Many of those living with OCD can trace their mental health lineage back to a moment, or at least a vague, indiscriminate period, when Obsessive Compulsive first became a problem for them. It makes its grand debut in a loud, emotional, difficult to navigate, and all-round shitty opening number.
Perhaps not a specific point in time when Obsessive Compulsive reared its ugly head and strode with confidence and swagger as an unwelcome guest into their lives, but at least an inkling in retrospect of how and why those three letters came to leave such a stamp on how they live today. I, however, am not one of these people. I can’t tell you why I am obsessive, there is seemingly no explanation why I have to satisfy my compulsions, other than the unnerving feeling that aspects of my environment need to be “just right” in order for me to feel comfortable. “Just right” – I feel like OCD sufferers should have that slogan printed on business cards.
While I can’t explain where, when or how I’ve found myself where I am today and as a proud member of the mental health community, I am very aware of the social factors which have lead me to this point in my life.
At the age of six, every child in the UK is dressed in a formal shirt and tie, top button tightly done up, backpack buckle fastened, shoes polished, blazer ironed and generally made to look like they’re sweaty, middle aged businessmen commuting into work on the tube. We then spend the next ten years teaching children, teenagers, young adults what success looks like. We explain that hard work leads to good grades, that academic excellence then leads to a well-paid occupation, that job leads to career ladder progression, which all in turn leads to money, friends, family and happiness. We tell students to sit up straight, to stand up straight, do their top buttons up, adjust their ties – we even give them a uniform.
I thought I wouldn’t write this until I was recovered, but I realized that “recovery” isn’t an end point; it’s learning to manage every day. For anyone wondering, I will state, up front, that I still don’t have “answers” to my OCD questions. But recovering is being able to accept that fact.
My OCD didn’t come to a head until I got engaged. It was supposed to be the happiest time of my life, right? And yet, I felt trapped in a nightmare for months.
But before that happened, I believe my first signs of OCD were in high school, and I had no clue that’s what it was. I was a lover of romantic comedies and silly romance novels. I felt a desperate need to be in a relationship and probably thought about boys constantly. You see where this is going right? Of course, OCD latched onto relationships.
Despite the fact that all I wanted was a boyfriend, dating brought on intense anxiety for me. What if I was awkward? What if I didn’t know what to do? What if he wasn’t right for me? What if our friends judged us?
This continued through college, obsessing about boys and relationships constantly, but also being overwhelmed with anxiety when anything became slightly serious. If my compulsion was breaking things off, I gave into it every time.
I also spent inordinate amounts of time thinking about what was wrong with me that I couldn’t make a relationship work. I agonized over it, cried over it, and seriously questioned myself worth.
Then my OCD took another turn. What if I couldn’t make a relationship with a guy work because I was actually gay?
When I look back, OCD had gotten its sinister hooks into me when I was a teenager and was fully eating away at what confidence I had. I had no idea why I would continuously check things or make sure I at least looked presentable to be in class. I was heavy into cannabis and alcohol back then and when I later became an adult I would blame my youth for causing me to feel this away I became strongly anti-drug in my 20’s in the last few months with the dawn of legalization in my country (Canada) and some input from my Psychologist I realize that this was just placing blame and that alcohol and drug use is generally typical adolescent behavior to a degree. In all truth the drug use didn’t make me have as many bad experiences as alcohol.
If you want to know the recipe for destroying a young mans self esteem it goes like this some social rejection, failure and sadly hairloss when I think about the last one and having a shaved head now it feels so trivial but at the time it felt devastating in high school.
The self esteem issues causing OCD had led me to have jealous and judging tendencies with the opposite sex both in my teens and has returned fully even now in my mid 30’s despite being married for a long time. The OCD has pushed itself into ROCD right now truly a nightmare in the darkest parts of ROCD you start to wonder if you would be better off alone rather than inflicting pain on the one you love most and the rumination trap your own mind falls into. The ROCD is going to be something I bring up again during therapy yet again this week. Hearing from my wife about my jealousy and issues fills me with shame and guilt as this feels so different than who I want to be as a person.
