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.
The second was when I was 21, I had just finished university after having turned a three year degree into a four by failing a class in what was supposed to have been my final semester. I was unemployed in terms of part- time work and the prospect of having to now find a “real” job and start my career when I hadn’t even been able to get a crappy just-to-pay-the-bills job terrified me. My self esteem was incredibly low. I was recommended to a camp that was for people my age to learn leadership skills and for some unknown reason, I decided I would go. The morning I was leaving, I kissed my older brother on the head while he was sleeping and inadvertently started crying as I finally admitted to myself that I was scared to go. I remember the drive, it was a few hours but it felt both so much longer and yet not long enough as I held my Mum’s hand while she drove. I remember the further we went the less the road resembled a road, winding through thick bushland, heading higher and higher up a mountain. As the trees parted and we reached our destination I remember it was so high up that the fog made it feel like being up in the clouds and besides the activity of the campgrounds you couldn’t see another building or car or person in any direction. Quite literally in the middle of nowhere. I told my Mum I didn’t want to go and burst into tears.
That exact moment when I got out of our car is when I know something snapped inside me. I could physically feel it then and there. I had the most intense dread and anxiety. There are times in life when you know that for better or worse you’ve just changed forever and I knew in that moment that I would carry that feeling with me long after I left that place. Everyone else there was a stranger to me, all energetic and excited to be there in a way that both really irritates and disgusts you when you don’t feel the same. I knew I didn’t want to be there but it was a few hours before I realised there might be something I could do about it. I found the nurse and again, burst into tears. I told this woman every valid reason that I had for wanting to leave while she threw them back in my face as ‘reasons I needed to stay’ and made me go to bed. Let’s just say that it took the entire next day to convince them to allow me to go, but not after I experienced a full-blown anxiety attack. I sat in front of two strangers and completely unravelled, I couldn’t get any words out, I couldn’t catch my breath, I couldn’t stop crying, my mind and heart raced. My Mum came to get me and the further I got away from that place the more relived I felt, which quickly became, the closer to home I got the more dirty I felt. I was contaminated by that place and it’s stink was spreading through my entire home and life with every breath I took, everything I touched, every breeze that brushed past me. I tried every spray and every wash to cleanse away the ‘contamination’ that place had left clinging to me but the more I tried to sanitise those feelings away the more strongly I felt them anchor me down. I was floundering.
The hardest part was that the people from that camp, both organisers and participants, were a part of my community, they were friends of my family, I was involved in clubs with them, I ran into them in the streets, I sat in the same room with them regularly. Their contaminants seeped deeper and deeper into my life. My mind ruminated on all of the people, places and situations I had to stay away from to avoid further infection while my days revolved around trying to cleanse myself of what I had already come into contact with. My OCD was in overdrive, the more time went on the more I would obsess over any perceived connection to the camp and the more rituals I invented to try and lengthen the distance between myself and that place and those people. The longer I relied on them the more the compulsions became both increasingly ingrained and less helpful. I felt so out of control of my own emotions and circumstances and struggled to cope.
I remember thinking that absolutely nothing could help me feel better, I had visited three extremely unhelpful psychologists and I could feel that it was time to try a fourth. At that time, I still had triggers around keeping my family safe as well as dozens of other things but the worst of it was this lingering feeling of being contaminated. It was in everything I did. It had been four years and I was still so hung up on the pain I had felt at the camp. On my way to work everyday I was purchasing a “family size” pack of 80 antibacterial hand wipes and one (sometimes two) cans of sanitiser spray, just so that I could get through the day. That was my everyday routine, my ‘normal’. If something actually happened to trigger me, my anxiety would spike and no number of wipes or cans of sanitiser or minutes spent washing were enough. I was in such an unhealthy place mentally. I could feel it in my hands that were cracked and bleeding from over washing, my nose and throat that burned from breathing in the aerosol and my skin that stung and felt hypersensitive from the repeated wiping, all the while my mind was struggled to keep it all up.
I saw my GP and got a referral but it was months before I actually followed through and met with the psychologist. Dr Michelle had said to me when I booked the session that it was important that I felt our personalities clicked and that she would ask me at the end of the session if I thought she could help me. On that first appointment I really didn’t know what to say, how to explain all this turmoil that I felt inside. I knew how ridiculous it all sounded. ’I spent 36 hours at a camp four years ago and now I feel like it has contaminated every inch of my life and mind’, ‘I can tell you every way in which even now I am still linked to that place’, ‘I spend at least $8.50 everyday trying to keep the contaminants at bay’. I thought it was ridiculous. Ridiculous or not, it was still a terrifyingly real force that drove me spray, wipe, wash, avoid, worry. That’s what OCD thrives on, the shame you feel at these ridiculous notions, knowing that you won’t want to share them. Isolating you. As she asked me questions I gave her the most generalised responses. I remember pointing to her water jug on the table next to me and saying “if I decided for whatever reason that that jug was contaminated and you touched it and then touched the door knob, then the door knob would be contaminated”, while yes that was true, it was a very big understatement.
