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I want to be clear from the beginning that this is not a message about being sensitive to peoples' mental illnesses. This is not a case for how one should try to help, or even why one ought to care. This is a story—a patchwork anecdote, really—of the deep disillusionment one can only understand from realizing that your life is not your own.
I'll never forget the day my mother visited my school, handed me a book, and said,
"I think you have OCD."
I wasn't angry that she suggested it—I didn't even try to deny it. I was surprised.
OCD? You mean the one where you have to wash your hands all the time and count things?
She explained that her friend had been struggling with controlling her son's OCD. He obsessed over killing himself and hurting his family members. He obsessed over knives and death. He was only five years old. It's fully possible to experience ecstatic relief and deep regret at the same time. It brought every inexplicable memory into focus, and I was released from a responsibility that, only through torment, I had learned to bear.
My first memory of obsession took place when I was three. A relative gifted me a sweet ballerina figurine. She was beautiful to look at, but also had appealing breasts that were emphasized by her kneeling posture. I couldn't stop hearing "breasts" in my head, and I couldn't stop looking at her chest. I felt compelled to touch her, so after maintaining the internal struggle long enough, I determined that I had to hide the doll to get it out of my head. I couldn't enjoy my toy, because I thought I wasn't supposed to react to it that way. I felt guilty, but I didn't fully understand what I did wrong. It seemed the wrongness was inside of me—that my response proved that I had bad thoughts, and other kids wouldn't be obsessing over body parts the way I did.
The next symptom I noticed revolved around "truth-telling." As a child, I had a weak reputation when it came to keeping secrets. One day, I was hovering around my mother while she was at her desk, and I accidentally saw an email from her about my father's surprise birthday party. I hadn't been told anything about it up to that point, and once my mother realized I knew, she was firm about keeping the information quiet for three more weeks. I thought I was going to die. 'Twas such a harmless thing; I would be doing a good thing by keeping the secret. But, my stomach was still knotting in fear that I wouldn't be able to do it, and that it was wrong to keep something hidden away inside.
This continued on throughout my life, manifesting in my relationships with friends, romantic partners, and family. I was constantly afraid: too afraid to hug my friends and relatives because I worried that I was a lesbian; too afraid to be around children because I was worried I would hurt or molest them; too afraid to answer questions because anything I said could be a lie; in essence, too afraid to do anything more morally ambiguous than brushing my teeth in the morning. The guilt was enormous. It clouded my mind like a drug, and sapped any joy or energy I could muster each day. And, just as painful, I had the urge to confess my thought-crimes any time I had the opportunity. It has resulted in not just personal pain, but deep emotional pain for the people closest to me.
You see, OCD does not only make me fearful, it creates the thoughts and impulses of which I'm so afraid. It forces terrible, perverse, and cruel thoughts into my mind that I'm not allowed to stop experiencing. The backs of my eyelids contain a projector that screens my worst fears as a marathon. When it comes to mental illness, discerning reality is far more difficult than one can imagine. No matter how wild the thought, there's a deep-rooted belief that it's real, and that it's saying something revealing about one's truest desires.
I regretted living my life with this illness. I regretted all the pain, and I still do. I'm not one to rail against how unfair life is, but remembering my 12-year-old self already wishing she could die and be free, I knew that life has been profoundly unfair to me. Still, it's difficult to separate the advantageous and detrimental effects upon one's personality—and I'll never really know which aspects of my illness have been part of my greatest triumphs.
There isn't a moral to the story here, except for those of you who unknowingly go through the same thing, day after bleak day. OCD can hijack your mind and convince you that you're a monster. And yet, there's a future where you can keep living with or possibly without medication, where you learn how to trick your own mind into submission. For the rest of you, may these words grant some insight into the life of someone with a different kind of OCD—OCD that primarily exists in the mind. Know that for all its silence, it has no less impact than the need to count, or wash, or check if the door is locked.