My Journey with OCD
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, commonly referred to as OCD, is when obsessive thoughts lead to compulsive behaviors, usually characterized by unreasonable, illogical thoughts and fears. Like many, I thought that OCD mainly described people who worried about germs or contamination and therefore obsessively washed their hands. Or people who have the compulsion to switch on a light 15 times in fear something bad happening if they don’t. None of that describes me. It was only a few years ago that I started questioning my intrusive thoughts and went seeking answers. Had I known better, I could have been treated much earlier. That’s one of the many reasons I wanted to share my journey with OCD.
I have been experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors my entire life. I can trace my OCD back to elementary school when I obsessively prayed because I was terrified of going to hell. Every single time I thought a bad thought or said a not-so-nice thing, I’d find myself desperately praying to God, asking Him to save my soul from eternal damnation. It was all I thought about. I also obsessed every time I took a shower. I conflated the daily shower with spiritual cleansing, and I’d ask God to cleanse me of my evil and wicked ways... as if eight year old me was somehow evil and wicked. In my mind God did not represent love and His forgiveness carried many conditions. The God I envisioned was angry and vengeful and represented fire and brimstone. I believed only a few lucky ones were going to heaven so it was best to be a good little girl who didn’t ruffle any feathers.
My obsessive thoughts started with religion and morphed into routines and a desperate need for order. I could not help but rearrange and organize the boxes of candy at the Walmart checkout. I could not help but make sure every crumb was cleaned up and the plates were stacked neatly when I went to a restaurant with my parents. When going on vacation, my suitcase was the first to be unpacked. I would protest leaving the hotel room until all of my belongings were where they needed to be. Everything in my world had to fit perfectly into this neat little box. Everything in its place and things had to be put in place in a certain way and in a certain order.
As to be expected, as soon as I hit puberty my obsessive thoughts and behaviors only got worse. I was obsessive about the need to plan and track everything and compelled to write endless schedules and lists. At any given moment I’d have about 3 planners and an obscene amount of lists. I had minute by minute planned. I had schedules for schedules. There was no spontaneity. It felt like my every move was calculated. I was worrying on Monday about what I would do on Saturday. It was also around this time my obsessive need to be liked surfaced. I would go to great lengths to gain validation and worth through my peers. If I knew someone didn’t like me, it would drive me absolutely nuts. My compulsion to be liked made me needy; I needed constant validation to feel whole and worthy.
It wasn’t until 2014 that I received an official diagnosis of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. A wave of relief washed over me because at last I had a diagnosis. Unfortunately, due to PTSD stemming from a sexual assault I’d kept secret, my OCD got much worse before it got better. After I hit bottom, told my family and therapist about the assault, and started intense work on the PTSD, some therapies for the PTSD lessened my OCD symptoms. But it’s rearing its ugly head lately. Once I truly dealt with the assault and was no longer in a constant dissociative survival mode, the OCD and its symptoms took center stage. It’s a good sign, all in all. The fact it’s flaring and I can detect that flare shows me how much progress I’ve made. I had much bigger, more life-threatening fish to fry before. As I start to focus my therapy on OCD now, I am just starting to really understand this disorder and get the proper treatment.
So what does OCD look like for me today?
I have an all or nothing mentality. I’m either on some restrictive diet or I’m eating all the junk. I’m either working out 5-6 days a week or I’m not working out at all. Balance doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m actively working on this and seeing progress!
I am a planner! I plan my months, my weeks, my days, my meals, my activities, my goals, my kids’ schedules. There is nothing wrong with planning but I tend to plan out every aspect of my life. Hey, at least there is never a dull moment with my crew because I always have something fun planned! But in all honesty, it can get exhausting and I am working towards being more flexible.
Once something is in my head, it’s really hard to get it out out of there. Usually it’s little things like convincing myself I set my alarm properly. I’ll check about 6 times until it’s cemented in my brain. Other times it’s worrying someone is going to get into a car accident or having this feeling of dread that something bad is about to happen. Even though I know my thought is ridiculous and untrue, I believe on some level that if I don’t worry or obsess, it will come true. I know the thought is irrational. But my brain tells me NOT thinking about it is irrational and someone worrying about it somehow keeps it at bay.
My home is very clean and organized. It’s very rare to walk into my home and see things out of place. Even having a few dishes in the sink drives me batty. Having a messy house makes me feel anxious and not in control. That dirty dish in the sink? I will be awake all night if I don’t go downstairs and take care of it.
Everything in my world has a specific place. I can tell you exactly what’s in my home and where it’s located. I can be controlling over my space, which at times makes it hard to ask for help. I hate admitting that I am a control freak but in many ways I am.
I am all about order and organization. I get very frustrated when I am in an environment or situation that I feel threatens my sense of order and organization. For instance, I have a really hard time when one of my kids has an unorganized teacher or coach. I have to remind myself that just because organization comes easy to me doesn’t mean it does to everyone else.
I am obsessive about deleting my text messages, pictures, and e-mails off my phone. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to ask my mom for an address again because I deleted our text without writing it down. The thought of having more than a few text messages and e-mails makes me anxious. It goes back to everything, including my phone, needing to be neat and organized.
