Me and OCD Part 2: learning to tread the panic water

OCD treading panic water

This is a 3-part series about suffering with OCD and anxiety. In Part 1 this series, I talked about developing obsessive compulsive disorder at age nine and how it wreaked havoc on my middle-school years. You can read Part III here

You know that panicky feeling you get when you’re about five minutes into your morning commute and can’t remember if you turned the oven off? OCD is like having that feeling dozens of times a day, but instead of being tied to a legitimate concern with real consequences, it’s out of nowhere for no discernible reason. That’s the “obsessive” part. The “compulsions” are the nonsensical rituals you create for yourself to alleviate the obsession because, as you are frustratingly aware of every moment of every day, none of this makes any sense.

Anxiety lightning bolt while closing a book? Just re-close it! Again. And again. And once more because that last one make a different sound. And again to make it an even number. Now start the whole thing over to make sure it feels right…

Outwardly a normal kid, but inwardly I developed compulsive rituals to cope

Outwardly a normal kid, but inwardly I developed compulsive rituals to cope

That was basically my internal monologue for all of middle school. My compulsions included checking locks, re-shutting doors and drawers, tapping objects, and counting things. By the time I turned thirteen, my life was pretty much dictated by these behaviors. OCD determined what social events I attended (few), what clothing I wore (no tight collars or rough fabrics, please), and what kitchen utensils I handled (spoons were okay).

The worst obsessions, though, were the ones that required other people’s participation. Most of my anxiety could be traced back to two main irrational beliefs: 1. Something terrible was going to happen to me or the people I love and it would be my fault, and 2. I am going to miss something monumentally important because I’m not paying enough attention. That last one often manifested as me asking people to repeat something they’ve said, no matter how mundane, several times until I felt “sure” I’d heard it correctly. My parents received the brunt of this. Let me tell you: being thirteen and drowning in your own crazy is one thing, but being thirteen and drowning in your own crazy and having to watch your parents’ bewildered and eventually exasperated faces as you ask them to repeat what Ethel just said on I Love Lucy for the third time but not being able to stop because CRAZY is a whole other ordeal. Which brings me to the place where things changed.

At some point my parents, as the kids say, “couldn’t even.” They had tried everything the could think of to help my “worrying problem,” and their only child remained a jittery mess of panic. I’m not sure whether it was a strategic decision or if they simply snapped, but at some point during my eighth-grade year, my parents started refusing to participate in my verbal compulsions. They wouldn’t answer my endless paranoid questions, and they wouldn’t repeat things to me anymore. The most crucial instance of this was at bedtime, when my anxiety was highest.

The first time that my mom refused to repeat her goodnight to me, I walked straight to my bed and had the worst panic attack of my life. Chest constricting, shivering uncontrollably, just plain molten terror for what felt like hours. After I exhausted myself and fell asleep, I was puzzled the next morning to wake up and discover the earth still intact. It had not, like my OCD brain had led me to believe, imploded like a dying star because my mom didn’t say goodnight correctly. The next night, she refused again, and again I went straight to my room and had a panic attack. But it was ever-so-slightly, almost imperceptibly, milder than the last one. And I woke up the next day to an un-imploded world, again. This pattern continued for weeks, with each night’s panic attack getting easier and each morning finding me less surprised that shit was not on fire. It wasn’t until my undergrad Intro to Psych class that I learned what my parents had done in desperation was technically exposure therapy, one of the most effective treatments possible for OCD.

age 19-ish, happily going through life without (too many) irrational fears

age 19-ish, happily going through life without (too many) irrational fears

Although I didn’t know the name for it at the time, I understood the mechanism of what was happening with my panic attacks, and it wasn’t long before I started trying it on my own with my other rituals. Getting a glimpse of that un-imploded world gave me the courage to leave the house without re-shutting the door and sit willingly in the flood of anxiety that I knew would follow. Just wait it out, I would tell myself. Just wait and see. So I would wait, and even though it sometimes took hours, eventually I would feel the panic and dread drain away, and I could look at the world around me like a logical person again.

Looking back on it now, I think that process of shedding my OCD behaviors through exposure therapy when I was thirteen had a crucial role in shaping my entire adult personality, because it taught me that feelings do not have to dictate my reality. Feelings come and go--sometimes with alarming speed--and they cannot force me to do anything. Feelings can’t destroy me, but they also can’t save me, and if I don’t want to drown in my own crazy, I need to anchor myself to something deep below the fickle tides of my emotions.

In the final part of this series, I’ll talk about how OCD impacts my adult life, and how I go back and forth about whether to call myself “cured.”