I’ve had obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was eight years old. For decades, I didn’t realise I was vulnerable to a disorder in which the brain produces and misfires false information into one’s mind. My obsessions have included disturbing thoughts, impulses, images and bodily sensations. My anxiety often reached 100+ on a 0–100 distress thermometer. As a consequence, I gave into my corresponding compulsions. These were repetitive and time-consuming behaviours, but at the time they were the only behaviours I knew that would counter the obsessions and reduce anxiety, albeit momentarily.
During a time when I had severe symptoms of contamination OCD, I had a persistent fear of coming into contact with a blood-carrying disease. One of my triggers was being faced with door handles and having to touch them to open them. Another one was when I ate in restaurants and thought there might be infected blood in my food. The disease I feared was AIDS. My rituals were to avoid touching door handles, eating in restaurants, washing, and being near people I erroneously thought could have the disease.
No offense to people who live with AIDS, this was an obsession my brain had landed on. Similarly, there is no prejudice against gay or transgender people— when sexual-orientation fears occured. I’ve dealt with both of these painful manifestations. OCD is what it is, a conflicting disorder that springs into action and makes the sufferer be at odds with themselves and their beliefs.
Years passed, and the AIDS obsession waned, and then out of nowhere, I developed a religious obsession. When I look back, I can see how a real-life event had morphed into this obsession. I was 10-years old at the time, and I’d recently started going to Sunday school out of curiosity, but kept this a secret. I kept it hidden because my parent weren’t religious. So when the Sunday school teacher handed out bibles and told the class to read it each day, I knew I would have to sneak mine into the house and hide it somewhere safe. Afterwards, I sensed this underlying threat that felt like an evil being was inside my head, menacing me. It came as intrusive thoughts and images of my family suffering in hell if I didn’t read my bible each night. Also, if I failed to pray for each of them in perfect order, I would be struck dead, should my eyes catch sight of the number twelve.
I would read a section of the bible each night when everyone was asleep. What I did was creep onto the landing, where there was light. Next, I’d open the book at random, read a chunk out of it, then quietly tip-toe back into my bedroom. Then once I was in bed, I’d say my prayer, silently. Little did I know that such a performance would become an exhausting and frightening ritual.
I felt I had no escape from these intrusive thoughts and shocking images. I truly believed during this time that God would strike me down because I hadn’t followed through “perfectly” with my night-time bible reading and prayer list. I ruminated on what hell would be like and seeing my family being tortured before my very eyes. Back in those days, I hadn’t a clue about magical thinking; I didn’t understand things don’t happen just because you have thoughts about it. So there I was, avoiding clocks to prevent seeing it strike noon or midnight. Also, praying for forgiveness just in case I hadn’t read my bible correctly or prayed for everyone perfectly. I remember also praying for the disturbing images to be taken away from my mind, and I would say a string of words under my breath to neutralise evil thoughts.
One night I was caught. My punishment was that my bible would be taken away for good. I was thrown and locked inside the cupboard under the stairs for the night. Within the darkness of that cramped closet, I remember thinking the secret was out and my family and I would go to hell. The thought terrified me, especially because my parents told me I was the devil’s child. This paradox hit me harder than the OCD’s paradox itself. Their words made me think I was secretly colluding with the devil to make my family suffer. Among other variations of OCD, the religious one followed me into adulthood and troubled me for a long time.
Years later, I went to my local bookstore and by chance picked up a book on obsessive-compulsive disorder. After reading the first page, I realised I had the symptoms it described. I eagerly bought the book, took it home and read it in a week. The book was a self-help guide. It talked about cognitive therapy to correct thinking errors seen in OCD, and how to change faulty beliefs. It discussed exposure response prevention and demonstrated the process of listing fears on a hierarchy. I put what I read into practice, and by systematically resisting compulsions, I started to become less and less sensitised to the things that once terrified me. I used the book over a few months to guide me towards remission.
For me, intrusive thoughts didn’t or haven’t just gone away, but I’m not a prisoner to the OCD cycle anymore.
My quality of life is much better. I can eat in restaurants and pick up fruit and veg from the grocery store without checking for “infected” blood and I no longer do the rituals to “escape” hell. For me, recovery is a freedom I hadn’t known for most of my childhood and young adulthood. I’m maintaining this quality of life by continuing to do what I call the 3 A’s. These are to 1. Acknowledge intrusive thoughts are there 2. Accept they are there, and 3. Allow them to come and go without putting meaning to them while leaning into anxiety until it reduces naturally.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a counsellor and did some training at my local college. But I put this on hold because my OCD was too severe for me to continue. So I was glad to go back to studying soon after I recovered. However, a hand injury last year stopped me from driving, so I continued my work as a freelance therapist for OCD and related disorders. However, I didn’t let this deter me.
Writing is my passion, and so despite my injured hand which makes typing a little bit slower than I’d like, I’m leaning towards writing educational documents on OCD and related disorders. During tough times in the middle of my recovery, I remember thinking ‘You have two choices — one is to stay in your “comfort zone” albeit that OCD is paradoxically an unstable and debilitating condition. The other choice is to slowly and gradually break free from the “safety” behaviours that are keeping you stuck in a never-ending loop.’ I’m glad I chose the second option, as now, I’m enjoying communicating through my writing to help others manage the symptoms of OCD.