Most of us are familiar with phrases like “I’m so OCD” or “I’m OCD about that.” We know what “being OCD” implies—someone is very, very particular about the need for order or cleanliness in some area of life. When speaking of real OCD—Obsessive Compulsive Disorder— images of repetitive hand washing or meticulous arrangement of knick knacks come to mind.
Casual usage distorts what this confounding mental disorder really entails. While its common themes do include visibly precise arrangements and hygiene, its less visible form darkens the inner world of secret sufferers. This so-called “pure” variant assaults perfectly sane people with macabre fears or shocking, repulsive thoughts that they might be or do the very things they fear.
Most people dismiss fleeting, weird thoughts as brain blips, nothing to take seriously; but for OCD victims, these thoughts spur a non-stop cycle of examination and compulsions—efforts to make sure that the thoughts aren’t real threats. A heterosexual man may suddenly wonder if he’s gay; a Muslim woman might obsess over committing blasphemy; a mother may have unwanted thoughts of harming her children.
The key features of OCD is the unwanted, bothersome nature of the thoughts and the contrast between them and the sufferer’s real beliefs and desires. A person with OCD does not comport with their aberrant thoughts. This mismatch is frightening, and the emotions they generate can be disabling.
Getting rid of repugnant thoughts prompts a never-ending search for certainty. You just want to make sure you wouldn’t really ever do or be that horrible thing. The revolting idea of being a murderer, molester, addict, freak or blasphemer sends conscience-stricken victims into a panic. With OCD, you are compelled to find convincing assurance that these sick pathologies and dangers will never visit you.
But all efforts at certainty are in vain; No matter what articles, books, or trusted friends say, OCD doubts it. It screams of danger and demands immediate attention all day. Under the spell of its alarms, you take pains to avoid the offensive thought and the crippling fears it produces. That means avoiding every place, person or object that triggers it—but avoidance only reinforces the fear.
In the world of mental agonies, OCD stands as one of the most confounding. People of all demographics are ambushed by its disgusting suggestions and dreadful imagery. Its themes are remarkably similar among most sufferers—religion, sexuality, and violence are common ones. No medicine cures it, though it may soften its edges.
Ten years ago, I found myself in the daily grip of this monster; we dueled for two long and gruesome years, swords clashing over a series of morbid thoughts. In fact, it was the culmination of many previous years spent secretly battling the other faces of my mysterious foe.
Now well past the nightmare, I hope to encourage others who find themselves in the dark crypt of pure OCD. The gold mined from my furnace of affliction did its good work in my life, and I hope the hard-earned wealth can be of use to others, too.
Since early childhood, I’d had a particular bent toward fear of death, and I struggled with separation anxiety. In first grade, I was afraid to go to sleep in my bed, convinced I would die in my sleep. To stave off the grim reaper, I often slept in my parents’ doorway, which apparently was off-limits for his deadly errands.
In fourth grade, I missed 88 days of school; I stayed at home, obstinately and tearfully refusing to attend, overcome with grief about leaving home for the day. Sensitive to a fault, I hated my classroom vibes, with no motherly warmth there; I was sure that shrill Mrs. Neimi and her classroom favorites disliked me.
I decided I must avoid the place altogether—an unfortunate strategy if you’re a student—so most school mornings brought weepy battles and despondency. My poor mother, knowing I was otherwise happy and well-behaved, was perplexed and exhausted, so she gave in. I nursed my emotions while watching The Price is Right. Bob and his “angels” seemed much nicer than my teacher.
Blessedly, the next year’s teachers were the most beautiful and loving creatures one could want. My smiling history teacher taught me all about the Plantagonets and Henry VIII; My homeroom teacher was kind when I was tardy. I was able to recover nicely and move on….until three years later, in eighth grade.
In middle school, even the best and brightest meet their match in adolescent moods, so I was no exception—but I had the added misfortune of having horrible, intractable, everywhere acne. Living in Florida meant wearing sleeveless shirt and swimsuits, both of which exposed my dermatological disaster to the world. What could I do to avoid the overwhelming shame?
A couple years later, glowing from a high school beach trip, I discovered the solution for all beauty woes. When it doubt, just tan it! An obsession was born. My quest to out-tan the acne had begun.
People like to laugh at the idea of tanorexia, but it’s a real thing. I wasn’t orange; I was browned under the real Florida sun, and I loved every sweaty minute of it—for a while. After a year or so, it turned into a compulsory time of worship, a heavy labor to keep from fading into boring irrelevance. Being outside as much as humanly possible seemed the wisest course; being tan helped camouflage my acne, and I felt prettier.
My pleasant prescription became an all-day, nagging urge that compelled me to get outside—as soon as possible. When school let out, I needed to get home and tan. On a sunny weekend, doing anything indoors was unthinkable. If the forecast gave no hope for browning rays, I worried that I was already getting pale. If sunlight beamed while I was inside, I was distracted, restless to get outside, where relief and calm awaited.
My ridiculous uber-tan lasted for years, even into college, even after Accutane had rescued me from acne’s visible curse. I never told anyone, except my husband, of the deep shame and fear that descended on me during and after those years. I finally escaped its ultraviolet highs when I got married and started working.
Soon enough, though, I was pregnant, and a new battlefront erupted. Most moms instinctively want to protect their babies from dangers within and without the womb; I did, too. But once again, OCD would weaponize my desire and transform it into a crazy taskmaster as I brought my firstborn into the world.
In pregnancy, I developed a bizarre and shameful fear: What if I punched my stomach and hurt the baby?
Surely only psychos wondered that. Why would one even do such a stupid thing in the first place? The irrational urges were miserable, so I stayed busy to avoid the temptation to “gently” test the strength of my distended, seven-month stomach. Each time I gave in with a quick thump, I wondered if I had done any damage, which required an additional round of gentle poking and prodding to “test” for signs of life—assurances that all was well.
After finally delivering my sweet baby, I was elated to start my program of being the best mom ever. I would take my baby out on stroller walks daily, breastfeed only, use cloth diapers and quiet her with beautiful music. But one day during her infancy, while changing her tiny diaper, I was stopped in my tracks by yet another OCD fiend: What if I became a child molester?
This was possibly the worst fear of all for a parent. There could be no lower scum on the planet, no one more worthy of condemnation. What if the constant diaper changes made me prone to such perversion? This was next-level torture, and to admit to anyone this shameful mental assault seemed impossible. I muddled on and waited for the harassing thoughts to fade, and they did.
Mercifully, over weeks of time, each horrifying new theme lost its shock value, eventually fading completely—like details of dreams, or long forgotten appointments. I’d now Googled around enough to know that other moms suffered from irrational fears, too. But each time an obsession passed, a cruel new tyrant appeared within days or weeks, and the process began anew.