It’s 2:30 in the morning and I’ve been picturing people falling to their deaths for two hours now. It won’t stop. I close my eyes and they come, unbidden, these horrific visions, this slow motion horror film unfolding before me with my loved ones playing the role of doomed victim. It’s like a view master from hell: click, my husband on a bridge. Click, my mom on a balcony. Click, my children on the mall railing. Over and over my absolute worst nightmares flicker and flash on repeat, my heart pounds as I edge closer and closer to panic. I cry and clench my fists, digging my nails into the flesh of my palms praying the pain will distract me enough to stop the visions but it never works. Eventually I will unwillingly fall into an exhausted sleep. Slumber is not a guaranteed escape; the visions like to follow me there.
This is my OCD, or at least one branch of my OCD. Tonight I try to tell myself it’s because of the recent tragedy in our area, a young boy being thrown from a mall balcony, that this isn’t actually OCD but I’m not fooling myself. I’ve cycled in and out of these deeply intrusive thoughts for years and this particular episode started weeks ago, long before the story hit, long before reading that single headline left me retching into my own, shaking hands, long before my shallow, panicked breaths gathered darkness around the edges of my vision like a drawstring.
When my therapist first suggested OCD after reading my article, “This is How I Try to Fight my Anxiety when it Messes with Me” I scoffed. I had anxiety. Always have, always would. But OCD? No way. OCD was hand washing and excessive cleaning and freaking out over germs on railings…I usually made it to about P in the alphabet song while washing my hands, my house looks like a poltergeist ripped through, and I could probably lick a public hand rail without thinking twice. I flipped through my mental Rolodex of things I knew about OCD: I didn’t flick light switches on and off a certain number of times, I didn’t think stepping through a door on the wrong foot would cause my husband to get in a car accident. I didn’t do any of the things I’d seen characters with OCD do on TV. Sure I thought about death. A lot. Like all the time. Sure I couldn’t take my kids to the mall without having a panic attack and sure never got a proper look at the monkeys in the zoo because I was convinced I might drop them over the barrier if I held them up. But that was all normal anxiety, right? Worry about loved ones is total normal, right? Right? Anyone? Bueller?
Wrong. The more I learned the more I saw I was wrong. What had followed me around my whole life was not, in fact, anxiety but OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Heavy on the obsessive. How had this been missed for so long? How had dozens of therapists, including my current therapist (who I saw for over a year before she made the connection), failed to see something that occurs in an estimated 1 in 40 adults? First off, intrusive thoughts OCD like mine is a lot easier to hide than more physical forms of OCD. Flipping light switches an exact number of times or washing hands for hours on end are pretty noticeable to the general population. Thinking obsessively about really scary stuff isn’t something others can see and even the rituals around it are easy to hide. Thanks to Amazon I’ve been able to avoid malls for years and when I do go it’s remarkably easy to subtly guide people to stay near the stores and not the railing.
Second, my thoughts felt so scary I feared being honest with mental health professionals. The final straw that brought me to therapy this last time was a sudden and profound fear of bridges. Despite being in no way, shape, size, or form suicidal, I was suddenly terrified of jumping or driving off a bridge. It made no sense. I didn’t want to throw myself off a bridge. I didn’t plan to jump or jerk the steering wheel. But I was utterly and completely terrified I would. I knew then and there I needed some kind of help because this wasn’t normal. But I also knew I couldn’t be honest in my reasons for seeking therapy because I risked being put on a psych hold despite the fact that I had no intention of acting on my fear.
Lastly, over the years I’d been conditioned to believe my fears were nothing more that a character flaw. An annoying, attention seeking behavior that I engaged in because I was a “drama queen”. The first time I remember feeling this uncontrolled terror around heights was in 9th grade. A few of us from band went to the opera to see a final run through of Romeo and Juliet. Up in the balcony waiting for the show to start my boyfriend at the time started horsing around on the ledge, pretending he was going to jump over. I completely lost it. I couldn’t control the hot, panicked tears in my eyes or my breathing which was threatening to turn into hyperventilation. My stomach dropped, down through my knees turning them loose jointed in its descent to the soles of my feet. My whole body tensed except my hands which I couldn’t stop shaking in a fast, loose flap in front of me, as though I could propel enough wind with them to keep him afloat. In that moment I learned what it meant to come undone… and everyone laughed. Not at his antics but at my perceived over reaction. They rolled their eyes, muttered under their breaths, and then and there I learned to keep my fear tightly coiled inside me.
Though OCD has ebbed and flowed, its effects on my life highly dependent on medication type, my own stress levels, and (I highly suspect) hormones, silence and avoidance has not stopped the fear. It has, in fact, strengthened it in many ways and it will take years to unravel the many sinister ways its rooted itself into my life. Talking with my therapist and my family has helped immensely. I feel significantly less shame and isolation by simply acknowledging I have OCD with others. However Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) has been the true catalyst for improvement to the OCD and it is hard as hell. ERP is, in essence, constant, consistent exposure to ones OCD fear. ERP starts with the smallest possible exposure, or what my therapist calls “the easy wins”. For me it was watching her lean on the 5th floor window of her office while we talked. Eventually, after some serious panic, my brain got used to seeing her leaning on the glass and stopped caring so much. Then we moved on to me just standing next to the window while talking until that wasn’t hard. Then I touched the glass, leaned lightly on the glass, and eventually I had an entire therapy session leaning my full body on the glass. As of my last session that window was no longer a problem so next we move on to a new fear. Malls.
I’m utterly terrified right now to even walk into a mall let alone allow my children to go near the railings of the upper floors. Just typing this has my heart beating faster. Every fiber of my being screams this is a terrible idea. There’s a roughly 99% chance I’ll either hyperventilate, have a massive panic attack or throw up. Possibly all three. But you know what? I’m going to do it anyway. I have to and here’s why. I have kids. Sure I’m doing it for me because it’s really REALLY disruptive to my life but more so I’m doing it for my kids. If, God forbid, they inherit OCD or OCD tendencies, I need to have my mental house in order so I have the capacity to help them (especially if they develop the same OCD themes). Even if they don’t develop full blown OCD, studies have indicated children of anxious parents are significantly more likely to become anxious themselves and that environment plays a significantly larger role in the transmission of anxiety than genetics. The science is clear: the less anxious and obsessive I am the better chance my children have of living a less fearful, sometimes stunted life.
P.S: I chose this featured photo specifically because it makes me REALLY FREAKING UNCOMFORTABLE every time I look at it cause THAT’S how you
make OCD your bitch fight OCD.