My disorder does not define me and it shouldn’t define you either.
If you are reading this looking for a miracle cure for your anxiety or OCD, you can stop now. This is not that kind of story. In fact, I’m pretty sure that kind of story doesn’t exist in reality. I should know. I spent the better part of the last three years searching for it. Instead, this is the story of my journey with OCD. And while every individual’s story is going to be unique, it is my hope that by sharing I can help someone feel less alone in their struggles.
It was sometime in mid-April 2014. I had just celebrated my 34th birthday. The last few years had brought an incredible amount of joy into my life with the birth of my first daughter, a successful career as a teacher recently earning his master’s degree, a healthy social life, a loving wife, a nice home, and many hobbies to occupy my free time. On the surface, I was living the life that that I had always dreamed of. However, there were also some significant stressors that impacted me during those years. My mother and sister both survived bouts with cancer, my wife lost her job and was out of work for a few months, we had a pregnancy end in miscarriage, and my cousin died by suicide after a long battle with OCD. Throughout all of these experiences, I kept moving forward, attempting to brush them off and never fully dealing with the emotions that came along with them. In particular, my cousin’s death affected me in ways that I never allowed anyone else to see. His OCD was something that I wasn’t aware of until his death. However, I was no stranger to OCD myself. On two separate occasions, after my wedding and the birth of our first daughter, I experienced bouts of intrusive thoughts significant enough to prompt me to research them and to determine that they might indicate a problem with obsessive compulsive disorder. Fortunately, in both those instances, the thoughts subsided without causing any real interference with my day to day to life.
Back to that time in April, 2014. I had been dealing with a significant amount of stress and worry about my wife’s pregnancy as she had contracted fifths disease from our daughter. This required bi-weekly trips to a high risk doctor for ultrasounds as it could cause anemia in the fetus. After the miscarriage that fall, I became terrified of something going wrong again. I researched the probabilities to no end and prepared myself every two weeks for the worst case scenario. Then one day, standing in front of a classroom full of students, out of nowhere my heart began to pound. I started sweating profusely and feared that I was going to pass out. I left the classroom and proceeded to throw up in the teacher’s bathroom. I’d had my first panic attack.
Some people may have been able to write that off as a one time occurrence, realizing that stress, poor sleep, and training for a half marathon most likely contributed to this happening. To a person with OCD, or a predisposition to it, this panic attack represented something much greater. Almost immediately, I became obsessed with the idea that I had an anxiety disorder. I went to the doctor and did some tests to make sure nothing was wrong with my heart and went on my way. The attacks continued and made it hard for me to enjoy life as I used to. The one at work made teaching difficult. Another while fishing made that less enjoyable. One while driving made me fear losing control of the car. A particularly ugly incident came that summer, on a long drive for vacation with my family, including our new baby daughter who was 7 weeks old at the time (and perfectly healthy thank God!). I had to pull over and throw up at a rest stop after panicking while driving over a bridge. This fear of losing control became more and more prevalent for me, especially when driving, with bridges being worst of all.
It didn’t take long for my mind to make a connection between losing control and suicide, especially given what had happened with my cousin. The rational mind would tell you that a suicide is not something that just happens out of the blue like that, but the mind of someone struggling with OCD and/or anxiety is not rational. I began having other intrusive thoughts related to suicide. Examples included thoughts about cutting myself with a razor in the shower, picturing myself hanging in the garage and basement, and having trouble every time a train passed with thoughts of jumping in front of it. It’s important to understand that these thoughts and images were incredibly upsetting to me and were met with a physical reaction of disgust. They didn’t represent something that I wanted to do, but rather a nightmare of some awful outcome. Essentially the worst thing that I could possibly imagine happening to me. One of the less disturbing but more interesting ones was when the phrase “CKY” would pop into my head. For those that don’t know, CKY was/is a band and video series that preceded MTVs Jackass and stands for “Camp Kill Yourself”. I also became extremely oversensitive to any news stories, articles, television shows, and movies involving suicide or mental illness in general. I would avoid them at all costs as, inevitably, seeing them would bring out the question of whether that was going to happen to me.
If you’re reading this, you may be thinking “how could someone with so much good in his life and so much love for his family have these kinds of thoughts?” That’s okay. I understand because I asked myself that same question.
Over and over and over and over.
The only person that I asked more than myself was Dr. Google. While the thoughts and fears made up my obsessions, it was this asking and searching for reassurance that made up the compulsive part of my disorder. From the outside, you would never have guessed the constant internal struggle that I was dealing with.
And for a long period, it was truly constant. From the first thing when I woke up in the morning to the last before I fell asleep. As anyone with OCD knows, the more that you try to stop thinking or feeling a certain way, the more often those thoughts and feelings arise. In addition to the intrusive thoughts, I had a lot of physical symptoms of anxiety at this time, including vomiting in the morning, sweating excessively, and odd aches, tingles, and pains throughout my body.
