17 Nov

I’ve always been a worrier. But not like this.

When I was a kid, I worried a lot. Especially about what other people thought of me – and I tried hard to be what they thought I should be (and generally failed, leading to some pretty sucky self-esteem issues). But it never affected my daily life. Too much, I guess, other than my parents becoming concerned enough to have me start seeing a therapist when I was in 8th grade as well as letting me choose my high school – public or private.

I do know I have always been pretty nervous around fire. But it wasn’t that irrational – most of my anxiety, that I can remember, stemmed from a specific event: My family has a tradition where, once a year, we light candles on our Christmas tree. It ties both to our German heritage as well as living in Germany for a few years when I was very young. We clip little silver candleholders on to tree limbs, insert slim white candles, and light them. We have always been careful to only place the holders where there are no limbs above them (or close enough that they might catch fire) and my parents always have a bucket of water nearby, just in case. The candles only stay lit for about 20 minutes, and are always attended. We turn out the other lights, sing a few carols (Silent Night is a must) and enjoy the stillness and beauty.

As a child, though, for a while, I would have to hide in my room during this event. It was too much for me – the anxiety about the slim possibility the tree would alight.

I can make connections now, between this early anxiety and what would later become full-blown OCD.

About 15 years ago, I started to worry. A LOT. Like, more than was “normal.”

I don’t know if there was a specific thing that triggered it, but I remember that around that time I was sending documents back and forth with a mortgage lender and started to become terrified that someone would intercept them and steal my identity. I was sending them with as much security as possible – but the fear would not go away, and it started to ruin my life.

Then, other worries became bigger. My brain started imagining “what ifs.” Terrible things that might (read: probably would never) happen due to my negligence.

What if I somehow make my friends sick because I serve them tainted food? Even though I’ve taken precautions to ensure food safety?

What if I burn the house down because I leave a candle lit? Even if I can’t remember lighting any candles?

What if I burn the house down because I forget to turn off the stove? Even though I think I turned it off?

What if I burn the house down because I leave the iron plugged in? Even though I don’t remember using the iron today?

What if I offend someone and they hate me because I inadvertently say something terrible?

What if, while driving, I hit that person walking down the sidewalk and don’t even realize it? Even though they were on the sidewalk and there’s no evidence I hit anyone?

What if I have some (unknown to me) blood-borne disease and, without my knowledge, accidentally transmit it to someone else? Even though I have no injuries and am perfectly healthy?

These are not “normal” things to worry about.  These are things that are unlikely to happen. My brain should know this. Right?

The worries took over my life. Once one appeared in my head, it took hours to get rid of it and it took over my thoughts. I had a constant stomach ache. I ate less and less, because my appetite was completely gone due to the stomach ache. I was already thin, and I lost 10 more pounds (and people who used to remark on how great I looked because I’d lost weight told me that I was too thin, but that’s another blog post).

This, from the International OCD Foundation, does a good job of describing what these “obsessive” worries feel like. We KNOW these worries are irrational, but can’t stop them.:

Obsessions are thoughts, images or impulses that occur over and over again and feel outside of the person’s control. Individuals with OCD do not want to have these thoughts and find them disturbing. In most cases, people with OCD realize that these thoughts don’t make any sense.  Obsessions are typically accompanied by intense and uncomfortable feelings such as fear, disgust, doubt, or a feeling that things have to be done in a way that is “just right.” In the context of OCD, obsessions are time consuming and get in the way of important activities the person values. This last part is extremely important to keep in mind as it, in part, determines whether someone has OCD — a psychological disorder — rather than an obsessive personality trait.

In order to combat the worry, I developed what doctors call “compulsions.” That’s the second part of obsessive-compulsive disorder: The strategies we use to counter the obsessions.

I remember specifically one night, lying in bed crying, because it was after midnight and I needed to go to sleep but I couldn’t because I had to keep getting up to make sure the stove was turned off. My brain would NOT let me believe that the stove was actually off.

That’s the thing about compulsions. They SEEM like a good idea – checking that the stove is off is a good idea – but they only counteract the anxiety for a short period of time. The intrusive thoughts and anxiety just come back. And we are compelled to check again.

I threw away perfectly good food if my brain told me there was any chance I had contaminated it.

I washed my hands until they were red and raw, making sure I wouldn’t accidentally contaminate anything/one.

I called my parents regularly for reassurance. Over and over. About the same thing. They were so kind, so caring, letting me ask again and again (until we learned from the doctor it wasn’t helping).

I drove around the block to make sure I hadn’t, without my knowledge, hit that person walking on the sidewalk. There was nobody lying in the street and that person was still walking, further down the sidewalk, but I’d have to circle the block again, just to make sure. And again. Until my brain would finally let go.

I managed to hide my issues at work, although I’m sure some suspected there was something happening. I became quieter, stuck in my head. I worked alone a lot, so I guess that was good in the sense that it allowed me to hide my anxieties and compulsions. I sat in my car and called my parents when I needed help. I slept at their house a lot, just to have easy access to their reassurances.

