Wash, Rinse, Repeat

Unmasking Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

At my worst, I was taking 13 pills and supplements a day.

At my worst, I was taking 13 pills and supplements a day. 

Breathe in, breathe out. It's all about the cycle.

I've had symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since I was five years old. I've been accused of faking it, or being an unwitting slave to the pharmaceutical industry. I have also been told, when describing certain symptoms, that "everyone has that."

Really? Does it make you suicidal? Then shut up. 

OCD is more than wanting to straighten things, or to alphebetize your DVD collection. It is more than being a neat-freak. It is more than wanting things to be organized. Arranging things and then commenting that you're "so OCD" can be demeaning to those who actually suffer daily from this disease.

OCD is comprised of two main parts: unwanted thoughts, or obsessions, which are frequently distressing, and compulsions, which are rituals used to mitigate the obsessions. For example, I am afraid of germs. So to lessen my stress over coming into contact with them, I wash my hands. But I have to wash them every time I come into contact with something perceived as dirty. It is a cycle that can result in me washing my hands 100 times or more per day.

Is this in any way logical? Not really. I know that increased exposure to germs actually strengthens my immune system. Does this prevent me from performing the ritual? Occasionally I can talk myself out of it, but in most cases, no.

That's one of the most frustrating aspects of this disease: the sufferer often recognizes the futility of the rituals but feels compelled to perform them anyway. I have been able to recognize and improve some of my quirkier rituals: I no longer step into a room and then out of it until my entrance into said room "feels right." I no longer turn light switches on and off seven times. I no longer pray compulsively: though there is a term, scrupulosity, which applies to a particular type of OCD.

When I was young I was told I was going to hell because I wasn't a baptized Catholic. I prayed relentlessly to prove that I was worthy of salvation. I also had a flurry of unwanted thoughts about the devil: to protect myself, I drew crosses over all of my notebooks and touched a copy of the bible whenever an impure thought crossed my mind. Because my OCD was severe, the impure, intrusive thoughts were frequent. I became mired in confusion and guilt.

Guilt is a beast among certain OCD sufferers: we continually beat ourselves up for perceived infractions of morality or social behavior. I became so obsessed with the idea that I had committed a crime that I ended up in the hospital once. The crime was completely produced by the bad wiring in my brain: only months later did I come to recognize that the crime was in fact a delusion. My OCD diagnosis was confirmed, and added to it was a secondary diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder.

But that, my friends, is another story.

Despite living with OCD for thirty-four years, I maintain a sense of humor about it. I always say that when I find myself wiping the outside of your hand sanitizer container with a disinfectant wipe that I've gone a bit too far. I don't mean to trivialize the suffering of others by doing this. But if you can't laugh at yourself and your maladies on occasion, life becomes unbearable.

OCD is an incurable anxiety disorder, so telling someone to stop worrying is often extremely unhelpful. What does help? Compassion, and recognizing that someone else's perception of reality isn't bad because it's not "normal." We OCD patients often hide our symptoms on a daily basis just to fit in, though doing so fills us with anxiety. And it's sometimes exhausting to keep up the charade. 

Stigma about mental illness isn't going away anytime soon. But I hope that by openly discussing my experiences, I can help in some small way to prevent it. I will not let others berate me for my OCD: but, most importantly, I will defeat my disease instead of letting it defeat me. 

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