Between the ages of 12 and 14 I was afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder, though I didn’t fully know it at the time. It wasn’t until years later in college when I was actually given time to think and reflect on it did I realize that it was, in fact, f̶u̶l̶l̶-̶s̶c̶a̶l̶e̶ c̶o̶m̶p̶l̶e̶t̶e̶ t̶o̶t̶a̶l̶ full-blown OCD.
When I came to this realization, I can’t even begin to describe to you the feeling I had. Living with OCD was a lonely, frustrating, and hopeless experience for me, especially at such a young age. When I was going through it at the time, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought I was fully alone in my weird habits and thoughts and rituals and I was afraid that nobody could possibly understand what I was s̶u̶f̶f̶e̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ e̶n̶d̶u̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ b̶e̶a̶r̶i̶n̶g̶ going through. So while it was happening, I felt truly alone in the world, an isolation that was amplified by the already cosmic loneliness that comes naturally only as a teenager. So when I read about OCD in my intro to psychology textbook, my vast teenage loneliness in one fell swoop became reconciled, my fears and alienation documented meticulously, and my psyche prodded and laid bare for all to see. The darkness of those years was finally given a name for what it was: a mental illness.
And that’s exactly what it was: an illness.
Most people have this t̶w̶i̶s̶t̶e̶d̶ m̶i̶s̶g̶u̶i̶d̶e̶d̶ i̶g̶n̶o̶r̶a̶n̶t̶ i̶n̶a̶c̶c̶u̶r̶a̶t̶e̶ warped idea of what OCD really is. Most people think that it’s this innocuous thing, like a personality tic or flair or choice or something. I would bet that at least at one time in your life you’ve heard someone proudly proclaim something along the lines of, “That picture is slightly crooked, I need to fix it! I’m so OCD!” or, “That floor tile isn’t facing the right way! I’m SO” etc. etc.
OCD, real OCD, isn’t like that at all. It’s much, much more i̶n̶s̶i̶d̶i̶o̶u̶s̶ p̶e̶r̶v̶a̶s̶i̶v̶e̶ sinister than that. The best description that I can come up with is that it’s like a parasite that attaches itself to your mind and grows and grows and slowly infects every aspect of your life. It’s like a slow, unceasing progression. It starts in your thoughts, then your behavior, then your personality, and soon, it messes up your relationships with other people. It creeps like an invisible force that compels you to do things you don’t want to do, hate doing, and make you hate yourself for doing.
Sure the picture is crooked, and you feel compelled to fix it — but would you take the time to stand there and fix it 25 times, adjusting it at every single angle between 45 and 90 degrees, three times over while your hand shakes and your skin feels like it’s m̶e̶l̶t̶i̶n̶g̶ c̶r̶a̶w̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ r̶i̶p̶p̶i̶n̶g̶ peeling off? And the worst part of it all is knowing that you feed this force, this fear, and that you are responsible for all of your pain and misery… but all the time you’re powerless in the face of this immovable, immutable fear.
You feel like you’re going to die. Sometimes you feel that death would be a release. Your daily life becomes so unnatural that you may as well be dead. No human being could ever live like this, you think. But that’s the thing about OCD. Its worst trick is that it swallows you whole but doesn’t let you die.
My specific condition was called scrupulosity, a form of OCD that preys upon a person’s moral and religious fears. The fears of being an evil person, of going to hell and of divine retribution for one’s sins, are the main reasons why people with this condition do the obsessive rituals they do. Raised a Roman Catholic, the fear of God was instilled in me at a very young age.
And so, as a big-headed and lonely 12-year-old, I aimed an entire religious machine directly onto myself. I was born with original sin. I had to cleanse myself, and this manifested itself in the form of u̶n̶c̶o̶n̶t̶r̶o̶l̶l̶a̶b̶l̶e̶ i̶r̶r̶e̶s̶i̶s̶t̶i̶b̶l̶e̶ compulsive hand washing. Not only was I dirty, but everything else was too, as if everything was infected with a disease. So a floor with toys strewn about it turned into a field littered with mines. I had to carefully tip-toe across the room avoiding each object like death. And if a tiny bit of me even so much as grazed a toy, I’d have to stop in the middle of the room and touch the thing a certain number of times, then run into the bathroom and then scrub my hands x amount of times.
