I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t anxious. As a kid, I worried about small things, big things, even existential things, for as long as I can remember. Two early examples, from when I was probably about 5-6 years old, that come to mind are:
1- When I realized that one day, the 1990s were going to end. I sobbed to my mom, wondering what was going to happen when we weren’t living in the 90s anymore.
2- I had a terrible thought that I didn’t love my dad as much as I loved my mom, and in my head, this was very, very wrong. I, again, sobbed about this to my poor mom, who did her best to comfort me as I then began to list off every person I didn’t think I loved enough in my life.
Growing up, my parents loved watching Law and Order, and other TV shows revolving around murder and other terrible crimes. I began to worry that something like what happened on these shows would happen to me, or worse, that I would somehow become the bad guy and be responsible for one of the awful things that always happened on those shows. Horror movies and books gave me similar worries. I saw The Omen at around 11 or 12, and worried that maybe I was a child of the devil.
My Christian faith was always important to me, and this played into these thought patterns. I obsessed over questions like: Am I making sure I’m good enough? Did I do something that would be the one thing that would keep me from being able to be loved by God? Am I going to turn into one of those crazy people who thought God was telling them to do something awful? What if God did tell me to do something terrible to prove my faith? Am I actually evil?
This thought cycle reached its most distressing level when at about age 14-15, I went to get something from the kitchen while my mom was in our den watching TV. As I walked by the knife drawer, I thought about the possibility that I could take a knife from the drawer, walk down the stairs, and use the knife to kill my mom. Immediately, my thoughts began to spiral. I loved my mom more than anybody- how could this even enter my mind? I couldn’t get the images of myself hurting my mom out of my head.
My life from then on became about fighting these thoughts and images. I tried to avoid being alone with my thoughts, because any time my mind was not occupied, these terrible images would flood in. I sometimes prayed continuously, trying to use the right words to rid myself of this idea, thinking that maybe God could somehow assure me that I would never harm my mother. I read books chapters and chapters of books at night, trying to fill my mind with something besides tortured thoughts. I even played games with myself to try to get an outcome that would prove I would never act on this thought of killing my mom.
My life became miserable. I had always been close to my family but I couldn’t enjoy being around them because I was afraid I had this horrible secret that had the potential to destroy everything. I became confused about God (did God put this idea in my head? What does that mean? Is God telling me to kill my mom? If so, would that mean I would have to put my mom above God in order to not do it?)
Then one day, on a car trip, I read an article in Seventeen magazine about obsessive-compulsive disorder. It was a full feature article describing one girl’s struggle, then listing symptoms of OCD. As I read it, I had this frightening, sinking feeling that it was describing me. Did this make me crazy? Crazy people are the ones who do commit murder! And also, maybe I was making up an excuse for these scary thoughts when really it was God or something, right?
I told my mom some of the thoughts I had been having and showed her the article. I am so thankful for her gentle and nonjudgmental listening, and her seeing my real need for help beyond what she could give on her own. She set up an appointment for me with a child psychologist.
I had protested against this, mostly because I did not want to tell my worries to anyone, for fear of what they might think of me. But, I knew I needed help. One thing that made a big difference for me in getting started, and I would recommend to others, was that I wrote my psychologist a letter before we really had our first meeting. I laid out in detail everything about what I had been mentally going through, all the gory details, as much as I wanted her to know, but didn’t want to say out loud. Looking back now, I think this was really helpful in me being able to get all of my fears and worries out and for my therapist to understand what I was going through.
My therapist diagnosed me with OCD. We did cognitive behavioral therapy and what I now know is exposure and response prevention: she had me speak what I was most afraid of aloud into a tape recorder, and I had to listen to it over and over again. I specifically remember this part because I was terrified to do this at first, but it was extremely helpful. She also helped me to recognize thoughts as intrusive and not holding meaning.
Eventually, when I was probably about 16, I “graduated” from weekly therapy when I had learned how to manage these thoughts. For the most part, even though I had a random intrusive thought from time to time, I thought I had conquered my OCD. As an adult, if I ever told anyone about this time of my life, I would say I had OCD when I was a teenager- past tense, not present. For my own life, I had put OCD in this one box of my specific thoughts about harming my mom. I didn’t realize it could show up in new ways.
One way I believe OCD began to show up was in my relationships. Or rather, my lack of relationships. I’ve always been a romantic, and have somewhat idolized the idea of true love. I have also always had a fear of ending up in the wrong relationship, stuck with someone out of habit or ease rather than real love. To me, that would be worse than being alone. I think this made it hard for me to date at all, because as soon as it seemed like something might happen romantically with someone, I started to let my anxiety take over. I would get to the point where it seemed like a relationship was about to start with a friend or someone I had a crush on, but then, I would freak out, feeling like something wasn’t right anymore.
