What It's Really Like To Struggle With Intrusive-Thought OCD

Illustrated by Tyler Spangler.
About a month ago, I sat outside a small Manhattan Beach apartment, willing my phone to ring. There was a family gathering going on inside, but I was so upset, I’d had to excuse myself. I pushed the button on the right side of the phone, and the screen illuminated, once again reminding me that the phone was still on, and no one was calling. I tried to focus on the little specks of the ocean I could see now that it was dark, and I tried to breathe deeply. In through my nose, out through my mouth. I tried to make it a rhythm. In through my nose, out through my mouth.

But I couldn’t. I was panicking that something might have happened to one of my close family members. I was supposed to return her call that afternoon but had forgotten, and by the time I got around to calling, she wasn’t answering. After trying her phone a few more times, I became convinced that something was wrong. Seeing as it was 9 p.m., the more rational conclusion was that nothing was wrong, and that she was asleep, because it was midnight her time. But I couldn’t make the panic stop, so it seeped into my system, until I could feel the emotional sting that something awful had happened. The knots in my stomach and distracted uneasiness lasted until about 4 a.m. (7 a.m. her time) when I finally got a text from her. Everything was fine.

For me, this is what it’s like to live with minor obsessive compulsive disorder (which some refer to as intrusive-thought OCD), an issue I almost never tell anyone I struggle with. I always assume people would hear that and picture Monica Geller sanitizing her cleaning products on Friends. In my head, saying I occasionally struggle with OCD identifies me as the kind of person who can’t sleep if there are dishes in my sink or dust bunnies in my closet. But my experience of OCD couldn’t be farther from that assumption: In reality, I sleep just fine if there are unwashed dishes in my sink.

There are two parts of OCD: the obsessive and the compulsive, and each can manifest in completely different ways. Personally, I’m confronted primarily with the obsessive part. Sometimes it’s is as simple as checking the locks in my apartment, which is in line with other stereotypical depictions of OCD, like obsessively turning light switches on and off to “prevent” bad things from happening. But mostly, for me, struggling with the “O” in “OCD” means that when a scary, irrational thought enters my head, instead of letting it go, I latch onto it. Typically, it evolves; the bad thought can spiral into an image I can’t shake. I obsess. For some people who struggle with this, they can’t get rid of the thought that they might be ill, or that they’re going to be hurt in a violent situation. In my case, thoughts that something bad might happen to someone I love seep into my head, and if I can’t stop those thoughts and get rid of them, they disruptively blossom.

In a story for Psychology Today, Robert L. Leahy, PhD, describes the feeling of obsessing this way: “Let's say that you are obsessive and you have the recurring thought, Maybe I have cancer. But you don't. You've seen the doctor, she tells you that you are fine, you go home and begin thinking again, Maybe she's wrong. Maybe I have cancer... Then you think, The fact that I'm thinking that must mean that there is something to worry about. I need to know for sure. I need to do something.”

That description rings incredibly true to me — that’s just what it’s like to dwell on an intrusive thought, even when you’ve confirmed it’s irrational, and even if it’s been disproved by an expert. In an ideal world, rationality would always trump irrationality, and because of that, any time an irrational thought entered my head, I’d immediately be able to disprove it and push it away. But when you’re struggling with OCD, irrational fears don’t always succumb to logic.

When you’re struggling with OCD, irrational fears don’t always succumb to logic.

According to OCDUK.org, the four most common types of OCD are: checking (obsessively looking, over and over again, to make sure the burners on the stove are off, for example); contamination (compulsion to clean); hoarding (when you can’t discard useless items in your home); and finally, rumination (the umbrella intrusive-thought OCD falls under). Currently, according to UOCD, 2.3% of the U.S. population (ages 18-54) struggles with OCD, making it more common than bipolar disorder or panic disorder. This means about 3.3 million people in the U.S. have OCD.

These bouts of panic that are brought on by “rumination” never happen to me when I’m at work or surrounded by other people. It’s when I’m alone — or sometimes one-on-one with a close friend or family member — that I’ll feel consumed with worry that something is going wrong, usually somewhere far out of my control. I will try to convince myself otherwise, but I will inevitably start to feel the anxiety of, but what if it’s true?

Whenever my irrational fears creep up in my head, no matter how even-keeled my headspace may have been seconds before, fighting off the thoughts is my biggest struggle. Through seeing a counselor, I have learned that I have two options when I’m confronted with negative thoughts: Let those thoughts be in control, and have severe anxiety over those completely irrational fears, or be the person in control of my own thoughts, and push the negative ones away. By being able to take my time and logically reason with myself, if I’m focused, I can successfully suppress the negative thoughts, stay in control of my emotions, stay positive, and not panic. After too much trial and error, I’ve found the best defense against these thoughts is myself — using logic to push away and ultimately eliminate the irrational fears that I would otherwise obsess over.

Refinery29 is teaming up with Black Girls Smile Inc. in honor of Minority Mental Health Month to encourage women everywhere to lead their most mentally healthy lives. Because there is no health without mental health. Prioritize yours.