The “What-If” Disease
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) — An anxiety disorder characterized by unwanted thoughts that lead the sufferer to repeat mental or physical actions in an attempt to reestablish control of his or her thinking. (I affectionately call it the “What If” disease.)
Obsessions/Intrusive Thoughts — Persistent, constraining, inescapable thought patterns that spiral for hours per day and cause extreme anxiety. Subjects of thought may include:
· Fearing you’ll catch a terminal illness. (Whenever I get a fever, I fear I have meningitis.)
· Wondering if you’re losing your mind. (Whenever I’m even mildly anxious, I fear I’m becoming schizophrenic.)
· Worrying that you’ll be punished by God. (When I was ten, I couldn’t stop cursing God in my head. I was convinced I was possessed by Satan and was going to hell.)
· Imagining killing or harming family members. (When my grandmother was bedridden with ovarian cancer, I imagined strangling her many times, even though I didn’t want to.)
Note: For the sufferer, these thoughts are usually perceived as awful or irrational, but they’re so pervasive that the sufferer may question whether, or sometimes believe that, the thoughts are a reflection of themselves.
An Illustration of an Intrusive Thought Spiral:
I frequently feel like I have no control over anything. I might say that my thoughts and emotions feel like they aren’t my own. Wait, that’s what people with schizophrenia think. What if I’m schizophrenic? No, I can’t be. I only suffer from OCD; that’s what my psychiatrist said. But wait, my third cousin is schizophrenic. What if I’m genetically doomed to suffer psychosis? Am I experiencing a psychotic episode right now? I’m twenty-one; schizophrenia usually appears around that age. So what if I am? What’ll I do? What’ll my friends think? And my parents? Will they send me to an insane asylum? I’d probably do the same if my child was schizophrenic. No, that’s an awful thought. I’d never do that. But not everybody is like me. And so many schizophrenics have been abandoned. And they suffer without even knowing they’re suffering. I feel like I’m going crazy. Am I going to become delusional? And start hearing voices? And seeing things that aren’t there? The walls feel like they’re closing in. Oh God. Oh God. What if I’m schizophrenic?
Note: Thought patterns like these continue for extended periods of time, and will most often be accompanied by:
Compulsions — Irresistible mental or physical urges that attempt to curb the anxiety of thought patterns. Often, if not always, performed against the sufferer’s will. Common compulsions include:
· Having “good” or “bad” numbers. (To me, all numbers except 1, 3, 6, 7, 9, 13, and 666 are good.)
· Making sure objects in a room are properly arranged. (I like when things are lined up or stacked.)
· Repeatedly checking locks to make sure nobody can break into your home. (Takes a long time and looks bizarre to onlookers.)
· Using logical reasoning to refute a thought pattern. (Makes you think more about what you don’t want to be thinking about.)
· Repeatedly checking internet sources like Reddit and WebMD to ease anxiety about your thoughts. (Ends up doing the opposite.)
· Calling your psychiatrist daily to make sure you aren’t going crazy. (They will get irritated.)
Note: As with obsessions, compulsions are usually perceived by the sufferer as absurd or unnecessary; however, the idea of not doing them is such a terrifying prospect that, if they are not executed, the sufferer endures even more anxiety than they would have if they’d just given in.
An Illustration of Compulsive Behaviors:
My preparation for bed has become a ritual. First, I must turn every light in the house off. I must then brush my teeth for two minutes and thirty seconds, wash my hands, empty my bladder and bowels, then wash my hands again. In my room, my medications must be lined up in a single-file line at the edge of my desk. I must take one puff of my asthma preventative medication, Symbicort, then take two puffs of my Ventolin inhaler to make sure that I won’t have an asthma attack while asleep. My blinds must be down, and my blue Dyson table fan must be set to five. Finally, my iPhone must pass an inspection; first, it must be plugged into a charger; then, all background apps must be closed; the brightness must be turned all the way down and the volume all the way up; Do Not Disturb and Low Battery Mode must be on; the ringer must be turned to vibrate; I must click on my Clock app and set an alarm for 10:00 a.m. the next day; I must press the home button, then reopen the clock app to check that the alarm is still set; finally, I must repeat all of these steps three to five times until I am sure I won’t wake up past 10:00 a.m., even though I often naturally wake up much earlier. If any of these aforementioned actions are not completed, it is impossible for me to fall asleep.
Description of Life With OCD:
*Originally published in a now-defunct literary magazine, Chaleur Magazine.*