OCD

I stepped onto the road to recovery

My OCD story doesn’t have a start date. I can’t reach back through my memory and pinpoint a day, a time or an event where OCD showed up and barged into my life. OCD has been a guest at the table of my mind for as long as I can remember. It’s woven itself into the fabric of my awareness and experiences so seamlessly that, for a long time, I didn’t even realize it was there.

CHILDHOOD

I was born into a home full of Love.I learned to walk and talk and play and dream in the security of my parents’ warmth, steadiness, and Faith. To grow up in the world my mom and dad created together was, and still is, God’s greatest gift to me. 

But no matter how secure and safe we may be, life is not perfect. One way or another, OCD found a way to rattle the windows of my mind and plant fear in my heart.

***

Somewhere between preschool and early elementary school, I developed a fear of swallowing my food. I was convinced I would choke and die. My parents noticed a change in my eating habits, and they helped me the best they knew how without full knowledge of my internal terror. My mom started making food that I would eat – mainly tuna sandwiches. It got to a point where my grandmother pointed out, “Sara looks like she’s lost weight!” Eventually the fear faded, and the swallowing ordeal became an unanswered blip. Life went on, and it seemed I had grown out of it. 

***

Later, in elementary school, new seeds of fear began to sprout in my OCD-wired brain: “What if you turned into someone else?” OCD would whisper to me. But I didn’t want to turn into anyone else! I loved my life and felt that to be ripped from my parents would be worse than death. In a panic, I would picture myself trapped in the body of another student in my class, watching someone else live my life with my parents. So, I performed compulsions to keep the worst from happening. When I would do a normal activity – often putting on my clothes – I would force my mind to picture myself with my family. Or, I’d have to play the same phrase on repeat in my head to ensure I wouldn’t turn into anyone else. If I failed to do it “right”, I’d have to take off my clothes and get dressed all over again. I knewit was impossible for me to turn into someone else but, as we know, OCD is a convincing jerk. 

***

As I got a little older, OCD got bolder and started to drop disturbing images into my mind, often of a sexual nature. These would cause me such internal pain and made me feel so “bad”. My mom always told me, “You can tell me anything.” But these thoughts – how could I tell her?! Sometimes I would tell her just a little bit, and I always felt better when I got the thought out of my head and into the open. She never made me feel like I had done something wrong – she only made me feel loved – and I think that made all the difference. I’d feel better for a while, but then a new thought would come, often more disturbing to me than the last, and the panic and pain and shame would wash over me again. 

Because I was raised in a Christian home, I was very familiar with verses in the Bible which talk about anxiety and peace. My mom and I would often read these verses together when I would share my inner angst (though neither of us had any clue this inner turmoil had a name). One Scripture we read the most was Philippians 4:7 which says: 

“And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” 

I would read these words and they would bring me both comfort and more anxiety. Comfort, because I believed God wanted the best for me, and He wanted my heart to be filled with peace. Anxiety, because I absolutely was not experiencing this peace which surpasses all understanding. Oh, how I wanted that peace! What was wrong with me that I wasn’t experiencing this peace He promised me?  

***

I firmly believe that children have the capacity to experience life in deep, profound and meaningful ways. I think, sometimes, we don’t give the hearts of kids enough credit. When I was nine years old, I had an experience with God that changed my life. He met me in such a sweet and tangible way and my faith became my own. I decided then to be a Christian because I had met Christ, and because I wanted to be. The hope of this moment was so impactful that it has shaped every day of my life since. This Hope was the anchor that steadied my soul as I moved into my teenage years and continued to battle with an unknown enemy living in my mind.

TEENAGE YEARS

High school was so busy and so fun that I hardly had time to be bothered by the scary thoughts in my head. I was involved in a long list of sports, and choir, and student government. I began to develop an external image within my social and community circles, and this image became very important to me. I was the “nice girl” and the “good girl” and the “dependable girl”. My family was known in our community and our church, and I stepped into the role of “perfect” so seamlessly that I even fooled myself. But, once in a while these thoughts would sneak in and threaten the balance.

I remember being sixteen years old and sitting on my youth pastor’s couch at a Bible study. A group of us had spent a lovely evening together, and as the night was coming to a close the thought popped into my head: “What if God isn’t real?” The thought hit my brain and stuck. My stomach dropped and I felt a wave of anxiety roll through my body. I went home and tried to watch TV with my family, but the panic stuck around so I just went to bed. 

