I Spent My 20s Running From OCD — It Always Found Me

Some people look back on their 20s as a time of freedom. I don't remember it that way at all.

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OCD is a thief of time.
When I see photos of myself in my twenties, I see a confident young woman on a motorcycle in San Francisco, holding a placard in a pride parade, embracing her friends at a Gossip show. These shots tell a story of revelry, abandon, and the unique autonomy of youth. My old friends, gathered recently for a wedding, said Man, I miss the freedom! as we scrolled through the photos. But I don’t feel the same way. I don’t remember feeling free. I miss my metabolism and the ways I could pull off Converse sneakers with a slip dress, but I remember my twenties as a time of private suffering, struggling to maintain a normal appearance while OCD tried to take me down at every turn.
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The form of OCD I have isn’t the kind that is easy to talk about, especially at 22. I wasn’t tapping or counting, hand-washing, or checking the stove, I only had obsessive thoughts. But without the compulsions to count or wash or check there was nothing to ease the thoughts, even temporarily.
These thoughts ran the gamut from completely embarrassing to potentially horrifying, and easy to interpret as dangerous. I avoided the subway for over a year because I worried I would spontaneously jump in front of it. I never went on balconies. I’d be with a partner enjoying a hike, and they’d say Isn’t this beautiful? But all I’d be thinking was How fast can we get away from this beautiful cliff and back to the parking lot? People commonly remarked I was day-dreamy, that it must be because I’m an artist, but the truth was I was only half-present.
OCD distracts the afflicted from the pleasures of life, often preventing us from a depth of connection to the world, because to put it simply, we are busy asking ourselves, repeatedly, What if this terrible thing happens. The refrain repeats itself over and over until it’s the only thing we hear, and the rest of life blurs into the background.

The GP at the student walk-in clinic dismissed me by saying, 'People like you either kill themselves or go on medication.'

The isolation I felt in my 20s was profound. I didn’t have any extra money, so finding a therapist was next to impossible. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto had a year-long waiting list, a GP at the York University student walk-in clinic dismissed me in two minutes by saying People like you either kill themselves or go on medication, and handed me a prescription without explaining what it was. A counsellor at the free feminist counselling service insisted I must deal with the childhood trauma that was causing my symptoms, but I had never been abused as a child. When I told a professor how difficult it was to get to class with panic disorder — I had panic attacks in addition to OCD — she said Yeah, I don’t know what that is. I dropped the class, then out of university entirely. The only thing that helped was having a group of friends who also experienced anxiety. But we were all young, broke, and couldn’t give the kind of support needed without burning out.
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Until I was properly diagnosed and understood my condition, I had no idea what was happening. The most distressing thoughts were about harming people — what if I hurt someone, even though I don’t want to? I would say no if someone asked if I wanted to hold their baby, terrified I would drop them. I avoided older and frail-looking people on the subway platform, just in case I suddenly snapped. I felt reassured when I began to date someone who was much taller and broader than me because they could overcome me. I avoided all news stories about violent crimes done by people neighbours described as “kind and ordinary.” During the worst of it, I avoided people all together, unable to sit at the table eating a meal, just in case I grabbed one of the knives and “lost it.”
When I finally found an obsessive disorder specialist, she explained that people who actually want to harm others don’t spend months worrying that they will, and that people with obsessive thoughts about harm are actually acutely sensitive and extremely unlikely to hurt anyone. She also told me that everyone has brief unusual thoughts — about potentially dropping a baby, for example — but people with OCD cannot let it go. Knowing this was tremendously reassuring, but when the thoughts come — and they do on occasion — they are still distressing.
We talk about OCD more openly in 2018, but I worry that young people who feel sucker-punched by the arrival of intrusive thoughts will still hide, afraid of how to explain what’s going on in their heads to others. Now there are better drugs, and universities like York actually have policies in place, thanks to disability rights activists, to accommodate students with mental health issues. But I imagine that much of the struggles and isolation remain. If this is you, I want to urge you not to let OCD steal your experience of being young and free and the depth of your connection to the world. Tell your friends and family, find a therapist who specializes in OCD. If I had found help earlier and had the support systems and financial security necessary to see consistent therapy through, things may have gone smoother. I lost many jobs because my anxiety made it difficult to work, and it impacted my decision to not have a child of my own. I’m happy with my life now — my career as a TV writer and novelist is great, and I love my partner and his two kids — but I’d hope it would be easier now for someone in my shoes.
I wish I could write a closing paragraph about being completely free of OCD, but that’s not the nature of the disorder. It lingers, though I do have better coping mechanisms now. In fact, the only rituals I have are related to my fear of flying — I wear a lucky dress. And I send the same group text every time a plane is about to take off — even if it’s 4am, because I’m convinced the plane not crashing depends on this. After I land, I receive a string of thumbs-up emojis and hearts from friends, reminders that no matter how dark my thoughts get, it’s really all going to be okay.
Zoe Whittall's latest novel, The Best Kind of People, is soon to be a film by Sarah Polley and was a finalist for the Giller prize. Her author photograph was taken by Nikol Mikus.
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