I can vaguely remember a time when “it” wasn’t there. The “it”, which for twenty-two years, I didn’t know actually had a name. Somewhere around age seven or eight it set in. (“Did it follow a strep infection?” I would be asked decades later by a doctor, but I couldn’t remember by then with certainty.) Slowly, but very definitely, my mind began to work against me. It was confusing and became terrifying.
My first unwanted impulse was to constantly clear my throat, much to the annoyance of my family and those around me. Settling down to sleep at night was overwhelming — “Mom! She’s doing it again! She won’t stop,” cried my younger sister who had the misfortune of sharing a bedroom with me. I would fight the compulsion each night sometimes for an hour. The next compulsion which presented itself was the urge to roll my eyes up and back. Some people asked what I was doing, but I couldn’t explain that not doing so filled me with incredible anxiety. I would repeat the action so many times in a day that my eyes began to ache tremendously. I hated this; but it was as if a demon in my head was telling me notto do so would result in a greater discomfort.
Listen to Julie’s story here
“Is the muscle not tight enough and that’s what’s happening?” my mother asked anxiously. I didn’t know how to tell her that I did this eye-rolling willingly, yet at the same time against my will. When I heard Mother mention to Dad that perhaps they should take me to a doctor, I got nervous and was careful never to perform the action when my parents were in the room. One by one my strange compulsions came, usually for an average of about three weeks at a time, and each self-aggravating compulsion only left upon the arrival of a new one. I never got a break in between. As suddenly as one visited me, it would leave but only when something equally or more vexing took its place.
Another urge which overtook me was to momentarily shake my head. It was as if I was tossing my hair back — except that I had short hair. I did this so many times in a day that eventually my head ached with each twitch. Still, ignoring the urge left me thinking of nothing else but repeating the action! And thus the endless cycle of responding to the relentless demands which my own mind placed upon me was well established by my ninth birthday.
My first experience with OCD was denial and dismissal. It was not in any malicious way. As it so often is, it was a result of ignorance about OCD. When I was 12, I found religion. In finding God, I also discovered the “unforgivable sin”, blaspheming the holy spirit. I’m sure any Christian with OCD knows this well. I suddenly began to get thoughts I’d never had before. I hate the holy spirit, the Holy Spirit isn’t real and a variety of obscenities about the Holy Spirit. I was terrified. Then it began to spread, this monster. Whenever I heard of terrible stories of people dying I would be attacked by thoughts along the lines of Good, they deserved it. To this, of course, I would react hotly and repeat lines like “No, I don’t think that! That’s horrible!” Then the doubt. Do I think that?
It was through Christian forums that I discovered religious OCD. At this point I felt enormous relief. Then it changed. I became concerned that I was sexually attracted to my next door neighbours (who were six). I would feel a compulsion to check that there was no bodily reaction shall we say.
All the while I heard people say that OCD was “liking cleaning” and “ordering things in lines”; it was just a harmless personality quirk. It makes me wonder how many other people are in agony out there wondering if they’re perverse because they don’t think what they’ve got is OCD. People are supportive and well-meaning, they just have no idea what OCD is.
When recovery began, it happened phenomenally quickly. After three years of on-again-off-again rumination and intrusive thoughts, it reached its climax. Over the summer after GCSEs, I fell in love with an incredible girl, a ballerina. Almost immediately my head went for this girl. The thoughts became less obviously OCD, but the mechanism was still there. The thoughts went for the fact that she’d lost her father at a young age and picked on issues around the world (the rape of Yazidi slaves by ISIS, for instance) and showed her in this situation, in some attempt to make me feel guilty. It was strange, but that’s what OCD is.
Whenever I was sixteen, I was convinced I was evil. I was tormented by intrusive thoughts that took the form of “evil spirits” who I believed were attracted to me (because I was evil). I avoided certain objects because they had “bad energy” and I tried many cleansing rituals like praying, smudging with sage, carrying crystals, and sleeping with rosary beads to chase away the spirits. However, it never was enough. It never worked. I wore a cross around my neck, and at one point, I thought it was burning my flesh (because I was evil, of course!). I went to churches and visited psychics and priests. At my worst, I was unable to be alone, and I wanted to be placed into a metal institution because I could not find relief. This incredible spike went on for over 3 months straight.
