We all perform elementary functions, ones that become ingrained into our everyday lives, for the first time before we can remember doing them. Talking, walking, eating, sleeping.
For me, there was another function: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
My name is Aaron and I’m a 24-year-old writer who is afflicted by OCD, generalized anxiety, and recurring depressive disorder.
To hear my mom tell it, my first visible show of OCD came at around two years old; I kept running to the bathroom one day over and over, repeating “my hands are dirty!” and compulsively washing my hands.
But other than that day, it didn’t show to my parents again for years after that. In fact, most of my symptoms, throughout grade school and middle school, I was able to keep to myself. I didn’t realize that what I was doing- these obsessions and compulsions- weren’t normal. I thought little of having to say the word “not” an odd number of times before praying for my grandmother not to fall ill (That way, with an odd number, there was no risk of a double negative that would make my prayer, in effect, be that she fall ill). I thought little more of being so anxious before seventh grade football practice and other social situations that I almost became physically ill. And I even though I had seen a therapist briefly before the summer of sixth grade for depression, I didn’t think much of the root of the severe and draining bouts of sadness I dealt with in middle school.
It wasn’t until the end of middle school- when I was 14 and adolescence brought raging hormones, which kicked my disorders into high gear- that my symptoms became unbearable. I began to obsess and worry over the nightmarish possibility of hurting loved ones, and the more I tried to reassure myself that wouldn’t happen, and that I was normal, the more graphic, disturbing images of hurting people invaded my mind, sometimes making me sick to my stomach. What’s more, the hand-washing obsession returned, and I would wash my hands until they bled, and then continue to wash them. No matter the pain, I couldn’t stop.
Until one day, the mental weight was too much to bear, and I told my parents of my situation. They took me to a therapist, who indicated that I may have OCD, and referred me to a specialist. After extensive testing and questioning, I was diagnosed with OCD- severe, and eventually put on medication (the diagnoses of generalized anxiety and recurring depressive disorder would come later, after those issues were discovered through talk therapy). I underwent Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, and learned that the invasive, unwanted thoughts were common among those with OCD. They were the result of a chemical imbalance in my brain.
The way it worked was like this: I had an irrational fear, or obsession, in this case, the worry that I might somehow hurt others, and I tried to reassure myself that wasn’t the case. It worked briefly, bringing me momentary relief, but then the fear came back stronger, in the form of these awful, invasive thoughts. The ERP consisted of facing my fears, in this case, sitting with those thoughts and images, and resisting the urge to reassure myself that I was normal, that I wouldn’t hurt anyone. It’s the epitome of facing your fear, and it can be brutal. But in time,you become desensitized to the fear and learn to accept the uncertainty, and the obsession becomes nothing at all. ERP is tough, but I have had success in dealing with specific obsessions with it, including with the hand-washing ritual and the irrational fear of hurting others, both of which I overcame.
You can do it, too. Think of treating OCD like treating a mosquito bite: if you scratch it, it will feel better momentarily, but then it will only itch stronger in a moment or two, until it breaks open and bleeds. You have to learn to resist the urge to scratch. One thing to remember is that OCD goes beyond the stereotypical notions of cleanliness and order. Obsessions can manifest as that, of course, but my most severe and vicious obsessions and compulsions have always revolved around invasive, less-stereotypical themes.
And you’re not alone. There are plenty of support groups out there, both online and in person, with people just like you who are willing to share and help!