For a long time, the only “real” relationship I had was a three-month relationship with a guy in college. He was very cute, we got along great, we had great chemistry and similar values and sense of humor. Before we started dating, conversation was so easy and fun. But as soon as things got official, I began to obsess. Was he only using me for a physical relationship? Again, God came into it- would God want me to be with him? Was I just giving in to my own desires instead of listening to God? I worried that anything we did together physically was wrong and must be stopped, and meant he was the wrong person for me. I worried about it constantly, to the point where I even had hives on and off. It began to be awkward around him because my fears made me insecure about everything he said or did. Finally, he got frustrated with the different person I had seemed to turn into, and we broke up.
I never connected this to my OCD. I also never found a relationship that stuck, and had a hard time even committing to a first date with anyone I didn’t think would be perfect.
Then, I met the guy who is now my boyfriend. From the get-go, I was anxious about our relationship. Was he the one? Should I stop dating him if I already have a feeling that he’s not? Having these thoughts made it hard to completely enjoy even our first dates, when I couldn’t have possibly known whether he was the right person or not. He let me know early on that he is not a Christian, which again gave me faith-related worries- am I prioritizing a man over God?
We have now been together for over two years, and have talked about marriage and moving in together- but I still worry about whether he is “right” for me. I worry about whether I truly love him or am just kidding myself because I want to be in a relationship. I worry that we don’t have enough in common, that I don’t find him attractive enough, that I am just faking it because it is easier than breaking up. I am generally a conflict-averse person who tried to keep everybody happy- is this the only reason why I don’t break up with him?
He is steady, kind, funny, thoughtful, smart, adventurous, and so many other things that I love. But part of me wonders still if there is someone else out there who would match me better, who would bring out better parts of me, who would help me live my life more fully than my boyfriend can.
Did it feel right when we said “I love you” to each other? One morning, I woke up with the thought “I don’t love him, I just want to love him.” That thought is sitll one I struggle with.
During one particularly distressing episode of these thoughts, I realized that it felt similar to the way I had felt when dealing with OCD as a teenager. I was having the same overwhelming “woosh”ing feeling associated with the dreaded thoughts, the need to overanalyze, the mental compulsion to try to get the thoughts out of my brain, and the ultimate inability to get away from the thoughts. Then, I looked back on the other romantic moments and relationships in my life and noticed this thread of anxiety running through them all.
When I looked back and saw this pattern in my life, it was another sign to me that maybe OCD had attached itself to my relationships and feelings about love. I did a Google search to see if there was such a thing as relationship-related OCD. I had never heard this was a possibility for OCD sufferers. But sure enough, an article popped up about rOCD. I cried with a sense of relief and as I read through the list of signs of rOCD, seeing myself in so many of them.
I finally talked to my boyfriend about the thoughts I had been having, and explained to him that I thought they might be connected to my OCD. He was incredibly understanding and has been so patient and loving through all of this, but still struggles with hearing my doubts, worrying that he needs to perform a certain way for me, or that he is going to lose me.
I found a therapist a few months ago, and described to her that I thought I was experiencing OCD attached to my relationship. While she was a wonderful person, I don’t think she had the training to approach OCD specifically, and we instead talked about my childhood stresses that could have led me to be unable to trust myself, and what I need in relationships- things that I’m sure may be helpful to me at some point, but for now only really added to the things I worried about within my OCD cycles. Through this experience, I have discovered that finding someone who really truly understands OCD is a must for recovery.
Last week, I went to my first appointment with an OCD specialist. It was so comforting to be able to talk with someone who understood what my mind had been doing. She gave me a questionnaire specifically about relationship OCD, which showed that this is in fact, most likely what is going on with me. This in itself was incredibly affirming to me. I’m looking forward to continuing my work with this therapist.
For me, there is much to hope for, even when OCD feels overwhelming and I worry that it will ruin the big moments in my life.
Hearing the stories of others through this podcast has been very helpful to me in understanding my own experience. I have also found a couple of books to be helpful: the Mindfulness Workbook for OCD, as well as Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts.
Hope comes from working to be present in the moment so I can experience life without worrying about it. In the moments I can manage to live in the present, I can really enjoy my boyfriend and our relationship, and get outside of myself. Hope also comes from intentionally looking for the good qualities in me that are actually related to an over-analytical mind. These have been hard to identify, but I think they are there. For example, I believe OCD gives me a deeper sense of empathy for those struggling with any kind of mental illness. I also have the ability to analyze and see necessary details in a situation that others may miss. My favorite aspect of this type of mind is probably the ability to remember little things about people- which helps me to be a great gift-giver!
I am thankful for this opportunity to share my story, a therapeutic act in itself. And I am thankful for the people around me who have seen the real me even through my struggles with OCD- thank you for reminding me who I am even when I feel like I am a dark and desperate person.
I am hoping to learn how to trust myself, and to trust God, even with and through this OCD. I believe- I know- there is hope for me, and for you.