One of the misconceptions about OCD is that it is only rituals. These are the rituals that give some relief from obsessive thoughts and worries. However, it’s primarily a whole rewiring of the brain or being differently wired.
It’s being unable to stop thinking a succession of irrational thoughts or worries. It’s lying in bed worrying that the front door might be unlocked or the oven still on, even though I’ve checked it several times and they’re both fine. It’s getting up for the fifth time to check. It’s lying there thinking about what would happen if the oven was left on.
Would it trigger the smoke detector? Or start a fire? Would we smell it? Would the sprinklers turn on in the building? What would burn? Could we get out in time?
And after checking for the sixth time, and putting that worry to rest, then I start to worry that I took too many anti-anxiety pills or SSRIs. I get up to count them, but then I worry that I took one when I wasn’t looking and have to recount them. And so on.
If my head starts to hurt, then I worry that I’m getting an aneurysm. An hour later, I still can’t sleep, so I turn my kindle on to read to see if that will help me to get sleepy enough to shut down my brain’s imagining of every possible tragedy. Eventually, I fall asleep. A few hours later, I might wake up and start to cycle through my other worries, adrenaline rushing and heart racing.
Getting up and performing the checking doesn’t stop the worry, it temporarily relieves it. It’s not about the actions, but the thinking. I know deep down or in some small part of me that so many of these thoughts are irrational or not going to happen. I know I didn’t leave the oven on or the door unlocked. It doesn’t matter. I still fear it. I still think about it minutes and hours later.
This summer, I was talking with a friend about mental illnesses. I told her how much I loved my therapist and that going to see her helped me not only with anxiety, but with OCD. I shared with her that the majority of the illness is obsessive thinking and overthinking about things that could happen.
She looked at me puzzled, “What about the handwashing?”
I told her, “I do that too. But it’s because of the thoughts. It’s not just thinking that things are dirty. But thinking that my hands are covered in germs. Then that these germs might get on my face or hair, and that when I eat, they might contaminate my food and I could get sick. Or that when I cooked I could contaminate the food and my partner could get sick. Then I worry that it could be a significant infection. We could get an infection in our organs and need to go to the hospital. And then once we got there, what if we got a staph infection and it was resistant to antibiotics and we died.”
She looked at me, mouth and eyes open, “Wow, that’s a lot.”
“And really unrealistic, I know. That doesn’t matter.”
“Ouch. I had no idea. That sounds exhausting.”
I sighed, “It really is. I’m so tired all of the time. I just want to rest and stop worrying about everything. The meds help. Talking with a therapist helps. And there are good days and bad days. But sometimes I just want to stop my brain.”
I haven’t had this conversation very often, because to many OCD is just being germophobic or really tidy.
The first search on pinterest.com for OCD is OCD humor, with results like “I have CDO. It’s like OCD but the letters are in alphabetical order, as they should be.” It’s pages of results like that on the internet that make me want to do this blog, but also makes me terrified about sharing my OCD, in case people think I’m crazy or joking. Or both.
Do others have those fears about their mental illness? How do you talk about a mental illness like OCD to people?