Updated: Jan 1, 2021
Note: Talking about mental health issues is scary. Especially because of my anxiety, I fear not only how I may be perceived but also how my thoughts and feelings around OCD may be perceived. I cannot speak for everyone with OCD or how they experience it (especially because it varies SO much for everyone), and I definitely cannot speak for anyone else with any other mental health issues either.
My hope is simply that by sharing and honoring the truth of my story and experience that others who might benefit from reading about it will have access to it. This is definitely not a perfect post because if I wait too long to get it perfect, then I may never post it at all. I hope I have not disparaged anyone else’s experience through sharing mine, though I am open to thoughts, feelings, feedback, etc., if you would like to share any with me. ❤️
Day 4 of the #7DaysofDiscomfort Challenge is Reveal. I’m in a cold sweat as I start to write this. My heart is pounding. The tears are coming, too. But I’m determined to post this today.
I have a strong feeling that this will be the most difficult day of the challenge for me, the most deeply uncomfortable. I don’t even think I’m being dramatic when I say it may be the most downright terrifying.
I’ve been putting it off a bit out of fear, and yet it also feels like a part of my story that I’ve been ready and longing to share for a long time. I think that’s because it’s not only a piece of my puzzle but also a piece of so many people’s puzzles.
I always feel most compelled to share things about myself when it’s the kind of thing I was always grateful for other people to have shared when I needed to hear it the most. It’s like it’s almost not even a choice. It simply feels inevitable.
Okay, I’ll stop putting it off now. Here it is: I have Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
Even writing that makes me start to get teary-eyed because it looks so big and scary to me that I sometimes almost don’t believe it’s true.
Have you ever had that feeling? You know, when you suddenly find yourself in a situation you’d only read or heard about before and assumed it would feel much different if it ever happened to you? Like maybe it would arrive with sirens and flashing lights letting you know exactly what it was? But that’s not always how things make themselves known. It’s often much more gradual and subtle than that.
For me, it started 20 years ago. First, I noticed small things, like thinking I needed to close my drawers perfectly to avoid anyone I loved being injured. I would say certain prayers in a certain order every night a certain number of times. I would stare at my face in the mirror, noting each of my asymmetrical features. I would “confess” things to my mom because I was constantly worried I’d ruined things like the wood floor where I’d spilled a drink but wasn’t sure I’d cleaned it up well enough.
Everything seemed like it was either good or bad, right or wrong, perfect or beyond repair, including myself.
And I thought so many things were within my control that simply were not. I connected things together that were not connected at all. I believed the tiniest things I might do on accident could cause a ripple effect of harm.
When I was 19, I saw a psychologist who told me that the symptoms of OCD would likely wax and wane for me throughout my life, and this has been so, so true. Not only do the signs of it seem to come and go and range in severity, but they also hop, skip, and jump around to different areas of my life. It never looks just one way. It adapts and mutates, almost like a virus. Luckily, also like a virus, sometimes it gets weaker over time as I learn how to manage and overcome it.
OCD is sort of like one of those sticky hands you get from a gumball machine at a pizza parlor. You slap it to one surface and then yank it off, only to have it quickly fly over and stick to something else. It follows what I think about and focus on and love.
When I was young, it grabbed on to fears about the safety of my parents and other loved ones. When I was a teenager, it latched on to my feelings about my appearance. As a young adult, it clung to my relationships. As a mother, I have worked hard to keep it from fixating on my child. As someone trying to build my career, it likes to make me worry about what might happen or “go wrong” if I experience success.
And it manifests differently over time, too. In the early days, there were rituals I might do that involved numbers or counting. I don’t think I’ve experienced that for ages. After a while, it looked like washing my hands more often than necessary. As it progressed, I sought reassurance from others I trusted wouldn’t be pushed away by my anxiety and questions. Sometimes it just looks like scouring the internet for answers.
