But there is nothing I can do to change my past. However, I can do my very best to try and prevent a similar situation from happening to others.
For about 26 years of my life I kept the darkest, most horrendous secrets from every person in this world out of fear that a confession could put me in jail. That a confession would prove to everyone how horrible of a person I was. That a confession would solidify my spot on the “America’s Most Wanted” list.
Well here it is – my confession: There have been times where I was convinced that at any moment I could kill, rape or steal. That I hate the things I love and love the things I hate. That my worst nightmares are actually my greatest desires. That any good deed I’ve done was only to throw people off my malicious trail. And that I was, quite frankly, the most sick, evil person ever to be on this earth. (How pretentious, I know!)
I hated myself. I was ashamed of myself. I was terrified of myself. For everyone’s protection, I had to hide myself from the world.
I’ll now be turning 30 in just a couple of months, and when it hit me the other day – I will be turning THIRTY, 3-0, halfway to 60 – my usual I’m-so-afraid-of-getting-oldermight-as-well-throw-me-in-a-nursing-home self had a very different mindset. I couldn’t be more excited to leave a decade filled with 90% pain, guilt, shame, selfhatred, fear and negativity behind and live a life where I know I can have control of my health and happiness. It was with that excitement that I knew I was finally ready to share my story.
My name is Courtney. I’m a mommy (to the 4 legged), a soon-to-be-wife, a daughter, a sister, an auntie, a friend, a colleague, and a doctor. I’m also an OCD sufferer; although for the majority of my life I was unaware I had OCD.
My diagnosis of obsessive compulsive disorder significantly changed my life for the better, because for years I just thought I was a weird, terrible, ugly, evil person. OCD can present in many different ways, making everyone’s personal struggle quite unique. However, regardless of how it shows up, most (including myself) find that it can be an incredibly isolating and paralyzing disease.
In an effort to raise OCD awareness, below I’ll share some insight into my exhausting and emotional personal journey that led to my diagnosis of OCD and how I went from someone who wanted to take my own life out of fear, to someone who lives a productive, overall happy life striving daily to encourage people to take back their lives from this devastating illness.
My struggle began as far back as I can remember. Even in my earliest memories I’ve been tormented by my thoughts. It started off vague such as not being able to let anything go – something simple like breaking a crayon and getting told to “color a little more lightly” would cause me to hate myself and replay the scenario over and over in my head with a commentary something like “you’re so stupid, you’re a bad person, they hate you now, why would you do that.”
Playing “fun” games such as Monopoly were anything but fun. Pulling a card that sent me to jail would trigger me to think I belonged in jail in real life. If I went bankrupt I’d think it was a sign I’d fail at life. If I didn’t win I’d beat myself up for hours and go through every move in the game that I could’ve or should’ve done differently. People stopped wanting to play games with me because I was so controlling and took everything so literally. But I had to. What they didn’t understand was that the outcome of a game was more than win or lose. In my mind, everything that happened in the game meant something deeper about myself and my future!
As I grew older, almost anything could set the thoughts off. It was as if I was in a real life game of “whack a mole.” I’d manage to push one thought down only to have 2-3 others pop up. I couldn’t keep up. Thoughts, scenarios, conversations, words, visions would play over and over in my head. Sometimes I’d have 20-30 different conversations going on at once.
By my late teens I was essentially a prisoner of my own mind. Almost every thought seemed out of my control even though I knew I was the one having the thoughts. Everything in my life was attached to a deeper, sometimes seemingly unrelated meaning. I’d make correlations between things that wouldn’t make sense to anyone else, yet they held a level of certainty in my mind. For example, if I won a race at a track meet it was proof I was a good person, if I lost, it was proof I was a bad person deep down. If the third stoplight I came to while driving home from school was red then I had AIDS, if it was green I didn’t. If I got a 100% on a test at school my brain was still ok, anything lower than perfect meant my brain was deteriorating due to brain damage. If I prayed a certain number of times in the right order before bed, everyone would be safe. If I didn’t, something terrible may happen to me or my family.
These types of thoughts went on and on and were associated with an incredible amount of anxiety. I was anxious to do anything or go anywhere because almost anything could become a trigger of my thoughts. If I watched a TV show where someone had an illness I was sure it was a sign I had or was going to get that same illness. If a classmate complimented the way I looked I was sure they actually were so disgusted by how ugly I was and they felt so badly for me they had to say something nice out of pity. If I had to give a presentation in front of people – the world might as well end. If I had to take out the trash – the world might as well end. Gosh, if I had to decide which color I wanted to paint my nails – the world might as well end. You get the picture.
It was as if mind was constantly warning me that I was in imminent danger and should avoid everyone and everything. You know those “running from a bear fight-or-flight” situations they talk about? That was the state I was in almost 24 hours a day. Everything I did (or didn’t do) was out of fear, to “cancel out” a bad thought that I had, or to try and fit in so I could pretend to be “normal.” I didn’t even get relief while I was sleeping. I was exhausted, ashamed and terrified.
