Excuse Me While I Obsess: Learning to Manage my Lifelong Struggle with OCD
Howie Mandel wrote a book that changed my life, entitled: ‘Here’s the Deal, Don’t Touch Me’, which was published in 2009. It chronicles his life, as he diligently tries to create norms for himself while living with obsessive compulsive disorder, coupled with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Basically, he obsesses over miniscule things and his mind creates compulsions to provide instant relief. However, his unique brain chemistry will not allow the relief to be long lasting. In fact, with each compulsion, he feeds the disease, which results in making it harder to fight the compulsions. It is a vicious cycle. One I know well. One my oldest son, who is eleven, struggles with, thanks to me. We both struggle with obsessive compulsive disorder. I guess he cannot say I never gave him anything. Turns out, I gave him my own specialized unique brand of crazy.
OCD and other mental disorders carry a burdensome stigma. It is my hope, by being authentic, that I can, even in a miniscule way, combat that stigma. Even if it is just for one person out there that feels alone, crazy, misunderstood, who’s at their absolute wit’s end with everyday life struggles. I have been there. I feel that pain. It sucks.
While I have always had bizarre tendencies, my OCD did not fully spin out of control until after I experienced my first pregnancy loss, nearly thirteen years ago. Oddly, around the same time Howie Mandel’s book came out. I had a post-traumatic-stress-disorder reaction to the physical and emotional loss I suffered. My ability to cope with even the simplest things in life spun completely out of control.
While my earlier introduction to OCD focused more on even numbers and perfectly lining up the shoes in my closet, this new version, post-miscarriage followed by a new pregnancy, was defined by compulsively washing my hands and being extremely fearful of the foods I ate. I would steer clear of lunch meat and queso dip as if it was the plague. I also refused to clean the cat’s litter box because my doctor told me there was a chemical in my cat’s urine that could adversely affect my pregnancy. I took all the precautions of early pregnancy to the Nth degree, causing intense suffering in my mind, as well as witnessing my husband and family crumble with concern for me, not quite understanding the power this chemical imbalance had over me at this particular juncture.
In addition to the energy expended trying to fight any and all germs present in my life, and despite the logical knowledge that I tried to rationalize in my brain that even bad germs have a place in this world, I found myself unable to relax. I was constantly in a state of heightened anxiety. Worry, fear, and depression pressed firmly upon my mind, body, and soul every ticking second of every single day. My dreams were even affected by this harsh monster I seemingly had no control over.
A typical day at this time was spent waking from an unrestful sleep, with dreams and visions I could not put into words, but left me feeling fearful, guilty, and anxious about the health of my unborn child. My days involved washing my hands several times, eating the very particular and basic foods that I deemed ‘safe’, doing a load of laundry but then worrying if the laundry basket was clean enough to put clean clothes in and using baby wipes to clean it over and over again. The more I cleaned, the stronger the desire to clean became. It was a vicious cycle, with absolutely no relief in sight. I finally became so exhausted from the ridiculous suggestions, which felt more like harsh orders my mind evoked that I had a mini-breakdown.
The breakdowns would involve crying, praying, and wearily yelling out of frustration. I felt the need for peace but could not arrive there. There are many situations you can escape in life. Your mind, however, is not one of them. At times, I would become so emotionally exhausted, I would simply cry myself to sleep. Physical rest was the only way to escape the torturous monster of severe anxiety and OCD.
Imagine the stress this was putting on my unborn child? The thing was, I knew these random thoughts and orders were ridiculous. I could recognize that the compulsions had become out of control. Yet, I still worried that if I didn’t perform the harsh tricks like an unwell circus monkey, I would bring harm to my baby. After all, I had already lost one pregnancy, and I was desperate to do whatever I could, as nonsensical as it appeared to others, to secure the safety of this baby.
I was hesitant to go on medication, even though my OBGYN, parents, and husband at the time felt strongly that I needed it. I had tried so desperately to get pregnant again, yet worried that the medication would affect the unborn child that was newly forming in my womb. I resisted medication as long as possible. Until it became clear, even to my stubborn-I-can-fix-this-on-my-own self that I was quickly sliding down a slippery slope and becoming a prisoner of my own mind.
Finally, my doctor explained to me that while the medication she prescribed did carry a small risk, the stress my body was producing from the constant unrest of my mind due to the OCD, was far more harmful to an early pregnancy. That was the turning point for me. I bit the bullet, and took a small amount of anti-anxiety medication, specific for patients with OCD tendencies, and the change, even on the smallest dosage possible, was quite impressive.
I was able to breathe. I felt like a new person. I was no longer a prisoner to the compulsions and overarching fears which kept me locked away in my own mind. I felt free and excited about life again. My depression resolved and my ability to cope with life, mostly via humor, returned in full force. Medication to me, while at first felt embarrassing to admit I needed, was absolutely necessary. Living the difference between no medication and a small leveling of a very major chemical imbalance in my brain, made all the difference to my quality of life. I vowed never again to go without my single daily dose of personally coined, tongue-in-cheek, happy pills.
