For a large portion of my life, I have struggled with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), along with more minor cases of social anxiety and depression. While it’s not the most common symptom of OCD, my primary struggle has been with a type of behavior called equalizing, which is trying to achieve symmetry or balancing both sides of things. While it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when my OCD symptoms started, I believe I was around 12 or 13 when I started carrying out compulsive routines. These routines usually started at night when I got in bed, and would often keep me awake for what seemed like hours before I could finally fall asleep. When I was 16, I started rapidly developing new compulsions that took up more and more of my day, and obsessive thought patterns started to affect my schoolwork.
When I started developing these compulsive routines, I honestly had no idea there was anything unusual about them. I thought that they were just my quirky way of trying to fall asleep. In retrospect, they were early versions of my equalizing behavior that later became a serious problem. When the OCD behaviors became most prominent when I was 16, it was an immense challenge to deal with. My obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors were taking up several hours of my day. I had multiple breakdowns, thinking there was no way my life could get better or that I could ever change my behaviors. I vividly remember feeling like I was trapped inside my own mind and I could never get out. When my OCD was at its worst, I would get caught in these scary cycles where my compulsive behavior (which typically seemed to relieve my anxiety) would cause me even more anxiety because I was so scared that I’d never be able to stop my compulsions. The increased anxiety then caused even more compulsive behavior, and the cycle would continue until I couldn’t physically take it anymore and I would break down.
For a while, I was very embarrassed about my OCD because friends and acquaintances started to notice that I would do weird things, like repeatedly blow air on my left hand. At first I struggled to answer their questions about my odd behavior, but I learned how to respond when I wasn’t ready to explain my OCD. For example, I just simply told them that blowing air on my left hand felt good, and I didn’t go into any more detail. And when I developed a slight tremor as a side effect from taking medication, people would ask me why I was shaking, so I told them I’d had too much coffee. I didn’t like to be misleading or tell white lies, but it took me a long time before I had the courage to talk to people about my struggles (I’m still working on that). I gradually told my closest friends some of the details of what I was going through, and they were supportive, even though I never told them very much. Thankfully, I was extremely fortunate enough to have parents who understood the importance of mental health and who have consistently supported me. They even helped me with my daily exposure therapy practices (exposing myself to uncomfortable situations or behaviors) in between meetings with my Cognitive Behavioral Therapist. Even today, my struggles are difficulty for me to discuss because it can be hard to revisit that time in my life. Luckily, I’m surrounded by supporting and loving people, especially my girlfriend who has encouraged me to write this.
While I’m lucky enough to have lived a very privileged life, recovery from OCD was a long and difficult process that took determination and effort. The first step for me in recovering was to talk to my parents. It was difficulty for me to do, but when kids at school kept commenting on my behavior, I knew that I had to do something. Luckily, my parents understood and took me to see a family therapist. The therapist diagnosed me with OCD and began to help me deal with my obsessions and compulsions by helping me to identify which aspects of my behavior were obsessive or compulsive and how to understand the source of those behaviors. After several sessions with the therapist, I began talking to her about the possibility of taking medication (she was in no way pushy about medicine), and eventually I saw a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist also diagnosed me with OCD and started me on a low dosage of an SSRI, a medication usually used to treat depression. However, I think his greatest contribution to my recovery may have been when he referred me to an excellent Cognitive Behavioral Therapist.
I began to see my CBT doctor weekly, and he worked with me to plan and implement rigorous exposure therapy practices. Every day, I dedicated time to putting myself in contexts in which I would normally respond with compulsive behavior, while trying my hardest to avoid the behavior. I started with the easiest compulsions to counteract (those that would cause me the least anxiety to avoid), and over the next few months, I worked my way toward my most intense compulsions. There were definitely setbacks: times in which I couldn’t resist my compulsion and many times in which I felt so overwhelmingly anxious I wanted to quit. But with the help of my therapist and my parents, I eventually conquered my entire list of compulsions. During this time, I also gradually introduced higher dosages of my SSRI, which I believe also played a role in my recovery.
By the time I turned 18, I considered myself probably 80-90% recovered, which is pretty lucky for someone with OCD. While I still have various obsessions and compulsions to this day (over a decade later), I have “channeled” that obsessive-compulsive energy into less self-destructive behavior. For example, one of my “acceptable” compulsions is to wear something green every day (green has always been my favorite color)! While this is definitely a compulsive behavior (I get anxious just thinking about not wearing green), it requires very little cognitive effort on my part (and it’s somewhat enjoyable, too). Because I know the obsessive-compulsive aspect of myself will never completely go away, I think finding less destructive channels has been an effective way for me to keep that remaining 10-20% of my OCD from affecting me negatively.
My struggles with and recovery from OCD have had a profound effect on who I am today. Without a doubt, I am so much stronger and wiser for going through those experiences. Both family and CBT therapy have made me a better person more generally and helped me to better cope with stress and social life. My experience has also made me more compassionate in understanding others’ mental health. I strongly believe that recovery from OCD has made me a better person.
If I met someone else dealing with similar struggles, I would say, “You can absolutely get through this challenge. You have the strength to beat this challenge, and doing so will only make you stronger. Other kids may not understand what you’re going through, but there are literally millions of people out there who have gone through something similar. You can, too. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks or difficulties you encounter on the road to recovery. You will get there.”