Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: It’s Not Just The "Neat Freak" Illness

*Possible Trigger* Some of the things I am going to discuss today may be a little disturbing.  I am refraining from the most graphic of details, but if you are sensitive to things of a violent nature or self-harm, then this may not be a good read for you.  I am not intending to shock anyone or cause any negative emotions; I only want to explain what OCD is like for me. Thank you for reading, but if you don’t I understand.

A while back, I posted an article about The Nuts and Bolts of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, but today I want to share my own personal account of the illness.  As easy as it has become to write about my experiences with bipolar disorder and panic attacks, I still find it hard to articulate exactly what goes on in the mind of someone with OCD.  Not too long ago, I asked myself why I chose to dedicate this blog to bipolar disorder (hence the title Bipolarly) rather than OCD.  And then I realized:  I remember life before bipolar disorder developed and took over; I can remember what I was like before depression, before mania.  But even my earliest memories involve manifestations of OCD.  I didn’t know it at the time.  I was not officially diagnosed until the age of 26.  But I do not ever recall a time in my life that I did not have this ongoing noise of OCD bursting through the seams of my brain.  So, I almost view OCD as who I really am; our identities are so intertwined. I can view bipolar disorder for the illness that it is because I know who I am without it.  I do not know who I would be without the internal war of OCD.  Would the silence kill me?  Or would I finally know what it’s like to live in peace?

A lot of the thoughts (obsessions) that are a part of my illness are embarrassing and/or terrifying.  I haven’t even told the people closest to me about some of them.  Not even my fiance.  Not even a therapist. I suppose this is out of fear that they won’t trust me or they will abandon me or I will wind up institutionalized.  Who would feel safe around me if they knew what was going through my mind every second of every day?  So I keep quiet about those things.  The only indication of something a little “off” with my thoughts are the frequent handwashing, the straightening of crooked things, the sanitation of things, the matching of things…all of which are more evident on some days than they are on others. I have learned to hide a lot of my compulsions, and the ones I can’t tend to draw more laughs than concern. But there is a darker side to this disorder that I try so hard to keep under wraps.  And that is the more exhausting part of OCD.

 I am not a “neat freak”.  Okay, I kind of am, but not to the degree you would think.  If you come to my house unannounced you will not find a pristine home devoid of dust or dirty dishes.  I don’t get down on the floor and scrub every inch with a toothbrush twenty times a day. I don’t even do that once a day…or ever.  I do like everything to be clean and uncluttered, and when it’s not I feel a lot of chaos within myself.  I can barely function in a messy house.  But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen, thanks to bouts of depression and the other occupants in the household.  When I lived alone, sure, you could eat off the floor, but now I really wouldn’t recommend that! I do spend a lot of time organizing things, and my methods don’t always make much sense to other people. Back when I was an office manager I once organized everything in the front office with an alphabetical label and then printed out a list of what was to be stored at each letter.  I thought it was brilliant…my coworkers not so much. Still, that’s not really what makes me “so OCD.”

The rules change.  A lot.  When I was a child my mom hated to take me grocery shopping because I had to punch in the plastic on all the paper towel rolls on my level as we walked down the paper aisle.  I don’t feel compelled to do that anymore, mainly because I now try to avoid touching as many things as possible due to my fear of germs.  Also, as a child I had to do things to the count of six, and then six sixes.  I am cringing as I write that now, because in more recent years that has become The Bad Number and I avoid it like the plague. When I was young, I recall my Nana nagging at me to stop pulling everything to the edge of the table.  When I ate the edge of my plate had to be perfectly aligned to the edge of the table.  Anything on the coffee table had to be perfectly positioned in the left corner.  It just had to be!  I was so afraid something bad would happen if I didn’t, something worse than getting yelled at repeatedly for doing it.  I guess my family just thought I was odd.  They didn’t recognize that something more serious was at play.  Whatever the case, I still have to line things up a certain way but the rules of how change a lot.  It’s as if there is a big bad wolf on a throne in my head barking out orders, but ever so often he changes the orders.  I act accordingly. 