The only reprieve that I got from the intrusive thoughts about losing control and dying was when my obsession briefly switched over to worry about my blood pressure. During my trips to the doctor, I would inevitably get very nervous about having my blood pressure taken, resulting in some very high readings in the doctor’s office. I ended up seeing a cardiologist and wearing a 24 hour monitor, which essentially resulted in a 24 hour long panic attack as readings were taken every 30 minutes. The only normal readings I could obtain were the few that were taken during the three hours I slept that night. My well meaning doctor thought it would be a good idea to purchase a home monitor to track my blood pressure. Big mistake. I would take it over and over again, in the morning, the middle of the day, and at night. I would not be satisfied until I could get an acceptable reading which I always would in the end. The next day I would wake up and do it all over again. I’m not exaggerating when I say that I took my blood pressure anywhere from 30-50 times a day during those few months. When I didn’t have the monitor with me at work, I would take my pulse repeatedly to ensure that it was at normal rate. Of course, this obsession with my heart made me hyper aware of every beat, including the irregular palpitations that most everyone experiences at one time or another. Every time I felt one, I would panic. This only served to bring on more of them. It went on this way to the point that I started to have difficulty exercising for fear that something was wrong with my heart. Even to this day, I am not as comfortable fully exerting myself. It’s hard to believe that just one year before all of this began, I was in the best shape of my life, completing a half marathon in a time of 1:44, averaging less than 8 minutes per mile.
My primary care doctor had been suggesting that I see someone to help address my anxiety issues from the very start, but I resisted. Instead, I tried every non-professional means of dealing with it that I could find. Vitamins, fish oil, meditation, self-help books and websites, etc. Nothing was working and I was getting worse over time. I’m not quite sure how I made it through that first year. I never took a day off of work because of my OCD, although my students from other years would not have recognized the person I’d become in the classroom. At home, I was responsible for a large portion of caring for our two amazing daughters, including our newborn, as my wife works longer hours. I had to do the dropoffs and pickups, cook dinners, and drive to swimming, gymnastics, etc. All of this while battling my anxiety and intrusive thoughts (not mention that our younger daughter didn’t sleep through the night for over a year!). Finally, on my older daughter’s 5th birthday I broke down and reached out to make an appointment with a therapist. I think it was the significance of time passing and my guilt for not being the dad that I wanted to be that finally drove me to reach out.
I’d like to say that things magically got better at that time, which was about a year and half into my ordeal, but that’s not exactly the case. The therapist I first saw never quite honed in on the OCD aspect of my problem, in part because I wasn’t entirely honest with him about all of my symptoms. We focused on acceptance of thoughts and feelings, as well as meditation and relaxation techniques. While useful, this wasn’t getting to the root of my problem. After a particularly difficult few months where I had begun having trouble sleeping and eating and had lost a significant amount of weight, I broke down again, this time on my 36th birthday, and reached out to my doctor about trying some medication in the form of an SSRI. Medication to me represented weakness at the time. Not only did I feel that I should be able to handle this on my own, I had also held onto medication as some magic silver bullet that I could always fall back on when all else failed. Another major what if moment. What if the medication doesn’t work? What if it makes me worse? What if I get better, but then can’t stop taking it?
That was a little over one year ago. As much as I hated not being able to tackle this “on my own”, things have improved so much. I tried two additional therapists, the first of which did not work out, but the second one specialized in OCD. Finally, someone not only understood what I was dealing with, but also was able to provide targeted therapy for it in the form of ERP (exposure and response prevention). The darker obsessions have faded for the most part with the help of scripted exposures and a conscious effort to avoid reassurance seeking, although I still have to be on my toes to deal with them on the less frequent occasions that they do arise. My struggle now, and the reason for writing this, has to do more with accepting that OCD is a part of who I am and does not have to define me as a person. I deal with a lot of guilt over the time with my wife and children that I lost to my obsessions and compulsions. I cringe when I picture myself ignoring my children to take my blood pressure or search the internet for reassurance. I still struggle with my own stigma of taking medication and not a day goes by that I don’t wish that I was off of it, despite the improvements since starting. What if it really was the ERP that helped and not the meds? What if I can’t get off them? What if the side effects get worse? Luckily, I’ve gotten better dealing with life’s what ifs. The best I can do is to try to stay in the moment, enjoy my family and friends, and pursue the activities that bring me happiness regardless of the presence or absence of my symptoms. At one session with my therapist, I was complaining that OCD had come to define me as a person. He asked me to make a list of all the roles I play in life. Husband, father, son, brother, uncle, friend, teacher, athlete, coach, etc. Then he asked me to assign a percentage to each of those roles. As I finished, I laughed when I realized that “OCD sufferer” had not made the list at all.
My disorder does not define me and it shouldn’t define you either. If you are struggling, don’t make the same mistake that I did in waiting to get help. Had I been honest from the start, I’d be a year and a half further into my recovery. And unlike the fear and pessimism I felt when this began, I can’t wait to see what that future will look like.