Knock, Knock. Who’s There? OCD.
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
I must have moved too swiftly, because my mom’s head immediately turned, as she asked me, “Megan, what are you doing?”
Panicked, I began laughing maniacally, desperately attempting to formulate an alibi for my insane behavior. “Nothing, nothing,” I let out between laughs. My laughter was contagious, leading to a family fit of giggles, but I knew my mom had not been fooled. There would be follow up.
That night, as she was tucking me into bed, my mom said, “Honey, you know you can talk to me about anything.” I knew she meant it. Growing up, my mom and I were inseparable. We had slumber parties, wore matching overalls, and talked about far more than my friends shared with their mothers. People always referred to us as “two peas in a pod,” and I secretly yearned for a world where my mom and I could live in this aforementioned pod together. There, she would be safe, and I would never have to worry about any harm coming to her. But sadly, we did not live in a pea pod. My mother and I lived in a world with black ice on freeways, abnormal mammograms, terrorists on airplanes, and restless fault lines eager to quake. Not to mention, I lived in a world in which knocking on my leg felt like the only control I had in preventing these disasters from occurring.
I knew my mom was seeking an explanation for the knocking, and I truly wished I could give her one. However, when I really thought about it, I didn’t know why I had to knock on my leg that night, let alone every night for the past three years. I didn’t know why I worried each afternoon that my mom wouldn’t be waiting for me at the bus stop, but rather trapped under a crushed car, waiting for an ambulance. I didn’t know why my picture frames had to be a certain shade of green, or why sleepovers scared me, or why numbers mattered so much, or why the fate of the world seemed to rest upon my tiny shoulders. All I knew was that I loved my family, and I would do anything my itchy brain demanded of me in order to save their lives.
And so, rather than inviting my mom into my creative, crowded brain that night, I waited a few more years. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the average length of time between first onset of mental health symptoms and seeking of treatment is eleven years. Like a lot of people who suffer from mental illness, I waited until my obsessive-compulsive disorder had become so intrusive that I would sob into my pillow at night, pleading the universe to relieve me of my great burden to protect mankind with knee knocks, bloody knuckles, and a plethora of other embarrassing compulsions that controlled my life. By this point, it was clear that I needed help.
My mom suggested that we see a therapist. I was eleven years old, and the thought of therapy made my hands sweat. As my mom checked me out from the main office, she would stick to our agreed upon plan, explaining that I had a doctor’s appointment or needed a cavity filled. My teachers must have assumed that my dental hygiene had achieved unheard of levels with the number of mysterious appointments for which I left class that year. Little did they know, I brushed each tooth for seventy-four seconds before going to bed.
For the first year, therapy was unsuccessful to say the least and, quite frankly, traumatic. Every counselor I saw had an entirely different perspective on how to treat my intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors. These tidbits of advice differed in psychological approaches, but they all shared one thing in common: they led me to question the credentials of my therapists. And that’s saying a lot, because, as a sixth grader desperate for mental help, I had pretty low standards.
One therapist responded to my intrusive thoughts, by suggesting that I picture my mind as a blender. “When the scary thoughts come,” she advised, you have turned the blender on high. It is loud, and everything is getting chopped up into pieces. All you have to do is unplug it.” If only it had been that easy. Unfortunately, I was unable to locate the outlet attached to the back of my brain. Perhaps my hair was too messy.
Another therapist took an entirely different approach. “Try making a pros and cons list,” she instructed me. “If you are picturing yourself hurting your mom, write down the pros and cons of actually doing it.” Looking back, I wish that I had said, “Hmm, let me think…the pros are nothing, and the cons are I don’t actually want to hurt my mom; I suffer from intrusive thoughts that you are supposed to be getting paid to treat.” In actuality, I’m pretty sure I left the paper blank and sobbed incoherently for the rest of the hour until my mom picked me up and took me to Dairy Queen.
