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.
When I left for college, my OCD blossomed. I binge drank pretty heavily because I was absolutely terrified and could feel a little relief while drunk. I had fast internet for the first time and spent hours researching STDs—I went to my university doctor many, many times, and she finally told me to go see a GP. Again, anxiety was never mentioned. My GP was pretty horrible and would test anything whenever I wanted it—I was honest to her about not living the sort of lifestyle that warranted this testing, but she did what I desperately wanted and never mentioned OCD or hypochondria. I also lived about 2 minutes from two sexual health clinics—I was like an alcoholic living above a bar.
I began to have stomach pains from the constant worry, and I had all sorts of highly expensive cancer imaging performed. I knew my behavior was not normal, but I also didn’t feel like I had any power over it. I remember looking up the number for my university counselor, but I couldn’t make an appointment.
I graduated from college and while I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer, I went to law school in an attempt to make everyone else happy. I’ve always been a perfectionist, and I got a full scholarship, so it seemed like the next step. The semester I was in law school was a blur. I was not well, mentally or physically. I ended up ironically getting an actual UTI, and for once, avoiding the doctor. I knew if I went, they’d tell me I had contracted an STD. Instead, I ended up developing a kidney infection and having to call my future husband at midnight to pick me up and take me to seek emergency medical help. I had a high fever and was the sickest—physically—I’ve ever been.
I had to miss two weeks of school, which is an eternity in law school, and one of my professors suggested I might need to take the semester off. I felt such a sense of relief and practically ran to the registrar’s office to drop out of law school, which I never felt any passion for.
You would think this would have been my wake-up call, but it wasn’t. I became more and more mentally ill over the next decade. I got my M.A. in Teaching and started teaching English and taught for years, all while having these secret delusions about my health. I once had a student say I smelled bad because I had sent him to the office for obvious misbehavior the day before—for a year, I became obsessed with hygiene, to the point, I would wipe myself down in the staff restroom between classes with bleach wipes. I thought I was infected and people could literally smell it on me.
I found another really terrible GP who sent me for tons of testing, never mentioning anxiety.
After about 5 years of teaching, I wanted a change and began pursuing my M.A. in School Counseling and LPC. I remember reading case studies about OCD and Health Anxiety in grad school and crying because I finally knew what was wrong with me; however, all my books were very negative about treatment outlook for OCD and hypochondria, so I didn’t begin treatment.
It wasn’t until I had my son and began to obsess over his health that I knew I had to get help. I have had many health obsessions about my son, but when he was about 16 months old, I finally sought treatment. My son got a common childhood bug called Hand, Foot and Mouth, and I felt like it was herpes. I picked up the phone to call his pediatrician and ask about HSV testing, and that was the moment I was done—I broke down realizing what I was doing. I had to seek help—there was no way for me to live like this while counseling others all day at work.
I had lived my entire 34 years of life just blindly accepting I could never be happy, but I wasn’t going to destroy my child’s life as well. I contacted one of my college professors and asked for a referral. My first therapist was really horrible, and while she diagnosed me correctly, she had never had another client with OCD and didn’t know anything about ERP. Because I’m a school counselor, I know most of the therapists in my small town personally and couldn’t find appropriate help locally.
I ended up going online to find a therapist about two hours away who I could video chat with. My therapist is an OCD specialist and also has OCD. The first session, he asked me questions I didn’t want to answer, but it was clear he understood how I was thinking and could help. He told me with treatment and hard work, I could recover—which I didn’t expect to hear. I was just looking for how not to damage my child with my crushing mental illness; the idea of getting better was so foreign to me.
I’ve been in ERP for 2 months, and it’s hard, and every day I want to quit, but I won’t. I see myself getting stronger, and it’s awesome and also a little terrifying. Therapy is expensive, but I know I can’t live this way anymore. I feel like I should send my therapist a thank you note daily because he saved my life. I wasn’t particularly suicidal, but I had stopped actually experiencing life outside of my obsessions. I have hope now. I still struggle with negativity, and the usual OCD things, like checking appliances and door locks, but for the first time in over a decade, I’m not living my life around some imaginary illness that I know will destroy my life or kill me.
If you’ve read this far, all I can say to you is if you haven’t gotten treatment, please do it. It works. You are worth saving.