My ankles wobbled. My quads ached. My mind raced. What’s the point of this, anyways? Why am I here? Why are any humans here on Earth? My mind bombarded me with these questions on a loop while I was out on a run on an overcast, fall day my senior year of college. These questions had been quietly nagging at me for a few weeks, but without any distractions on a run, they became shouting and unbearable. With each passing day, I found myself out on runs trapped with existential questions that seemed to only grow more important, and my world started to shrink. What had previously been an activity I could turn to for solace quickly turned into a prison for my intrusive thoughts to run wild.
At the time, neither I nor my therapist recognized these symptoms of repeated, obsessive, distressing thoughts or the ritualistic behaviors that followed as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. After all, these are big, philosophical questions that everyone faces at some point in their lives, right? And being on the cusp of a major life transition, of entering my last year of college and starting to apply for jobs, it made sense to many around me that I would ask some of these questions and want to understand what my “purpose” is in life. However, the extent to which these questions controlled my life quickly eclipsed the range of what would be considered normal or healthy. Every time I’d hang out with my friends, I’d probe them on their religious beliefs. I’d call my parents multiple times a day and ask them for reassurance that my life mattered. I’d spend hours awake at night googling the “meaning of life” and I’d find myself deep into the weeds of existential arguments on online chat boards, trying to make sense of it all and find bulletproof, irrefutable, 100% certain answers. While some of these behaviors provided temporary relief, my brain was so adept at coming up with follow-up questions. For every “answer” that I provided my brain, it was able to generate ten more questions that would restart the cycle all over again.
In the meantime, I struggled in all my classes. I couldn’t read more than two sentences of an assigned reading before a question would pop into my head and I’d feel compelled to think it through. I was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and was prone to breaking down into tears multiple times a day. I stopped going to classes because I was so preoccupied by these obsessions that I often felt paralyzed, unable to move out of bed in the morning until I solved them. School began to feel like an impossible mountain and I was given all the wrong tools to climb, and I almost dropped out that semester.
Little did I know that all of these seemingly benign behaviors were considered compulsions and were only feeding the OCD monster in the process, a monster that I still didn’t even recognize as such. It wasn’t until I saw a new therapist after college graduation that I was diagnosed with OCD, and began to understand that all of the behaviors that I believed to be helpful were actually quite harmful and only exacerbated the OCD process. I started taking Zoloft, which put some ground beneath my feet—my lows could only get so low. Around the same time, I also started Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, which for me, meant activities like listening to scripts on a loop where I questioned the meaning of life, reading articles on existentialism and nihilism, or watching videos about the fate of the universe, and then sitting with the extreme discomfort that would follow without reassuring myself or trying to find an answer. And with existential questions, these are the ultimate un-answerables.
The reality is that the OCD tricks you into thinking that you need to have an answer before you can keep going on with your life. You need to know that you haven’t contracted a disease after using a public restroom. You need to know that you won’t harm your loved one. You need to know the meaning of all of this. And the great irony of it all is that not only can’t you ever know the answers with 100% certainty, but that the single-minded pursuit of that certainty will lead you down a path that will close you off to the people that you love and make your world feel astonishingly small. As my current therapist likes to tell me, “The only thing you can know for certain is that trying to find the answers will make you unhappy.”
Although it’s taken me many years, many therapy sessions, and many exposure exercises that have brought me to the point of sobbing, I’ve come closer to accepting my thoughts and allowing them to be there without having to respond to them, figure them out, change them, or push them away. And like many people’s journey with OCD, my “theme” has hopped around, latching onto other things that are important and valuable to me–my relationship or my sense of identity, to name a few. My progress has been far from linear. I still have days where the existential questions once again feel like the only thing that matters, but unlike before, I have more tools to handle them. I’m learning to accept the idea that my intrusive thoughts might not ever fully go away, and that more importantly, they don’t have to go away for me to be able to live a joyful, fulfilled life.
I go out for runs now, and sometimes the thoughts still creep into my mind. Instead of being paralyzed by them, I invite them to come along for the run with me. My world has slowly started to open up again. I might not ever know why I’m here, but at the very least, I intend to do something with the time I have and appreciate the wild journey.