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I went on to have two healthy pregnancies, with another devastating miscarriage in-between. By the second healthy pregnancy, I did not fight the need for medication. I knew my own peace of mind was directly linked to the health and safety of my growing baby. Pregnancy-induced OCD is a very real thing. Once I held those two, large and healthy sons in my arms, my symptoms of my bizarre disease faded away into the ether, along with the numbing effects of my epidural. I was clear-headed, happy-hearted, and able to devote my all to those baby boys I had hoped and prayed for so long.
Thirteen years after that initial breakdown due to my first miscarriage, due to several life changes all occurring in a small period of time, I noticed that familiar pang of anxiety starting to grow. I became engaged and re-married shortly thereafter, my sons were growing older, I was attempting to merge two separate families together to form one, not to mention I was in the process of buying a new house with my spouse and making a monumental move. While just across town, moving is one of the most stressful life experiences humans go through. Packing up old memories, boxing up everyday necessities, living in constant chaos for weeks at a time until you finally make the move and can inch ever slowly back to normal living conditions.
Immediately my senses became aroused and I noted the difference. I reached out to my doctor, and he suggested trying a different medication. I was open to anything because I didn’t want to go back to where I had been in the height of my OCD. Big mistake. BIG mistake. My once balanced brain chemicals were now all over the freaking board. I cried at the drop of a hat. I raged at the slightest inconveniences that normally would not ruffle my perfectly primed feathers. The most insignificant issues stressed me beyond my ability to cope. Whether it was a minor disagreement at work, any symptom slightly resembling Covid, or some arguments while learning to live with my new husband, anything and everything that didn’t flow naturally, brought me to a sea of uncertainty fraught with waves of unrest.
I told the doctor that I wanted to go back to my original medication. The monster I knew versus the one I didn’t felt safer to me at this time. My doctor explained that anxiety pills often take time to fully work and that I could not simply discount them until I gave them a real chance to do their magic. So, once again, I went back to the drawing board and started on my third round of anxiety medication.
I am still figuring this out, not fully certain if this particular brand will work as I need it to or if I will continue on my search for the perfect blend of balance. The anxiety and uncertainty that comes with finding just the right blend of medication, coupled with behavioral techniques I have learned over the years, can be a slippery slope.
The greatest challenge, during the years where the OCD was most heightened, was feeling constant pressure coupled with paralyzing fear. I hated seeing the way my particular brand of anxiety affected those closest to me. Yet, there was a frustration that no one, including myself, could fully understand why I felt the need to do the bizarre things I did: handwashing, not eating certain foods, having to ruminate on specific numbers and thoughts, fearing the worst-case scenarios in nearly all life events. Change, for me, was the epitome of defeat. Yet, oftentimes, dare I say, most times, the life changes I incurred during that time were for the best. I had become paralyzed at the thought of doing things differently, even though different very often means better. The medication and behavioral modification allow me to see things more clearly, and to have better control over the compulsions that still, at times of great distress, rear their annoyingly ugly heads.
I have warned my close family and friends that my traditionally normal and stable personality might be a bit off for a temporary moment in time. I was met with unhidden snickers, overarching laugher, and blatant eye-rolls at this juncture. While humor is an important element of dealing with tough issues in my family, I would be remiss to mention how supportive, encouraging, and loving my immediate family has always been as I traveled this journey. They did not always understand (they still don’t, heck, I still don’t understand!), but they have done everything in their power to learn about OCD and find ways to assist my recovery. For that, I will always be grateful. I continue to hunt for that elusive sweet spot between a small dose of medication and a larger dose of peace and acceptance while handling whatever life throws at me.
This is not an easy struggle to share. But due to this seemingly never-ending pandemic, our society’s ridiculously fast-paced technological advances, approaching middle age (more like sailing right into after middle-age), and staring down the barrel of these seemingly end-of-times-ish days, I felt it was important to share.
If you are struggling, there is help. It may not be an easy fix. It may take counseling, medication, physical exercise, mental exercise, trial and error (lots of trial and error), and the encouraging, loving support of family and friends. Along with a steady and frequent helping of, ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel’…or perhaps more accurately, ‘Jesus, can you drive, and let me just take a brief respite in the backseat?’.
Please do not give up. Please talk to someone. I firmly believe that life’s struggles, while they may never fully make sense to us in this world, are meant to be shared, along with the lessons learned, used to help others in similar situations. Otherwise, what is the point? If my journey, which is still very much a work in progress, can shed light on anyone’s current struggle, I am more than happy to share what has worked (and not worked) on my unique path.
My journey has been unique, though reading about others’ struggle with similar mental health challenges has provided much hope and encouragement. Just knowing there is help out there, whether in the form of medication, counseling, behavioral modification, or a combination of the three, has provided tremendous peace. We often feel so alone, until we choose to share our struggles. There is something healing and refreshing about chronicling our journeys, no matter how painful they may have been. Being open, breaking the stigma of mental illness, reading material, and finding support groups has all given me a powerful stance on the fight against OCD. The struggle is still real, but the knowledge I have gained, encouragement I have received, and lessons I have learned along this path have led to an empowering ability to utilize the tools available to keep my OCD in check. No longer does OCD control me. I am very much in control and know when and how to put OCD back in its rightful place.