Living with OCD
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I recently began counseling sessions with a new therapist for a few significant reasons. One - we’re still in a pandemic and I’m an extrovert and an overachiever. I’m home seven days a week with my daughter and I feel like I’m losing my mind a vast majority of the time. Two - many health insurance providers have been considerate enough to offer completely FREE coverage for mental health services during the pandemic.
Friends, if you were considering therapy for any reason, this is your sign. DO IT. Now.
If you’ve been following along with my blog for a while, you know that I completed a year and a half of counseling with the most amazing social worker who helped motivate me and find my best self after I had my daughter. This time around, I was scared to start over with someone new and honestly never thought I’d find myself at this point again. News flash: 2020 sucks. During my phone consultation with the new therapist, I immediately knew I was in the right place as she instantly dove deep into things I had never tapped into before and that I was too overwhelmed or afraid to talk about previously.
After our consultation, we scheduled my first appointment for the following week. We explored my family culture, my past, and my daily habits. Within forty minutes, my new therapist was thoroughly dissecting my daily routines and questioning the flexibility within my day-to-day. I immediately brushed it off and replied, “If you’re thinking I have OCD, I definitely don't. I have just found comfort in certain habits and routines but it’s totally flexible,” while her reply was, “Okay... I’d like to explore that more next time.”
A week later, my husband and I were heading out for a much needed date night. The one beautiful positive outcome of this pandemic has been weekly date nights that have strengthened our connection significantly this year. As we were walking out, he playfully and purposely shifted a decorative sign in our mud room, knowing I would immediately shift it back. This is one of his many endearing ways of teasing me throughout our relationship. As I unquestionably shifted the sign back to the correct angle and rolled my eyes, he giggled and made a playful comment about my “OCD.”
I decided on the way to dinner to tell him about how my therapist was somewhat insinuating the possibility of OCD at our first appointment. My ridiculously considerate, supportive, and sensitive husband became very pensive and replied, “Alyssa, you have OCD. I’ve known that for a long time.” I laughed it off at first as he has a tendency to tease me, but he remained stoic and was adamant that he was serious.
As we headed to dinner, I silently consulted the all-knowing and powerful Google. I was certain that I was not a germaphobe, not a clean freak (though I am VERY specific about how the dishwasher gets loaded, how the countertops are wiped down, and where things in the house belong), nor do I count the number of times I turn the door handles or other random repetitive activities I had seen on the film Matchstick Men in which Nicholas Cage is a con-man with OCD. As I read the intimate details about OCD, assured that I was about to disprove my husband and my therapist, the wind was knocked out of my chest. So many factors of this disorder that had been so stigmatized in my brain resonated so deeply with me that tears stung my eyes.
I looked at my husband and said, “Oh my God. I have OCD, and this explains so much of my entire life.”
The moments after realizing that OCD is something I have lived with as long as I can remember unraveled somewhat slowly, and the most important thing I’ve realized is that the stigmas behind mental health are almost always generalized and inaccurate. OCD for me revolves around a false sense of control and order in my life and looks like it might for many women:
Adherence to rigid schedules with very limited flexibility. My reaction when my set and very strategically pre-planned schedules do not go as planned can be incredibly overwhelming. I have hour-by-hour schedules, and if one thing does not happen how I think it should or in the order I think it should at the exact time I think it should, my brain starts to spiral the entire day downward and I cannot handle the thought of what to do next or how to move forward from the “setback.”
Planning, organization, and lists. I make a list for every single day and every single thing I need to accomplish that day, in the order that it should be done. There is very little flexibility within my set plans. Being unprepared, being late, or not getting things accomplished are some of my biggest fears and triggers.
Unconscious repetition of thoughts or behaviors. For me, this manifests in a few ways: (1) physically counting or moving objects very specifically and (2) praying the exact prayers each night in the same order for the past 10 years or praying the same prayer in the same order 5 times throughout each day while I was pregnant. This brought a sense of security to my pregnancy when I was feeling overwhelmingly terrified of losing the baby or the possibility of the baby not being healthy, and once I acknowledged that I was still doing this with my rigid nightly prayers, I gave myself permission to stop and pray more freely. For some this can be a form of intense superstition (think: “don’t step on a crack“ which manifests in many ways that disrupt your daily life).