My routine is very important to me. I tend to get anxious when my routine strays from its course. For example, I enjoy doing my morning routine which consists of meditation, daily gratitude, and intention work. When I have a few busy mornings and do not get to my morning rituals until afternoon, it feels like my whole day is shot.
It’s easy for me to over schedule because I like to stay busy, I hate missing out, and it’s a way to distract myself from unpleasant feelings.
I am probably one of the least spontaneous people you will ever know. I can’t stand that about myself. I would love to be a roll-with-the-punches kind of gal, but I’m not. I experience panic when plans or parties are planned last minute. You ask me to do something on Saturday? Total anxiety. It’s already Tuesday! It feels like my every move is calculated and that’s something I am currently addressing in therapy.
I tend to overly worry and insert myself in my family’s and friend’s lives. When my mom had a health issue the summer going into my sophomore year of college, my mom is all I could think about. I hated being away at school. I would call my mom daily, sometimes multiple times a day and if she missed a phone call I would immediately assume the worst. Of course it’s natural to worry when someone is ill. But maybe less so when it’s three years later and they don’t answer a phone call and you spend hours in an obsessive thought spiral and the accompanying anxiety because you’re sure they’re dead on the floor. I overly worry and insert myself in my friends’ lives too. If a friend comes to me to discuss a problem, I have a hard time just listening. I tend to go into full therapist mode and start drawing a road map to recovery. I quite literally take on the problem when in reality, it’s not my problem to take on and it’s not my responsibility to solve. I am a number 2 on the enneagram which is the helper. Helping a friend in need is wonderful but you must know your boundaries. You must set those boundaries. I am getting better but sometimes I need the reminder that someone is not going to get help just because I want them to. Or solve their problems the way I feel they should. They have to be ready and willing. And the outcome of their situation will not change just because I worry about it.
I can be quite the perfectionist. I tend to be hard on myself when I make a mistake. I heard an analogy a few years ago that really hit home. When you get a flat tire, do you pull over to the side of the road and proceed to slash the other 3 tires? Of course not. Well when I slip up or make a mistake, I am so hard on myself and will beat myself up for days. I will slash all of my tires instead of just patching up the one. When I fall short in life it doesn’t mean all my progress just goes out the window. It simply means I fix the one problem or mistake and move on. I’m working on that.
Details, details, details. I am a very detailed-oriented person. If you have ever watched a movie with me you know how annoying I am. I am the woman pausing the movie, “Wait, what’s happening? I don’t understand this. Is she supposed to be alive or dead?” “I don’t know Caitlin, let’s finish the movie and find out,” is usually the response back. I am the same way with reading. It takes me forever to get through a book because I have to google every little word or detail I don’t know. I obsess about things not revealed when I think they should be. Let’s just say I don’t do well with suspense. Or mystery. Or surprise.
I obsess a lot about what I say to others and how my words are perceived. Hurting someone with my words is one of my biggest fears.
One of my biggest “secret” obsessions is with my body, specifically my stomach. Body image was never really an issue with me until I was sexually assaulted years ago. It’s something I am just now addressing in therapy.
Some of these things probably seem normal. Maybe you too check your alarm a few times before you go to bed or drive yourself nuts wondering if you closed your garage door. It’s really a lot of little things but those little things add up for me. Sure, being organized is a great trait. But when your brain is constantly spiraling with obsessive thoughts and you can’t stop the spiral or have a moment free of the compulsions, peace is hard to come by. I’ve heard from others, “I wish I were organized like you!” I’ve heard people joke that they “could use a little OCD” in their lives. But OCD isn’t fun or funny. It can feel like an invisible prison that controls all my thoughts and actions. And the anxiety and depression that it can drag you into is a nightmare.
It can be like the snake swallowing its tail. Where’s it begin? Where’s it end? Life’s normal stress can ramp up the OCD, as can a string of down or melancholy days. And when the OCD is flaring, it can lead me right into major anxiety and its physical symptoms and/or clinical depression.
Thankfully for therapy and medicine, my OCD is currently pretty well controlled. I’ll be focusing on it more in therapy now and am feeling optimistic that I’ll have even more tools to help me navigate it and mitigate the symptoms
What have I learned:
I’ve learned to ask for help when I need it. I’ve learned how to trust myself more. I’ve learned how my brain works and how it’s okay to make mistakes, as long as we learn from them. Yes, my brain is wired a little differently than some and that’s okay. Believe it or not, I have really come to terms with myself. I love who I am and am especially grateful for all my good days. I have way more good days than bad. I believe my gratitude and empathy towards others come directly from my self-awareness and my mental struggles. I understand what depression feels like. I understand how trauma can affect the brain. I understand how OCD can be debilitating. I also understand the world doesn’t revolve around Caitlin and her schedule either. I am teaching my kids how to be more flexible and laid back. I am definitely not as controlling about my environment as I used to be. I am getting better with allowing my husband to make our weekend plans instead of having an agenda already written and printed out. While it isn’t always comfortable, I am now going out of order on my daily to-do list. For the longest time I thought I was broken but I’m far from it. So many different pieces make up who I am. I am proud of the woman I have become. I am proud of how far I’ve come.
Each and every one of us has our share of struggles. Some people just hide it better than others. If you struggle with mental illness, I can assure you that you are not broken, or crazy, or stupid. You are human.
And I see you. You are not alone.