I've finally been discharged from counseling for my OCD, and I'm in a better place mentally and emotionally than I could have ever imagined before this. With the semester ended and me returning home, I'm ready to publicly share my OCD story. This will be a general overview of the journey I've been through thus far with my mental health, similar to my post on having fibromyalgia.
Because this is a mental illness, it's a lot more personal and harder to talk about than the fibromyalgia, but I believe it's important to speak up about mental illness in order to help reduce the stigma and show other sufferers that they're not alone. I will therefore do my best to be accurate, although I'm sure I still have plenty to learn about myself and my illness! Whether you have similar issues or not, I hope this helps you in some way.. Thank you for reading. 💜
Content Warning: Suicidal thoughts, compulsive self-injury, body image issues
Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts that produce fear or worry (obsessions) and by repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety (compulsions).
-- via Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
I've had the hallmarks of an anxious personality since I was very little. As a child, I was bossy, stubborn, and driven by a desperate need for both reassurance from others and control over my own life. Adults often described me as "high-strung" or "moody." My first ballet teacher said that I was "the only three-year-old she knew who PMSed."
The first distinctly obsessive-compulsive episode that I remember having was at the age of eight years old, after my mother first told me about sex. Like many prepubescent children, I found the whole concept disgusting and couldn't understand why anyone would be interested in messing around with each others' private parts, which were private and used for waste disposal. As a romantic who has dreamed of love and marriage since I was three years old, I also felt like something beautiful and important had been sullied by something horrific. I couldn't quite cope with that emotional betrayal.
Because I didn't understand why anyone would have sex willingly, my mind jumped straight to rape, and it would not let that idea go. From then on, when I played with my Barbies, they somehow always ended up getting raped by monsters or by Greek gods. This was my first real compulsion, and it was both distressing and uncontrollable. Though I didn't want to do it, I couldn't make it stop. That's the nature of OCD--it traps you into thinking and doing the same things over and over again, no matter how upsetting you find them. I ended up throwing away all my dolls to get away from it. Mom mourned the fact that her little girl was growing up, and I let her believe that was the reason because I had no way to explain the reality.
The fact that I'm a Mormon who believes sex is a sin outside of marriage, combined with the fact that no one ever reassured me marital rape is wrong and a crime, didn't help. (In fact, when I was eleven, one trusted adult told me that unwanted marital sex is common and necessary.) To this day, I struggle with a deep and abiding fear of sex, tied to rape and sexual assault, that has kept me from truly engaging with my own sexuality. I'm just now starting to become comfortable with the whole idea..
While I was still dealing with my Barbie compulsion, my family moved from a city to a small town. That's when my mental illness became an obvious and public problem. I went camping for the first time with the Girl Scouts, which was supposed to be all good fun. As it turns out, I am not the outdoor type. After struggling to force myself to use the spider-infested outhouse, I went with the campers to visit a magic tree you could make wishes on. As a girl who loved stories, myths, and legends, I was very excited about this. The only reason I used the outhouse at all was because Mom said I couldn't go to the magic tree unless I did.
But the magic tree was the opposite of magical for me. As we stood listening to its story, a swarm of bees came down from higher up in the mountains and started stinging people. I didn't get stung, but seeing everyone else hurt and scared set off a panic attack that continued long after they had all calmed down. They tried to comfort me then, but I was inconsolable. Mom had to take me home early, and for the next six months, I struggled with a terrible phobia of bees..
When people say that they have a "phobia" of something, most of the time, they're referring to a typical fear. In reality, a clinical phobia is a terror so strong that it alters your life and destroys your everyday functioning. Panic ruled over me both night and day, seizing control in a deep and instinctive way. I was in a waking, never-ending nightmare where all I could think about was bees. I researched them and came up with a list of rules that I used to protect myself: no wearing bright colors, no wearing the color black, no wearing perfume, no interacting with flowers, no going outside unless absolutely necessary, and definitely no going outside with food. When it came to flying bugs, I ran first and asked questions later. I broke school rules by hiding in the coat closet at recess. During outdoors PE one day, the sight of a bee set off another panic attack. I fled, screaming and crying, to my regular classroom. When my teacher opened the door, my entire body filled with the desperate hope that I would finally be safe. But my teacher looked at me like I was a monster instead of a little girl. I was sent to the principal and school counselor, who lectured me about how education was far more important than my silly little fears. It was clear they didn't understand me. I didn't understand me. No one ever said the word "phobia." No one ever gave me the power to understand what I was going through.
