There are years I can’t recall beyond a few minute details in my childhood, yet there are days I struggle to forget.
It didn’t really matter how many warning signs there were that I would develop Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder because nothing could have really prepared me for that onset–it occurred within a split second. Quietness became a distant memory.
My onset happened on a Thursday afternoon in May 2011 at my cousin’s college graduation. It was like catching a bad cold: On our trip down the East Coast, I had a sinking feeling that something terrible was about to happen inside me. I was reading a magazine in our hotel room when my first noteworthy intrusive thought entered my space. My child body a castle, the fortress seemingly irreversibly under attack.
Every person has intrusive thoughts from time to time–an unavoidable part of having a brain that deals with adapting to situations–but for a person with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, the weight of the emotional response to the intrusive thoughts themselves can be debilitating. The “disorder” comes into play when people with OCD attach strong personal meaning to those intrusive thoughts and conduct visible and invisible rituals to prevent a feared outcome.
The “stickiness” of OCD refers to the inability to let go of thoughts when they come up. It is hard to filter our thoughts when the thoughts feel so real and worthy of our attention. The vicious OCD cycle works like this: Initial shock, fear response, an insatiable need for reassurance, compulsory behaviors, and shame. The cycle repeats infinitely and miserably with the person’s participation.
Having an anxiety disorder like OCD makes experiencing a normal life feel impossible. Think of a child using a Chinese finger trap for the first time, and they become panicked when they can’t remove it: The answer is to stop the resistance (pulling) and relax. OCD is like being locked in a room of your creation, but the door was never actually locked and you've had the key in your back pocket the entire time.
It’s an invisible decoy that relies upon our insecurities and deepest fears to keep us “safe” from harm. In this misguided attempt at self-protection, we can become physically unable to do the things that are meaningful to us. Compulsions can devour so much precious time, but they do not necessarily have to. Your participation is required to keep this process alive; on that note, however, the cycle can be broken with a renewed refusal to participate.
My symptoms today present as an intense fear response in my body. Whenever I encounter new things or adapt to changes in my environment, my anxiety and OCD symptoms increase. This makes sense, as it is a biological condition predicated upon an inability to tolerate uncertainty.
But you know what? Nothing in our lives has ever been certain. And nothing ever will be.
I am making peace with my condition.
Much of my work in recovery has been questioning what 'recovery' really means. For me, recovery means working from a place of radical acceptance to accept the brain I was born with. This means welcoming my OCD with open arms and no longer trying to rid my body of it. It's merely one piece of the puzzle.
Recovery also means an ongoing willingness to push back against the negative thoughts that emerge in the presence of OCD-related intrusive thoughts. To not just believe the fear signal in your head but to connect back with reality, where you and your OCD exist. Your anxiety will emerge sometimes, but learning how and when to listen to it is the ultimate game-changer.
Lastly, recovery is a commitment to voicing struggles in hopes of finding a connection with others over shared experiences. Whether privately or in public (or a healthy combination of both), we can make meaning in our lives by reassigning our struggles and their values. OCD doesn’t have to be the bulk of your story, and freedom is possible.
My OCD story has shifted over the years into a more comprehensive timeline that allows me to reflect on my life and reclaim periods of intense personal struggle. It can be difficult to receive this diagnosis and to manage it, but successful management of OCD is possible. Recovery is conceivable no matter where you are located in time and space.