One constant is that my OCD is very concerned with perfectionism around never wanting to cause (or not do everything in my power to help avoid) any kind of harm to others (especially emotional harm through words), or experience harm myself. This causes a lot of “overthinking.”
I realize I’ve been writing about OCD like it’s a scary, horrible monster. It’s not really, I don’t think. Or not for me at this point, anyway. I’ve kind of come to see it as something of a big, misunderstood ogre one might find in a children’s book. It seems really frightening but actually, once befriended, is obviously just a scared creature—one that can be accepted and coaxed and trained over time to not react so strongly to the smallest things it perceives as a threat. The more I push it, little by little, out of its comfort zone, the more it realizes there is life to be lived out there in the world. Of course, there are also setbacks. But I strive to try my best to jump back on track each time.
There is so much more to all of this, and I have so many fears around writing this post:
“Wow, what will people think of me after seeing this?” “Will I seem less capable?”
“Will they not be able to look at me without thinking ‘OCD’?”
“Will this define me now?”
As I talked with my husband about my wanting to share this, I told him I was trying to pinpoint what exactly my greatest fear was. I determined it was my fear of labeling or pigeonholing myself, of being seen as one-dimensional. And then I thought, that’s probably one of the most basic human fears ever to exist—the fear of being seen for only one aspect of one’s self, of feeling like an "other."
As I wrote in a poem about this for myself once, “OCD—three letters that may diagnose but will never define me.”
This is just one thing about me among a million things. In fact, some days, I even forget it’s there. There is so much more to me and my life than this, just as there is for all of us. None of us should ever be defined by any single characteristic, trait, challenge, etc.
No one wants to bear a diagnosis like a “scarlet letter.”
The irony is that, by not sharing this with many people for many years, I’ve probably left some with a lot of unanswered questions. There may have been times when I’ve seemed preoccupied or didn’t reply to something for a while or showed up late to an event and made people wonder why.
While it was often tempting to share about OCD to help people better understand me or not take certain things personally, it was also too scary to share at times. I didn’t want them to see me differently. I also didn’t want to think it had that much control over me that I could just blame everything on it. It’s weird though. It is and isn’t at fault for so many things.
On the one hand, a lot of things in my life have felt harder at times than they should have because of it. On the other hand, though, it’s impossible to know whether that’s because of OCD or perhaps just who I am! Maybe sometimes it’s a little of both.
Have I run late to a friend’s party because I thought my outfit got “contaminated” by something I accidentally touched just before getting in the car to leave? Yes.
Have I also run late to work because I managed my time and schedule poorly? Absolutely yes. (That’s a whole other shame story for some other time.)
In some of the communities I’m a part of in which there are discussions about personality types and Enneagram types, etc., there is often a lot of talk around how to apply the knowledge we gain about our types. Sometimes there are concerns that we may learn our types and then figure we are boxed in and can only do certain things and never others. My perspective on that is that we should not see our personality types or strengths, etc., as indications of whether certain things are possible or not for us. They may just help us better explain and understand why some things may feel easier or more challenging.
That’s how I see my having OCD.
It does not render me incapable of having a job or friends or a romantic relationship or keep me from being parent. And it definitely does not preclude me from experiencing joy and love.
It is just something I need to be aware of and have a plan or resources for sometimes, just like someone who might need to throw a wrap around their knee before heading out to the basketball court. They can still play in the game and perform just as well, or perhaps sometimes even better, than people with perfectly fine knee joints; they just need to know what tools they need to have on hand to do that.
So, a mental health diagnosis, just like a personality type code, doesn’t have to define and limit us. If anything, it can validate and liberate us. It lets us know why we might be struggling in certain areas and helps us figure out what we can do about it. As disheartening as knowing can be, that knowledge can also be empowering. Some days it may feel like more of one of those than the other, but I believe both are possible.
Anyway, my point is that I’m learning that it’s possible to own this part of myself, accept and admit that it does have an effect on my life, and also not let it control or define me entirely. Mind you, it has taken me 20 years to reach this point. And I’m still always working on it.