I had these other C̶r̶a̶z̶y̶ c̶r̶a̶z̶Y̶ c̶r̶A̶z̶y̶ c̶r̶a̶Z̶y̶ c̶R̶a̶z̶y̶ crazy rituals that I had to do every single day without fail. Everyday when I came home I made myself run up and down the stairs at least half a dozen times, and I wouldn’t let myself stop unless I had done it perfectly. I had to count the seconds I stood in the shower, and until I counted them perfectly, I couldn’t get out even after the water had long become frigid. Everything was my cross to bear, and mine alone.
Try living life like that, d̶a̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶a̶n̶d̶ ̶d̶a̶y̶ ̶o̶u̶t̶ day in and day out.
Life becomes artificial, constructed, stilted. Everything could kill you if you didn’t do things perfectly. Doing even the most menial things became an exercise in extreme patience, willpower, and mental-sometimes physical-effort.
You try to live your life one way but your mind and body have different plans. Life is a round hole, but your mind’s a square peg and your body’s a triangle. Everybody else lives on an x-y graph, but you try to live on the z axis. They work and conspire against you, and don’t let you do the things you want to do-which is to just live normally and naturally without fear. Nothing you do is right. Everything you do is wrong and your rituals barely help. Every thought, every action, becomes toxic.
Obsessive compulsive disorder doesn’t make sense by any system of logic and reason except your own. But it’s under the false banner of “logic” and “reason” that you do these things. I think at the heart of it all is fear. You’re afraid of everything — of the world, of the unknown, of the unstructured, of the chaotic, of the unpredictable, of what will happen if you stop doing these things-so you construct these arbitrary rules and schema and logic systems so that the world can start to even make a bit of sense. It keeps the tragedy away. It gives you whatever comfort you think you need.
I got out of it eventually. It wasn’t through any medication or therapy, but by sheer force of will: I used my own OCD’s system against itself (but that’s a story for another time). But remnants of this behavior still manifest themselves even today. It’s part of who I am and it’s not something I can change. I often find myself editing a post that I wrote over and over again, removing an errant period or comma here or there, saving it, and then going back and adding it and removing it all over again. Sometimes I force myself to re-read something over and over again just to make sure I know exactly what it was saying, even though I got the general gist of it five readings ago. I’m still obsessive and particular about my word choice, which, I suppose, helps as a writer. It isn’t as drastic or as life-stopping as before, but it’s always there, just creeping in the back of my head.
There are always those thoughts. I always wonder what I would be like if I didn’t lose two years of my life to OCD. If my entire life didn’t just come to a complete standstill. Would I still be the same person I am today? Was it inevitable? If it didn’t happen when I was 12, would it have hit me sooner or later?
Maybe it was the person I was meant to be all along. What an even scarier thought. How can you even think of mental illness without being fatalistic? That there was nothing I could have done to stop it, nothing I could have done to prevent it. Maybe it was always just lurking in the dark corners of my mind, waiting for the perfect time for something to trigger it, strike, and c̶o̶n̶s̶u̶m̶e̶ d̶e̶v̶o̶u̶r̶ T̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶o̶v̶e̶r̶ T̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶O̶v̶e̶r̶ t̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶O̶v̶e̶r̶ T̶A̶K̶E̶ ̶O̶V̶E̶R̶ take over.
If you or someone you know has OCD or exhibits obsessive compulsive behavior, don’t be afraid to get help. There are many options available for you to get help, or you contact your doctor. You are not alone.
Follow Dan Truong on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dentwrong
Related CE Course
Psychological Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Fundamentals and Beyond is an 8-hour test-only course. This CE test is based on the book “Psychological Treatment of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Fundamentals and Beyond” (2006, 328 pages). The chapters in this practical and insightful guide for helping individuals with this troubling disorder, written by prominent specialists, provide practical, step-by-step descriptions of psychological approaches to treating OCD. After explicating the general, underlying features of the disorder, the contributors to this volume describe evidence-based behavioral and cognitive approaches, such as exposure and ritual prevention and cognitive restructuring. Subsequent chapters discuss how to apply these strategies with particular presentations of OCD, including fears of contamination; doubting and checking; incompleteness concerns; religious, sexual, and aggressive obsessions; and compulsive hoarding. Also included are discussions of more advanced issues, including dealing with treatment resistance and comorbidity and treating OCD in special populations.
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