Driving to meet friends for an evening cookout in the woods last August, I reassured myself over and over that I was dressed appropriately. I wouldn’t be too hot or too cold, but more importantly, I was covered up enough to avoid getting any mosquito bites—on top of being highly allergic, I’ve been a magnet for those little bloodsuckers my entire life. For me, becoming a bug buffet would mean days of uncomfortable itching and swelling.
About halfway through the drive, my fixation on whether or not I had prepared enough for an evening spent outdoors turned over to embarrassment. I had just spent 15 minutes worried about mosquito bites. Why are you doing this? I asked myself, and the voice inside my head answered in the same way it had for years: Because you’re weak. You’re weak, and you’re nervous, and you will always be this way.
It was the only answer that had ever made sense. What kind of person panics over the mere possibility of enduring some minor discomfort? A weak one, right?
What kind of person panics over the mere possibility of enduring some minor discomfort?
But in that moment, for the very first time, it hit me: a person with obsessive compulsive disorder, that’s who. I had just been diagnosed earlier that summer, after a decade of drowning in overwhelming anxiety. What I was doing in the car—feeling anxious and trying to make that feeling go away by checking, re-checking, and triple-checking—was all part of a stereotypical obsessive-compulsive pattern.
If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), it’s not as mysterious as it seems. People with OCD feel crippling anxiety about common concerns that pretty much everybody has every day.
What if I forgot to turn off the stove?
What if the cell phone I’m holding is covered in germs?
What if I dropped an aspirin on the floor and my daughter ate it?
When the average person has one of these thoughts, they’re able to shake them off. But people with OCD focus on them to the point of distress.
When the average person has one of these thoughts, they’re able to shake them off. But people with OCD focus on them to the point of distress, then try to “solve” their anxiety by developing rituals designed to make them feel better. You drive home and check that you did, in fact, turn off the stove. You disinfect your cell phone each time you use it. You scour the square footage of your house whenever you pop a pill.
Eventually, these rituals become compulsions, and you find yourself locked in an unbreakable cycle of thoughts and behaviors. This cycle had been explained to me in the weekly therapy sessions I was engaging in at the time. When I finally broke down and went to therapy, it was because my fears about germs and contamination were affecting my daily life, consuming hours of my day and sapping every bit of my mental energy.
But I hadn’t yet applied my understanding of the OCD cycle to other aspects of my life, and contamination wasn’t the only way I was experiencing it. I was still looking at myself through a narrow pinhole—and that day in the car, I opened my view up to a wider lens.
I wasn’t simply “nervous” about mosquito bites. They were the trigger for a typical OCD spiral, the initial worry kicking off a compulsive pattern. How many other times had I blamed myself for something I didn’t understand? How many “flaws” had I shamed myself over, thinking I was just too weak to change?
How many other times had I blamed myself for something I didn’t understand? How many “flaws” had I shamed myself over, thinking I was just too weak to change?
As I started to think these questions over, I was astounded by how many answers I came up with.
I needed balance in my daily meals—I couldn’t eat bread at lunch and dinner. How stupid, I would think as I mentally changed my plans to keep my meals “even.” Just let it go. I had to confirm multiple times that I had paid my bills on time; it was never enough to check once, because I didn’t trust my own perception. You already did this. What’s wrong with you? You’re wasting time. I daydreamed incessantly, running through the same social scenarios over and over, trying to get them right. Pay attention! Get out of your head. Why can’t you focus?
My needs (for symmetry, certainty, perfection) were obsessive…but not because I was weak, I finally realized. Because I had OCD—and that wasn’t my fault.
Honestly, the distinction was life-saving. When it comes to any kind of mental health issue, context is important. A person with depression isn’t lazy, though they might be fooled into feeling that way. Someone with social anxiety disorder can’t “just go out for drinks,” even if that’s what their friends tell them they should be able to do. A person with bipolar disorder isn’t crazy, despite the insensitive cultural perception that labels them that way.
The incorrect messages that our mental disorders send us—about our self-worth, our value, our potential—are damaging, for sure. But they can also prevent a person from getting the help they need. In my case, thinking I was just “weak” or “nervous” allowed me to misunderstand what was really happening for more than ten years. I put the blame squarely on myself. Now, I can blame something outside of myself, and in doing so, gain some power and control over it.
When I catch myself falling into that old self-shaming monologue, I can stop it. When I label an undesirable behavior as being part of my OCD, I remember how much effort I’m putting into my therapy. I don’t let myself off the hook for behaviors that need to change, but now when I ask myself, why are you doing this?, I don’t hear that voice inside my head say, because you’re weak.
Instead, I hear it say, because you have OCD. And that’s okay—I’m working on it.