OCD formally entered my life two years ago, but in hindsight, OCD has virtually touched every aspect of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories of it is when the influenza virus finally made its way to my home country Venezuela. I was probably around 6 years old. I had heard the news on the radio that people were getting very sick and even dying from this and all I could feel was this paralysing anxiety and dread that I was going to also get it. I kept asking my parents for a surgeon’s mask to wear until the virus subsided and they kept refusing, laughing that I even wanted to wear such a thing outside. The only thing they said when I kept asking if I could get the virus was “you’re too young to be worrying about this” and while they moved on with their lives, I was trapped in endless overthinking about whether or not I could get seriously sick and if I would die soon.
Throughout all my education, I excelled in my courses at a great cost. Behind my straight A’s, top of the class achievements, and published papers at university level was great anxiety, panic attacks, self-punishment for not doing enough, and endless exhaustion from overexertion. I now know OCD was the one making me practice literally all the math problems (not one could be left undone before an exam!) because otherwise there was a slight chance I wasn’t prepared enough for the test. I saw my friends practicing five of them at the most, getting them all right like I did, but they knew when to stop; whereas I had to keep going because I could never feel confident enough until they were all done. And even then I didn’t feel confident enough – it was never enough. I now know OCD was the one keeping me in the library everyday (including weekends) until 11pm at night, prioritising staying on top of the class over all the friendships and connections I was starved from, being a student overseas away from family and friends. I now know OCD was the greatest obstacle in my education career, the one that beat me up so hard for not being perfect enough that I couldn’t finish my dream degree, a Masters in Research in Sexuality and Gender studies at my dream university. OCD didn’t let me finish my dissertation because it was never ‘good enough’, even though everyone told me I was a great writer, my destiny was academia, my research was exciting. None of this mattered because OCD kept drilling at me “you can’t do it, it’s never going to be perfect, so you might as well not do it”.
This destroyed me and robbed my life of meaning because I had envisioned my career prospects to be in academia. I went for anxiety therapy and got given eight weeks of ACT treatment in the university centre. The techniques to accept the thoughts in my head and take away their power by saying them in funny voices or sing them along to the happy birthday tune helped me stay afloat and survive, but OCD still robbed me of my academic dreams.
Until one day, two years ago, it robbed me of something far greater, far more sacred than anything else – the certainty of my feelings for my significant other. At that point, my partner and I had been in a relationship for three and a half years and had been living together for almost two years. I’ve never experienced such a deep and all encompassing love for someone before. He’s by far the most incredible thing that has happened to me in this lifetime. And one day, one tiny thought torn my whole world apart: “what if you don’t love him anymore?”, “what if this is not the right relationship for you anymore?”.
And from then on, the next year of my life was a literal hell on earth. I had these scary thoughts and all possible variations of them: “you don’t love him anymore, you’re just in denial and don’t want to accept this, you should break up with him now because you don’t love him and staying with him will only hurt him more, you’re such a bad person for staying in a relationship you don’t even want, you don’t love him anymore. Do you really love him? What if you don’t love him? What if you stay in a relationship like this and then suffer for the rest of your life because you can’t bear to hurt him? What if you can never get married to him? What if you do and get divorced later? Are you listening to your intuition? Your intuition is telling you that you need to break up now, why are you still here? You’re a horrible person for not loving him the way he loves you, why don’t you feel love anymore? It’s your fault if the relationship ends because you don’t love him, are you even attracted to him anymore? Ask him if he’s okay to make sure you’re not hurting him, but deep down you know you are. Do you feel love? Am I not in love anymore? How do I know if I love him? Look at old photographs and you’ll see there was more love then than there is now, you don’t feel the same so why stay? You’d say no if he asked you to marry him because you’re not sure. Why stay in a relationship if you’re not sure?”
