Sometimes, unfortunately things have to get worse before they can get better.
It is currently late Saturday night, 10:45pm to be exact. I’m sitting at the desk in my dorm room, surrounded by posters and phrases encouraging me to “Take Courage!” and “Embrace Uncertainty!” I have been reading my medical entomology textbook for the past hour and a half, all the while with the weight of needing to write this essay pressing for my attention. So with my medical entomology reading now done, English reading done, dinner eaten, emails answered, and no longer a strong excuse of something else I could do first to continue avoiding, here I am at my computer at 10:49pm. I am now trying to force myself to finally start writing this essay I told myself I would absolutely write yesterday. This is after I had told myself I would absolutely write the essay a week ago. Oh to live life with OCD and anxiety.
I can remember having OCD my entire life, but I didn’t always know a name for it. I have one strong memory from Kindergarten of insisting that I needed to redo my painting because it wasn’t “perfect,” even when the other kids in the class moved on to a new activity. I remember in elementary school staying up later than an 8-year-old should having to “knock on wood” repetitively because I worried if I didn’t do this or did it the wrong number of times my family would die.
Though I have always had these symptoms of OCD, I quickly became a master at hiding my compulsions (of course I didn’t know yet they were called compulsions) and keeping my fears to myself. At this point in my life, the obsessions and compulsions were annoying but not debilitating to the level that I felt I needed to share them. So I didn’t. These first few years my OCD would focus on one theme at a time, and the theme would gradually change over the years. My obsessions changed from fearing causing my family member’s deaths to fearing causing fires to fearing suffocating. If a compulsion was particularly annoying I would just figure I could wait about a year and it would change into something else, hopefully something less annoying.
So secretly-ritualizing life carried on all throughout middle school and high school. By saying I had a strong ability to hide my rituals, I’m not saying I had an ability to hide all of my anxiety. I was a visually anxious and perfectionistic student in high school. All of my AP teachers, fellow students, guidance counselor, and family can vouch for this. This stress alone and the effect it had on my mood led me to begin therapy. While I sometimes found sessions helpful, there was no way for me to get fully better since OCD was still secretly in the background filling my head with all sorts of thoughts and anxieties. Sometimes, unfortunately things have to get worse before they can get better. My OCD had to get bad enough to make me talk about it before I could start to face it and start to feel better.
College provided the perfect combination of factors for my OCD to get worse. I was away from home, trying to make new friends, adjusting to harder classes, not getting enough sleep, and trying to learn how to live on my own as a “semi-adult.” And boy, did my OCD get worse.
While before my OCD would focus on one obsession at a time for just a few hours of the day, in college my OCD decided “Let’s try every possible obsession at once! And let’s do it all the time!” The posters I saw in the hall about preventing a fire in your dorm room terrified me into unplugging everything anytime I slept or left the room and checking multiple times that I had indeed unplugged everything. Worrying about missing information while reading textbooks led to rereading sentences and paragraphs so many times that reading a few pages would take hours and I effectively could not read. I also became concerned that if I didn’t have water with me at all times and didn’t drink several gulps of water before bed then I would spontaneously dehydrate and die. My worries about becoming depressed again, as I had experienced in high school, led me to avoiding wearing anything blue. I could go on describing the fears I experienced freshman year for a few more paragraphs but let me instead just summarize by saying Morgan + college = OCD explosion.
I can say with a great deal of certainty that this year of my life was by far the worst my OCD had ever been. I can also say with a great deal of hope that it has never been this bad again since beginning treatment.
With OCD fully formed into a screaming monster when I ended freshman year, I finally reached a point where I could not continue to hide what was going on. I had begun to suspect I had OCD for a few months and after researching more about the disorder it was clear to me this matched what I was going through. When I got home I told my mom I thought I had OCD and insisted I see a psychologist to get diagnosed.
To put these first two years of OCD-focused treatment shortly, I was lucky that I heard about ERP (exposure and response prevention therapy) early on when I was first researching OCD. I didn’t waste time trying to figure out what treatment to seek out. I found a therapist who knew ERP and worked on facing my fears throughout that summer and my sophomore year of college. While I did experience some relief from my symptoms, unfortunately my OCD had gotten to the point where it was taking up too much of my time for this level of treatment to be effective. Since I was still doing so many rituals, there wasn’t enough time in the day for me to go to class, do my homework, and work on exposures. Eventually I decided to take a semester off from school. I spent this time at a residential treatment program where for a few weeks I could focus entirely on facing OCD. Having several hours a day to do exposures and other therapy did allow me to greatly reduce the number of rituals I was doing and to improve how I respond to intrusive thoughts.
Even though when I experience intensely stressful moments I can sometimes feel like I haven’t made any progress, reflecting back on where I used to be allows me to see how far I have come. Anxiety about school and grades is still a big issue for me and this does often lead to a depressed mood. But even if I am still in therapy and still working on these issues that continue to bother me, I will never be back at day one when I first accepted that my anxiety was out of control and I needed to get help. Since then, I have learned more about OCD and how it is treated. I have seen myself make progress and know how to apply these techniques to make progress again, even when I have slips and ritualize. I have more experiences in my back pocket of times I was having a panic attack and responded by at least trying a coping technique. And most importantly, I am no longer silent about what is going on in my head.
The single-most influential change that has occurred between the Morgan I was on day one of recovering from OCD and the Morgan I am today is that I speak openly about what I have been through and what I am still going through. This takes a variety of forms, from mentioning my OCD in a casual conversation with a friend to speaking at the IOCDF Annual OCD Conference; from posting a blog post on the internet to filming a video for my university in which I discuss taking a semester off to get treatment for OCD. Shortly after I was diagnosed I made a commitment to myself that I would make an effort to end my silence, the silence I had kept for over ten years. I did this because writing and talking help me feel better. It helps me feel my emotions, rather than avoid them. I get to reflect on how far I have come and what has worked or what hasn’t worked in the past to get me to where I am now. And of course, I get to hear from others with similar experiences who find what I said or wrote even the slightest bit helpful. There are few things that feel better than knowing you have helped someone else by sharing your story.
So here I am at 11:37pm, still sitting at my desk surrounded by motivational posters, only now the hallways outside my room has gotten quieter and the crickets outside my window have gotten louder. I have made it to the end of the essay and can now take pride in the fact that I stopped avoiding and wrote this essay tonight. Just like every exposure before this one, the anxiety was uncomfortable and my gut reaction was to continue avoiding. But like many exposures before this one, I persevered with the hope that things would be better because of it. Tonight the motivation to write and share my story won.
My blog – MyOCDVoice.wordpress.com