Most people know when they call a friend “OCD” for keeping his or her files in order or intimate that they may be “a little OCD” because they’re never quite sure if they closed the garage door, they’re not really talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder. They’re talking about a very superficial representation shown of it on TV. Hopefully, when we say such things, it’s with the awareness that in no way are those things representative of the whole of true OCD. There’s far more to it than just organizing one’s shoes in a specific way. I can tell you that from personal experience.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder, in only its physical manifestations, can be debilitating. We see that all the time — even on TV. The person who can’t leave the house because he just can’t lock the door enough times. Or the one who eats so slowly because she needs a clean plate for each foodstuff. Or the guy who washes his hands so often that his skin cracks and bleeds. (That last one was me in early high school.) What you don’t see represented on TV — or otherwise talked about — is the OCD that happens inside. The person who can’t leave because she’s afraid of crossing the street. Or worse, like just not being able to get out of bed because of overwhelming fear of what he might do today.
Inside the OCD sufferer’s head, in some cases, intrusive and taboo thoughts force themselves on one’s mind. I almost cheered at around six this morning — and woke Misty up to tell her — when I read this in The New York Times Magazine‘s profile of Maria Bamford:
Things Bamford likes to talk about candidly include the fact that she has disabling bouts of anxiety and depression, that she has contended with a form of O.C.D. called “unwanted thoughts syndrome” and that during her childhood, those unwanted thoughts came in the form of constant worries she might kill her own family or sexually molest animals.
I wish I’d read something along those lines when my OCD started or, especially, as it got even worse. The key word in the above quote, though, is “worries.” The OCD sufferer worries she might do the thing(s) in her head — even knowing she has no desire and, in fact, is utterly horrified by the thought(s). That’s how I’ve lived for the 20 years or so now. Much less so with my medication. And it can get worse. It can get to the point where one worries about something getting stuck in his or her head in an effort to defuse worrying about that thing.
I think OCD first hit me right around sixth grade, but possibly earlier. I’d swallowed a piece of pencil lead and, a few months later, something was triggered that made me worry I would die from lead poisoning. You won’t. Pencil lead is graphite. It took a lot of searching to find that out before we had the Internet. In fact, I attribute some of my great research abilities to OCD. I spent so much time looking up information — information that I hoped would disprove my worries — on the diseases, actions, thoughts and other issues that it became a part of me.
I suffered from the physical symptoms as well, mostly in middle and high school — and especially after we moved from Biloxi to Daleville to take care of my grandfather. In the process, I lost my close friendships. I lacked anyone with whom I could talk about my fears and anxieties. I lost the adolescent support group I’d fought for years to create and received in its place a litany of things to worry about and research.
I would finally calm myself down about one disease or issue only to have another pop up in a day or so. It was a slow-moving game of whack-a-mole, until my brain finally decided, “Okay. Enough with this. Here’s the most taboo thing I can think of — and now you’re going to think of it. It’s going to gross you out, make you not want to tell anyone and otherwise hurt you, but it ain’t going nowhere. ‘Cause to disprove it, you’d have to do try it.” That’s not a good situation to be in, especially when your magical powers of cracking your neck to rid your mind of the thoughts stops working.
It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I attacked it with medications that, for the most part, work. This is why I will always disagree with those who broadly oppose psychopharmaceuticals.
Bamford is patient when explaining the particulars, aware that when she jokes about having wanted to chop up her family into bits or imagining what it would be like to lick a urinal, it can make her sound weird and also scary. But she makes a distinction: It’s the thoughts that are weird and scary, not the person. And while most of us are prone to having fleeting notions that would qualify as inappropriate, in the mind of someone with O.C.D., they are more likely to lodge themselves and repeat. The thoughts don’t tend to inspire action, only fear. It’s like having a homegrown terrorist in the brain.
These unwanted (I prefer intrusive) thoughts are, honestly, awful. I could only wish them on my worst enemy. And that’s if I wanted to give him or her mental, emotional and physical hardships for the rest of his or her life. The only time I remember not having these thoughts was during basic training. I’m betting that had to do with the extreme stress I was already experiencing. My brain was too tired to harass me with something I rarely had to confront in that environment anyway.
Most of all, I’m happy this piece — even if it was only a sliver of the profile — was published. I hope we can talk more openly about the real obsessive-compulsive disorder. Rather than Monk, let’s have a show that isn’t about a psychopath trying to pass as a “normal” person, let’s have one about a normie who strains under the intrusive thoughts of OCD — a person who knows they’re normal but struggles with a mind that says otherwise.
Most important, I hope kids (and adults) suffering from these symptoms of OCD read the article — or this post or anything else that informs them of this illness — and know they aren’t alone, they aren’t crazy and there are solutions.
1. My intrusive thoughts do not involve murder or molesting animals.