors survived plagues for me to be here today. It may sound silly, but OCD does have a genetic component. I 100% believe that my ancestors were the ones shouting for everyone else to get their hands out of their fucking faces during the Black Death. It may just be a fantasy, but it’s honestly the strongest connection I’ve ever felt to my ancestors. In a weird way, being able to see the horrible disorder that I’ve been dealing with my whole life in a situation where it was helpful and useful makes it a little bit easier. I am, in the present day, prepared to deal with a pandemic because my ancestors survived and passed on their germaphobic (or at least cleanliness-loving and disease-avoidant, since no one knew about germs back then) genes.
So, to honor them and the part of them that lives on in me, and to share my story with any of you who may be going through a difficult spot with your mental health right now, here is my story of living with OCD.
I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in late 2014, though I’ve really been dealing with it in some form or another for all my life. It reached its peak when I was a young adult in graduate school, around the same time that everything I had worked so hard to achieve was going to shit right before my eyes. I had my first panic attack the summer before I started grad school, and it all went downhill from there.
I saw several therapists, including one extremely unhelpful person at the University Counseling and Psychological Services who told me I was “just stressed” and to “try some mindfulness meditation.” He would set a timer and make me meditate in his office while I screamed internally that I knew there was something wrong with me that mindfulness could not solve. He brushed off my concerns, because I was probably just another overworked student at the gods-forsaken pressure-cooker elite university that I had the misfortune of choosing for graduate school. Eventually, I hounded him enough where he offered for the psychiatrist on staff to do a medical evaluation. I agreed, and within fifteen minutes of meeting the psychiatrist, she told me that I had obsessive-compulsive disorder and here were my options.
I was very reticent to try medication, so I thought therapy was the best route, with someone trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which was proven to be effective for most OCD cases. It turns out I was in the minority, and it only got me more stuck in my head, which was an awful place to be. But, I didn’t know that at the time, so I spent the better part of two years floundering in ineffective therapy that my CBT therapist didn’t have the courage to admit wasn’t working.
One of the many reasons that OCD was so damaging to my psyche was because, at that point in time, so much of my identity was wrapped up in being “smart.” I’d always been smart – I was a precocious child, made straight A’s in high school, double majored (with a minor) in college, and was now pursuing a PhD in the sciences at a prestigious university. All of my success (or at least what I considered success at the time) was because I was intelligent, meticulous, and well-organized. The very things that made me successful in life were now torturing me – erasing any bit of happiness and driving me to push away those I cared about.
I was afraid to try medication because I was worried that it would change my brain, and thus the intelligence that I clung to as my identity. It sounds ridiculous to even type it now, but I was scared that altering my brain chemistry would take away my essence – what made me “me” – even though it was torturing me every minute of every day. OCD twists your thoughts, but it has its own kind of logic. It is a logic based in fear, but the fact that it is logical at all and that it has a set of rules (even if the rules are constantly changing) makes it a formidable opponent.
The worst thing about OCD logic is that it is almost always right. The vast majority of the time, it is extremely improbable, but there is usually some grain of truth to be found if you look hard enough. “If you touch that doorknob, you could die” seems like a ridiculous jump, but “Someone who had a very virulent strain of respiratory virus just touched that doorknob and if you touch it then you will get pneumonia and die” is a logical process to follow. The danger in that is, no matter how much science or statistics I throw at it, the fear can always override the reasonable response. Because, however statistically insignificant, the worst-case scenario is still a possibility.
When my boyfriend moved out because I was literally driving him crazy, I finally got the wake-up call that what I had been trying to do to manage my OCD wasn’t working. I asked for recommendations for other types of therapy, and because I was also having trouble regulating my emotions around the fear caused by OCD, someone recommended Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Dialectical Behavior Therapy focuses on the dialectic between acceptance and change. It was originally developed for people with Borderline Personality Disorder, but the methods have been shown to be effective for a whole host of other uses, including anxiety disorders, depression, and just generally being a functional human.
I don’t exaggerate when I say that DBT was life-changing for me. My whole attitude around emotions shifted, and this allowed me to get to the root of the fear that caused so many problems with my OCD. I developed skills for dealing with emotion regulation that I did NOT learn growing up, and slowly everything started to get a bit more manageable.