For two or three days I lived with these feelings of anxiety and dread. I ended up communicating to my Dad that this question of God’s existence was on my mind, and we sat down for coffee and talked about it. I felt better. Looking back, I can see how well OCD disguised itself. Even though it felt like I was having a true theological crisis at the time, there was something in me that thought it so strange how suddenly it had come on. But, like before, it eventually faded and I filed the experience away as just another weird blip. 

And this is how it went for years. I began to take note of these startling thoughts which sometimes resulted in me doing interesting things – putting on my clothes until I got it “right”, tapping the door with my right hand if I’d accidentally brushed it with my left, saying the same phrase over and over in my head so I wouldn’t turn into a bad person. At some point during my late teenage years, it dawned on me that doing these things was not “normal”. I slowly began to believe that I was the only person on earth who had ever experienced this. It terrified me and made me feel incredibly alone, so I subconsciously decided to do everything I could to hide this thing

There would be long stretches of peace, but this thingwould always come back and remind me of its presence. I still didn’t know my experience had a name, but I knew there was this thingtrying to steal joy from the golden moments of my life. I was able to shove it all down and hide it in my brain from the world, and even from myself, for a very long time. 

COLLEGE

In 2008 I left my little town and everything familiar for a small, private liberal arts university in busy Southern California.I packed up my good-girl image along with the rest of my belongings, and eventually became known on my campus as “nice”, “sweet” and “always friendly”. Perfection is what I strived for, and my journal from that first year is filled with words and prayers to prove it. Although dotted with occasional bouts of loneliness, I felt on top of the world for most of my Freshman year of college. 

But after a non-stop summer, workplace conflict, and an unfavorable living environment, my mind was primed and ready for an OCD invasion by the winter of my Sophomore year. It started when I was home for Christmas break. I was plagued by the thought that I would stab my mom – one of the most important people my life – and it felt as if I’d already done it. I felt like I was a murderer. I started to feel uncomfortable around knives, and I couldn’t enjoy the time I spent with my mom. Unlike my experience growing up, the thoughts and fear didn’t dissipate after a few days. By the time I went back to school, I’d begun to have violent intrusive thoughts on a regular basis, and these were accompanied by constant anxiety: that sinking feeling in my stomach, dry mouth, tight neck, trouble concentrating.

For the rest of my sophomore year I felt as though I was walking around in a bad dream. I was functioning, but I was hanging on by a thread. I remember looking around my school cafeteria with a food tray in my hand thinking, “I am the only person in here – in the whole world – who is having crazy thoughts about stabbing the people I love.” The loneliness and fear was starting to drown me. 

I could never fully express what was going on inside of me to others because I was afraid they’d think I was going crazy. But I was able to give my parents enough information to let them know something was wrong and that I wasn’t doing okay. My dad, being the source of calm and steadiness that he is, took a trip to visit me at school. During his visit we decided it would be best for me to come home for the summer, to rest, and to hopefully move past the heaviness I couldn’t quite explain. 

So I went home. Towards the beginning there were a lot of bad days. I was in an internship program at my church and remember feeling like I was faking it. On the inside I was convinced I was this terrible, awful person having evil thoughts, but I would feel “okay” when someone told me I was doing a good job, or that I was “so nice”, “so sweet”. So I fought the bad feelings by working harder, and by being nicer and sweeter. I didn’t know I was compensating for my obsessive thoughts by “performing” for a really, really long time, but it slowly, steadily wore me out. 

That summer I met a boy. He was a smart, handsome, and genuinely kind human being. I had a crush on him all summer and he finally asked me out a few weeks before we went back to school. Almost immediately after we started dating, I began to obsess about the relationship. My mind would constantly ruminate over the questions: “Is he really right for me?” “Should we be dating?” “Am I making a huge mistake?” I zeroed in on his flaws and would obsess over them. This would be so frustrating because I was alsoable to recognize how good he was to me, how much I enjoyed our conversations, and how he embodied the qualities of a person I wanted to be with. 

We dated long-distance for a year, but I couldn’t take the doubts and I worked myself into a literal panic about our relationship. After experiencing what I can only describe as a panic attack, I broke up with him. The break up came out of left field for him, as he had no idea about the degree to which I would ruminate over our relationship. The breakup was awkward and confusing – and very, very sad – but he was gracious and we stayed in touch for almost four years after we broke up. 