With the thoughts came unbearable anxiety, panic attacks that ended up with depersonalisation episodes and all-consuming pain and sadness of losing something that was so important to me. I also started to ask people if they thought I loved my partner. They looked at me funnily because ultimately only I can know that they said. I compared to other’s people’s perfect Instagram lives. I looked at how easily other people get married, not one drop of uncertainty in their photographs. I checked how I felt and how my partner felt constantly, asking him if I was hurting him, asking him if he knew I loved him. The list of compulsive behaviours to bring some relief to my anxiety was endless.
When all certainty was gone, I hit rock bottom and became severely depressed. I could barely function. All these thoughts were there but I knew deep down they made no sense because there was no evidence for any of this. How could I have these thoughts and feelings and yet know they were somehow not quite right? The only thing that kept me going was my partner. He was there to soothe me after long panic attacks, reminding me to breathe. He never once flinched or judged me or took personally the things I said such as “I don’t know if I love you anymore and I don’t know why I feel this way”. With immense grace, courage and compassion, he took care of me and was patient. His support and unconditional love were the only things keeping me alive. For this, and all the incredible support and love he continues to share with me everyday, I will be eternally grateful. It never goes unnoticed.
After nearly ten agonising months of this, I took to Google and eventually found Relationship Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or ROCD on the website www.rocd.net. It was such a relief to read all my obsessions and what I now know were compulsions (the endless checking, monitoring feelings, reassurance seeking, avoiding, comparing, neutralising, etc.) were a disorder. Yes, of course it is scary to read that you have a chronic illness, but it was the most hopeful I had ever felt in about a year. Having a diagnosis only meant that I could seek help and get the right treatment. I could finally take my life back and rob OCD of its power. And that definitely seemed like fair play to me. So I found an OCD specialist that focused on ROCD, given that it has been the strongest theme and we have now been tackling my OCD with ERP for a year.
I was very fearful that in therapy I would “finally realise that I was not in love with my partner”, but shortly after I realised how many things OCD was not allowing me to do precisely because of that fear. So I pushed through the uncertainty of not knowing the outcome of this therapy. I did tough exposures, set time aside almost daily, especially in the beginning, to tackle my scripts. I have gone through several spikes throughout the year, periods where numbness takes over and feel like I’m back at square one. There are still periods of confusion, but they are less frequent. Some days, when OCD makes an appearance, I surrender to not knowing how I feel about my partner, not knowing if I do “enough” yoga to be a teacher, not knowing if I’ll be able to marry this man, not knowing in my parents get into an accident and die without me talking to them first, now knowing if I’ll die from breast cancer or any other cancer, not knowing if I have a “healthy enough” diet, not knowing if I’ll break up with my partner tomorrow or never. There are days where I still give into compulsions and have anxiety, because it’s part of living with OCD.
But progress has definitely been made and it’s something I want to recognise and akcnowledge. In January 2018, I finally got moved from regular weekly sessions to “booster” sessions that happen once a month. I am trying to make a decision about whether or not I should take meds to decrease obsessional intensity. I have educated myself about the disorder, established a mindfulness practice that helps navigate the urges as well as self-soothe. I am learning to be more self-compassionate with myself and prioritise my own wellbeing. Thanks to this, I have found ways to make my life more fulfilling than it was when this disorder formally entered my life and therapy, mindfulness, yoga, a good support system and reading books about OCD (like Everyday Mindfulness for OCD by Shala Nicely and John hershfield) have played a big role in that. I am and will be forever trying to make friends with the unknown and the uncertainty that comes with it, but I am willing to put in the hard work and put my commitments ahead of my comfort and definitely ahead of my fears. I’ve seen first-hand that the hard work does pay off and it does get better. ERP is a lifestyle, like my therapist says, and if we want to see long-lasting change, most times that requires changes in our lifestyle. So seeing life, not just OCD, as one big exposure is my new lifestyle. And even though my recovery has been far from perfect (I see you OCD, there’s no such thing!), and I am still learning to navigate the OCD waters, I feel that I successfully have taken some of my life back from OCD. And in the meantime, I have also become a braver version of myself and to me that is a huge achievement.
I am keen to share some of my recovery learnings, tools, and practices in a part two of this post, so please stay tuned.
Relationship OCD comics on Instagram: @rocdcomics