Those are just a few of the “cuter” parts of my disorder.  Now (deep breath) I am going to talk about some of the bigger parts of it.  First, let me explain that there are different categories of OCD.  The four most common are 

  • Checking things
  • Contamination (inside or outside of the body)
  • Hoarding 
  • Ruminations / Intrusive Thoughts
While I do check things repeatedly (mainly anything that could cause a fire) and fear contamination a good bit, going to great lengths to avoid it at times, the biggest chunk of my illness revolves around ruminations and intrusive thoughts. I cannot even begin to cover every part of it, but I will mention a few:

The Safety of My Family:  Everyone worries about their loved ones.  They want them to be safe.  They may even pray for them daily if they are the praying type.  That is “normal”.  But imagine every second of your day being bombarded by very graphic images of your loved ones being harmed.  This is what I live with.  I can’t get the images out of my head, and I am so afraid they will come true.  If I drop something and it lands a certain way I am convinced that is a sign that someone is going to die.  Sometimes I burst out crying because it seems so real, like that person has already died.  The only “control” I have over this is to pray.  But not just any prayer.  It has to be The Prayer.  There are certain words I have to say and if I mess up I have to start over again.  If I feel like my heart wasn’t in it or I was distracted, I have to do it again.  I cannot say it aloud, because that will undo it.  It must be said silently so only God and I can hear, and it must be perfect.  I’ve tried counting how many times I say this prayer in a given day, but I lose count, but I estimate probably around 500 times a day. Give or take.  On especially anxious days it’s more.  Since I say it in my head and not aloud, no one around me knows I am saying it.  I guess they think I am daydreaming or just not paying attention.  I miss a lot of conversations because of this praying.  And yes, I know the constant praying doesn’t make sense.  I know, biblically speaking, that is not the way you are supposed to pray, but I just have to do it. I do my regular praying as well, but it is difficult because I keep having to interrupt it with The Prayer.  

Doing Harm:  I am a mild and meek person.  Very anti-violence.  I believe in treating all people with love and kindness.  So imagine what it is like to constantly have graphic images not only of your loved ones being harmed, but also of YOU being the one doing the harm!  I have a fear of abusing my children, even though I have NEVER actually abused them.  I am afraid to be around knives because I am afraid I will either slash my own wrists or stab someone around me.  I do occasionally have to use knives when I am preparing food, but I am so nervous the whole time.  I hate using them and I hate washing them afterwards.  I envision the dish water being full of blood and I keep checking to see if I have cut myself.  I have to lay the knives a certain way – blade facing left if it is on its side, or blade facing right if it is downward in the dish drainer – or something just doesn’t feel right.  Beyond knives, I have a fear of drowning my children in the bath tub, or of them drowning on their own.  Please understand, I am confident meek little me would NEVER do something like that to my children, and that is why these images are so distressing.  

Driving:  Part of this one is an extension of the fear of doing harm to others, because when I was still able to drive I would always have these sudden visions of running off the road to hit a person, an animal, a mailbox, a house, etc.  Likewise, I would see crashes occuring, like me plowing into the person in front of me or the car in the opposite lane swerving to hit me. Sometimes these images would be so real that I would slam on my brakes to avoid an accident.  Afterwards I would realize the danger wasn’t real, but the moment before it felt like it was.  I have not driven in three years due to my panic attacks becoming so severe coupled with these visions – I just don’t feel like it is safe for me to be behind the wheel!  But even riding in the car is difficult.  I have the same images, only I am the passenger so I have even less control over what happens.  My fiance gets really frustrated with me sometimes and I can’t really blame him.  I’m sure it’s hard to drive when the person beside you is gasping in fear every few seconds.  Some days I am so convinced a terrible accident will happen that I don’t want to leave the house at all.  I try to avoid having my son go somewhere in the car without me, not because I don’t trust my fiance’s driving skills, but because I just have this horrible feeling there will be an accident and I will never see my son alive again.  The few times I have been at home while they went somewhere I have been on edge the whole time.  I worry about my daughters as well, especially when I know they are going somewhere with their dad or someone else on the interstate.  I don’t know how I am going to handle it when they are old enough to get their own license.  I don’t even want to think about that.  

