I was scared to click the publish button on this article. I wasn’t sure I was ready to publicly reveal this part of myself. I’ve been contemplating it over the past week, but then thought…. if my story could help just one person, it would be worth it.
I want to dedicate this article is to all those who have experienced fear and anxiety or are living with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. 🙂
“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere” – Erma Bombeck
Getting dressed in the morning sounds simple, but for me, it was excruciating. Every drawer greeted me with crippling anxiety, worry and fear. Meticulously, I would combed through my clothes, checking labels, colors, images and patterns, trying to find something “safe” to put on. Eventually, my drawers would be empty and I’d find myself sitting on the floor in a heap of attire and tears.
I was afraid of germs and was convinced my clothing would lead to my demise.
Logical doesn’t mean rational
My twisted logic associated colors and numbers with disease. For example, you can contract AIDS from blood and blood is red, therefore, anything (pants, shirts, shoes, socks, etc.) that was red had the potential to harm me. I didn’t exactly know in what way, I just knew I had to avoid it. Also, because the word “red” has three letters, the number three was also toxic and had the potential to harm me as well.
But my mind didn’t stop there. The number 4 also had ramifications as the word AIDS has 4 letters. And even more insidious, because it starts with the letter “A”, “A” was to be avoided. Make sense? Of course it doesn’t. It follows a logical sequence, but it doesn’t make sense. You cannot get AIDS from clothes. Period. But with my mind, I felt I would—at least in a round about way.
You are not crazy
Was I crazy? No, I had/have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts (thoughts you don’t want) and repetitive rituals. The thought of something bad happening to me (most severely, contraction of a deadly disease) was always in the forefront of my mind, causing extreme fear, apprehension, anxiety and worry.
In an effort to reduce the intensity of the feelings and use the letters, numbers and colors I deemed deadly, I performed rituals. I checked, prayed and counted relentlessly. Checking your stove once to make sure it is off is normal. Checking it 15 times in two minutes is not. Opening and closing door when you enter or leave a room is normal. Opening and closing it 20 times in a row is not. You get the idea.
Help is available
I knew my obsessions and compulsions were irrational, but I didn’t know how to stop them. To say it was frustrating would be an understatement. I was valedictorian of my high school, on the dean’s list in college, an accomplished athlete and I was afraid of letters, numbers and colors. It sounds ridiculous, but it was my life.
For 15 years, I suffered in silence, minimizing public display of my counting, checking and praying rituals, until one day I got the courage to participate in a free study evaluating a new drug for OCD. Within days of taking the drug, I became ill and was given the option of Cognitive Behaviorial Therapy (CBT).
Face your fears to overcome them
In a nutshell, CBT exposes the person with OCD to his or her fears and instructs them to refrain from ritualizing (checking, praying, counting, etc.) It is extremely anxiety-provoking, but as you are increasingly exposed the anxiety starts to fade and sometimes disappear. It is a form of desensitization.
For 7 weeks I was exposed to my worst fear. Germs. I touched garbage cans, vending machines, medical equipment and even blood, all under the instruction to not wash my hands at the end of the day. I carried pieces of paper in my shoes and pockets with the words AIDS and Cancer prominently written on them in a red (my most feared color) pen.
It gets easier after the first night
Reminders were all around my apartment. “I want to get AIDS” and “I want to get Cancer” decorated the walls on 8.5×11 papers. And I couldn’t go from the living area to the kitchen without some piece of medical equipment in view. This might sound extreme. It was. It was multi-dimensional, 24 hour exposure to my biggest fear.
The first night was hardest. I got little sleep after sobbing to my mom while explaining my therapy to her. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to complete the therapy. It’s difficult for me to explain the amount of courage it took for me to expose myself to very things I irrationally thought would send me to my grave. But I knew I had to do it. I knew it was possibly a way out of the pain I had been enduring for over a decade.
It won’t work if you don’t give it a chance
Part of the reason people don’t seek help is because they don’t think the solution will work for them. This was certainly the case for me. Although many people had been helped by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I was sure it wouldn’t work for me.
Once I realized thinking that way was not helpful, I cast it aside, trusted the process and became determined to achieve the results I wanted. I followed the therapist’s protocol to a tee, taking every opportunity to face my fears. And after 7 weeks of intense exposure, the OCD was under control. When I re-tested, my counting, checking, etc was in the normal range, even lower than my therapists.
I certainly was not alone in my suffering. Many have OCD. Television actors and hosts Howie Mandel and Rosie O’Donnell have openly talked about how it affects them. I remember seeing an episode of the Oprah Winfrey show where Howie Mandel talked about the day his wife came home to find him on the floor straightening the fringe on the rug. He had been doing it for hours.
How Mandel also has a fear of germs, which is why he doesn’t shake hands with his guests, but fist bumps them instead.
With courage, you can do it
It takes courage to face down your fears. But as Martin Luther King JR. said, “you don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step.” Oftentimes, the first step is the hardest and requires the most of you, but if you can get yourself up that step, not only is the next step revealed, but it is easier to climb.
The more steps you leave behind you, the more confident you’ll feel, eventually looking forward to challenge.
Today, I continue to manage OCD using the techniques I learned 15 years ago. When I find myself irrationally thinking a color, number, or letter can harm me, I expose myself to that color, number, or letter
You don’t have to live with chronic anxiety and worry. There is help and it does work. Believe you are stronger than any negativity that comes into your life, because you are.
Stop Obsessing by Edna B. Foa
The OCD Workbook by Bruce M. Hyman