It doesn’t have to take that long for everyone though. And that’s why I’m writing this. I was a psychology major who wrote several papers on the topic of OCD in high school and college and then went on to study counseling for two years to become a therapist. I believe therapy is immensely helpful and attach no stigma to it whatsoever. And yet, even for me, it took me 18 years to finally seek a therapist who specialized in OCD. (According to the International OCD Foundation, “Studies find that it takes an average of 14 to 17 years from the time OCD begins for people to obtain appropriate treatment.”)
So, I’m writing this because I want mental health issues to continue to be normalized. I want people to not feel afraid to ask for the help they need.
I’m also writing this because I want to feel what it’s like to release something that can feel so heavy into the universe and see that I’m still standing afterward, that my world won’t fall apart. I’m writing this because I want to regain some of the power I’ve often allowed OCD to have over me and my decisions.
Now, not everyone wants, needs, or feels a desire to share their story about challenges with mental health, and they should not if they do not want to. For some, sharing something like this is more distressing than not doing so. For me personally, I’ve learned that keeping it inside has finally become just slightly more difficult than letting it out. (I think it's important for each of us to acknowledge and honor whatever may be the case for us because there is no one way to navigate such things.)
I think, for me, a huge part of me has wanted to for so long but was just held back by the fear of what the consequences of sharing might be. Eventually, though, I stopped thinking about what bad things might happen if I share and started instead focusing on what great things might happen if I follow my heart and this tug I have felt.
If I share, then I might experience the feeling of what it’s like to release something like this into the world and survive it.
If I share, then someone like me who feels alone in this might read these words and feel comforted.
If I share, then I might know what it feels like to not allow OCD to get in the way of things I love—specifically, my love of writing and presenting my most genuine self to the world. (Again, it’s not a monster, though I sometimes see it as my pet that I don’t want to let run the house.)
For so long, I was so worried about what people would think of me if they knew this about me and whether they might treat me differently. I worried I might give the impression that it rules my life a lot more than I actually feel that it does.
But finally, just today, I had the thought, “Maybe this isn’t so much about how people might see me differently because they know I have OCD; maybe it’s actually about how people might see OCD differently because they know me.”
And then it became bigger than me. It became bigger than my fears around what it might mean to appear “imperfect” or, even worse, “broken.” (For the record, in my heart of hearts, I actually believe things like this simply make one “human.”)
It became a story that I started to feel belonged to other people as well. Just as exposing my OCD to the very things it fears helps those things lose their power, I have a feeling that my sharing this about myself will help release its power over me a bit. Perhaps it won’t feel like such a weight to carry.
However, in doing so, I hope it may hold power for someone else—the power to believe they're not alone and that they can seek the help they might need. I don’t yet know who might benefit from reading this, but I’m trusting that there’s at least one person. And, for me, that is enough.
I wasn’t sure I was going to post this. But then I opened up Instagram today and saw at least two other people who posted beautiful messages about their own stories related to mental health, and I took it as inspiration and a sign that it was time for me to do the same.
If you have shared a story of your own like this before, thank you.
If you want to share a story of your own but haven’t yet, I hope this may be helpful to you (and I will be here to encourage and support you if you should ever decide to do so).
If you do not ever want to share your story publicly, I hope this is helpful to you and commend you for honoring your boundaries; that is not an easy feat and something that I have to work at constantly.
If you do not have a story about mental health like this one, I have this thought to share: When I was studying to be a therapist years ago, one of our professors said that we might come across clients early in our careers who may think we couldn’t relate to them because we might be too young at the time to have experienced what they might be sharing in a session. She told us that our response to that concern should be one of empathy, to say that we may not know their *specific* pain but that we know pain.
So, thank you for reading this. While you may not know what it is to have OCD specifically (or perhaps any other mental health issue), I’ve lived long enough to know that we all have something that feels this intimidating to share or difficult to navigate. And, so, I hope this was helpful to you, too.