I am quite guilty about having talked like this in the past: “I’m so OCD about it.” About what? How clean I like my house to be, how I organize my closet, etc. I can even recount many times at the gym where I would be in the middle of a fitness class – God forbid the instructor accidentally lost her place and we ended up doing 11 kettlebell swings with the right hand and 10 kettlebell swings with the left hand. I’d be the first to say out loud: “Oh my gosh, we’re uneven, we have to do one more one this side – I’m so OCD about it!”
A lot of us do this, but as I got older and started becoming more seasoned as a therapist, I realized how wrong those comments were. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can be a crippling mental health disorder in which we find ourselves having to act on certain impulses in order to quiet the thoughts in our head that just won’t seem to stop.
Yes, people can develop OCD symptoms around cleanliness, disorganization, and numbers, like I mentioned above, but the obsessive thoughts can also be much more than that. You see, when I would make those comments like the ones I mentioned above, I would laugh, my friends would laugh, and we would go about our day. But the truth is, I was joking about an issue that runs so much deeper and is more serious than most folks know. While many of us joke about having OCD, the truest form of the disorder is brutal.
Of all the issues I have been battling, one of the ones I talk about the least is my OCD, mostly because I know that my OCD is a result of my trauma and in treating the trauma, I am also treating the OCD.
But truth be told, OCD is an absolute beast, one that lives with you, follows you everywhere you go, and keeps you from sleeping at night. It’s the worst friend you’ve ever had, but cannot seem to get rid of. It’s counting how many times you chew your food before you swallow, it’s making sure you step on the scale 3 times just to make sure the scale is right. It’s this irresistible compulsion to say your prayers exactly the same way every night, fearing that something bad will happen to you if you don’t.
This elusive beast comes in many forms, and what I named above are only a few symptoms that people with OCD may struggle with. Looking back on my childhood, I know that my OCD began as early as 3rd grade, where I remember washing my hands so much and for so long that my skin would bleed. As I got older, my obsessions then became about people breaking into our home. I would have to check the doors at night, dis-arm the alarm that my mom already armed, check to ensure the garage door was shut, and then re-arm the alarm. After about 3-4 rounds of doing this each night, only then could I be assured that the doors were truly locked and the alarm was truly set.
My symptoms have come and gone throughout my life, worsening during times of extreme stress. COVID 19 of course sent my obsessions and compulsions through the roof. I would cry if anyone came too close to me, I refused to see anyone but David for months on end, and any time I needed to go anywhere, I would come home and strip at the front door, throwing my clothes immediately in the washer and jumping into the shower to scrub my skin raw. We even used disinfectant to wipe down every grocery item that we bought before allowing it into the house. It was exhausting, time consuming, and needless to say, very rough on my skin.
And have I mentioned intrusive thoughts? I could write an entire blog post on intrusive thoughts so I won’t dive too deeply into this, but they often couple with OCD. For example, if you’ve ever been driving your car on a highway and suddenly thought to yourself: “What if the car next to me runs me off the road and I crash into a tree and die?”, this is an intrusive thought. Or maybe worse, you’ve even pictured the entire event taking place in your head. This is also an intrusive thought, and you are not alone if you have them.
Often times we develop compulsions to quell our obsessive and intrusive thoughts. Over the last few years, my obsessions and compulsions have come back in more crippling waves, likely due to extreme stress. Back in 2018 when my mom was severely ill and in the ICU, I believed that I caused her sickness. I recall sitting in the spiritual room of the hospital, feeling the urge to pray the same exact prayer, in the same way, for the same amount of time, because somehow, I believed that would save my mother. I remember those dreadful times when I would have to leave the hospital after spending a day with her in the ICU, I would make sure I didn’t step on a single crack on the floor as I walked down the hallways, because I thought that if I stepped on a crack it would be the reason why my mom didn’t survive.
In more recent months, I have been battling health issues, including an autoimmune disease that is – to put it lightly – excruciatingly painful, rendering me, at times, incapable of even breathing without severe, nauseating pain. I have also had multiple tests done on my eyes, as doctors were concerned that I had inflammation in my optic nerves that were being cause by a brain tumor. I was referred to one of the best neuro-opthamologists in the country, but had to wait nearly two months for an appointment. (I just had my appointment this week – no brain tumor!) Naturally, these last two months have been wrought with compulsion after compulsion to try to quell the obsessive thoughts about dying. Some examples:
-Driving to work: Did I check the stove to make sure the gas isn’t on? (after having checked it 20 times before leaving) Am I sure my dogs are safely in their crates? What if there is a fire and my house burns down? My dogs will die. Oh god, I can’t go to work. What if David dies? Let me call him to make sure he and the dogs are okay. NO, don’t call him. Don’t give into the compulsion.
-Driving home from work: Did I really blow that candle out in my office or did I just imagine it? Let me turn around, I have to check, I can’t be responsible for burning down the building. *drives back to office, confirms that the candle is blown out, starts driving home again* Okay but what if I imagined that? Did I really blow out that candle? *Gets home from work 45-60 min later than expected because I have to act on my compulsions*
-Getting ready for bed: *Hears David cough* He must have COVID. Oh God I probably gave it to him. He’s going to die and it’s going to be my fault. He can’t die, because I’m going to die because I probably have a brain tumor. He has to live because someone needs to take care of the dogs. Speaking of dogs, are mine safe? I know I checked earlier but let me check on them again to make sure they are breathing. While I’m at it, let me check the locks on the doors again. If I don’t, something bad will happen and everyone I love will die and it will be my fault.
It’s terrible. It’s exhausting. And sometimes I so desperately want out of this head of mine. This is the case for so many folks with OCD. It’s not just about wanting your house to be neat and orderly. It’s about needing to do certain things to avoid horrible things from happening and to quiet the brain.
I understand things so much differently now. I used to have the attitude of “I’m not changing the way I speak just to save other’s feelings” but the older I get, the more I realize how much of an impact words have on myself and others (I am a therapist, after all!). Intent does not equal impact – and even if I was just joking all those times when I said “I am so OCD about it”, I realize that it is nothing to joke about.
1. If you have been diagnosed with OCD, know you’re not alone and there is no shame in sharing the thoughts and compulsions you are having. In fact, speaking them out loud takes the power away from them.
2. If you have never been diagnosed with OCD, but resonate with some of what I’m saying in this post, please reach out for help. You don’t have to live like this forever and managing the symptoms truly does get much easier.
3. If you have no experience battling OCD, but often say phrases like “I’m really OCD about it”, maybe consider trying to change your words. What else could you say instead? “It makes me feel frazzled and disorganized when my house is a mess” or “I prefer my closet to be organized by color because it makes me happy” are just a few examples. The beautiful thing about language is that there are millions of ways to say something without using words that might minimize the beast that is OCD.
To learn more about obsessive compulsive disorder, please visit https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-ocd/index.shtml
*All information about OCD is derived from my training as a clinician. No articles or websites were used to create this post.*