DISCLAIMER: This article is my personal account and does not prescribe any methods for diagnosis or treatment of OCD.
As a 2-year-old child learning to write on a 4-lined page, I was not aware that it was possible to leave a few edges of a few letters spilled out of the designated lines. The consequences of not sticking to the lines were terrifying and erasing every delinquent word and rewriting it was the easiest thing to do. When I saw the other kids crossing these lines, I could not accept it. It did not hurt at all during pre-school because I was smarter than most kids (not bragging at all) and time was not an issue. However, with age, the self-imposed rules kept growing and it started getting difficult to keep everything within the lines.
Then there were fears — fear of heights, fear of closed spaces, fear of contamination, fear of people…
Since my moral standards were so high, I found it very difficult to trust normal people. If they could bend a rule, they could break a law; if they could break one law, they could definitely break another. I also took all spoken words literally. A person saying “I will kill you” would immediately be labeled as a potential murderer. It took me a long time to get used to hearing people use such words jokingly. That posed another problem… people did not mean what they said.
Then there were nightmares of war, apocalypse and dystopia.
Although experiencing and confronting this anxiety took a lot of energy and time, I did not realise it was a problem because I did not know there was any other way to live.
Maybe it was too much to deal with as a child even though most of it was only in my head. I started questioning if my fears had a basis and calculating the probability of my nightmares turning real. I created this entity called ‘My Rational Observer’.
At 8, I (or my rational observer) decided to deal with my fears on my own. I would lock myself up in small places and stay there till I stopped shaking. I waited and observed that I was suffocating not because of lack of oxygen but because I was using too much of it. This took a few tries. But I do not hyperventilate in closed spaces anymore. It is the same with heights. I would sit with my feet dangling off the 4 floor ledge. The first few times were terrible (my little brother witnessed this stunt often and freaked out). But it got easier. I still hate heights. But it takes a lesser amount of time to get over its mind-numbing effect.
Sometime along the way, I started having nightmares of me brutally hurting the people I loved the most. When I was 17, I unfortunately discovered The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud — the book convinced me that all my nightmares were a form of wish-fulfilment. This new information threw me completely off balance. I would break into tears every time I saw someone that I had recently mutilated in my dreams. I kept apologising to them without explaining why. In some time, all these people completely freaked out. They were sure something was wrong with me. I was sure too, but I could not really talk about any of it.
Two years later, I decided to see a psychologist. She turned out to be a follower of Freudian philosophies. During the first session, she had me convinced that I had some deep rooted ill-feelings towards the people I was hurting in my dreams. By the end of the second session, she had me convinced that I was a horrible and ungrateful person. The next few months were a nightmare — whether I was awake or asleep. Fortunately, I had some really good people on my side. I am not sure how I survived that period.
After completing Engineering, I decided to plunge into Psychology so that I could understand what was going on in my life. The people I met during this time had a soothing effect on my psych. It was during this time that I was first diagnosed with OCD. My mentors and teachers for the Psychology program started working with me, applying REBT (an older version of CBT) techniques to help me get a hold on my OCD. They also explained that the coping techniques I had been using so far were already similar to REBT (but I was just being too radical while applying them). I would like to believe things got a little better… maybe.
My need for order and the rituals necessary to keep my World safe, dictated that I should stay alone. Living with another human being would add another variable to my life and could trigger an apocalypse. The rational observerwanted to test that and I invited my very good friend to move in with me. I loved her company but the pile of her clothes at the corner of the bed stressed me out more than it should have. Once she became more important, she too got added to the list of people I hurt in my nightmares. The most logical thing to do was to stop sleeping. I developed insomnia. I hid my thoughts from her, but the insomnia had her worried.
My first instance of not resisting a hug was when my friend (and housemate) hugged me on her birthday to thank me for the gift. I had to resist a thousand thoughts about contamination and hygiene though. She realised how awkward I was. When I explained to her what I was thinking, she frowned at me and hugged me again, her words still clear in my memory, “There is no way I am going to stop hugging you. Let us see what happens.” Well, nothing bad happened. In about a month of being hugged repeatedly, I started hugging her back. It felt warm and happy. No, nothing bad happened. (When I look back at this, I realise that this was classic CBT, and my friend still does not know it is called that.)
Few months ago, I got myself 3 rescue kittens. Every single time I get home late from work, they scatter things in the house and make a mess. There is cat litter everywhere. I am not sure why it no longer causes stress. It is probably because of their adorable faces staring at me defiantly when I scold them about the mess. I end up smiling and picking them up and pampering them before I get to cleaning the house again. That delay is fine. And the cleaning can wait for a few minutes, or hours, or days.
When I look back, I have had OCD forever. Some parts of it were painful, but the others did not seem like a problem till someone gave it a name. Every person in my family has a different manifestation of OCD. We try helping each other out and it is one of the many reasons why we are so close.
Many of my friends have spoken about obsessive behaviours but they do not have the courage to visit a therapist and seek help. There could have been times when people would have given up on me, but they didn’t, and I am so grateful to them for this. OCD is not something anyone would want to talk about in great detail. There are also many misunderstandings around it. I have been told many times, “You say you have OCD but you don’t wash your hair everyday… so you don’t have OCD” or “I like to keep my house clean, I am so OCD about it”.
If you think you have OCD, please talk about it. Also, my OCD could be very different from yours. Formal therapy did not help me as much as real-life, regular people (and the rational observer) did. I have usually been in situations where there was me, my OCD and someone (or something) that I really cared about. In most cases, I was able to overcome my obsessive thoughts to cross over to the other side. So far, this is the only kind of therapy that has worked for me. Maybe it will work for you too…? Maybe formal therapy will work for you…? You will not know till you try. You will not know if the problem exists for you. You will not be able to fix anything unless you know if something is broken.
Sometimes, even now, I have to remind myself that I am a good person who would never let anyone come to harm with my actions. The nightmares are not so frequent anymore. I mostly sleep fine. I don’t treat my OCD like a criminal. I believe it is only a form of self-preservation, some twisted form of a survival instinct. I do get anxious about certain things from time to time, but overall, I am fine. As long as my rational observer is around, I will be fine. I am friends with the monster.