Me and OCD Pt. 3: what it's like now
For a very long time I referred to myself as having been “healed” from OCD when I was fourteen years old. I went from experiencing horrific panic attacks and spending multiple hours each day re-closing books and checking smoke detectors to, well, someone who did not do those things. Not even a little. Not even a second tap on the door handle for good measure. I knew that confronting my anxiety through exposure therapy had been effective, but I was still shocked at the amount of improvement I made over the course of about six months. My parents thought I outgrew it; I thought God had fixed me. We all went on with our lives.
OCD didn’t make another significant appearance in my life until I had my daughter at the age of twenty-six. It started with something innocuous--the pacifier. Eleanor had spit it out onto the floor, and when I rinsed it under the faucet, I felt a stab of panic and heard a familiar but long-forgotten voice in my head say: do it again. I held it back under the water for another few seconds, knowing full well that I hadn’t made it a damn bit cleaner, but feeling my anxiety ease nonetheless. I walked away unnerved by the experience and tried to put it out of my mind.
For those unfamiliar with the fantastic voyage of postpartum hormones, during the first week of a baby’s life, many women will experience dramatic mood shifts as a result of progesterone levels plummeting to less than one-third of what they were during pregnancy. Or to put it another way, you come out of the post-birth bliss and shit gets real. And for me, that meant that my formerly irrational fear of accidentally causing harm to someone I love was suddenly all too plausible. There are, like, a million ways to kill a baby, y’all. And my OCD brain was devouring each and every one like some dormant shadow monster that had just been rattled awake.
This relapse of sorts lasted about three months, until my hormones leveled out and my anxiety and panic attacks lessened. Although the compulsions weren’t nearly as extreme as they were in my childhood, that postpartum experience was a wake-up call that this thing I thought I was healed or cured from is still capable of some major fuckery in my life.
These days, I struggle to put a label on my relationship with OCD. Am I “recovered” from OCD? Do I have a “mild” case of it? Are we “friends with benefits”? Is OCD going to ask me to prom, or are we just going to gaze at each other longingly across the dance floor and maybe sneak off to the bathroom to make out? In trying to figure out how to talk about my experiences, I feel tension between the worldview of my evangelical upbringing and my current cultural landscape. In general, I believe in the possibility of deep personal transformation for all people. I think selfish people can learn to be unselfish and assholes can un-asshole themselves. I’ve always regarded my OCD similarly, as a problem I could fix given the right toolbox.
So as I’ve begun to develop a community of friends who speak openly about their struggles with things like addiction, anxiety, and depression, I’ve been surprised to find the notion of healing largely absent from the conversation. People speak of coping, awareness, and acceptance, but not of change. I like their candor but their outlook frightens me. I don’t want to have to wrestle with OCD for the rest of my life, and I certainly don’t want to adopt it as part of my identity. I’m scared that doing so will make me complacent--less likely to keep pursuing treatment and transformation; more likely to relapse and wallow. But of course, telling myself that I was completely cured was what allowed me to get blindsided after Eleanor’s birth. It’s also kept me from acknowledging the ways in which OCD affects my personality whether or not I’m currently engaging in rituals, such as being an unusually fearful driver and having a huge tendency to claim responsibility and apologize for things that were not my fault or were out of my control.
As with most things that I don’t have a great answer for, I try to make my home in the happy medium. I regard my OCD kind of like an obnoxious acquaintance that I know is going to show up places from time to time. They’re not going to do any real harm, but they’re certainly going to be a pain in my ass for as long as they hang around. Maybe eventually I’ll figure out how to avoid them for good. Or maybe I won’t. But either way I know that the world isn’t going to implode, and each day that I don’t have to tap anything to prove that to myself is a pretty good day.