Not only was I anxious and exhausted, I was also very depressed. When I would walk into a room, it felt like I was a cold, dark force that would come through. Like a happy, bright room suddenly lost all vitality when I would come around. I constantly felt judged, laughed at, hated. I truly believed that I ruined people’s day just by being in the same room as them. (In fact, to this day I envy someone who can be in a room filled with people and truly not care what they think of them.)
Despite feeling this way on the inside, I continued to push through (and excel at, even) my every day responsibilities, trying as hard as I could to act like there was nothing going on inside my head. However, as my anxiety and depression increased, I started to get pronounced nervous tics. It was as if the anxiety I was suppressing around people would physically come out with jerking body movements or eye blinking. As these tics intensified and my rituals began taking up more of my day it was getting harder to hide things. It became clear to others something was wrong, but I don’t think anyone knew the extent to which I was suffering. I started to get labeled “over-sensitive” and “stubborn”, teased for my odd jerking movements and my depression only increased.
Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, in my early 20’s my thoughts took an even weirder turn. I started to have gruesome, unwanted violent and sexual thoughts. The guilt and fear associated with these thoughts became so unbearable, that I decided I was too much of a danger to society and on several occasions was only moments away from taking my own life. I couldn’t stop the thoughts and the only way I could be SURE that I wouldn’t lose control and do something horrible would be if I were dead. Yet, I couldn’t even bring myself to take my own life either. I didn’t want to die. In fact, I was terrified of dying. I sometimes got so afraid of dying that the fear of dying actually made me want to die so I wouldn’t have to fear it anymore. (Try and follow that logic!)
All I knew for sure was that I didn’t want to, and couldn’t, live the way I was any longer.
Luckily, I wouldn’t have to. I found myself back in a depression treatment facility in my mid twenties where every morning we had a group therapy class to share our current thoughts and feelings and ask for support. I vividly remember this one day where the circle came around to a girl who said, “this is hard to admit, but today the thoughts of stabbing my roommate are really strong. I couldn’t go to breakfast because I was afraid I would use the knife on her.” To which the group leader thanked her for sharing and we moved on to the next.
Wait. A. Minute. They thanked her for sharing that she had thoughts of stabbing someone!?
A few more people around the circle and we came to a guy who talked about his thoughts and visions of acting inappropriately with the goats on his family farm and he couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t do this. Again, the group leader thanked him for sharing and we moved on to the next.
WHAT!? After a confession like that we just move on to the next person!? Are you kidding me? I started to get paranoid that “they knew.” That they “figured out” the real me somehow and were setting me up. I found myself looking out the windows for the police. Either to take me, or at the very least take these people away.
But instead of the police rushing in, the room was simply divided into 3 or 4 support groups. Those two individuals both nonchalantly walked over to the “OCD group.” I went to the group nearby so I could listen in, but not be associated. I heard things such as “you know those thoughts are common in OCD”, “you know that is a typical trigger for you and those thoughts”, “how have you been doing on your exposures?”
I left that group more confused than ever. Was I NOT the only one in this world with those types of thoughts? I needed to know more. During my therapy session that day I gingerly brought up the topic of “OCD” and tip-toed around some of the thoughts mentioned in group. Right away he caught on. “You have similar thoughts don’t you.” He then started to spit off thoughts as if he were reading my mind like a teleprompter. “Sound about right?” he asked. This man was either the world’s greatest mind reader, or there was something to this “OCD thing.” I just shook my head in a half yes, half no pattern (as to not give too much away) and started crying.
My life changed forever that day. From that day forward I learned that I was NOT the only one in the world with these “dark secrets.” That my “what if” thoughts, tics, superstitions, things I just had to do until they felt “right”, need for reassurance, crippling fear of germs and diseases, and violent, sexual and religious visions were all shared to some degree with others. And that everyone struggled with feeling like there was something wrong with them or that they were a “bad person” because of these thoughts, visions or behaviors.
While semi-relieved, I wasn’t fully convinced right away that I had OCD. What if I was different? What if I was that one person who actually wanted to act upon my thoughts? What if I just pretend to have OCD but am really a horrible person? I found myself (in hindsight probably compulsively) googleing thoughts – on the library computers of course so they couldn’t track me down and arrest me. In bringing these concerns up to my therapist, he confidently stated that “by these questions alone, you are only confirming you have OCD.”
I then started to open up slowly about it. With each thought I would say out loud it felt like time stopped for just a split second as I waited to be hand cuffed, for the floor to open and pull me into Hell, or at the very least for the therapist to be shocked. But none of that ever happened. Rather, each thought I said out loud felt like such a relief. Like a literal weight was lifted from my body. In just saying them out loud, and realizing that the world kept going on there was healing. Learning that even though they were in my brain, these thoughts may actually not be my true desires brought about a monumental level of relief.
I was in naturopathic medical school at the time my OCD diagnosis was made, and at what now seems to be impeccable timing, a few months after my diagnosis I had a clinical rotation with a brilliant homeopathic doctor who specialized in mental health. With his help, I was able to see first hand the power homeopathy can have at decreasing obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors and the associated anxiety, guilt, shame or embarrassment. This further added to my hope for recovery and my desire to help others with OCD.