Blood:  I hate the sight of blood.  I can’t watch anything on television that is the least bit gory, which is nothing all that out of the ordinary; there are a lot of people like that.  But I see blood everywhere.  I see myself in a tub of blood when I take a bath.  I see it in the dish water (as mentioned above).  I see it running down the walls sometimes.  It’s disturbing, to say the least.  I have a lot of images of cutting myself, either by accident or on purpose.  I hate feeling the blood move through my veins, I hate looking at veins, reading about them, and writing about them, so that is all I am going to write about that!  

Germs:  It’s good to be conscious of germs.  Everyone should wash their hands after they go to the bathroom, handle raw meat, or do anything else that dirties the hands.  But I just tend to go into overdrive about it.  I feel dirty all over sometimes…just because I touched a product on the shelf of a store.  I carry hand sanitizer with me at all times, and while I know all about super germs I just can’t stop sanitizing my hands.  When I wash my hands, I have to do it three times in a row most days.  Sometimes more, sometimes less.  I’m the person who will wear gloves to clean something, take the gloves off and wash my hands three times, then use hand sanitizer, then repeat, and still I feel contaminated inside and out.  No wonder my hands look like an old lady’s!  If I wash my hands in the kitchen, I have to wash them in the bathroom, and vice versa.  When I am manic, I wash my hands even more.  There are days when I can’t really remember doing much more than washing my hands.  Other days, it’s not so bad…I could even pass for “normal” in the handwashing department.  I avoid cooking meat as much as possible because the process of decontaminating everything (not only my hands, but the whole freaking kitchen) is so time consuming that it’s really not worth it.  We proudly eat a lot of beans and veggies.  It’s cheaper that way anyway.  

Sexual:  I’m not comfortable discussing the details of this one, but suffice it to say, I have a lot of intrusive thoughts in this department as well.  ‘Nuff said!  

Religion:  Too exhausting to go into right now.  Maybe some other day.  

Numbers:  I hate math.  Not only does my brain not seem to comprehend it, but certain numbers irk me to death so it is a very frazzling experience.  I have mentioned The Bad Number, but there are other numbers that give me a bad feeling as well.  I am content with denominations of fives and with the number seven (which is my favorite).  Seven is pure and complete to me.  It brings me a little peace.  

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture.  Living with OCD is a challenge.  It is hard for me to share this stuff because I am aware of how weird and crazy it may seem to someone who has never dealt with this sort of thing.  I chose not to go into some of it because it would only make me sound weirder and crazier! I am not proud of these thoughts or the actions I try to control them with.  I do try to keep this illness from taking over my life and interfering with my ability to be a good mother.  Some days are easier than others.  Ever so often I will see (mainly on Facebook) those pictures that “will drive your OCD insane” and it makes me mad.  Honestly, those pictures literally hurt me to look at.  It will bother me all day long because I can’t fix it.  I am not an easily offended person, and I have a good sense of humor, but seeing someone say they are OCD because they can’t stand to have a messy closet kind of irks me.  But, how do you describe an elephant to a mouse?  And that is what fuels stigma, the fact that there are so many misconceptions about mental illness – some seemingly harmless and trivial, while others downright cruel – and the few of us who do actually have the answers are so often incapable or afraid to speak up.  This blog is my small way of speaking up.  It’s my little way of saying, yes, I battle these misunderstood problems and it doesn’t make me an awful person for doing so.  Mental illness feels really bad, but it doesn’t make me a bad person for experiencing it.  I don’t want pity or special treatment, but I sure as hell don’t want to be made fun of or avoided because of it either.  We all have something in life that we struggle with, a thorn in our flesh so to speak.  I have a few thorns, but so do you.  Let’s all try to have some compassion for each other, okay?  

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