“Sorry, can you take your shoes off? I’m just like super OCD.”
“Dan is seriously OCD. Literally everything in his house is labeled.”
“When I was little, if my crayons weren’t in rainbow order, I would freak out. That’s how OCD I was.”
I heard a lot of people say things like that throughout my life. For a long time, my brain associated wanting things clean and organized with having obsessive-compulsive disorder. I was (and still am) a slob. I’d long forgotten what my bedroom floor looked like because it was perpetually covered in crumpled-up clothing. The contents of every purse I ever used was gum wrappers and receipts and spare change and hardened fruit snacks and partially spent gift cards and more receipts and excess Cheez-It dust and more g*ddamn receipts. So no, there was no way I had OCD. It was that simple. But I knew I wasn’t “normal.” I was neurotic and anxious and overwhelmingly sad. This inexplicable feeling of guilt and shame devoured me from the inside out.
It was a Tuesday night in February of 2010 when I thought this darkness might just kill me. I sat in my bedroom of my off-campus apartment. My boyfriend at the time sat at the foot of my bed and begged me to tell him what was wrong. In between guttural screams and sobs I told him that I didn’t want to live anymore. He scooped up what was left of me, put me in his car and drove the two hours to my parents’ house because that’s what you do when you’re a 21-year-old kid and your girlfriend tells you that she wants to die.
My parents took me to see a therapist the next day. I sat in a modestly decorated office across from a man I didn’t know, my knees tucked to my chest, my hair matted to my head, my face stung by tears and mucus. I was so scared he’d diagnose me with something but even more scared that he wouldn’t. “Fix me,” my bloodshot eyes screamed to him. “Fix me before I break for good.”
I told this stranger everything. I told him how I felt paralyzed by anxiety, how disturbing thoughts swirled in my head every hour of every day, how I questioned absolutely everything. Am I actually a good person? What if I have everyone fooled and I’m actually a deviant sociopath? Do I really love my family? Would I even care if they died? Do I even deserve love from them? From anyone at all? Am I definitely straight? Maybe I’m gay and I’ve just been in denial all of these years. Why would I be in denial about being a lesbian? Does that make me homophobic? Do I have to boycott cereal commercials featuring happy gay couples now? What if I drive on the highway and get into an accident? What if I kill someone? What if it’s an adorable little boy named Charlie? What if I’m convicted of vehicular manslaughter and Charlie’s mom, through her gut-wrenching sobs during her victim’s impact statement, tells me to burn in hell? What if I go to prison and other inmates misconstrue my resting b*tch face for superiority? What if they try to fight me? Jesus Christ, do I have to learn how to fight? Do I really want to put my family through prison visits? Is orange really the new black? Do people even like me? Do I even like me? What if I didn’t wake up tomorrow? Would that be so bad?
I talked until I ran out of breath. The man who suddenly knew all of my secrets paused for a moment. He then proceeded to tell me that I likely suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
“I think you misunderstood me. I can’t have OCD. My room is a mess,” I said to the man with a bunch of degrees hanging on his wall.
He didn’t shake his head, scribble down a prescription, and send me on my not-so-merry way. He educated me. He told me about the complexities of obsessive-compulsive disorder, how obsessions can take form in hundreds of ways, how a cleanliness compulsion isn’t the only form of the disorder, how I likely had the kind of OCD that wasn’t as detectable. It dealt with intrusive thoughts and dwelling on life’s uncertainties and doubting the things you know in your gut to be true.
Maybe this guy who devoted his life to helping people with mental health disorders did know what he was talking about after all. I felt like I might collapse from the relief. Every word he said made perfect sense. A montage of every obsessive episode I’d ever had played in my head like a movie I never wanted to see:
Nine years old. My mom goes to the store for me because I’m sick and asked for soup and pink lemonade. She’s gone for five minutes, 10 minutes, 12 minutes. Why isn’t she back yet? Did she get in a car accident? Is she dead? If she dies, her blood is on my hands. I’m the whole reason she went to the store in the first place. How could I have been so selfish? How will I explain this to my family? How could they ever forgive me? Five minutes later, Mom walks through the door and I fall into her embrace. She’s OK. I’m OK too, until she has to leave the house again.
Twelve years old. I’m at basketball camp and I utter my first curse word. “Sh*t,” I said when I missed a foul shot. I am paralyzed with guilt. My heart beats out of my chest. I can’t sleep that night. That’s a bad word. I know it’s a bad word so why did I say it? I must be a bad person. My parents didn’t raise me to be a bad person. What will they think of me now? I tell my mom the next morning, hands shaking and lips quivering, that I said a curse word yesterday. She wraps me up in her arms and strokes my hair and tells me it’s only a word, it doesn’t make me bad. I nod even though I don’t believe her.
Fourteen years old. I abruptly leave every conversation my friends have about their periods because I haven’t gotten mine yet and I’m convinced it’s because God has put a hex on my vagina. I’m a bad person and bad people shouldn’t have children so God obviously made be barren to save the world from my demon spawn.
One of the scariest parts about OCD is the way it warps your mind into believing that you will be responsible for the pain of other people, that your thoughts are equivalent to actions, that you have any kind of control.
The man I’d later refer to as “the guy who saved my life” explained obsessive-compulsive disorder in a way that I’ll never forget. He told me that one of the scariest parts about OCD is the way it warps your mind into believing that you will be responsible for the pain of other people, that your thoughts are equivalent to actions, that you have any kind of control. People with cleaning or touching compulsions will touch a doorknob or tirelessly scrub their sink because they genuinely believe they are preventing something awful from happening. My compulsion was obsessive thoughts. Both are painful. Both are hard to explain. Neither means you are crazy.
I erupted into tears. I was finally being told what I needed to hear for so long: You are not alone. You are not broken. You will be OK.
That was seven years ago. Looking back, I’d say the most frustrating part about obsessive-compulsive disorder is its invisibility. It’s not a bruise on my arm or a scar on my back. It’s always there in the depths of my mind and therein lies its danger. It causes all of this pain, all of this emotional turmoil, but I can’t prove to anyone that it’s even there. But through a combination of therapy, medication, an incredible support system and comedy, I am at a point where I don’t need to prove anything to anyone. Obsessions still slither their way into my life, but I no longer feel like a hostage in my own head. I am tough. I am strong. I am flawed. I am anxious. I am obsessive. I am emotional. I am good. I have OCD. I am not alone. I am not broken. I will be OK.