Then I got an accidental dose of exposure therapy when I was forced to go outside at recess. While I was hugging the wall, a bee flew by and grazed me with its stinger. The shock of that event snapped me out of the nightmare state I had become trapped in. That visceral fear still often welled up. I had to work hard to control myself, conversationally asking all the bees I passed not to hurt me. If I was trapped in a room with a bee, I still had a panic attack. But my entire perspective shifted, pushing me past the worst of the phobia. Over time, little by little, my fear decreased.
There were many long-term physical and mental effects of my phobia, including chronic headaches and an increased sense of empathy. The biggest effect, however, was a loss of innocence. I spent the next year, fifth grade, shaken and withdrawn as I tried to come to terms with what had happened. I hadn't realized before how helpless adults could be. The expression I'd seen on my teacher's face haunted me. I was the monster, after all, wasn't I? All the darkness and horror had come from within me. My own heart and mind had turned against me, another thing I hadn't before known was possible.
Something was clearly wrong with me. Part of me shied away from facing it, but another part of me was determined to find the truth. I already had an interest in psychology, and that interest now grew. I needed to understand myself.
I was terrified of myself.
Soon after the bee incident, I developed what has since become my second biggest obsession: body image. It started with my nose. Distressed with the way it looked, I began wearing makeup and trying out new facial products that were meant to minimize pores and decrease redness. I started hiding my face from people, terrified to let them see it without makeup. After all, I thought, they shouldn't have to deal with my ugliness. I didn't have a good enough personality to make up for it.
The issue gradually "spread" across my face, though multiple people, including dermatologists, told me my skin was lovely and healthy. I didn't know what it was until I saw the term in high school health class, but I was suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), an OCD-related condition in which an obsession about a particular body part disrupts a person's life and causes extreme distress. People with BDD often suffer from a kind of hallucination/delusion where they literally see something in the mirror that isn't real. In my case, I often saw an eruption of pus-filled pimples across my face, along with gigantic pores and skin as red as a strawberry. My nose formed the centerpiece of the imagined disfigurement.
When my BDD was at its worst, I was going to the bathroom five or six times a day to "fix my face." I sat in class unable to think of anything but when I could next reapply my makeup. I arrived to classes, concerts, and other events late because I couldn't get my face just right. Once, I took a thumbtack to my nose in an attempt to destroy the "wrongness." My face wasn't my only body image issue, though; I also had a couple of episodes where my hair suddenly looked bad to me, and for the entirety of ninth grade, I wore only baby doll tops because I was convinced that my stomach was enormous. This also caused disordered eating, where I allowed myself only 1200 calories a day and exercised for hours on end trying to burn the rest off. The urge to exercise became almost as powerful as the urge to apply makeup.
Once I learned about body dysmorphic disorder, I started doing my best to combat it on my own. I fought every day to see around the hallucinations in the mirror. It was a slow and painstaking process with many setbacks, but today, thanks in part to antidepressants, I am no longer struggling with BDD! Unfortunately, the condition does seem to have "evolved" into what are known as body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), compulsive self-injurious behaviors that occur in a kind of trance state and are focused on "correcting" a perceived issue. I struggle most with dermatillomania, a skin-picking compulsion, and trichotillomania, a hair-pulling compulsion, which have left many scars on my face and chest. I'm still working on fixing that.
Two years after the bee episode and one year after my nose started to look wrong, our family doctor realized that something was different about my youngest brother. One of the many possible diagnoses was sensory integration disorder, and for a while, my family thought I might have it, too. It makes me uncomfortable to think about how hard I embraced that potential diagnosis. I was desperate for answers as to why I felt so wrong, but the harder I tried to fit into that box, the more anxious and distressed I became. A year and a half later, my brother was diagnosed with autism. I still had no idea what what going on with me, and without a diagnosis, I could only conclude that I was wrong, all the way to the depths of my soul.
That's when my OCD developed into the primary form it has since taken: moral scrupulosity, also known as religious OCD, which is an obsessive focus on being morally perfect. I resolved to do everything I could to make myself look like someone who deserved a place in society. Deep down, I knew that I was a monster who had somehow destroyed the perfect spirit that God had given me. The only way I could find redemption was by acting like the person I was supposed to be--no mistakes, no flaws, no bad grades, no errors playing cello, no public panic attacks, no nasty pimples. I would have to follow every rule and guideline laid out by Church leaders and teachers and parents.. I would have to work a thousand times harder so I could be half as good as other people. Otherwise, all I had was my awful, imperfect self, a self so far from normal or okay that other people would be horrified to witness her.
