I've started reading a book called "The OCD Workbook," and I spent a few hours between last night and today answering the first series of questions in it. I thought I'd share my responses, either to keep track of them for my own use, or so others could see what I'm going through and possibly relate to it.
Briefly describe the story of your struggle with OCD:
I remember it starting when I was a kid… I had extreme separation anxiety from my mother when I was little, to the point where I wouldn’t sleep over at my friends’ houses, and I was always afraid something terrible was going to happen to her. It peaked somewhere in middle school, where I developed a fear that I was going to get sick at school. Every single day before I got out of the car when my mother dropped me off, I’d make her promise me that I wouldn’t get sick at school that day. Somewhere in the later years of middle school, these fears abated, and I had a very healthy, normal existence up until my college years. I woke up one morning and everything in the world felt different, as though I were looking at things through some kind of strange lens. I felt shaky and nauseous most of the time, and I somehow became gripped with the irrational fear that I was going to die. I don’t know that my OCD was really in control then, or if it was more general anxiety, but I became possessed by the idea that I wasn’t part of the “real” world anymore. After some medication and a few visits to therapists and the passage of time, the feeling passed, and I began to feel “normal” again. However, these episodes have recurred every December that I can think of (and occasionally at other times) since 2003.
Describe some of your worst OCD symptoms:
By far, the symptom that distresses me the most is the harmful thoughts. It usually revolves around whoever or whatever I perceive to be the most vulnerable, including children, animals… even my own mother. If I’m doing the dishes and I have a knife in my hand, I’ll have a vision that I’m going to lose control and stab somebody. I’ve always liked true crime novels and TV, so I’ve become obsessed with the thought that between that and the thoughts, I’m really a sick, evil person who’s going to hurt somebody someday. No matter how much I try to reassure myself that it isn’t true, I can never make myself fully believe it. I also have thoughts about saying mean, hurtful things to people, or stealing something from someone, or breaking something that belongs to someone else, for no apparent reason. It scares me to think that I could have such aggressive thoughts, especially when I have a little bit of a short temper and sometimes snap at people when I don’t mean to. I have never done any of the things I’ve feared doing, never even come close as far as I can remember, but that doesn’t stop me from feeling like I’m on a one-way collision course with “full-on crazy” being the final destination. I can’t help but feel like a horrible person when I have these thoughts, as though some part of my brain is secretly enjoying them, and that scares the everloving daylights out of me. In order to try to combat these thoughts, I try to tell myself that in fact I love the person/animal in question very much and would never hurt them, but my emotions are so numbed right now that I don’t feel like I’m conjuring up the appropriate amount of feeling to combat the thoughts, which makes matters worse. My instinct is to mull over the thoughts until they don’t come up anymore, almost as though I could conjure up some magic thought or feeling in my mind that would put me at ease, but I think that allowing these thoughts to sit and fester in my mind only makes things worse. When I’m obsessing over the harmful thoughts, every person I see automatically comes in with a harmful thought about them, completely against my will. There are times when I can’t go a moment without thinking or wondering about it.
I also obsess with the world around me, and how everything works. Most people take life and the world at large for granted. I look around and think about how strange it all seems. Am I really here, or is it somehow some sort of dream world I’ve fallen into? I’ll look at every single thing I lay my eyes on and think, “What if I become afraid of that? I’ve got no reason to be afraid of it, right? That would make me truly crazy if I were to suddenly look at a chair and become afraid of it.” I look at other people and wonder how they can go about their daily lives without being afraid of every little thing they come across. It’s almost as though I’m trying to seek out every detail of every little thing in the universe and give it a conscious thought of some kind. I think it’s almost like the compulsion some people have of walking into a room and touching everything. There is no room for logical thought in my head at this point, no matter how hard I try. And it seems as though my moods change drastically. I’ll wake up in the morning feeling slightly apprehensive, then feel “okay” (not great) later on, to a point where I feel almost normal, then it’ll crash again and I’ll feel scared and miserable. This can happen within a matter of hours.
Describe the progression of these symptoms from when they first started until the present. How have they changed over the months or years?
Looking back now, I’m not positive if I could call my separation anxiety from my mother part of my OCD or not, but I believe that asking my mother every day if I was going to be sick at school was absolutely an obsessive-compulsive ritual. I don’t know when it stopped. I think there may have come a day when my mother told me that there was no way she could promise me I wouldn’t be sick at school, because there might come a day when it would actually happen. I also remember thinking that if I could make it until lunchtime, I’d be all right. For whatever reason, I didn’t think I’d be sick in the afternoon. At some point, for whatever reason, I just didn’t worry about it anymore. I started sleeping over at friends’ houses again, not being afraid to go out and do things. I thought maybe it was like one of those childhood allergies one grew out of.
In college, I began to realize the full scope of the difficulty. That first day when I woke up and the whole world felt different, it was as though someone had hit a switch in my brain. Nothing felt the same. I didn’t care about anything anymore. I started crying for no reason I could discern, other than that I had this air of general sadness about me. Just the thought of food made me nauseous, so I couldn’t eat. I would feel very sleepy in the middle of the day, then I couldn’t sleep a wink at night. I had no name, no words for what I was feeling, but I’d look around at people around me, and I’d wonder how they could go about their every day ordinary lives when everything to me felt so awful. It was as though I’d unlocked a door to some horrible place I was never intended to see, that was covered in glass walls on all sides, so while I could see people around me, I couldn’t touch or feel them, and I couldn’t be where they were. It happens once a year now, and I don’t know if it’s self-fulfilling prophecy, or if it’s the memory of each previous time that brings it back every year, or if there’s some outside influence that I’m not aware of coming into play. I’m not sure where I’m at right this moment, but it seems to change rapidly. A few hours ago I felt okay, almost “normal.” Now, I’m cranky, irritable, and upset. I’m also very sleepy. I’m supposed to go to the neighbors’ house in a few, and I really don’t want to. I’d rather lay in bed, close my eyes, and wake up only when I can feel like me again.
How have the symptoms impacted your life: work, career, family, friends, relationships, and so on?
I’d like to think that, for the most part, I’ve kept this problem to myself, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I go to work every day (I’ve only taken maybe three or four “mental health” days in the course of the past several years), but I find it hard to focus and I know I’m not being as productive. I’ve told a few family and close friends about what I’m going through, and while they’ve been supportive for the most part, I don’t think they fully understand the problem (most of the time, I don’t fully understand it, either). I can’t help but speculate as to what other people think when they look at me, and nobody’s ever outright called me a basket case or told me I was depressing or anything that I can recall, although I did have a boyfriend once break up with me because he said I made it difficult to love me. I think he thought I was too needy.
How might your life be different if you were free from OCD?
All I can think of is the freedom from fear. Everyone worries about things from time to time, but to have that heart-gripping fear lifted from my shoulders… forever… I can’t imagine how wonderful that would be. To not stop and analyze every thought in my head and wonder if it was “normal” or not. To not come home from a job interview or a date or any sort of important meeting with someone and scrutinize every moment of the conversation and wonder if I said or did the right things… Mostly, I’d be happy that I wouldn’t fear it ever coming back. I’d know I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted with my future. That’s all I want in the world.