I’m sharing my story because there aren’t many resources written about scrupulosity from a new age, spiritual perspective. There are predominate beliefs in the spiritual community which present an extra challenge to OCD suffers like myself. I actually sought help online in spiritual forums and had my OCD reinforced. I’m not here to make the case for woo-woo, but I can honestly say I have retained my spiritual practice and beliefs without OCD. If you are suffering right now, you do not have to give up your spirituality, you just have to recognize how OCD and your spirituality interact.
Examples of problematic spiritual beliefs for OCD suffers:
In the spiritual community, thoughts are not just thoughts. They are considered to be real and creating your reality. They are also considered meaningful visions or symbols. In addition, real-life objects are considered to have an invisible energy or vibration, which can contaminate your own invisible energy field, requiring cleansing. Continue Reading
Looking back on my life there are times when I don’t remember my OCD – though it was there, I just don’t carry those memories – and others when my OCD experiences are the only memories I have. There are two periods in my life that I would say are the most relevant to my story of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
The first was when it all started when I was 10 years old. I guess a lot happened all at once in my family: we moved house, my Mum went back to work, I started a new school. My Mum had to go into hospital and I worried (incorrectly) that it was my fault. That’s when it all started, all at once. Most of my thoughts revolved around keeping my family safe and healthy. I was unsure and afraid and I was looking for some way to gain certainty and control. I had compulsions both mental and physical that I would feel compelled to perform and I was convinced those rituals were the sole thing keeping my family out of harms way. The only time theses thoughts were almost bearable was when we were all at home, together. Safely, healthily. I still had rituals to carry out but they lacked that same sense of urgency I felt when we were apart.
The mental compulsions made it hard to focus during school and to have a conversation when trying to make friends and the physical compulsions made it hard to take part in my dance classes which I loved and again, when you’re at a new school and you don’t know anyone, hard to make friends. I don’t remember ever being made fun of but I know that the other kids, even the teachers and other parents, even my parents, would have thought that I was weird. One of my “things” was that I would go about my day with one of my hands (preferably my dominant hand) completely flexed. Which was obviously incredibly physically restricting, but also very mentally draining as it required so much focus to keep my hand so tightly stretched. In OCDs all to familiar way, the hand stretching provided temporary relief and at the same time induced so much more anxiety which came when I had to swap hands or if my mind strayed from the thought of flexing as I worried incessantly about whether or not there was a brief second where my hand wasn’t stretched and what the repercussions might be. The hand flexing was just one on a long list of compulsions, which seemingly took over my life overnight. Too be honest I don’t know how I did manage to learn anything at school, make any new friends or continue competitive dancing back then. My mind was constantly preoccupied with monitoring my hand and I don’t know how my head had any room for anything else. I would avoid certain activities which I couldn’t do with my stretched hand or I would participate while juggling the constant distraction and feared consequences of a slip. An outsider looking at me would have thought I was fine, perhaps labelling my behaviour of avoidance and distraction as laziness or self absorption but inside I was frantically clinging, believing I was looking after the health and safety of not just myself but the three people I loved most. Each day that I ritualised, I was attempting to gain certainty and in exchange, bargaining away more and more of my mental health.
I am currently working my way through what could be called an OCD relapse.
For the last few years I’ve felt a steadily increasing sense of wellness and confidence. My ability to interrupt my obsessions and compulsions has grown, and I’ve felt more and more at home in my body, my life, and even my mind. I’ve been practicing Exposure Response Prevention techniques, mindfulness meditation, and lots of movement forms. I felt like I was beginning to move beyond my OCD as a defining feature of my life.