For a long time I told myself that I would share my story when I completely overcame my OCD. But I recognize now that I am overcoming OCD everyday, and just like those individuals who shared their story around me changed, possibly even saved my life, my story has the potential to reach someone else who thinks they’re all alone and give them hope. If I can reach even one person in that way, the risk of judgment and embarrassment in sharing my story is worth it to me.
In my practice every day I’m asking my patients to open up and share their most private thoughts and emotions and encourage them that healing will come in being open. Even though I believe that, I’ve been too afraid to do so myself. Especially as a doctor I thought I was supposed to be strong and flawless. The truth is doctors are just people too, and are as susceptible to illnesses as much as anyone else.
4 years after my diagnosis, I believe due to a combination of knowledge, selfawareness, disclosure, exposures and alternative medicine, namely homeopathy, I am in a significantly better place than I’ve ever been in my life. I still struggle with OCD, and some days the thoughts are more tormenting than others, but overall they are less frequent, less intense, rarely hang around as long and I generally can identify them as OCD thoughts and reach out for support. My ritualistic behaviors take up less of my day, the frequency of panic attacks has drastically decreased and my depressive episodes are far less extreme and shorter in duration when they do hit. While I am grateful to be less burdened by my obsessions, compulsions and associated anxiety and depression, what I believe to be most profound about my healing thus far is I know I am in control of my life. And I know that with continued work, things will only continue to improve.
Perhaps equally as important as sharing hope for those who are personally struggling with OCD, I hope to raise awareness among health care providers.
I was in and out of therapy for over 12 years, found myself in several treatment facilities for depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder, and was put on and off various antidepressants and antipsychotics. But for me, nothing stopped the thoughts. In my practitioner’s defenses, I didn’t divulge much information regarding the nature of the thoughts in my head out of fear and embarrassment. I did bait a few therapists here and there with snippets of “hypothetical situations” to see if they’d tell me I was “normal”, but everything I said came back to them telling me, more or less, that I had “issues” from my parents divorce I still needed to work through. Not a SINGLE practitioner, mental health or otherwise, in TWELVE YEARS ever even mentioned OCD. I lived over 20 years of my life convinced I was the only one in the world who had these problems.
I’d be lying if I said I never thought about what would’ve happened had a proper diagnosis been made earlier in my life, had I begun exposure and response prevention therapy early on, had I been introduced to naturopathic medicine and homeopathy sooner… How many years of my life where I wished I were dead would I actually have enjoyed? How many friendships would I have been able to maintain that I wasn’t able to due to anxiety? How many toxic relationships would I have been able to get out of sooner due to having better self-esteem?
But there is nothing I can do to change my past. However, I can do my very best to try and prevent a similar situation from happening to others. A study published in 2015 in The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reports that over 50% of obsessive-compulsive disorder cases are misdiagnosed, (1) and a 2013 study published in the journal of the American Academy of Clinical Psychiatrists reported that misidentification rates regarding OCD with taboo thoughts were upwards of 75%. (2) I personally can’t think of anything that would be worse than if someone with OCD worked up the courage to confide in a health care practitioner and their condition gets misdiagnosed as a pedophilia, sexual identity confusion, or impulse control disorder, for example. This would only “confirm” their worst fears, add to the guilt and shame, and in my opinion, ultimately increase the risk of suicide associated with the disorder.
As I recently opened a new practice, I’ve been networking around my community and just a couple of weeks ago met with a doctoral level mental health care provider. In the first 30 minutes of our meeting they talked all about their education, research they’ve done, experience they have, and how this makes them well qualified to work with mental health patients. I was then asked how I got interested in mental health, and at one point in my story I mentioned that I have OCD. The response I got immediately after saying I have OCD was both unexpected and disappointing. They said something very close to “Oh really? So you like won’t touch door handles, won’t step on cracks and do other weird stuff.” A little taken aback I replied “No, not exactly.” To which they followed up with “You don’t tell people that you have OCD do you? That’s not something you should tell people, it can make them uncomfortable.” This was a mental health specialist not only completely uninformed about OCD, but also shaming me for having, and being open about having, OCD. This needs to change.
So, for the next 30+ years I’m as committed to raising awareness about obsessive compulsive disorder as I was committed to hiding it from everyone for the first 30 years of my life. And I set the bar pretty high with that one!
I want to thank each of you who have been brave enough to share your own story, and each of you who support someone with OCD and encourage them to open up about their thoughts and doubts. Doing so truly can reduce the disorders power.
Please know you are not alone. You are not damaged. And there is always hope to take your life back and truly be happy and healthy!
Check out my site – NHSVirginia.com
1. Half of obsessive-compulsive disorder cases misdiagnosed: vignette-based survey of primary care physicians. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26132683
2. High rates of OCD symptom misidentification by mental health professionals. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23926575