Your entire body is submerged in water. Ice cold waves are crashing over your head, forcing your torso downwards. The strength of the tide is causing your muscles to ache with exhaustion. You’re barely able to swallow a breath before the next waves comes. You’re absolutely certain you’re minutes from death.
Then someone manages to throw you a rope.
You look up. Your family is waving frantically from the shore, your friends desperately pleading with you to take the rope into your hands. Relief begins to flood your veins. If you just grab it, then you can pull yourself to warm, safe land. You extend your arm, realizing that this is your one chance to escape the torment. But then…
“What if the rope snaps and I end up worse than I am now?” “Can I even make it all the way to shore?” “Are those really my loved ones or are they trying to trick me?” You recoil and drop your outstretched hand. The rope sinks. And you continue to thrash desperately in the water.
For me, living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can feel a lot like choosing to drown. I can see that there is a way to escape the endless onslaught of thoughts, but sometimes I just can’t seem to grab the rope.
Since I wasn’t diagnosed with OCD until I was 24, I really struggle to determine whether my behavior is genuine or the result of an obsession. As a child, I experienced your stereotypical OCD symptoms (repeated actions, methodical behavior, counting) but, as I’ve gotten older, the vast majority of my symptoms have shifted internally. Now, I present as a perfectly well adjusted person who can laugh, smile and work a room all while secretly engaging in my compulsions.
Most of my friends are shocked when I tell them about my OCD. While they knew I had a tendency to fixate and had difficult dealing with change, my messiness seemed to preclude the possibility of actually having a disorder. [Fun fact, not every person with OCD cleans compulsively or fears germs…we’re not all Emma from Glee]
While some of my OCD does present in a visible manner (like having to walk in a specific way or laying out my clothes at night in the order that I put them on in the morning), I predominately deal with something called “Pure O.” It’s essentially OCD without the noticeable behavioral modifications. For instance, in high school I had a phobia of throwing up and all of my compulsions were centered around abating this fear.
I had three check points on the way to school where I had to think specific thoughts. “I’m fine,” I’d think as I passed the street in my town just after the first stop light. “I’m going to feel good” I’d repeat as I passed the old Krauszer’s building five minutes later. “There’s a metal slab in my stomach and it’s neutralizing any acid,” I’d envision as I rounded the jug handle at the base of my school.
If I missed any of my check points, I’d have a near mental breakdown. This frequently resulted in me turning to my mom, before I could drive, and asking “Am I going to be okay today?” To which, she’d immediately reply “of course you are” and I got the answer I desperately needed to hear.
Unfortunately, these daily rituals and incessant reassurance seeking just reinforced the idea that I wouldn’t be okay without my compulsions.
Since I spent decades believing that my obsessions and compulsions were integral to my health, unlearning these behaviors has been the single most challenging thing I’ve ever done. In fact, until this year, I never contested my compulsions. I always, without a single hesitation, believed that my thoughts were genuine and valid. However, due to some intensive therapy and meeting a particularly insightful friend in this last year, I began to question my own perceptions.
Initially, and even partially now, I hated myself for the amount of time I wasted, the misery I caused and the relationships I ruined because of my OCD. I literally could not stop thinking about it, analyzing old behavior, chastising myself for not “being normal.” I was furious that I let my entire identity revolve around a mental illness.
And then a friend asked me a very simple question today…”what have you really done to try and get over this?” Dramatic as always, I literally dropped to my knees and said, “oh my god…nothing.”
So, this is my first real attempt in shifting my mindset and embracing every single part of me. I’m no longer going to villainize my OCD. I’m going to do my best to approach my mental illness with gentleness and compassion. As Marsha Linehan, the creator of dialectal behavior therapy, said all people need to “completely and totally [accept themselves]” from the depths of our souls, with our heart and our mind.
[Shout out to this video, which was a near literal life saver for me today]