Obsessive-compulsive disorder is nicknamed the “doubting disease.” There’s a reason for that: It truly makes you doubt everything. I think this is why I’ve always hated the phrase “trust your gut.” Since I can remember, my gut has lied to me. The idea that someone could trust anything their brain or their body was telling them? Ludicrous. Foreign. Insane. It just doesn’t compute to me, a naturally anxious ball of yarn that presents itself as a human.
Growing up, I would get nervous about class presentations or big tests — the same stuff that would make anyone stress. But I’d also worry that my family would suddenly die without warning. I’d convince myself I had cancer or sleep apnea. When I dated my first boyfriend in college, the joy and giddiness at the beginning of our relationship were quickly replaced by worries that maybe we weren’t right for each other, maybe I didn’t really like him, maybe I would hurt myself, or him, in the end. My anxious “what if” thoughts kept me up at night, crying into the early hours of the morning.
To ease my worries, I started to engage in behaviors that seemed at times silly, and at times extreme. I filled out calculators online that claimed to give you an estimated age of death based on various criteria. I had a benign cyst in my knee removed because I was unconvinced that it wouldn’t turn into a cancerous clump of cells. I constantly asked my mom, through tears, for reassurance that I was a good person. I recorded myself in my sleep so I could listen for noises that pointed to my lack of breathing. I made lists of my boyfriend’s good qualities, and googled article after article on how to tell if he was “the one”.
It’s funny to look back on a thought that debilitated me for months on end — causing me to lose sleep, my appetite, my grip on reality — and realize now, with more perspective, how truly batshit crazy it sounds. Those thoughts were baseless, founded in nothing but circumstantial evidence or a fleeting thought, but nothing anyone did or said could pull me out of the spiral that I had created in my own mind.
I never thought that this was alarming. I thought that this was what everyone with anxiety was like.
When I was busy, the thoughts were usually at bay. But big life changes, unstructured days, and the eerie quiet of the night allowed the “what ifs” to creep their way back into the forefront of my mind.
Still, I was pushing my way along, unknowingly coping with a mental disorder as best I could — until this past spring. That’s when coronavirus hit. We were asked to stay at home. Many of the things I used to distract myself became unavailable. My free time spiked. And my brain ran amuck.
“There is absolutely nothing more toxic to an obsessive-compulsive than boredom,” Fletcher Wortmann, author of Triggered: A Memoir of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, wrote for Psychology Today. “It’s never pleasant to find your thoughts drifting to a horrible image or irresolvable problem — but when you have nothing else to distract you, when there’s nothing to occupy your mind, such thoughts can quickly escalate from annoying to excruciating.”
That’s what happened to me. Without my usual schedule, filled with the crutches that allowed me to push aside my OCD symptoms, my familiar worries — sudden death, being a bad person — re-emerged with a vengeance. I spent almost every day nauseous, and I barely slept; it was the most consumed by my thoughts I had ever felt. Some days it was a struggle to get out of bed, let alone to finish up my senior year of college or enjoy my last few weeks of living with friends.
During another frantic search for answers on the web, I stumbled across Made of Millions, a site that aims to help de-stigmatize mental illness. While reading some of their articles about OCD, I was struck by an overwhelming sense of understanding. It was like someone took a look inside my brain and put what I dealt with into words. I literally cried with relief. Here it was, finally; evidence that I wasn’t just simply an “over-thinker”, but suffering from something that had an actual name.
I was wary of diagnosing myself, so I sought out a therapist with a speciality in anxiety and OCD. After a little over a month of working together virtually, she confirmed that I fit the criteria for a diagnosis.
In the past several weeks, I’ve learned that many of the “thoughts” I was having were actually mental compulsions. I — like many others — had always associated the disorder with compulsive behaviors like washing one’s hands, counting floor tiles, or checking to see if a door was locked. But for those with Pure OCD or Pure O (nicknames for a subset of the disorder that don’t present physical behaviors), compulsions may be “rumination, mental reviewing, avoidance, reassurance seeking, or compulsive checking,” explains Chrissie Hodges, a mental health advocate and author Pure OCD: The Invisible Side of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The way I reviewed situations to determine how I felt or recall what I did, the way I asked loved ones for definite, concrete answers, and my obsessive internet research were all anxiety-reducing behaviors. Like someone who feels the need to wash their hands in order to feel clean, I needed to do these things in order to quell my worries.
Looking back, I’m surprised I never realized I had OCD. It’s clear that our conception and understanding of the disorder, even within the medical field, isn’t as complex and nuanced as the disorder itself. Hodges notes that “OCD education and information about evidence-based practices is not taught to the extent it should be in Masters and doctorate programs. Most therapists will tell you that the maximum amount of time spent on OCD is just a couple of hours, and rarely are the violent, sexual, religious intrusive thoughts discussed,” she says. “The reality is that the percentage of people who have ‘Pure’ OCD is much larger than those that have the mainstream-known ‘contamination’ OCD, so we need so much more education and advocacy to reach these individuals and let them know there is help.”
Therapy has already been tremendously helpful in many ways, but the troubling thoughts still come. The point of therapy for OCD isn’t to stop these thoughts (though, God, wouldn’t that be a miracle), but rather to work on tools and coping strategies for how to give them less power.
The brains of people with anxiety and/or OCD go through Olympic-level gymnastics every day, jumping through hoops to search and search for an answer that, quite frankly, will never really be there. The unknowable truth, the idea of being in the dark, is OCD sufferers' greatest fear: that we have no control, no sway, no influence on our own life. But, like a gymnast, we can train our mind to be more flexible, to bend to the idea that uncertainty is the most natural part of life. And, if we’re lucky, we can walk through life the way we want to, waving a kind but apathetic hello to the thoughts that try to creep in and fuck it all up.