OCD is an illness powered by secrets. The brain stealthily fires off intrusive thought after intrusive thought–unwanted notions about physical violence, gore, death, sexual deviance, indescribable sin–sending the thinker into a tailspin of anxiety. To combat these horrible mental images, my conscious self begins a pattern of thoughts that examine, investigate, and analyze every nuance of the intrusive thought, which then triggers panic.
I’ll give you an example of one of my “tame” intrusive thoughts, one I’m actually willing to share:
I’m standing on the NYC subway platform as the D train approaches. I brace myself against the vibrations of the massive vehicle as the intrusive thought rears its ugly head again, as it does every time I watch a train pull into the station. Suddenly an image of my right foot slipping over the bright yellow platform edge takes over. I cringe as the movie plays out inside of my head. In the next scene, my foot becomes wedged in the gap between the concrete and the doorstep of the train, contorting and snapping my ankle until bone is visible and blood sprays freely from the wound as the train begins to pull away from the station rendering me helpless.
It only takes an instant for this imaginary horror to play out in my mind. But, then the real trouble begins. When I snap back to reality I begin my mental compulsion, which lasts indefinitely. I replay the intrusive thought as I stare at the tiny gap between the train and the platform. “That gap is way too small for my foot to fit inside of it. And besides, I’m paying really close attention to where I’m stepping so my foot couldn’t possibly get stuck in there. I’ve taken the train hundreds, maybe thousands of times. This could never happen to me! But what if the crowd overtakes me and I accidentally step into the gap? Freak accidents do happen! Why am I thinking like this? What is wrong with me? Do I actually want to get hurt? Do I want to die like that? NO! I don’t want to die. I’m terrified of death. But if I’m thinking about death it must mean that I am going to die soon. Am I crazy? Will I ever have a moment of peace from these disturbing thoughts?” Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
Before I know it, my heart is pounding, my vision becomes slightly blurred, I feel dizzy, my stomach aches in a strange way, and I begin to feel like I might lose complete control of myself on this crowded train in front of all of these strangers who might not be able to help me. When my OCD is at its worst, this will help multiple times a day, triggered by completely innocuous daily tasks. It’s mentally draining, physically exhausting, and seemingly endless.
To any bystander, I might look perfectly normal from the outside. My countenance is probably very still, my eyes are locked into a distant stare like many other stoic New Yorkers, and I’m sitting or standing quietly. So naturally, it is pretty difficult for most of the people in my life to understand or even believe what goes on internally. Some people in my life, people I’ve trusted and loved, have told me that mental illness is not real and that it’s something needy people make up for attention and to get out of doing things they don’t want to do. Others have told me I was “addicted” to my medications and that I would never live a healthy life while on them. Then again, there are those family members and friends who, even though they’ve never understood my OCD, have never left my side on this journey, encouraging me to seek help and medical treatment and offering their love every step of the way, even when I’d done and said horrible things to them.
Intrusive thoughts are a phenomenon that I don’t even completely comprehend as someone who experiences them daily, so I don’t expect someone without OCD to really “get” this. But, it does help to talk about it, and write about it. Bringing the realities of OCD out into the open is bringing us one step closer to breaking the stigma that’s attached to this mental illness.