I was finally going to be able to live my life instead of just fantasizing about living it
When my older brother pointed out more than five years ago that we both show symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder, I immediately dismissed the idea. At the time, the only knowledge I had of OCD came from bad TV. I’d never experienced contamination-based anxiety, and so I didn’t understand where my brother was coming from. When he explained that there are many manifestations of the disorder, I felt defensive. After all, I’d always harbored fantasies of winning the argument against my mind; why did he have to bring logic into this?
While my compulsive behavior is pretty fluid and has allowed me to enjoy a variety of the various different themes over the years, the one constant source of anxiety for me has been “Pure O”. I get feelings that my life is going to be somehow incomplete or even outright meaningless, and this train of thought causes me to constantly perform mental checks to ensure I’m living the “correct” life. I have to keep in mind what I perceive to be the official meaning of existence, and in moments when I fail to do this I feel like my actions are “unofficial”, that they don’t count as a part of my actual life. Because of the nature of these thoughts, I assumed for years that this was some sort of ongoing philosophical/spiritual crisis; it never crossed my mind that I was ill in any way.
I grew up with these thoughts; I can’t remember a time without them. As I matured, my rituals matured with me, always managing to adapt as my values changed over the years. As a kid, my compulsions were more overt. If I felt “off-track”, I would have to do certain things in order to “reset” myself, like clicking the top and bottom rows of my teeth together, or standing perfectly straight and saying the word “beginning” out loud. What’s worse is that these actions had to “feel correct”. My teeth, for example, would have to line up in a way that I judged to be perfect, so I’d have to click them together until I got it right. In later years I laughed at the idea of this, thinking I’d gotten over the issue without realizing, of course, that my compulsions had simply shifted and were now more cleverly disguised.
At age fifteen, I convinced myself that I’d achieved self-actualization (though I didn’t know that exact term at the time) when I turned my life around after a self-destructive transition into teenagehood. At the time, this was the best day of my life, though it would soon become the ultimate source of anxiety for many years to come. Inevitably, I began to fixate on this day, considering it to be a “rebirth” of sorts. I became obsessed with this newfound happiness and decided that it was the meaning of life. I was no longer allowed to feel negative emotions; I was above that now. If I had a bad day, I’d have to remember “02/15/2003”, the date of my rebirth, to get that “right” feeling. One of my big points of pride was that I’d outgrown my overt compulsions, and so mentally checking to make sure I had no compulsions also became a fundamental compulsion in my life. Realizing this inconsistency (while still unaware that it was OCD), I became conflicted and confused; was I allowed to use “215” as a fix-all ritual? Was I weak for having to use this crutch? What if I wasn’t really happy? What if I wasn’t fully-actualized like I thought? What would my life mean then?
For over a decade after that one remarkable day in February, I was too afraid to drop the “215” ritual. It was my proudest moment in life, it was how I defined myself as a human being, I was certain that I’d cease to exist without it. I told myself that I should simply stop feeding this argument and it would go away over time. I agreed to stop feeding the argument on one condition; that I would still view that day as my “rebirth”. After all, “215” wasn’t always just some absurd obsession, it started out as a very motivational event, and so I could justify being motivated by it as long as I didn’t actively perform my old ritual. With this logic, I was able to “secretly” worship that date because I somehow paired it with the idea of no longer feeding my inner conflict. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I realized that my rebirth was actually just another attempt to reset, and I began to criticize myself for being inconsistent with my values again. If this story is becoming a little hard to follow, then you’re beginning to understand how I felt about it as well.
About three years ago, I heard about a method of thinking which involves just observing thoughts and letting them pass instead of trying to fight them, an idea which immediately resonated with me. I could sense that this was what I had to do, and yet I didn’t do it because I was too afraid of what would happen if I let go of control. Finally, about a month ago, I was driving home from work and engaging in a heated argument with myself. I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt like I was going to have a psychotic break, and so I simply dropped out of the argument and stopped adding to it. For the following minute or so, I panicked like I never had before. My OCD was screaming at me, telling me I had to finish the conversation. I couldn’t simply let those thoughts go unfinished because I might miss out on some important revelation. To top it off, I fueled this anxiety by facing my fear that maybe life does not have meaning, and that I can’t actually frame it all within the boundaries of “215”. I felt like I was falling, like I would actually die without this numeric mantra holding me in place, and I’d actually had such a bad day that I was able to face that fear with a healthy dose of anger. “Fine, I’ll die. This is no way to live anyway.” When the smoke cleared, I realized I was still alive. The first thing I noticed was that the music I was playing sounded infinitely better when I was actually listening to it instead of locking myself inside my head. As the realization that I’d survived the ordeal became more and more concrete, I felt a huge surge of adrenaline. The idea hit me that I was finally going to be able to live my life instead of just fantasizing about living it, and I was so ecstatic about this prospect that I was crying by the time I approached my neighborhood.
I decided after this that it was time to talk with my brother again about OCD, and it was the first time we’d really discussed it fully. It was such a surreal feeling when he told me how similar his compulsions/rituals were. He’s been my best friend my whole life and yet we’d never talked about our OCD. I could have had someone to talk to about this stuff for years, but was too afraid that speaking about it out loud would somehow cause any progress in the fight against my mind to unravel. Knowing that I wasn’t the only one with this intrusive thinking was such a huge weight off my shoulders. The problem was no longer elusive and mysterious, it had a name and was treatable.
In the month since I’ve started my recovery, I haven’t always been as euphoric as I was in that first week. In fact, it’s been incredibly turbulent. Understanding the difference between rational and irrational worry is difficult when you’ve been engaging in nothing but worry for over twenty years. Furthermore, realizing that it doesn’t matter whether your worries are rational or irrational is an even more challenging concept to grasp. On top of all this, a lot of my obsessions are based around the idea of perfection, so often I have to take a step back and realize that I’m becoming obsessed with eliminating my obsessions. The OCD tries to trick me into solving itself within its own boundaries, and I have to be careful that this latest breakthrough doesn’t simply become another “215”. On the bright side, if it wasn’t for one particularly rough weekend I had this month, I would never have found this community online. The YouTube channels hosted by Katie d’Ath, Stuart Ralph and Mark Freeman have been instrumental in helping me to dig even deeper, and I’m so grateful that there are people like them in the world offering free, accessible support.
If you’re living with obsessive compulsive disorder, talk about it with someone you trust. You’ll gain a lot more insight than you think by simply by putting the thoughts into words and speaking them aloud. Also, remember that if you start cutting out compulsions and find yourself terrified and uncertain of your footing, then you’re probably on the right track. Above all, keep in mind that your ultimate goal is to get better; don’t let the difficult steps of recovery become additional obsessions to ruminate on.