And then, seemingly out of the blue, a wave of turbulent OCD thoughts, behaviors, fears, and intense anxiety overwhelmed me. I unraveled. I felt right back at square one, and like I had to basically start over. It was a huge struggle just to get through each day. I was devastated. It had felt so good to be expanding beyond my fear and mental vigilance. And now that state of expansion felt a million miles away.
And this has happened before. Many times. Periods of expansion and strengthening have given way to sudden OCD relapses over and over. And each time it’s happened, I feel like I’ve done something wrong.
Part of that feeling of wrong seems to be the OCD talking, as my particular obsessions are all about how I’ve done the worst thing imaginable and will be punished for it—usually after death. That part of the feeling of “wrong” I’m going to label as my OCD thought and not engage with it. But there’s another side to the feelings that the relapses are my fault. This side has to do with how I understand growth over the long-term in living with this disorder.
I’ve been anxious since before I can remember, but I vividly remember my first obsession. I was 8 or 9, and on the first day of school, our teacher excitedly told us we would be taking a class trip to an amusement park in May that year for some sort of science day.
Almost immediately, all I could think about was dreading and avoiding the trip. My thoughts started to fall into an obsessive pattern that’s now so familiar to me: What if I fall off a roller coaster and die? What if I don’t go on any roller coasters, and I become some sort of social pariah? What if I vomit on myself or someone else? What if someone else vomits in me? What if I pee my pants?
I became obsessed with roller coasters and roller coaster accidents. There was no internet back then, but I remember checking out books from my school library about roller coasters to research the probability of their failure even though I’d never been on one. I asked my science teacher all sorts of crazy physics questions. It’s funny to me now, but at the time, I was terrified.
My obsessions continued through middle and high school. I was mostly Pure O at that time, but I was on the debate team and knew how to research, so I used my skills to feed my worst fears. One year, our debate topic was Russian foreign policy—I became obsessed with the kind of treatment resistant tuberculosis that was prevalent in Russian prisons at the time. I live in Texas.
If I got a sore throat, I was suddenly dying of TB—I vividly remember asking my family doctor for a TB test. She looked at me like I was insane, but she never said the word “anxiety.”
Simultaneously, my debate partner and I started dating, and my STD and pregnancy fears began there. We never had sex, but making out was enough for me to feel like I had been infected. A girl in our class was diagnosed with herpes around this time, and I couldn’t shake the idea that I was going to get it. I still struggle with these fears despite over a decade of marriage.
My OCD started when I was a four year old child. For some reason,whenever I touched something, a door handle, a light switch, I had to lick my hands to ‘clean them’. Strange, as now I know it was doing the opposite than cleaning them, but for some reason I had to do it, or I’d be left feeling cripplingly anxiety for the rest of the day. From there, everything turned into a compulsion. By seven, I spent hours repeating phrases to everything I looked at in a room, I checked my bedroom door dozens of times a night to check it was closed until it felt ‘just right’.
As much as this was distressing, it wasn’t half as bad as what was to come. At nine years old, I developed a form of OCD called ‘pure O’ , a type that has no visible compulsions, which eventually sent me into a breakdown when I was thirteen. Pure OCD made me question everything I did. If I moved my hand a certian way, it had meant I’d sworn at someone, if I’d had a dream where I’d said something mean about someone else, if I said something mean about someone else, OCD would grasp onto this and morph it until the only way to get rid of the thought was to tell someone exactly what had happened.
I was misdiagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder at first, so by the time I was twelve, I was completley consumed by OCD. It made me believe I was a dangerous criminal. I was certain I was a dangerous criminal. I could go into details about these thoughts but you’d be reading this for hours. By thirteen, the intrusive thoughts got so bad, I attempted on my life. I spent the next year in a cycle of self destruction and self hatred. I was utterly consumed by my OCD. It controlled everything I did,or didn’t do. I was trapped. I spent a year in cognitive behavioural therapy, but I was so ill that I couldn’t properly engage. I started to get nightmares. I was put on medication which reduced my anxiety a little but didn’t make that much of a difference. I tried to hand myself into the police multiple times. By fourteen, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for treatment.