I don’t remember exactly when my OCD started; I just remember that around age seven or eight, I began experiencing a lot more worry and fear than I ever had. Looking back, it’s tempting to speculate: was the onset of my OCD due to major life changes, such as the recent move my family had gone through? There’s really no way of knowing. I had always been serious, conscientious, and a perfectionist, and perhaps these personality traits combined with other life changes led to the development of my disorder. In the end, I guess it doesn’t matter. Somehow the biological factors and the environmental factors combined to create in me a full-blown case of OCD.
As far as I can remember, it all started with the stereotypical germ obsession. I began worrying about my hands being contaminated by “poop,” which at that time seemed to be one of the most terrible things in the world. I began washing my hands excessively, and worrying about items in the bathroom being contaminated – the toilet paper, the sink handle, the door knob. One of my major compulsions, besides washing my hands, was to ask my parents for reassurance – which I did over and over.
“Do you think my hands are clean enough?”
“Is it OK if I did get poop on the sink handle?”
For the most part, my parents worked to convince me that everything was all right, although I remember that at least once they told me what I most feared to hear: “If you did get the sink handle dirty, wash it off.” This was enough to send me into a tizzy, not because I had actually gotten it dirty, but rather because my mind equated “being dirty” with the microscopic chance that there might be a germ left on the handle even after I had washed it. This obsession caused me distress for months, maybe even years. Somehow, through cycles of reassurance seeking and scrubbing my ever-chapped hands, I managed to eventually wear the obsession out.
Of course – no surprise to those who have OCD! – the story didn’t end there. My mind had this irrepressible need for something to be worried about. Thus began a pattern of obsessions as my brain moved from topic to topic, sometimes dealing with more than one at a time. During each obsessive phase, I would go through a cycle of performing compulsions, including asking for reassurance, until I was finally able to move on. My childhood obsessions ranged from contamination obsessions to moral and religious obsessions, such as the fear of telling lies or the fear of making unwanted promises to God.
As I grew and my brain developed, so did my obsessions, each new one seeming to be as complex and “unsolvable” as the last. Looking back, I could easily see how my past obsessions had been unreasonable and silly, but could not seem to apply the same logic to my current obsession. In my teen years, I began having fears about more serious, horrific things, such as the fears that I would commit terrible acts of harm toward others or that I would inadvertently pray to the devil. During my late teens and early twenties, these fears impaired my life to some degree. I felt that I could not move forward; there were certain activities I would not allow myself to do for fear of “sinning,” and I was not sure that I could ever have a normal adult life.
It was around that time that I actually began to put some OCD-fighting strategies into practice. I had first learned that I had OCD sometime in my teens. At a bookstore, my mother had handed me a book on OCD, wondering if the description of OCD seemed to match what I was struggling with. I looked at the list of symptoms, but because I didn’t fit all of the symptoms, I wasn’t convinced that I had OCD and put the book back.
Eventually, however, through my own personal research and through meeting others with OCD, I came to realize that I truly did have it. I began to look into resources for dealing with OCD, and discovered that one of the ways to combat OCD was to do the exact opposite of what it wanted me to, instead of giving into it. I began to force myself to do some of the things I had been avoiding. At some point during my struggles with OCD, I had also realized that asking for reassurance tended to make me feel worse rather than better, so I stopped asking for reassurance as frequently and desperately as I had when I was younger.
Finally, in my twenties, I began to experience a bit of a reprieve from OCD. Although I still obsessed about things, for the most part my obsessions were less intense. It felt like my life was no longer measured in terms of how bad my obsessing was, and pleasurable activities were no longer marked by the question of whether or not I would be able to enjoy them. I began to consider myself, in a manner of speaking, as “post-OCD” – having mild symptoms but not really suffering much from it. Although I had experienced a delay in starting my adult life and considered myself a “late bloomer,” I worked hard, first at a full-time job, then getting a college degree, and finally, at the end of my twenties, obtaining my dream job overseas.
It would be nice if my story ended there, wrapped up in a neat little bow. That was, in fact, what I expected. As I approached the end of my twenties, the reality of working overseas – one of my lifelong dreams – was shaping into reality. Although making the decision to take that job had been a lengthy, contemplative process, I felt like once I had decided, my brain would be free and clear from any major worry. I prepared to sail ahead into my new life with a minimum of fear and anxiety.
But I forgot that OCD always likes to have the last word. Suddenly, one of the topics that I had worried about mildly for several years became more urgent. During the final weeks before my move, I noticed that I was having a very hard time switching my brain’s gears from worry mode back to “normal” mode. It frustrated me, because I wanted so badly to enjoy this time! I managed to muscle my way through the orientation, and to experience some measure of victory and happiness. However, after I arrived at my new home and job, the worry continued to persist, and my unsettled feelings and fears somehow morphed into the kind of obsession that I hadn’t had in years. Suddenly, I was right back in the same place that I’d been all those years ago – fears the size of mountains, a black cloud enveloping every moment, and a deep confusion.
The journey to overcoming that obsession has been a long one, and has led to a whole new experience in dealing with my OCD. Feeling unable to cope, I threw myself into research and online support groups. Back into the reassurance cycle I went, and I clung desperately to the word of my parents, who tried to convince me that my obsession truly was OCD. I explored the many new OCD resources that had appeared since I last researched it, and I was reminded once again of the tactics that are necessary to fight OCD. For the first time in my life, I worked to consistently implement those tactics, instead of making only half-hearted efforts as I had in the past.
Now, looking back more than two years later, I can finally see the freedom that seemed so impossible just a short time ago. It has been a long journey, and at times I did not think I would find my way out of the mental maze I had gotten trapped in. I had almost forgotten the frightening world of OCD and the terrible anguish that it causes, but this recent obsession brought it back all too vividly.
It is for this reason that I wish to share hope with you. Whether you suffer from OCD yourself or know someone who does, I’m here to say that I’ve been through that torment, and I have survived. Through fear upon fear, question upon question, I’ve been able to come through and experience relief and freedom once again. Everyone’s story is different, but the way to healing is the same – learn how to stand up to the OCD, and do it. OCD may always be a part of our lives, but it does not have to control our choices. Don’t hesitate to get the help you need, whether it’s professional therapy, self-treatment, or a combination of the two. Explore the resources on this site. Take time to really get to know about OCD and how to deal with it. You don’t have to stay stuck in the cycle forever. Freedom is available, and is waiting to be grasped! You just have to reach for it.