What is important is that they will very likely find a well of strength inside themselves that they never knew existed.
I remember exactly when my “Pure” OCD became a problem for me. If I think hard enough, I can remember having mild symptoms of anxiety and some intrusive thoughts before then, but they never affected my life. My first big episode did, and that was what tipped the scales from “I’m a little high strung” to “Something is wrong with me.” I was incorrect about just what was wrong with me, and still am a lot of the time, but I was correct in thinking it wasn’t normal to be as distressed as I was by the thoughts that raced through my head.
I was lucky in that I was able to make it to about age 25 without huge mental illness problems. I was a little depressed as a teenager. I had dealt with the stress of an increasingly mentally and physically abusive marriage with a man suffering from PTSD for about five years by then, and I definitely had rocky moments. What I also had was a general sense of control. I could pull on my big girl undies and get to work. When OCD barged into my life like the Kool-Aid Man bursting through walls, I felt like I lost that control.
I was going on vacation to see a friend on the other side of the country by myself. I’d made the trip several times before, as I had lived in her area for a few years prior to this trip. I was happy and excited, but I got sick literally on the way to the airport. I got a nasty stomach virus that had me kneeling in the bathroom at Logan Airport for several hours. I called my then husband and told him what was happening. His reaction was “I’m not turning around now. There’s too much traffic. Just get on the plane.”
Did the anxiety set in full force then? Not really, but it had begun to take advantage of my distress. I made it to my friend’s house after a five or six hour flight. I spent a week just outside of Seattle and wound up in the hospital on an IV on my last night. The next morning, my dear friend took me to the airport with my hospital bracelet still on my wrist. I made another white-knuckle flight and was finally home.
Within two weeks of returning, my health was still shaky. I was barely eating. In total, I would lose about 40 pounds over the next few months. Roughly two weeks in, my now ex-husband told me that I had to go back to my job as a cook or move out. I moved out and went back to my job. I would like to say that was the day I grew a backbone. I would be back and forth with him for about another four years, but I digress. The stress of the seeming break up, the strenuous work and my continuing illness came crashing down on me. My thoughts were increasingly toxic. I was losing control, and thought for sure I was going “crazy.”
I went to multiple doctors about my anxiety and depression symptoms, but I told no one about the content of my violent and distressing thoughts, with the exception of the self-harm thoughts that I figured were more normal than my other intrusive thoughts. I thought the self harm thoughts were just depression. I didn’t realize how obsessive they were. I told the first doctor to prescribe me antidepressants that I was afraid they were going to send me somewhere. He looked at me kind of condescendingly and said, “What do you mean?” I just stammered out that I had never been depressed like this before and I didn’t know what to expect. I got a prescription for fluoxetine and lorazepam and was sent on my way.
I was pretty non-compliant with my medication after I eventually left my job and started living off my meager savings, which didn’t last long. My OCD waned over the next several months, and I had a few years of sporadic panic attacks and obsessive thinking. I was medicine free and starting the first few shaky steps of a career in writing–a career that would let me stay at home where I felt safe. Flash forward three years and it starts all over again.
I was off on vacation again (I hate vacations these days.). My ex and I were divorced, but spending the holiday together in order to celebrate my father’s 50th birthday with the whole family. I won’t get into why I tried to stay friends with him, but it was important to me. I was really nervous about spending a week in the same house as him again, though. It was also really hot on the day we left, which made me sweaty and nauseous–perfect conditions for panic attacks. By mid-week, I was being seen in the hospital for my inability to hold anything down and a non-stop stream of panic attacks.
I finished out the week with my family and determined that I would get real help this time. My first counselor really didn’t fit, but I was opening up. The second counselor and the nurse practitioner who prescribed my medicine in the same facility were perfect. I came right out with what was happening to me. I told them about my intrusive thoughts. E., my prescriber, knew that it was OCD and diagnosed me straight away. K., my counselor, diagnosed me with anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, both of which were also mixed up in the soup of my mental problems.
On top of the CBT offered by my counselor and the medication, the thing that helped me most was running. I know; running is tough when you’re constantly anxious. It’s not for everyone. The book “Exercise for Mood and Anxiety” by Michael Otto PhD and Jasper Smits PhD got me off my butt and running outside four or more times a week. I would get up in the morning, feel anxious and head outside to try to outrun my anxiety. It worked very often.
Since then, I have a new prescriber. E. and the awesome therapy dog that came with her have since left, but I still see K. My new prescriber is pretty good too, even though I’m always skeptical of people who give me medication. I doubt them as much as I doubt myself, but she’s proving up to the challenge.
I would love to say that my adventures in cognitive behavioral therapy and medication left me OCD-free, but they didn’t. I had significant symptom relief for a few more years–long enough to get remarried to a saint. I went off my meds to try to have a baby. That didn’t work and six months later, I had another major relapse. This time, I spent 10 days in a mental hospital where the doctor had never heard the term “intrusive thought” and made sure to phone my husband and inform him of the violent nature of my thoughts. My husband laughed and said “I know.” The hospital’s preparedness for Pure-OCD was quite lackluster, and the experience was a little bit hellish, but as any of you with OCD know, hell isn’t devoid of upsides. We learn to find the positive, and here is a list of mine:
- My husband got a chance to know my illness better than he had before.
- I got to see just how much my family loves me. I had more visits than anyone else on my floor. They were all from my husband. My sister, a sort of nurse-y social worker, rallied for my husband, giving him advice on how to get me to eat, and suggesting Ensure. (The hospital had done nothing on that front other than provide food for me not to eat.) My uncle called me. My other siblings were there for me when I got out. My parents were very supportive.
- I met some seriously cool people, from a guy who had it way worse than me, to a guy almost as catty and at least twice as funny as me. I even met one girl who knew my sister and another whose sister I knew.
- I learned that I am way stronger than I thought. I’ll forget that and relearn it, but that’s okay.
- I started on ERP, which we haven’t tried before. It could make a big difference in my life. I’m looking forward to that change.
- I started a blog about intrusive thoughts and OCD. It led me to create a Twitter account. Now, I’m connected to more people with OCD than ever before in my life.
- I’m spending more time with the online OCD community, which led me to The OCD Stories, which gave me a chance to write this.
I hope I didn’t focus too much on the negative here. I don’t want to give the idea that life is all a bummer when you have OCD, but I also don’t want to give the idea that coping with it is easy. Sufferers will have to rally themselves for the fight, sometimes several times a day. They will have relapses. They will struggle with doubt. If they are like me, they will go from distraction to distraction all day sometimes, chasing that ever elusive sense of calm. What is important is that they will very likely find a well of strength inside themselves that they never knew existed. They will make bonds with people that will matter so much more than the illness. Most of all, they can recover. As I like to tell myself when I get really down, “You can be happy and anxious.”
Thanks for reading my story.
My OCD blog: LivingWithIntrusiveThoughts.blogspot.co.uk
My author site: MichelleBarclay.net