Taming the beast: OCD, body dysmorphia, and depression

I’m writing this with the hope that, if we openly speak about that which we so often mention in hushed tones, we can begin the process of helping those who suffer in silence.

I am a son, a brother, an uncle, a friend, a boyfriend, and a writer. I am also a murderer, I’ve contaminated people with infectious diseases, I’ve seen my cat die in a horrific house fire, I’ve run over countless people with my car, I’ve committed the most heinous moral, ethical, and sexual sacrilege, and at my worst… I believe these accusations my mind has concocted against me. I’m writing this for myself. I’m writing this for every person affected in some way, directly or indirectly, by the beasts that are OCD, body dysmorphia, and depression. I’m writing this with the hope that, if we openly speak about that which we so often mention in hushed tones, we can begin the process of helping those who suffer in silence.

I’ve had what can only be considered the most trying year of my life. No, I didn’t endure some sort of traumatic loss of a loved one, I wasn’t on the front-line of a war, I still have a decent paying job, and my limbs are all intact. But sometimes everything is awash in gray. Existence loses its color. Purpose is indefinable. I’m merely a vessel that’s physically here but emotionally and spiritually dead. That short story I wanted to write and submit to hopefully kick-start my writing career? Absolutely no interest—I’m the most uncreative, talentless person to ever live. Driving the thirty or so minutes to go visit my parents? Maybe next weekend—I’m a terrible, lousy son. Cleaning the apartment? I just can’t be bothered—Man, I’m such a slob. Breathing? Christ, who thought a basic physiological function could be so hard—I’m so lazy. My boyfriend hasn’t texted because he’s busy? It’s no wonder—You’re an inadequate partner and he doesn’t really love you. You don’t even love yourself… Most of the time, at least. When did your self-worth train derail? Did it ever leave the station?

“You’re handsome.”

“Wow. You’re a good looking guy.”

“You’re one of the cutest guys here.”

“Your boyfriend is a lucky man.”

My embarrassing admission is that I’ve heard many of these things throughout my adult life. Embarrassing, not because I get red in the face and secretly love the adulation, but because throughout my twenties I’d always felt like a monster. Grievous. Hideous. Sometimes I still do, unfortunately. How could they say such things? Don’t they see me? My God, the lighting in this bathroom is terrible. Have I always had this many freckles? Is that a new wrinkle forming on my forehead? I lift weights almost every day, why do I still feel like a weak, puny mess? I hate my beard. You need a tan. Why did you cover yourself in tattoos? You’re worthless. It wasn’t until I reached thirty this year that I began the slow and often agonizing process of assessing my body dysmorphia which, as some of you may know, is a debilitating subset listed in the DSM-5’s section on Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.

I was once told, “For someone with OCD, you really don’t seem like you have it.” As laypeople, most of us are used to seeing and hearing the stories of distressed obsessive compulsive disorder sufferers who can’t seem to wash their hands enough to feel clean, who flip light switches on and off a set amount of times to avoid perceived doom, who are painfully superstitious, can’t touch certain surfaces for fear of being contaminated, or who desire such neatness and order in their homes that their entire day is consumed. On the flip side of the obsessive compulsive disorder coin is the silent yet malignant face of this condition called Pure-O, which is characterized by a constant bombardment of distressing, unwanted intrusive thoughts or images regarding behaviors like violence, sexual deviance, pedophilia, disease, death, blasphemy, and countless other forms of depravity. These thoughts, or obsessions, are met with mental rumination or an attempt at applying logic, better known as compulsions.

Perhaps these things resonate with some of you. Perhaps they don’t. What I do hope for, though, is that someone reading this can glean insight or even the smallest amount of impetus to have enough compassion for themselves to begin helping themselves.

At the depths of this debilitating disorder of cognitive distortion, the idea that there could be a God or a higher power seems unfathomable to many of us. The sheer level of mental, emotional, or even physical torture we endure at times as sufferers at the hand of OCD, its related conditions, and depression seems interminable. If we’re lucky, there’s the occasional glimmer of clarity where we feel what most others not hampered by a set of chronic, intrusive mental health issues must feel. Things smell different. They look different. They even feel different. The impressionist painting that has been our lives up to this point is suddenly cohesive. The succession of dots and splatters meld into each other creating a narrative we could be content with. It makes… Sense? Then The Devil awakens from his slumber and lays waste to things all over again. Just like that, our existence becomes the personification of Edvard Munch’s masterpiece The Scream. Swirls of multi-hued hopelessness envelope us and we mourn for our souls, it seems. We think about a life that we’ve maybe had small bites of but have never been able to fully savor. I, for one, think about the man that I’ve become who knows how to write about an idyllic life where he’s one with his mind but has never really lived one. I think about the boy inside me still carrying a torch, holding hope for a better day, even if it is literally twenty-four solid hours of peace. I think about what life can be like when I finally make it out on the other side. And I will. Dammit, I will. And you will. We all will.

This is the first time I tell my story to any level of detail outside of my own head or the anecdotes I’ve given friends and family. This is the first time I admit that the image of myself I see when my body dysmorphia is at its worst has brought me to tears– Me… The big, macho guy covered in tattoos who looks like a rugby player. This is the first time I openly admit to complete strangers that at my most depressed I wished someone would shoot me in the head to put me out of my misery. This is the first time I admit to anyone who will listen that my Pure-O has brought me to my knees and nearly destroyed my romantic relationship as well as that with myself and the world around me. This is the first time I admit things need to change and I need to become my own mental health advocate. This is the first time in a very long time… That I see hope at the end of this tunnel. It may be far, but it’s there.

I wish I had all the answers. I sincerely do. If I did, I’ve give them to all of you and all the future generations who may experience some or all of these issues. I’d drop pamphlets from a plane detailing how to overcome OCD, body dysmorphia, and depression in as few steps as possible. We could get on with our lives, love our loved ones more, laugh harder, dance more, sleep better, and run through the streets rejoicing in being alive. More importantly, we could learn to stop being so hard on ourselves and stop feeling like our thoughts define us or are indicative of our true feelings. We could, dare I say, learn to love ourselves again or maybe begin to love ourselves for the first time ever. It’s a beautiful thought, isn’t it?

Whichever path you choose—Medication, CBT and ERP, therapy, mindfulness, meditation, reading, or even your own self-constructed journey, just know that there’s hope once you’ve made the decision. I know it doesn’t seem that way at times, and sometimes even convincing myself of the fact is arduous, but there’s hope that maybe, just maybe, you can learn to tame the beast and regain control of your being. I’m just now beginning my journey… If you haven’t already, give it a try. If you already have, don’t give up.

Jonathan Fleming

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