Author’s note: October 13–19th is OCD Awareness Week.
Imagine all your worst thoughts as a soundtrack running through your mind 24/7, day after day. — Adam Walker
I was twenty when I finally found a description of OCD in my psychology 101 textbook. The symptoms I’d suffered for nearly ten years were listed right there in black and white, delivering an explanation for all the torment I’d endured. I stared down at the page, tears spilling from a place I thought I’d lost long ago. A flicker of hope ignited, then wavered. The beginning of the fight had been silent. Now I had a choice: trust someone with my discovery or continue to suffer. The options were equally terrifying.
I couldn’t decide where to turn. I didn’t want to tell anyone. For more than a week, I kept silent. It was just one more lie of omission, I told myself. In truth, I needed time to process the enormity of what I’d discovered. When I realized I had OCD, the sense of relief at knowing I wasn’t alone was almost euphoric, but the thoughts didn’t stop, nor were they any less panic-inducing.
I was a junior in college and in a committed relationship with the man I would eventually marry. At the same time, I was battling sexual obsessions. Sexual obsessions are a category of intrusive thoughts that affect between 6 and 24% of OCD sufferers (most likely more, since shame keeps many people from admitting the nature of their thoughts.) Common themes include:
- Sexual abuse or violence
- Sexual thoughts about friends
Every day, from the time my eyes opened in the morning until I finally found temporary solace in sleep, I obsessed over fears that I was attracted to women and would act on that “attraction”, usually in some violent way. All of this in spite of the fact that I’d never really felt attracted to a woman, nor was I a violent person by any stretch of the imagination. And I certainly wasn’t morally opposed to same-sex attraction or relationships.
What I didn’t understand at the time is that the nature of the thoughts didn’t matter. What did matter was my reaction to the thoughts, which was typical of untreated OCD. Each time a forbidden thought popped into my head, I’d try to stifle it, distract myself, and keep a stiff upper lip, never letting on what was really going on in my mind.
But the fear was always there, ripping through my stomach each time I left my dorm room, freezing my muscles into knots, and making it virtually impossible for me to sit still. I was always moving, always thinking, always looking for the next distraction to steer my mind, even for a few seconds, away from those neverending, horrific thoughts.
I feared one-on-one time with my female friends. I feared going to class. I feared elevators and crowds and going to work — anyplace where I might be in contact with women was scary as hell. And since women make up roughly half of the population, it was pretty tough to function.
Yet function I did. Somehow, I passed my classes, worked two jobs, and generally kept it together.
The first person I told was my partner. I didn’t tell him the nature of my thoughts, but I told him what I’d read and explained that I thought I had OCD.
We’d been together for all of six months. But he didn’t run. He didn’t look at me with shock or horror. What I saw in his eyes was compassion. He wanted nothing more than to understand and help me.
I told my parents on my next trip home from school. By then I’d been to see a counselor on campus who agreed with my self-diagnosis. Still, I had no idea what to say to my family, or how to bring it up gracefully. Instead, I blurted out one evening “I think I have OCD,” and all eyes were on me.
Scary as it was to share my diagnosis and talk to my family about the disorder, it was a relief to finally talk about my struggles. As I talked, I saw only concern and then dawning acceptance on my parents’ faces. Over the years, they’ve learned a lot about the disorder and how to react and interact with me when it flares up. They love me unconditionally, and they have proven that time and again. For that, I’m enormously grateful.
My journey to acceptance isn’t finished yet. In fact, I’m not sure it ever will be. OCD has left deep scars. I’m careful about who I trust. I still feel shame borne of years of keeping secrets, believing that my thoughts were as bad as actions, and burying part of myself so deeply that I still don’t feel whole.
But I continue to write about it (albeit under a pen name). I write to share what I’ve endured. I write to help others understand. I write with the hope that one day it will be as acceptable to tell someone that I have OCD as it is to tell them I’ve got a migraine or a twisted ankle.
And I write for those who might be suffering silently even now. You are not alone.
More on life with OCD: