When people ask me how I’m doing, I say that I’m doing ok. And sometimes I really am. The problem is that when you’re someone like me, someone who lives with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), you’re basically ok until suddenly you’re not.
Let me explain.
OCD is unpredictable. It’s that schoolyard bully that sneaks up behind you to pull your pigtails just when you found a spot in the shade to sit and read your book peacefully. It’s the unpredictable storm, the one that you think has passed, only to be followed by scattered thunderstorms an hour later. It’s the questions of what if, and maybe, and how do I know for sure. It’s the feelings of guilt when you didn’t actually do anything wrong and the replaying of moments over and over and over again, trying to grasp onto bits of memory that will feel reassuring.
I’m writing this at 1:33am on a Wednesday night. I’m tired and I’d rather be sleeping, but as I was winding down for bed, the OCD bully struck. Anxiety kicks in, my eyes get teary, I send my therapist an email reaching out for guidance. I want to wake up my mom and give her a hug but I’m an adult now and adults don’t do that. I want to squeeze a teddy bear and feel like everything is ok but teddy bears don’t help the pain like they did when I was little. So, I sit here and wait for the storm to pass. I try to remind myself that indeed the anxiety and fear and feelings of guilt will pass. In the morning, I’ll be ok.
I have OCD: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. OCD is a disease of doubt. It’s the constant checking, the constant reassurance seeking, the endless cycle of panic and relief, panic and relief. For me, my OCD isn’t about having every pencil in the pencil-case perfectly aligned or counting to 10 every time I open and close a door. It’s not what we see in movies. It’s not something to laugh at, not something to make colloquial. It’s the agony that comes with wondering whether you’re really a good person at heart. It’s the fear of wondering whether your house will burn down while you’re out because of carelessness. It’s the anxiety about whether or not you’re going to get HIV from a public restroom. It’s knowing that something you hear that scares you now will still be on your mind, scaring you, 10 years later.
My most vivid memory of my first OCD outbreak is from 7th grade. I remember waking up in the morning and running into my mom’s bedroom crying, shaking. I thought I was dying. Why? Because I thought my heart was bleeding. It’s not rational. Looking back on it now, I don’t even know how I somehow got myself to really think that my heart was bleeding. I don’t even really know what that means. But it doesn’t matter. Standing next to my mom, crying, I felt helpless. In that moment, nothing my mom could have said would have made it better. I asked her if I was ok, and of course, she told me I had nothing to worry about. Hearing her words provided momentary relief. Like the feeling you get when you squeeze your hand really, really tight and then let go. But the relief doesn’t last. Not when you have OCD. So I didn’t go to school that day like every other 7th grader. I went to the emergency room. I spent the whole day there. And what happened at the end of the day? The OCD bully strikes again. My mom stopped off on the way home to get Chinese food take-out for dinner. But I wouldn’t eat the food when we got home. I thought the chopsticks were contaminated. I really was terrified of the chopsticks. Was it rational? No. But were my fears real? Yes.
OCD isn’t a disorder of rationality. Even when my OCD strikes, one part of me knows that I’m not being rational. It’s like I have two different brains. I have the brain of Rebecca, the brain that knows what is worth fearing and what isn’t. And then I have the brain of OCD, the brain that makes me doubt, makes me question, makes me worry. It’s the brain that sent me to the emergency room that day. The brain that sends me spinning. The brain that makes everything just that much more difficult.
Fast forward to high school. I’m sitting in my guidance counselor’s office talking about my class schedule for my senior year. I’m asking if I can have Ms. G as my teacher for senior thesis because I was a pretty sensitive kid and the other senior thesis’ teaching style was a bit harsh. And I’ll never forget what my guidance counselor said to me in response. “You know, Rebecca, not everything in life is going to be handed to you on a silver platter.” I can still hear her saying those words. From what my guidance counselor could see, I had good grades, I was athletic, I had loving parents and an awesome brother. Yeah, that was all true. But what she didn’t know was that every single day of my life, every minute of every hour, I was working hard. I was working hard to beat the OCD bully that lives inside my brain.
I’m 24 now. I graduated from NYU. I fulfilled my dream of living in Jerusalem. I’ve started a Masters program at Harvard University. Am I cured of OCD? No. There is no cure for OCD. But am I in a positive place in my life? Yes. I’m happy and in many ways, I’ve never felt more fulfilled. I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. I will always have those moments where I want to run back inside the house and make sure I turned the stove off. I’m not a worry wort. I have OCD. I will always have OCD. But I won’t let the OCD bully beat me. Not today, not ever.