I began to really struggle with OCD about 3 years ago. I didn’t realize that it was OCD right away. Because of my severe anxiety I started obsessing over things. The way things looked, how I placed things, ruminating over small details for long periods of time. In the beginning, I just did things a certain way because it made me feel less anxious. So it seemed like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I do something that made me feel safe enough to leave the house? Eventually, the more rituals I did, the more rituals I added in. Now for most things I do, there is a very specific way I do them. From showering, to getting dressed, to leaving the house, to counting my breaths, to checking for cars coming on the street numerous times. The more I do these “compulsions”, the more they consume me.
Not doing the compulsions can bring about varying feelings of extreme anxiety. Thoughts that the worst possible thing will happen to me. The type of OCD I deal with is health related OCD. It is the fear that something horrible might happen to me. I read on an OCD recovery blog that OCD attacks what we value most. Since I value my health so highly, this makes sense to me. Sometimes I wonder where these intrusive fearful thoughts come from (aside from Trauma), and I realize that OCD is sneaky and will go after the very thing that means the most to you. My well-being is something that I take great pride in. I have devoted a lot of energy to being my healthiest self over the past 4 years. Yes I have made mistakes, yes I have messed up. But that’s also how I’ve learned. So when I feel one of my biggest values being threatened by these scary thoughts, it only makes sense that I would try to do anything to make the thoughts go away. The funny (or not so funny) part is, that the further you try and the harder you try to make the thoughts go away, the more persistent they become. It is actually by acknowledging the thought and seeing it for what it truly is – just a thought – that it actually dissipates. By welcoming the anxiety and accepting it, allowing it to be, it holds less power. Sometimes I literally tell Myself “this is anxiety”. Or “this is a thought, and thoughts aren’t facts”. These little phrases help me observe what is going on with compassion and acceptance, rather than getting so caught up with the thoughts and entering what I call the OCD whirlpool. If I stay on the edge of the whirlpool it is much easier to avoid getting sucked in. Sometimes I do get sucked right into the middle, and it is much more difficult to get out. But I CAN STILL GET OUT. That’s the most important part to remember. I do have a choice – and so do you.
One of the worst parts about dealing with OCD is the shame. It’s something I try and hide from most people, with the exception of very close family. I think I’ve only told one friend. It’s a scary thing to tell people, I worry they might think I’m crazy, or broken, or incapable. I’m worried people will judge me. I still feel the shame. I worry people can see me doing these weird compulsions, or rituals. I’m sure people notice, and probably wonder what I am doing. Maybe they have just accepted that I’m a weird person. Which wouldn’t be the worst thing. Or maybe they are too scared to ask me. Maybe they don’t even notice at all. Whatever people think, the fear is that OCD makes me strange and unlovable. Makes me abnormal in some way. So everyday, I have to choose between the shame of someone seeing the rituals I am doing, or the intense anxiety and frustration/panic/confusion of not doing them. It can feel debilitating at times.
Luckily, I am working with an OCD specialist and together we have come up with exposures for me to do. Exposures are when you deliberately don’t perform your compulsive rituals. I didn’t start with the hardest one, but I have done some pretty difficult exposures. Gradually, as I gain success in my exposure therapy, my confidence grows. The idea is that I have to repeat the same exposure enough times for my brain to become comfortable with the discomfort or anxiety. So eventually my anxiety goes down, and it goes away much quicker than by actually doing the compulsive behaviours. My confidence is building, and it’s been very sticky here and there. I’ve been through some very rough patches, but they made me stronger.
When we are thrown off balance – as is inevitable in life, we learn to strengthen our core. The stronger our core becomes the less we can get thrown off so easily. And the next time we get uncentered we know how to come back to homeostasis much quicker.
Trauma and “mental illness” is not an easy thing to talk about. Or write about. I just want people out there to really know that. Writing this post was hard. And scary. Know and appreciate that when someone opens up to you about their struggle – this is bravery. This is their healing. So consider it an honour to be a part of another human being’s healing. I’m not talking about people dump-truck piling their negativity on you. That is called having no boundaries. Vulnerabilty and bravery have boundaries. Be deliberate in your vulnerability. Be vulnerable with the right people, for the right reasons. And always remember that you are doing things in exactly the right time, at the right pace, for you.