Around the same time, I also started taking an antidepressant (they are also used to treat OCD, just at a different dosage) and an anti-anxiety medication. It took a little bit of trial and error with antidepressant roulette (one completely killed any sort of sexual pleasure and another gave me diarrhea for a month), but I finally found one that worked and didn’t have awful side effects. It turns out that particular medication isn’t typically used to treat OCD, but since I was having such bad reactions to the other medications, we decided to give it a go. I’m just an atypical OCD treatment case all-around.
I would be remiss if I didn’t touch on some of the dark places I went during this time.
Yes, I’ve been suicidal. Almost no one who knew me would ever have guessed it, because I always have such a sunny disposition. My everyday actions did not reflect the personal hell I was going through inside my own head. Mostly, I just wanted everything to stop. I wanted my awful experience of grad school to stop. I wanted the pain of slowly losing my romantic relationship to stop. I wanted the constant fear and paranoia to stop. I wanted to stop feeling like I needed to wash a fork five times before it was clean. I wanted the torture that was living inside my brain to JUST. STOP.
I never made a plan. (I joked that I was too much of a wimp to do it anyway.) I never visualized it happening. All I thought about was the sweet void of release and an end to the pain.
There was one positive that came from this (though I don’t recommend it to anyone): It’s a lot easier to face the fear of OCD once you no longer care what the outcome is. I could touch the doorknob. If I was fine, yay score one against the OCD! If I died, well, the pain would be over and I wouldn’t have to deal with it anymore. (Like I said, I do NOT recommend this to anyone! If you are having thoughts like this, please seek professional help.)
Eventually, through a lot of the skills of DBT, and finally being able to look at myself and my life from a different perspective, I cultivated what they call in DBT “a life worth living.” My darker thoughts faded away. I was gradually able to stand up more to my OCD and take back my brain. I learned how to deal with emotions in healthy ways. I was no longer afraid to touch everything. It stopped taking me 30 minutes just to leave my apartment, after checking for the fifthteenth time that the stove was indeed off. I quit waking up in the middle of the night, wondering if my car was locked.
The OCD didn’t completely go away, and I don’t ever expect it to. I still do a lot of things most people would call “crazy” or at the least “excessive.” I still check doors to make sure they are locked. I still wash my hands probably twenty times more than the average person. I have a slight obsession with paper towels. But it’s all manageable. It doesn’t hijack my brain and massively interfere with my life like it once did. Yes, I still worry about stuff, I still check stuff, and I still clean stuff, but I’m not panicked when I do any of those things (most of the time) and it doesn’t take up so much of my life that I feel like it is all I am doing.
It does bug me when people use OCD casually to say that they are clean, or organized, or prefer things a certain way. OCD can be debilitating. Did you ever get an hour into an out-of-state trip and force your partner to turn the car around because you were convinced that your front door wasn’t locked, despite the fact that your partner videotaped you locking said door? I have. Do you wash your hands so much that they crack and bleed for four months out of the year? I did. Have you ever hiked a mile and a half in between classes to get back to your parking spot because you were convinced that someone was breaking into your car? I did that, too. Do you wash your dishes five times before they are actually clean? I used to. Were you ever so desperate to be sanitized that you used rubbing alcohol on your genitals? I’ve done that, too, and I really DO NOT recommend it. Has your need for everything to be “just right” caused you to drive away the people that care about you? Mine did. I’ve spent a lot of time repairing relationships because of the things that OCD fear has caused me to do or say.
I will not sugarcoat it. OCD sucks. It really, really sucks. It fucked up my life for a long time, and I’m finally starting to feel like the pieces are coming back together. But I am stronger for it. Knowing that I have to do battle with my brain on a daily basis is exhausting, but it is inspiring to know that I can do so and win.
These days OCD feels much less like a war and more like an annoying fly that I have to bat away every once and a while. There are OCD things that I do every day, and will probably do for the rest of my life. And that’s okay. What I do now isn’t harming or torturing me, or taking up huge swaths of time. It’s livable. And – in the COVID-19 pandemic – doing what it evolved for and helping me survive.
If you identify with what I have written here and it is interfering with your life, or if you are having suicidal thoughts, please seek professional help.
Suicide Prevention Hotlines:
- United States: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
- Canada: 1-833-456-4566
- United Kingdom and Ireland: 116 123
- Australia: 13 11 14
*If you do not live in any of these countries, please search for a hotline in your area. Most countries have similar resources available.*
Free Therapy Resources during the COVID-19 pandemic: https://www.fastcompany.com/90482540/all-the-ways-to-get-free-therapy-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic