Trigger warning: This article contains references to suicide, which could be triggering to some readers.
I’ve struggled with severe obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was young. My earliest memories of it include completing homework in kindergarten or first grade. I remember practicing tracing letters and erasing and rewriting until it “felt right.” Sometimes, the intensity of my erasing would rip the sheets.
There’s an essay in Bassey Ikpi’s I’m Telling the Truth But I’m Lying where the author — who lives with Bipolar II Disorder — details the moment her “brain broke.” The moment for her was watching the Challenger spaceship explode on TV while in a classroom. Reading that essay struck me deeply in how much I identified with her existential worries, and how much of a relief it was to know that I wasn’t alone as a Black woman who has struggled with mental health issues since childhood.
Finding out about Malik’s* death was the moment my brain broke. Malik was my classmate from first through third grade, and though he wasn’t my best friend by any means, he was a sweet kid who made me laugh so hard that sometimes I had to catch my breath. I found out that Malik died from my then-best friend’s uncle, and I thought it was mean of him to lie about something like that. I didn’t think of it again until my school sent a letter home a few days later confirming the news of his death in a fire.
It was in July 2002, right before I started fourth grade. I’ve thought of him almost every single day since, mostly against my will. I tried not to think about him because I was so scared I would meet a similar fate, which made the thoughts stronger. Malik’s death broke my brain because it made me realize so suddenly that there were things my parents couldn’t save me from. My parents couldn’t save me from dying, especially because Malik’s father died while going back into the building in an effort to rescue him. Malik’s death made me realize, at age 9, that none of us would be around forever, no matter how much I wanted to protect us all. I especially wanted to protect my relatives who lived across the ocean in West Africa and Europe. I hadn’t met them yet and was terrified that they would die before I ever got to see them in-person.
In middle school I developed a bedtime ritual. I had learned a prayer from Tomie dePaola’s nursery rhyme book called Mother Goose: “Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep; and if I die before I wake; I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I clung to that prayer as if it would form a shield around me and my loved ones. Even as a child, I was not religious (and my family isn’t Christian) but without fail, I would settle into bed every single night and say the prayer at least five times for every immediate family member and for any other loved one who came to mind. If I had a distracting or intrusive thought while doing this, I had to start all over. It was exhausting, time-consuming,and stressful to hide from my family, but, in my mind, I had to do it in order to save them. This ritual continued for years until I moved it to 8 p.m. to give myself enough time to get it out of the way before I went to bed and I eventually stopped, but the worries morphed.
I constantly had intrusive thoughts of my brothers, parents and friends dying in fires or being murdered or maimed and I tried my hardest to replace those thoughts with peaceful or neutral ideas, which would quickly be replaced once again by the distressing thoughts. In addition, I would be terrified of various things that may not worry most people — at school I would dwell on the slight possibility that my parents didn’t turn off the stove properly before leaving for work, or I would stay awake at night wondering if the bathroom light was still on. At one point, I was afraid of bar soap being dirty, so I would wash it with liquid soap. I knew it was wasteful, but in my mind it was the only way I could ensure it was truly clean.
These are only some of the obsessions and compulsions that appeared through the years; to list them all would be nearly impossible.
When I was in 10th grade, a student a grade above me died by suicide on campus. I remember being envious of him; that he was the one who died instead of me. I went to a PWI that is prestigious and has many resources, but I didn’t feel supported as a Black student and I didn’t trust the school psychiatrist, so I did not know how to tell her about the intrusive thoughts and actions that constantly plagued me. These symptoms stopped me from doing homework, they kept me from fully paying attention in class. I felt utterly alone and drifted through school. I somehow managed to graduate and hoped that college would be a chance for me to start anew.
However, it wasn’t until I moved away for college that I became actively suicidal and realized that I urgently needed to speak with a campus counselor and psychiatrist at the suggestion of friends and professors. There were so many traumatic events I’d experienced and did not know how to process properly, and I was in a space where I could no longer ignore them. I was officially diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression and things suddenly made sense. I remembered watching a MTV True Life episode in middle school about people who lived with OCD, but it never occurred to me that I was dealing with the same disorder. I hadn’t realized that I was actually living with an illness; I just thought I was weird.
1.6% of Black Americans have OCD, although rates are higher for Black Americans who experience individual symptoms, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the International OCD Foundation says they are also underrepresented in studies and in access to treatment. And while white men account for more suicide deaths in the U.S. than any other demographic, suicide rates among white people in the U.S. declined from 2019 to 2020 according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Meanwhile, rates increased from 2019 to 2020 for Black Americans and Americans of color, and suicide rates have climbed steadily over the past two decades for young Black people in particular.
People are almost always surprised when I share that I have OCD, particularly because, outwardly, I seem to function pretty well. In most of my encounters with people, they misunderstand what the disorder actually is; they believe it’s simply wanting things to be neat or in a particular order, or they think it’s an adjective. Once I tell them that OCD comprises so much more than that, sometimes I’m asked what I obsess about, which is never appropriate. In my case, OCD has been particularly debilitating to the point where I had to take entire semesters off from school during undergrad to tend to the symptoms and learn to manage them properly.
It’s the ultimate betrayal when you’re fighting your brain every single day. I’ve been in therapy and psychiatric treatment for 10 years now with countless mixes of medications to try to manage the symptoms of my OCD, depression and anxiety. I was afraid that these disorders meant I was unlovable and a burden, and, to be honest, I still worry about this. My healing has not been linear and will be lifelong; I know my OCD and anxiety will never fully go away.
I have moments where I look forward to what the future may offer me, but there are times when it’s harder to convince myself that there are good things in store for me. My brain tells me that I’m hideous and a bother to everyone I encounter; I have to fight those thoughts by reminding myself that there are people who love and care about me and regularly show me this. I try to remind myself that my brain is not my enemy, but that I have to find ways to work with it through therapy, medication, and actively challenging my obsessive and intrusive thoughts. I have been suicidal at times in my life, but I credit my medication and therapy with saving me when I was at my lowest and I felt the world would be a better place without me and my agonizing thoughts. I have to find ways to care for me, for this mind, body and soul that has to get me through the rest of my days.
Writing articles and essays have been a source of solace for me; finding my stride as a journalist has helped me find meaning in my life. I write as a way of screaming into the void, hoping that my words, no matter the topic, will reach someone who will understand or that I’ll open up their eyes to an experience they did not know existed.
*Name has been changed for privacy.
If you are struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder and are in need of information and support, please call the National Alliance on Mental Illness at 1-800-950-6264. For a 24-hour crisis line, text “NAMI” to 741741.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.