OCD and Me: Learning to Heal Without Therapy
My experiment in treating my self-diagnosed disorder
I grew up the epitome of normal. I lived in a quiet suburb with a sister and two parents who still loved each other. I was lucky, but I wasn't happy. I was bored and angry for reasons I didn't know. I came home from kindergarten in tears because I wasn't assigned any homework. I had temper tantrums about the seam in my dance tights not aligning correctly with my foot, about my soccer shin guards constricting my calves. Each time my sister called me "stupid," I thought my IQ actually dropped. I was fixated on how many brain cells I had, and at any given time, needed to have more than her. I would not let anyone brush my hair, until it grew irreparably knotted. What at first seemed like quirks in my personality soon turned to concerns. I developed a series of peculiar behaviors that I soon realized had a name.
Though I'm considered by some to be artistic, I've always hated art class. In school I would rush through my assignments and be the first to line up at the sink and put my materials away. I couldn't be like the art teacher, covered in paint and glue. I needed to be clean. When I was about ten, I went to a gingerbread-building workshop and couldn't handle it after five minutes, because my hands were covered in frosting. I rarely cooked. I feared eggs and raw meat. I didn't let dogs lick me. I didn't sit on the floor like other kids. I would wash my hands after touching or even being in the vicinity of anything remotely germy or gooey, even if I'd just washed them two minutes prior. I would wash my hands if my thumb lay over a dirty word in a book I was reading. I carried around hand sanitizer like a charm wherever I went. The washing gave me temporary relief. It was the one thing I could control in this uncontrollable world. As a result, my hands were always red and raw, the subject of many a conversation in my household and outside of it.
I was cognizant of locks very early on, since my family was once locked out of the house and a handyman had to jimmy the window on my sister's room to get inside. I thought anyone could get in: a robber, a murderer. I would constantly check that the doors were locked, pulling on doorknobs until my arms hurt. I would check that the lights were off, forcing the switches down with my elbow so as not to touch them. I would check that the faucets and stoves were off, not once, but two or three times before leaving the house. I would ask my family if they turned everything off and locked everything, even when my logical brain knew that they did. They were responsible. They were competent. So was I. Still, I checked if I had my wallet, my cards, my tickets.
When we would pull away out of the driveway to a vacation or even just to the supermarket, I would have fantasies and ruminations. I would fantasize about the house burning down because someone had left a flatiron plugged in. I would fantasize about having the house broken into, because my mind had failed me and the doors weren't locked after all. I would fantasize about having nothing left in my wallet, even after I knew I had money there. There was no limit to what I could think up, which both thrilled and scared me.
The worst symptoms were at night. I had chronic night terrors. I couldn't sleep through the night, and needed to listen to The Beatles' "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" on repeat just to approach a state of rest. A strange pick, but it sometimes worked. I feared monsters in the closet and under my bed, skeletons, corpses. I made up the most frightening images I could imagine to scare myself into a terrifying state of awakeness. My parents said I used to sleepwalk. I would often run into their room to sleep on the floor, afraid of being alone in the dark in my own room. This happened until I was 14 years old.
Over the years I developed a system to quell my night terrors. I would count by multiples of 2 all the way up to 4,096, and only then could I peacefully fall asleep. If I didn't do that, my parents would be killed or some night demon from under my bed would get me. I also had to fall asleep when the colon separating the hour and the minute on my alarm clock was illuminated. I had to fall asleep on an even minute. When it was 9:03, I waited until 9:04 and shut my eyes, hoping they would stay shut until morning.
But that rarely happened. In sixth grade when I read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," I awoke every morning at 4am sweating in fear that beneath my floorboards, a heart was thumping. I swore to myself I could even hear the thumping. These were the times that counting failed me. If I started to fantasize about a family member being killed, I closed my eyes and kissed my palm three times, in an effort not to jinx it. These were irrational behaviors, but I didn't know what else to do to stop my savage mind.
Though I was never formally diagnosed, when learning about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in a psychology course, I knew from my symptoms that I may have had at least a mild case. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, obsessions are "repeated thoughts, urges, or mental images that cause anxiety." This includes germophobia, unwanted forbidden thoughts, aggressive thoughts, or desiring perfect symmetry and order. I was not, like some would think, the person who would be color-coding socks until late at night.
My compulsions were my washing, checking and counting. People with OCD perform behaviors in an effort to self-soothe, though they are often irrational. While we all have our good luck charms, what distinguishes superstition or perfectionism from OCD, is that someone with OCD spends at least one hour per day on these thoughts and behaviors, which may momentarily provide relief, but end up interfering with their lives. This was the story of me.
There are a number of respected treatment methods for this disorder, which include SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors), CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and Exposure and Response Prevention, and even novel techniques such as DBS (Deep Brain Stimulation). I had known of the virtues of therapy, but fortunately, my solution fell into my lap. I wanted to be a writer.
As a way to recount the vivid and violent nightmares I kept having, I wrote them down in dream journals. What started as an experiment turned into a necessity. The more I wrote, I found, the less I had the nightmares. These dream journals soon became real journals, where I recounted my thoughts, feelings, and actual dreams. I wrote fiction, poetry, plays, and treatises. I wrote lists of my compulsions and ways I wanted to improve. I wrote down mantras. I knew that I was clean, that the doors were locked, that my family would be safe. But the act of writing it down reinforced it. The stories I wrote made me able to siphon macabre mental experiences into the safety of a character, the safety of fiction, locked away for good. Now, I have over 30 journals and write every morning at 5am. It is as sacred to me as a prayer. It is my most powerful obsession.
In tandem with my journaling, I made a pact to myself to get out in the world again, to not be scared of germs any more. While I had always feared the dirt and grime of New York City, I ended up going to college there, and now work there. For my first few semesters at school, I couldn't sit on park benches or hold the subway pole. Pens I would lend to classmates I wouldn't ask for back. I would demand my roommates to tell me if their flatirons were unplugged more than once. I would triple-lock the door, and once downstairs, go back up and check again. But I stuck to my mission to improve. I kept writing. I refused to let this disorder take me over. I didn't want to look crazy anymore and limit my opportunities because of irrational fears. I could wash my clothes after I sat on a bench. I wouldn't die if I got sick. I forced myself to defeat OCD, one obsession and compulsion at a time.
Of course I'm not totally cured, and don't think I will ever be. But I do wash my hands less, I do check less, and I haven't had a nightmare in years. I don't count to 4,096 anymore by multiples of two. I no longer hear heartbeats under my floorboards. I believe in the power of medicine and therapy. They are both methods that have worked for thousands of people like me. I have a long way to go, but I've already come far on my own. A pen, paper, and a will to heal can be the first step to getting better.