Then, in seventh grade, I fell in love. At least, that's what I called it then. I certainly cared about and was attracted to the guy, but my OCD turned it into a giant mess that I can't quite label now. Because of my belief in my own brokenness, because of my romanticism, and probably because of cultural misogyny, I thought that I was destined to one day do something to save a guy, that we would fall in love, and that I would gain wholeness and redemption through that. As such, my innocent crush soon developed into a raging obsession. By the time I hit eighth grade, I was spending hours a day writing in my diaries about everything this boy ever did, including details about his clothes, his schedule, and his conversations. I couldn't think or talk about anything but him. I didn't care about anything but him. I don't know how I maintained any friendships through this; ironically, this was probably the point in my life when I had the most friends. Possibly this is because I was trying so hard to be "normal" so that I'd be attractive to this boy, but I don't know.
In a spiral of obsessive energy, everything came crashing down. Though in retrospect, I can see that this boy probably returned my feelings, I became convinced that he didn't. This pushed me into the deepest depression I've ever experienced. I spent hours writing in my diaries about everything that I had done wrong. I blamed myself for his lack of attention, and I did so with violent self-hatred. I wrote over and over again about how stupid I was, how ugly, how useless, how wrong. I suffered from raging jealousy towards anyone my crush paid attention to, including my closest friends. I even stopped eating for a while because I was so distraught I lost my appetite.
Things only worsened from there. You see, the LDS Church recommends against dating before the age of sixteen and having serious relationships before adulthood. The Church also doesn't recommend dating nonmembers. To me, these statements weren't just "guidelines," because I had no understanding of that word. When you have moral scrupulosity, there is no room for grey morality. To me, the stuff we talked about in Church was all set in stone, and if I messed up in the slightest, I was only worsening my monstrousness. I was thirteen, and I was in love.. The boy I loved wasn't LDS. Someone reminded me of this, and my life fell apart.
Now two contradictory obsessions warred in my mind: my obsession with the boy and my obsession with morality. I desperately wanted us to have a deep and epic romance and save the world from evil together, as you do. But I also knew that the Church said I wasn't allowed to date him, and therefore, all of this obsessing I was doing over him was wrong. This was made worse by the fact that very few people liked this boy, because he was a bully who did basically all of the things that I consider to be wrong.
You cannot possibly understand what it's like to have warring obsessions unless you've experienced it yourself. I was in constant mental anguish. I felt nauseated all the time, had panic attacks often, and couldn't focus on anything else. It was nothing short of torture. By mid-winter, I had reached my breaking point. I no longer cared about either side of the argument; I only wanted it to stop. But I had no control over my thoughts. I described it to my best friend then as "the devil and God fighting a war inside my brain" and with no alternate explanation, I really believed it.
The only way out, I thought, was death, and it was getting to the point where I was willing to do just that if it would free me. However, like most suicidal people, I didn't actually want to die. So one night I broke down, furiously crying, and told God that I couldn't take this anymore and if he didn't make this war stop, I was going to take my own life.
I then had a powerful spiritual experience where I was strongly comforted. This kept me from attempting suicide, though I was still in a lot of pain. The obsessions continued to fight in my head for some time, but eventually, they tapered off. One thing that helped was that my history teacher took me aside to say that he had read my free writes for class, which included plenty of depressive obsessing and self-hatred, and that he was concerned for me. I was so ashamed I couldn't look him in the eye for the rest of the year, but I did start taking steps to separate myself from some people who had been encouraging my obsessions. Another thing that helped, though it was also horrifically hard on me, was that the boy I had a crush on moved. Eventually, in his absence, my crush/obsession faded.
The legacy of that "romance" is, as I said, a complex one. I believe that this boy, through his brash example, gave me some of the strength I needed to stand up for what was right in my life and face my traumas. It's also thanks to him that I became much more versed in popular culture. Additionally, my religious faith was positively impacted by the experience. My crush and I had some really good moments together, and I think I was "destined" to meet him and have all this happen. But this was also the worst experience I've had in my life, the most intense my OCD has ever been, and the only time I've been suicidal. The memories are tainted by the twisted emotional baggage they come with. I also can't deny that my crush was a mean person who really needed to be called out on a lot of his behavior.
So I don't know what to call it. In the end, maybe it's just as simple as a guy I had a crush on.
