And I also learned something else (and maybe you’ve already figure this out): the obsessive part of the OCD, if channeled correctly, can be really useful.
UNDER ROSE TAINTED SKIES by Louise Gornall is the story of Norah, a girl struggling with OCD and Agoraphobia, who has been mostly confined to her home. The Bad Decisions Playlist and Emily and the Spellstone author, Michael Rubens, has been kind enough to share his own journey with OCD and we hope that it resonates with some of you; of course, you’re not alone in this.
Starting when I was six years old and continuing more or less through high school, I suffered from terrible OCD, OCD that descended upon me like a massive sledgehammer. And unlike now, where OCD is widely recognized and people have a much better handle on how to treat it, I had exactly zero idea what was wrong with me – and neither did any of the grownups around me. NONE OF THEM. Including the therapists who were supposed to help me. It was awesome! By which I mean, it was horrific!
It happened one summer day when I was six years old – I remember it very well, I was in our front yard – my mind was suddenly and violently invaded by terrible thoughts: thoughts of hurting myself, thoughts of hurting others, thoughts of behaving in bizarre and shameful ways in public. Awful thoughts that seemed to bloom out of nowhere and build on themselves, each one giving rise to two more; awful thoughts about doing awful things that I had no desire to do, so why was I thinking them?! Thoughts that seemed, in a word, nuts.
This was not, as you might imagine, a pleasant experience.
Nor was the almost comically intense panic attack that followed – heart pounding, sweating, gasping for breath, out-of-my-mind with overwhelming anxiety — which, if you think about it, is a pretty reasonable response for a six-year-old whose head is abruptly filled with terrifying thoughts. And the thoughts didn’t go away: they noisily arrived that day and settled in, like barbarian hordes kicking down your door and announcing that you had a lovely home and they’d be making themselves comfortable, thank you very much, and we hope you don’t mind if we set up camp in your room and throw chicken bones on your floor and use your bed as a toilet.
And so those intrusive, horrible thoughts became my constant, unwanted companions for years to come. They were with me pretty much every day: what if I jump out of that window? What if I push that kid in front of that car? What if I scream in math class? What if I do horrible thing x, y, z? What if I, what if I, what if I…(Note: if you have OCD and just reading those thoughts is making you feel anxious because now YOU’RE thinking about them, I TOTALLY GET IT).
I made a deal with myself: yes, I was undoubtedly completely nuts, but I was going to just try to keep my #$%# together on a daily basis and fool everyone. This constant battle, of course, made me very anxious, and made me not want to venture too far afield or be away from my parents, because I always feared being unsupervised (because, as I said, I was clearly crazy and needed supervision or I’d do something awful).
My parents, of course, new something was wrong (usually because I’d complain that I was feeling anxious), and over the years I saw a succession of various therapists – but not a single one who correctly diagnosed me. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I read a description of obsessive-compulsive disorder and said, OH MY GOD THAT’S EXACTLY IT! THAT IS EVERYTHING! WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME THIS!!??
I think that if someone had been able to say to me back then, “Okay, here’s the thing. You’ve got OCD, and it’s going to give you crazy thoughts, but that’s just how it works and you’re not crazy and you’re not going to do anything crazy (and in fact folks like you are actually less likely to do bad things), and you’re going to be fine,” well, that in and of itself would have been a huge relief. Instead I was certain that I was, in fact, secretly crazy, and would never amount to anything, and wouldn’t be able to go to college or live on my own or travel or do anything independent or adventurous or so on.
I’ll save you the suspense: I did do all those things. I went to school and traveled and lived independently and got married and had a kid and all that.
As I got older, I got better at dealing with and ignoring those thoughts, maybe because I just got so damn used to them and frankly bored with their message. I learned to laugh at them, and there’s nothing more powerful than that – being able to laugh at those thoughts and fears is like having a light saber. Use it.
And I also learned something else (and maybe you’ve already figure this out): the obsessive part of the OCD, if channeled correctly, can be really useful. I earned my black belt in karate at 18, partially because I could direct that obsessive energy toward overcoming my natural laziness (I’m super lazy) to make myself train hard. I taught myself to play guitar, mandolin and drums, and could at one point juggle five balls. In college I learned both Japanese and Spanish (if you’re obsessive, memorizing vocabulary words and Chinese characters is really satisfying), and went on to live and study in both Japan and Spain, and I have also studied Portuguese and Mandarin. I’ve written four books and counting, and gotten to work on what I think are some of the best TV shows that have ever existed.
I don’t list those things out to brag. I mention them because maybe you’re out there and you’re worried that you’re nuts and that you’ll never achieve anything or be happy because you have OCD (or something else, whether it’s anxiety or depression or what-have-you). I’m saying to you, I went through twelve flavors of hell, and I know what you’re going through, and want you to know that if I could make it, so can you. Now go out there and channel the O part of your OCD into something useful, like knitting, because I could use a warm scarf.