I found this challenge through a friend I made at the OCD conference and thought it would be a great way to kick off OCD Awareness Week. So for the next 30 days, I will post responses to this challenge from Marci, Mental Health, & More.
Day 1: What is/are your mental illness(es)? Explain it a little.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety disorder. I have also struggled with depression, and my psychologist also suspects PTSD.
There are many facets to OCD. The areas I struggle with are contamination obsessions and compulsions, checking obsessions and compulsions, protective compulsions, some aggressive obsessions, some sexual obsessions, perfectionistic obsessions and compulsions, movement compulsions, and mental compulsions. Some of these I have struggled with since I was a child.
Contamination obsessions and compulsions have to do with things being perceived as dirty and my need to either avoid getting dirty or clean up a ton. There is a high degree of illogical fear in this. The fear is that if something or someone, including myself, is contaminated, something bad will result–I could get sick, I could get really sick and die, someone else could get really sick and die, a terrible disease could be contracted. I also sometimes felt suffocated by perceived filth. When I was at my worst, I had a panic attack and cried over touching items in the trash. I took two showers a day, for an hour each time. I washed my hands after touching almost anything, or sometimes just if I couldn’t shake the obsession that I possibly had touched something. Each time I washed, I would soap, rinse, repeat at a minimum of five times, at a max of ten to fifteen times. I would be in the bathroom washing at least fifteen times each day. If I couldn’t soap, I used hand sanitizer. I could easily go through one bottle of hand soap in a day. I had to sanitize everything. Phone fell on the floor? It had to be wiped with a sanitizing wipe–but not by me, by my husband. I couldn’t put on my own shoes for fear of the germs. Walking down the street made me feel so filthy I was sure I needed a shower. Looking at a dirty homeless person made me want a shower, or at least to wash my hands. Looking a trash can made me want to wash. I made my mom and husband wash in specific ways, and I had them do tasks I couldn’t handle. I would ask them for reassurance if I was afraid I touched something.
Checking obsessions and compulsions have to do with obsessing about whether something was done or said and completing an action numerous times to alleviate the concern. I might go out with friends and start worrying later that I said something appropriate, and I would ask a trusted friend who was present several times if I said that. Or I lock my car about ten times. Just to be sure. And even then, I’m still not sure.
Protective compulsions have to do with my need to do certain actions to prevent harm from coming to myself or others. This hasn’t interfered in my life too much, but when it has, it has caused me to worry incessantly about friends or family. Like when my mom used to drive home from a visit to me, which took an hour and a half, and I would spend that time obsessed with the idea that something bad would happen to her and that I should have just driven her myself and that I should do something so she wouldn’t have to drive. I made her call me upon arrival home, like she was my kid instead of the other way around.
Aggressive obsessions cause me to think about unwanted violent images, like those of me hurting myself or someone else. It can be as simple as me standing by the train and suddenly picturing myself putting my foot between the concrete and the moving train and picturing what would happen after (which gets pretty disgustingly graphic in my brain). This image replays in my brain, like a CD stuck on some note of a song. I try to shake it off, but that makes it come back stronger. That’s the difference between OCD and just having a gruesome thought. Many people might think about this, but they don’t keep thinking about it. My brain can’t stop; trying to stop makes it worse. It’s why I can’t watch movies that contain even the smallest bit of gore. My brain disregards all imagery but the gore and then randomly replays the gore in my mind at later times. None of this means I would ever actually hurt myself or someone in this way. It’s just an irrational fear.
Sexual obsessions don’t play a big part in my OCD, but they have affected me from time to time. I’m not yet comfortable going into specific detail about my own experiences with this. Generally, it involves having unwanted inappropriate sexual thoughts and obsessing over them.
Perfectionistic obsessions and compulsions are fairly self-explanatory–it’s the obsession that something needs to be perfect or that something wasn’t perfect and completing actions to undo or alleviate the concern. Sometimes the obsession prevents the person from even starting on a project. I always put off writing papers until the very last minute because I obsessed over figuring out the perfect thing to write about, and how to say it, and whether it would be as good as someone else’s. The worst thing was going to class and hearing other people’s projects after we’d all turned ours in. I would spend the next week or two until the grades came back obsessing over what I should have done instead or better. I couldn’t focus on friends or my husband or anything enjoyable–all I could think about was the mistakes I was sure I’d made. Then I’d get my paper back and have an A, and all that time would be wasted.
This is an area I struggle with most strongly. It permeates every area of my life. I used to be unable to invite people to my house unless it was perfect–clean and neat and everything in its place. If people came over when it was a mess, I was sure they were judging me and obsessed over it. I become obsessed with my clothes fitting perfectly–if I’m having a fat day, I’ve been known to try on twenty outfits then burst into tears and profess I won’t go out because I just know someone will notice the teeny tiny bit I’m unhappy with. This wastes up to two or three hours of time, making me late for so many fun things. And even if I did go out after, all I could think was that I looked awful and that I should diet and how everyone else looked good but me. Basically, if it’s something someone can be “perfect” at, I obsess about it. This can be a good thing in moderation, but at the level I used to struggle with it, it was a bad thing, resulting in multiple nervous breakdowns and an inability to ever be satisfied. I still remember my therapist asking at the beginning of our work, “Are you satisfied with anything you do?” I answered no. I knew then it was going to be my biggest battle. (Good news: I’m not as bad as I used to be with this. I’m loads better. Not completely better, but getting there.)
Movement compulsions basically have to do with me repeating an action to ensure I did it correctly. For example, I worry about my hands touching something dirty after I wash them. So I’ll retrace my steps up five or six times, repeating the exact action I think I just took, to ensure I didn’t actually touch anything.
Mental compulsions involves me mentally checking or retracing to ensure I didn’t do something incorrectly. I could make it into my living room after washing my hands and retracing steps, but then mentally I will think about the entire cycle again, repeatedly. This mental checking has kept me from knowing what the people around me were talking about. I’ve put on a good show that I’m present in the moment, but I’ve been in my mind, completely obsessed with remembering every detail. If my mental compulsions don’t satisfy me, I resort to a physical compulsion.
So that’s pretty much my OCD. Anxiety disorder feeds into all that; I’ve been known to have intense anxiety attacks when feeling out of control in a situation or when my OCD is really bothering me. I have dealt with depression and suspected PTSD due to some events in my early life, which also happened to push my OCD into overdrive. I knew I was depressed when I stopped wanting to do anything that mattered to me in favor of just shutting myself off from everything. I don’t completely understand the potential PTSD diagnosis, but I haven’t argued it either. I believe it’s possible, but I’m not yet at a place where I feel I can really think about what led to it or how to deal with it. This one’s really hard because society has a tendency to say, “Well, we all have bad things happen, but we’re not freaking out. What makes you so special? You don’t have it that bad, people have experienced worse than you, etc.” To which I say yes, some people have had it worse. And I am sorry for those people. But that doesn’t mean what I experienced shouldn’t have caused me pain. I wish we lived in a world where we could just accept that everybody hurts and let people hurt instead of saying they should just deal with it.
We all hurt. That’s okay. Let’s just all accept it, and maybe we can get better.