The desire for symmetry. I can obsess over things if they are not perfectly spaced or aligned to the point that I HAVE to correct them or address them before moving on to the next thing. This can consume HOURS of my day if I keep moving throughout the house fixing things that I feel aren’t just right, and then I find myself wondering what I even accomplished that day and why it took so long. I thought for a while that I had ADHD because of this, and that still could very well be a possibility, but the need for order and control is what it boils down to. I constantly bounce around different areas of the house cleaning and organizing and continually getting distracted by the next thing I should clean or organize, and I lose things constantly in this process. Just ask my husband how many times a day I spend excessively searching for my phone in our house because I put it down en route to the next thing I become distracted by that needs perfected or handled in that exact moment.
Checking on any and all living things in my home constantly. Our dog is super old, so if he’s asleep when I get home, my first thought is that he’s dead and I carefully examine his breathing. Our kitten is new, so if I can’t find her as soon as I walk in, she’s also probably dead. I check the washer and dryer thoroughly to make sure she’s not in it before I do laundry because I heard a gruesomely disturbing story about a cat in a dryer when I was a child. I walk into my daughter’s playroom every day and count the fish in the tank, and if I can’t immediately see all five of them, my heart races assuming that the ones I cannot see are dead. I also feel irrationally responsible for all of these “deaths” before confirming that all of the creatures in our continually growing mini-zoo are alive. This fear was prevalent toward my child and was debilitating while I was pregnant and when my daughter was a baby, but has eased up significantly as she’s gotten older and more independent.
Re-reading and “checking” any form of writing that I compose (text, email, blog). The amount of times that I read and re-read a blog post (before I post AND after) is exhausting. I do the same with emails and texts to a lesser extent. i.e. Blogs may be 50 read throughs before publishing, whereas texts/emails may be 10. I don’t actually count the read-throughs or have a set number of times I have to read them, I just do it over and over until I feel comfortable enough that what I’ve written will come across the way that I intend to and that there are no visible mistakes before I can post or send. You can imagine how much work my goal of monthly blog posts became at this rate when I was spending hours on end “proofing” my work. My bucket list item of eventually writing a book seems irrational considering I would have to personally proof it 9,999 times before I could ever release it to anyone.
I have known most of my adult life that I am a perfectionist, and I have worked to tame that as much as possible over recent years. Realizing that OCD is something that I live with that is incurable, though manageable, has been life altering. While it feels like my entire life has been unraveled and so many things finally make sense, it also feels like I’m not as “normal” as I thought I was. I am a fairly holistic person, so for me, management of mental health issues does not include medications.
What I am currently working on is accepting the things that I cannot control. I am doing this for myself, my husband, and in large part, my daughter. I am working on letting go of control and breathing through the difficult and uncomfortable situations. I am working on accepting the fact that brain disorders are a result of trauma and I am doing my best to have grace with myself. I am working on acknowledging my discomfort when my thoughts intrude and cause the desire for me to follow through with some compulsion. I am working on the, “What’s the worst case scenario and how likely is it?” mentality and not allowing my perfectionistic thoughts to ruin my days. I am working on being comfortable enough to sit in silence with my own thoughts without constantly playing music or scrolling social media, the chosen forms of brain distractions that I choose to numb with, because the idea of sitting in silence without filling that space with the millions of things I feel that I need to be doing is overwhelming.
I am a forever advocate of therapy and will continue to dig deep to do the work to heal myself from the inside out. I am hoping, as I have since the beginning of chronicling my life experiences through the blog, that by sharing my struggles and triumphs other moms and women may relate and realize that they aren’t alone. 2020 is weird and existential and lonely, but we really are not alone no matter what we are going through. Today is mental health awareness day and we all need to work to end the stigma for the next generation.