Though I'd made it through all that, I continued to struggle with body image and morality throughout high school. My biggest compulsions, as I've said before, were avoidance and rumination. Avoidance, you can probably imagine. Rumination is a compulsion where I spent hours and hours, in my head, in writing, and in conversation with others, analyzing my actions and thoughts and feelings down to the tiniest detail. When they inevitably proved not to be perfect, I'd spend even more hours planning how to fix myself. Once, while crying all over the page, I wrote a nine-page list of all the things that were wrong with me, because if I couldn't organize it all where I could see it, then how could I possibly change it?
I even hated myself for hating myself.
When it came time to leave home for college, I was nervous but excited. For a while, at ASU, I thrived like never before, But after a possible sexual harassment incident, I had a mental breakdown. It was mild compared to what happened in eighth grade, but the contrast was striking when compared to how I'd been during my first semester. I was constantly crying and panicking over little things, most related to guys, dating, and misogyny. I had to keep leaving in the middle of classes to get a hold on myself. Old traumas kept coming back to haunt me. Finally, a friend suggested I get free counseling through the school. I argued with her about that, convinced that this was just me reverting back to "who I really was" and that counseling couldn't fix something like that. I told her that we didn't have to be friends if she didn't like the real me. That's when she said, "But wouldn't you always like to be the way you were last semester?" ,
With that surprising new thought in mind, I signed up for counseling, as detailed in my last post. With the counselor's help, I made it to the summer, at which point I experienced another instance of sexual harassment that led to me breaking down worse than ever. I developed a mild agoraphobia that caused me to have nausea-stricken panic attacks every time I left the house. I didn't leave the house for at least two weeks. In the midst of this, my BFRBs worsened to the point where I was now getting infections in the places where I had ripped my skin open with tweezers. I knew I needed help, but I couldn't find the necessary resources in my hometown. I would have to wait until I got to the college I was now transferring to: BYU - Idaho..
I pushed myself through the summer with help from a few friends. They acted as "bunkers", safe people I could stick to when I left the house because I trusted them to protect me. When I arrived at BYU - Idaho at last, my mental health immediately crashed again, and I rushed to get into counseling. There was an initial consultation with a woman I didn't like very much, and then I was assigned to an anxiety specialist who immediately diagnosed me with OCD. This was somehow both shocking and logical to me. Though I had previously believed the common stereotypes about OCD, which don't fit my symptoms, the counselor's explanation led to everything falling into place, all the questions and confusion and wrongness that I'd spent so much time agonizing about. Suddenly, my life made sense.
Of course, my OCD didn't take that lying down; I ended up sobbing on the phone with my mom for over an hour after that appointment about how I was "a liar" because my mental illness was exaggerating my feelings. Yay!
After that, things began looking up. The low-dose antidepressant I was already on for my fibromyalgia was changed and raised to a dose that was appropriate for OCD. This reduced the strength of my obsessions and made it much easier for me to resist compulsive urges. I attended regular counseling, where I unlearned a lot of unhealthy thought patterns and was given help in reframing my perspective of the world. Just knowing that I have OCD makes a huge different for me in being able to control it. I named my OCD Codi, as shown in this post, which helps me distinguish between obsessive thoughts and healthier ones.
I returned home from school early for multiple reasons. There, with a new counselor, I learned about how my OCD helps me as well as hinders me. I figured out how to use it in a healthy way instead of an unhealthy one. I processed more of my past traumas, and I slowly unwove the tangled complexities of my mind. Over time, I realized how much pain I had been in before and how very intense my self-hatred had been. It honestly wasn't until I started feeling better that I was able to see how much I'd been struggling. When I experienced self-love for the first time, I cried from joy. I never could have imagined the incredible beauty of that feeling.. I never could have imagined before how good life can be.
Today, I have my OCD under an appropriate amount of control. I still relapse once in a while. It's hard to fight an enemy in your head. But I've developed the tools I need to manage my condition, and that has made all the difference. I am incredibly grateful for my diagnosis, for my new understanding of life, and for the people (and emotional support cat) who have helped me along the way. I want to pass that feeling on to you, too. If any of this sounds familiar, please seek help. If you suspect at all that there's something not right with the way you're feeling and thinking, get help. You have no idea how much it could do for you.
Right now, I'm working on a book, inspired by the Codi blog post, that delves even deeper into my OCD experience. Hopefully, #OCDStory will be published someday, to add even greater emotional dimension to the story I've told here. I've already learned so much about myself just from writing it! It's been a strange and difficult and fascinating experience.
In any case, I hope all of this will help you readers to better understand the reality of OCD.
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