My kind and caring (see above) parents convinced me that I needed to talk to someone. Through my employer’s EAP program I was able to connect with a therapist. My first therapist, while a very nice person, who listened to me blubber away in her office and offered thoughtful advice, suggested that I needed to see a medical doctor – she thought I might need medication and she was not able to prescribe anything.

I saw my regular doctor, who listened to me and prescribed Prozac and Xanax (so I could get some sleep until the Prozac started working) for a Generalized Anxiety Disorder.  I was also told to make an appointment with a psychiatrist to talk more about my diagnosis and prescription.

I remember sitting in my car after that visit, crying. I never though I would be a person who needed medication just to live my life. I called my mother and cried on the phone. But we agreed I needed help.

My first visit with the psychiatrist was – and it’s very strange to say this – life changing. She was the first to identify what I was going through as obsessive-compulsive disorder. She made me feel like I was “normal.” Or, at least, my mental illness was.

She handed me this book and it explained everything I was feeling. All the ways my OCD manifested were included – the fear of contaminating myself or others through blood or other bodily fluids. The fear of catastrophic things happening due to negligence. The fear of hitting others with my car (it’s called “Hit-and-Run OCD”. Isn’t that fun?). I felt SUCH RELIEF at both having a diagnosis and knowing that my disease was (as my Star Trek-loving dad would say) “within normal parameters.”

Armed with a diagnosis I was able to start therapy and medication in earnest. Through my psychiatrist I learned strategies to lessen the anxiety and, more importantly, how to ride it out without allowing myself all the compulsions. I learned to gradually wean myself away from the constant checking. Between medication and the strategies she taught me, I returned to more-or less my old self.

Doctors don’t really know how OCD happens. It is a chemical disorder of the brain, yes, but they also think it might be somewhat genetic. It is related to other disorders, including eating disorders, which makes sense, because in both cases, the brain is lying to us.

Now, 15 years later, I still live with OCD. I am still on medication, and don’t know if I ever will not have to take a pill every day to feel okay. I suffer from more depression, and anxiety, but they are manageable. I live with a mental illness just like millions of others.

I don’t ever want to feel like I did 15 years ago. Ever. I think a lot about those who don’t have access to health care and wonder where I might be if I wasn’t able to get treatment. I might have gone bankrupt trying to pay for help. At minimum I would have surely driven my family away by now with my constant need for reassurance. I may not have been able to keep a job. At worst I might be dead.

If you follow me on twitter, you know I occasionally go on rants about memes or people who talk about how they are “so OCD.” In this context it usually means that they like things organized, neat, or “just so.” As you can see, the reality of having OCD is quite different. Yes, one way OCD can manifest (although it doesn’t for me) is needing things to be in a certain order. But it’s more than just liking things a certain way – it means that the person’s brain is telling them that something terrible may happen if those things aren’t in the right order. The brain is literally lying.  And it takes over one’s life.

Tell me again how you’re “so OCD” because you like your cds in alphabetical order? Can you sleep at night when they’re not? Yes? Then NO, you’re not “so OCD.”

And stop treating my mental illness like it’s a joke. A joke doesn’t try to kill you.

And can we talk about that show “Hoarders?” Because getting pleasure out of watching someone suffer is sadistic at best. And believe me, those people are suffering. Their brains are literally telling them that something bad will happen if they get rid of that newspaper or plastic bag. They physically CAN’T get rid of it without suffering massive anxiety.

I am extremely fortunate to have had a support system (primarily my mother, father and sister) that helped me get treatment and find a solution so I could live a relatively healthy life. I am fortunate to have a good job, and (relatively) affordable health care. I am one of the lucky ones, and I so I speak publicly about my experience with OCD so that others may recognize themselves in my struggle and so that we start eliminating the stigma of mental illness. Many, many of us suffer in silence. But these are illnesses, diseases, and, like any other illness, can be treated. But we have to talk about them. And we have to make health care affordable and accessible. People are dying without it.

I spoke about my experience at Ignite Denver once. Here’s the video. Ignore the costume; it was a Halloween themed event. Also please enjoy the comment someone added a year ago: “no tom cruise is right it is not normal. so shut up crazy lady working with people like you is a f n nightmare..you people belong in the nut house.” Thanks, dude.


Does any of this sound like you? Here are some resources that might be useful. But please, PLEASE, if you are able, talk to a doctor. They are your absolute best source of help and healing.

International OCD Foundation

National Institute of Mental Health

National Alliance on Mental Illness


3 Responses to “I’m SO OCD.”

  1. Jessica @ Storytime in the Stacks December 25, 2018 at 3:42 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Mary. You’ve inspired me to be more thoughtful and intentional in so many ways. You are such a blessing to me personally and our profession!

  2. Carolyn November 19, 2018 at 3:50 pm #

    Thank you so much for sharing. I appreciate your vulnerability and honesty.

  3. Katie November 19, 2018 at 12:41 pm #

    Mary, I love you so much. Thank you for sharing. I have started calling friends and family out about using the term “OCD” when they mean to say organized. And I do that because of you, because I learned from you.

    The world has so far to go, I know, but I appreciate the advocacy you’ve started.

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