Living with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is like living in a haunted house. Intrusive thoughts are like the ghosts and monsters that pop out to startle you and cause you to lose your breath. Even though the scenes scare you, you can’t look away or close your eyes because you have to keep an eye out for danger. The hypervigilance, the tightness in your chest, the sweats, the terror — they’re both chilling.
OCD is much more than cleanliness, turning light switches on and off, and organization. While those are common, there are many other “content areas” that revolve around “what ifs.” What if I murder my baby? What if I am suicidal and kill myself? If I have dreams about another man, does that mean I will cheat on my husband? What if that person who doesn’t like me takes revenge on me? What if that mistake ruins my life? What if I stand up in this meeting and scream, “Fuck you!” to my boss without having any control over it?
The thoughts are just the response to a trigger, or they pop in OCD-sufferers’ heads without any prompt. That’s the obsession part. The next phase is the stage that takes up hours of time: compulsions. Compulsions can take many forms: extensive Google searches, a rumination on the thought to check to try and get certainty about a situation, seeking reassurance from people, and more.
In my experience, my OCD manifests as something called Pure-O OCD. That means it’s not very easy to detect because the compulsive behavior is internal rather than external (external would be hand-washing or checking to see if I left the stove on). Mistakes or perceived mistakes are my triggers, and then I fully obsess over how bad the error was and how it might affect my future. My mistakes can be in any category, from work to relationships to friendships to being a dog mom. Before I had intensive treatment, hanging out with people was a nightmare because I’d make social blunders (at least what I perceived as such) all the time. I’d be completely drained when I got home, and I often avoided social situations as a result. As a highly sensitive person (HSP), I still get tired after socializing, but the treatment made it much less intense.
In this instance, my compulsions show up as rumination on the “mistake.” How bad was it? What actually happened? What was that person’s facial expression like when I said that thing? Were they offended? Do they think I’m stupid? Exhausting. Some other compulsions would be apologizing to the person I may or may not have wronged, asking if something is wrong, or trying to make up for it by being extra attentive. I don’t do it to be fake; it’s about easing my pain.
When OCD thoughts and compulsions are in full swing, my chest feels like it’s getting crushed, with thousands of needles in my heart. The compulsions reduce those sensations just a bit; however, compulsions and trigger avoidance only maintain and worsen the cycle. It’s highly counter-intuitive.
There are a ton of OCD effects that people don’t really talk about, and I want to shed some light for those who are unaware of them. Of course, these don’t apply to everyone, but they’ve been part of my experience and others I’ve talked to:
- Repeating sentences or phrases. When I was early on in my career, I remember a particularly embarrassing instance when a VP of Sales pulled me aside and provided me feedback about how I present. He said I tend to repeat myself frequently, going back to points I made earlier. I felt so ashamed like I was different than everyone else who could speak normally. He was of course trying to help me with my presentation skills and make it so I spoke with more clarity to get through to his team, but I couldn’t help but crumble internally. OCD causes thoughts to get “stuck” in your head, such as the “what if” fears, and that goes for non-anxious thoughts as well — at least for me. I’ve had to work really hard to work through my broken-record speech pattern, which still shows up from time to time.
- Spacing out during conversations. When I’m socializing, sometimes I catch myself retreating 100% into my mind, worrying about something I might have said wrong or that could get misinterpreted. I’ll obsess about what I could say next that will make up for the error, how I could get back into their good graces. For people with OCD that centers on rumination, they can get caught up in their thoughts while engaging in other tasks. As a result of these space-out moments, people with OCD often miss key parts of conversations in work, school, or socially.
- Strained romantic relationships. When you’re triggered by something that a partner can’t understand nor can relate to, they might be dismissive when their partner with OCD may need validation for their feelings. It can cause this alpha/beta relationship, where the beta is the OCD-sufferer. The alpha has the upper hand as the authority on what is “reasonable” or not. This imbalance can breed resentment, discomfort, and distance between the two. Additionally, some people with OCD suffer from extreme relationship doubts, even if it’s going very well. That may cause them to pull away or not be present during quality time together.
- Frequent crying. The discomfort from OCD can cause a need for emotional release; in my case, that’s crying. The act of shedding tears has self-soothing qualities to decrease the crushing feeling in my chest. When my OCD was at its worst, I was crying daily — I couldn’t hold it in. Try to be kind to yourself if that happens to you. Your body is trying to regulate.
- Irritability. Being tortured by your thoughts and suffering through painful anxiety, as a result, makes for unhappy people. Grumpy people can become irritable and angry really quickly. I’m not excusing any destructive behavior, but I know that when I’m having a particularly triggering day, I get snappy with the people I love — and myself. The aches in my chest feel like they’ll be there forever, and that hopelessness can be extremely wearing on a body. If you suffer from OCD and you get cranky more often than other people, you can probably trace it back to your overwhelming thoughts. It makes sense you’re not all sunshine all the time, so be compassionate towards yourself.
OCD can be absolutely terrifying, and it’s not abnormal to exhibit these adverse behaviors. The tough part is that these effects may inhibit living your life to its fullest extent, and that’s why seeing an OCD specialist can really turn things around. It did for me, though I still struggle through the more difficult thoughts relatively frequently. I just know what I need to do to battle them — even if I don’t always follow through. OCD doesn’t have to be terrifying with the right treatment; once you come to expect the monsters to jump out at you, they’ll get a little less frightening over time.
Originally published at https://www.raemshane.com on October 16, 2020.