Throughout the entire timewe kept in touch, I obsessed about whether or not we should be together. I would talk through our relationship with friends and would be embarrassed as I attempted to verbally process what was going on in my mind. Some friends assumed I simply wasn’t in love with him. Others assumed I was too afraid of love to commit. I told myself a number of different stories which included: “I’m a coward. I never wanted to be with him in the first place, but I never had the courage to completely end it. I’m a terrible person who has been leading him on for years.” Or, “He’s ‘the one’ and I am totally blowing it.” No matter what story I told myself, there was so much shame. The worst shame of all was that I was hurting someone besides myself in the process. 

This sort of ruminating and obsessive analyzing was present in almost every major decision I made after graduating college. I was sick with fear and anxiety after accepting my first job. I was convinced that I’d made the wrong decision, and that I’d left the “right path” and would never be able to return to the “right path” ever again. There was a part of me that genuinely didn’t want to take my first job offer, but the overwhelmingsense that I’d ruined my life by accepting the position made it just about impossible for me to process my options in a healthy way. Most of the time, I was convinced that I was being disobedient to God and was rejecting His will for my life. My physical and inner panic as I processed this decision and others was very similar to the panicked experiences that would accompany violent or sexual intrusive thoughts. 

Towards the end of 2015 my ex boyfriend and I stopped keeping in touch for good, and I was living at home after a couple of stints volunteering abroad. I’d been contemplating going to therapy for a few years, and I found myself in a spot where I had two options: go to therapy, or stay stuck. I had a sense that I wouldn’t be able to move forward in life unless I confronted and explored the years of scary thoughts and paralyzed decision making. It felt like do or die. So I called up a local therapist, set an appointment, and went to therapy. 

***

In the few years leading up to my first sit-down in a therapist’s office, I’d done a little research on my experiences and had become more familiar with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in the process. Though it would bring momentary relief to read online forums where people shared about their own  intrusive thoughts, I felt it was too good to be true that there could be a name for my experience. In my gut, I felt that I was just “bad”. Just “crazy”. What a sigh of relief it was to tearfully sit in a therapist’s office, timidly and cautiously share the thoughts that had pummeled me for years, and hear her say the words: “Obsessive Compulsive Disorder”. 

During those first few weeks of therapy, I felt such swelling gratitude. Gratitude towards whoever those first people were who had been courageous enough to share what was going on in their brains. Gratitude toward those who spent their careers studying OCD and writing the books I was starting to read and connect with. And I felt gratitude toward God for leading me and staying so close to me during the discovery process. 

Along with gratitude, I felt grief. Grief because I was finally faced with letting go of the image I had created. I saw that I could no longer play the part of “girl who has all her shit together”. As I stared down the road, I saw it was long and that it would require a lot of work, and I sensed that there was more death than I could possibly imagine. But I also had the slightest inkling of hope that there would be life, too. So it is with both grief and gratitude that I stepped onto the road to recovery. 

Ahh, the road to recovery. It’s been a road marked (though often, not marked at all) with uphill battles, a few easy, downward slopes – valleys of death and green pastures. One day it’s a giant leap forward, and the next I go tumbling back. I had a “mutual break-up” with my first therapist. It was a kind, loving and compassionate experience – though hard – but now I’m seeing another therapist who seems to be a good fit for right now. 

Almost a year after starting therapy, I started dating someone new. I’ve watched my obsessive thoughts about “what if I ran someone over with my car” disintegrate and transform primarily to “what if I’m with the wrong person and I’m ruining our lives.” It’s exhausting, but the happiness I feel when he holds my hand or tells me he loves me makes it worth it. He’s so patient and kind and wise. Almost two and a half years into our relationship, I’ve finally allowed myself to tell him I love him too, and any day now he will ask me to marry him. 

My story is more fuzzy and less linear than I ever thought it could be, and I’m a bit disappointed to be unable to give an end date for my recovery. I wish I could wrap my story up with a pretty bow and say, “I really suffered. It was so hard. But I persevered and look at me now! My life is perfect and I’m secure and confident and I have so much peace!” But if I said that, I’d be lying. I have days (sometimes only hours) where I feel like I’m with the right partner, living in the best town, and am on track for the best version of my life… but there are a lot of other days where I don’t feel like that. Not even close. 

But what I can say – the thing that keeps me going – is that slowly but surely, I’m becoming a little more real. The facade cracks a little bit more every day, and I have hope that one day it will get so cracked that it will shatter. And when it does, all of the light and all of the darkness that lives inside of me will come spilling out in this beautiful, colorful mess. And I’ll scoop up that mess, and I will share bits and pieces of it with the people around me who need it most, and they will be a little more real too. 

Thanks,

Sara

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