I told her that I thought everyone had something in there life they just had to deal with and that OCD was mine. When I said it I really felt it, not in a desperate giving up kind of way but in what at the time felt like was a mature “accepting” kind of way. I had resigned myself to the idea that I would think, feel and act the same way for the rest of my life and that thought really overwhelmed me. The end of my session came, Dr Michelle asked me if I thought she could help me, I said yes while thinking that I felt absolutely no different and there was no way continuing to talk to her would benefit me. When my second appointment came around, I ended up having to cancel because of work, Dr Michelle sent me a message and asked if I wanted her to cancel my next appointment as well or if I would be coming back. I assured her I would be back despite really wanting her to cancel and all the while thinking that by the time that appointment approached I would end up cancelling it too. But I didn’t cancel the appointment. I went and I kept going. Although for awhile I danced around the reason I was really there, letting the conversation wonder to other issues and playing down my OCD symptoms. Without really telling her what was going on, she couldn’t really help me and I continued with the wipes and the sprays and the struggling. Over time as I got to know her and she got to know the parts of me I was willing to share I developed trust in her and became more comfortable sharing things that I would never share with anyone else.
Once I started to be honest, the changes in the way I felt, the way I thought and the way I behaved came pretty quickly. It was almost all at once that I stopped using sprays and wipes and it felt completely safe to let go of them. Dr Michelle would give me exposures to do as homework, each new assignment sounding like a completely insurmountable task. My anxieties would mount in the lead up to my exposure, sheer terror instantly transforming to utter excitement once the task was completed and there I would be next session exclaiming my success. She knew how hard it was for me to do the things she was telling me to so she was always so positive when I’d done them. I would explain the way I saw things to Dr Michelle and she would challenge it. Like this box of things that I was convinced was riddled with germs from the camp. My head had mapped out 7 degrees of separation that tied the items back to the camp and thus rendered them contaminated. Dr Michelle asked me how I thought that and continued to question me as I sat in the brown leather armchair in her office and answered. I could hear what she was saying and see her logic but I couldn’t quite believe it. After my appointment I sat in my car and thought through each of the steps that my brain had been telling me resulted in the contamination of the box and it’s contents and thought about what Dr Michelle had said, her questions disrupting my irrational thinking. It was then that I had a major light bulb moment. I realised that these things were okay and I actually felt excited to go and touch them. Even now when I pick up one of the items which was once contained in that cardboard quarantine I smile, briefly acknowledging the sheer amazingness of simply being able to do so. It wasn’t easy but I could feel myself getting better which fuelled my fight.
People always say that when you get better you forget how bad it was and that is so true. I’ve moved so far beyond all of the pain and anxiety that I experienced in the years after visiting that camp, that sitting down to write about my experience was actually quite shocking. I still obsess over things and I still feel compelled to perform compulsions but that “contaminated” chapter of my life is over.
I have been seeing Dr Michelle for a year and a half now, originally it was for weekly sessions, now I’m down to one every five weeks. I still have things to work on but I’ve come such a long way. It’s obviously important for your psychologist to be understanding of OCD (my GP is not). But I also really believe in Dr Michelle’s theory of the importance of your personalities clicking, I genuinely like and look up to her as a person and really do feel that I could tell her anything. I sent this story to her, unsure of what I should do with it and she reminded me of two things. Firstly was my triumph over the contaminated box which I then decided to include here as it was a huge step for me and one that I fully embraced. I did it not because she told me to expose myself to it and prevent a compulsive response in order to teach myself that it was okay but because I came to the realisation on my own that the things in it couldn’t hurt me. Secondly, that lots of people have OCD and many continue to suffer because for whatever reason they don’t continue (or perhaps even begin) attending therapy and that I should be proud of myself. I am proud of myself for what I’ve overcome and excited to keep working on being the best version of myself.
The most important piece of advice I can offer from my experience is just to start. Start getting help, start fighting back, start learning better. Because if you reach out for help today, even if you genuinely decide that person cannot help you, you’re that much closer to finding the person who can. And you will. Keep going to your appointments, keep doing your exposures, keep being honest with them and most importantly with yourself.