For people like me who have obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s as if we have two brains.
We have our own brain, the true us. Then we have the OCD brain, that fearful and panicky part of us we would so very much love to flush down the toilet. And what’s funny is that, while many worry we might hurt ourselves or others, the majority of us with OCD don’t have a bit of “do harm” in our bones.
We are kind, sympathetic people. But, alas, as so many of us know, being kind and sympathetic doesn’t always mean things will be smooth.
I started showing signs of OCD around age 8, but it did not become severe until my 20s. I was initially diagnosed by a counselor at 25.
Treatment takes two main forms. One is through medication, usually using SSRIs but sometimes stronger drugs. The other is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy called “exposure and response,” where you attempt to change the way your mind responds to specific cues by overt exposure.
I continue to undergo both forms of therapy. I take medication daily and have a counselor I regularly see.
Simple counseling sessions with a trained professional could be all some people need, however.
The American Psychiatric Association website, www.psychiatry.org, defines OCD as “an anxiety disorder in which time-consuming obsessions and compulsions significantly interfere with a person’s routine, making it difficult to work or to have a normal social life. OCD often begins in childhood, adolescence or early adulthood. Afflicting over four million Americans, OCD is equally common in men and women and knows no geographic, ethnic, or economic boundaries.”
The Mayo Clinic website, www.mayoclinic.com, delves a little deeper into the psychological mechanics of the affliction, describing a vicious cycle “in which you have unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to engage in repetitive behaviors (compulsions)... (Y)ou may realize that your obsessions aren’t reasonable, and you may try to ignore them or stop them. But that only increases your distress and anxiety. Ultimately, you feel driven to perform compulsive acts in an effort to ease your distress.”
When I talk about the fear that someone with OCD experiences, I am not talking about a normal level of concern, say, about your parents when they are traveling by plane to visit you. I am talking an internal hysterical panic at even the mere thought.
It’s the kind of panic you feel if you turned around while walking through the mall and couldn’t see your toddler. Something faulty happens in our brain that heaps up the panic and fear to an extraordinary level, and to alleviate that insane fear we must carry out the rituals we have learned to rely on.
My obsessive thoughts, unfortunately, center on the fear of myself hurting someone or someone being hurt because of something I did or failed to do. Because of this, I carry out compulsions — those pesky repetitive behaviors —to ease the fear.
Just recently, my fears and thoughts have centered on the idea that I am a neglectful mother. Am I? Emphatically, NO!!! But I have made some mistakes along the motherhood trail. Who hasn’t?
Unfortunately for me, OCD carries a heavy burden of perfectionism. I see every mistake I made as a huge catastrophe. He fell and bumped his noggin; I must be completely neglecting him.
That’s crazy logic, right? But that’s just the point; there is ZERO logic with OCD. And the worst part of OCD is that each of us with OCD knows that there is no logic to it, but, still, we can’t help ourselves.
I will remember a time I messed up (or I think I messed up), then I will panic and worry about how awful it was. Then I will start to get over the worry and feel better and know that I am not a bad mother. But then ... OCD raises it’s head up in the back of my brain and tells me “wait a second, do you remember all those other times you messed up, let me remind you of those ... and if you can’t fully remember if or how you messed up, well I will just create a new, worse memory for you to gnaw with panic on.”
In my mind, the obsession factor is the worst part, but compulsions are the part of it most noticed, seen, witnessed.
Probably my No. 1 compulsion is washing my hands. It’s kind of my go-to compulsion when I don’t know what else to do. When I am compelled to wash my hands, I have to wash them until they FEEL clean to me. This often is accomplished with two washings (sometimes, miraculously, one), but it is not uncommon for me to be stuck at the sink quite some time.
Unfortunately for me, most of my thoughts are focused on whether I have harmed someone purposefully or by something I did or didn’t do. When thoughts flash to me that I did or didn’t do something and it harmed someone, I will wash my hands. If I have one of these bad thoughts while I am washing my hands, I have to continue washing them for an unset amount of time.
Perhaps my second biggest compulsion is checking things a lot, and I like checking things in threes. A light switch will get turned on/off three times or in combinations of threes (six or nine or 12). If I can’t physically touch something or move something three times, I will count in threes in my head. All part of the OCD game, I’m afraid.
Two other biggies for me are confession and reassurance.
I feel overwhelmingly compelled to confess anything and everything. Every little thought that comes into my brain I have to fight like a banshee to keep from pouring from my mouth. I have to fight it everyday, every hour.
As well, I constantly seek reassurance that everything is OK. There have been days that I have continuously called or texted people all day long to make sure nothing has happened.
I intuitively know nothing has gone wrong, but my brain tricks me into believing that something might have happened. It is not uncommon, for instance, for folks with OCD to confess to crimes they didn’t commit, because we don’t always know if we can trust our own memories.
Anyone reading this may think to themselves, what the heck, I worry about what happens, too, but I don’t need to wash my hands 40 times or flip a switch on and off three times.
To those people, first let me say I am beyond jealous. Secondly, let me say that those of us with OCD don’t have much choice in the matter.
I do not wish to wash my hands 50 to 75 times a day.
I do not wish to do things in threes all the time.
I do not wish to pick at my lips and not even know I’m doing so.
I do not wish to avoid physical contact or avoid writing things or avoid watching things.
But I do.
These are some of my overwhelming compulsions that cause me to carry out these repetitive behaviors and makes it ever so difficult to fight them. There are so many more. For now, I will leave you with this rather generalized introduction to OCD in hopes to further confide in you all the inner circuitry of this condition.
And if, in the meantime, you meet someone with OCD, maybe you might be a little more understanding.
Tara Wyrembelski is a Walla Walla mother who writes a blog on living with OCD at littleOCDme.blogspot.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org