My personal favorite was the advice from an Evangelical relative. Uncle Bob explained to me that Satan targets people with especially pure hearts. Therefore, the fact that my mind was constantly riddled with incredibly evil thoughts was actually a compliment! As a result of his scrupulous advice, I spent the next few months responding to intrusive thoughts by whispering, “I plead the blood of Jesus,” which was, apparently, supposed to dispel the devil and summon angels into my soul. I was willing to try anything; however, whispering to myself seemed to repel cute boys more than Satan, so I continued searching for a more sustainable approach.
That is when I found Dr. Harrison. This kind-eyed man worked in pediatric psychiatry, and you could tell from looking at him that he had seen a lot during his years of practice. By that point, he felt like my last hope.
The difference between Dr. Harrison and the other therapists I had seen presented itself within the first five minutes of meeting. Typically, therapists began the session by asking me to painfully describe “what brought me in today.” This was a loaded question that I would answer with ample shame, tears, and embarrassment. I would sheepishly explain the horror movie that played on repeat in my mind, the graphic images of death and despair, and the constant sense of mourning I felt for my loved ones, all of whom were alive and healthy. Meanwhile the therapists would write rapidly, unaffected by my pediatric tears or the quivering desperation in my young voice.
However, Dr. Harrison was different. Rather than asking me to describe my shameful symptoms to a stranger for the hundredth time, he began by telling a story about a past patient.
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“Heidi was a sweet girl, about your age or a little younger,” he began. “Heidi’s mom had just given birth to a beautiful baby boy, who Heidi adored. She loved her brother so much that she would check on him constantly, monitoring his breathing while he napped and making sure he was tended to 24/7.”
I settled into my sterile hospital chair, smiling. I loved babies, so Dr. Harrison was already speaking my language.
He cleared his throat and continued. “But Heidi started to develop a problem. You see, she cared so much about her baby brother that she began to worry about him all of the time. At first, she checked on him more frequently, thinking that would fix her worries, but she could never check on him enough. Heidi started feeling like she needed to do confusing things to keep him safe, like flip the light switch on and off twenty-five times, wear a certain shade of purple to school, or even wash her hands so often that her knuckles would bleed.”
I could feel my cheeks beginning to turn red, as I discreetly tucked my hands under my lap. This story sounded uncomfortably familiar.
Dr. Harrison went on, pretending not to notice my blushing. “Heidi worried so much about her brother that she started to imagine terrible things happening to him. She imagined him in car crashes, she pictured him choking, and sometimes she even worried that she might hurt her baby brother. This thought made her especially scared.”
I thought about the shamefully terrifying thoughts I had about my own loved ones and sunk deeper into my chair.
“Did she ever hurt him?” I asked sheepishly, afraid of the answer.
“Of course not,” Dr. Harrison replied. “Heidi loved her brother. She never wanted bad things to happen to him, but sometimes her brain played mean tricks on her. Heidi had a disorder called obsessive compulsive disorder. Have you ever heard of it?”
I had heard people talk about OCD before, but it was always in the form of color-coding highlighters or keeping a bedroom exceptionally clean. What Dr. Harrison was describing could not be the fun, quirky disorder that was casually tossed around cafeteria conversations. I nodded hesitantly.
“Well, that’s what Heidi had,” the psychiatrist explained.
Dr. Harrison went on to ask me various questions that made me feel understood for the first time in my life.
“Are some numbers good and others bad? Which ones?”
“How do you feel about being alone?”
“What is bedtime like for you?”
“Does your mind ever tell you to do something that feels silly or embarrassing?”
Dr. Harrison listened to my responses with such intention that I felt I could tell him anything. I told him about the knocking, the scary thoughts, the shame. To my surprise, Dr. Harrison did not wrestle me into a straightjacket, but rather leaned in closer, genuinely listening. At that moment, I began to view my story as a heroic tale, as opposed to a shameful confession.
After a long conversation, the psychiatrist officially diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder. My prior therapists had referred to my condition as “an anxiety disorder” without calling it by its true name, OCD. They acted as though burdening an eleven-year-old with a diagnosis would be more traumatic than leaving her to navigate a mental disorder without the appropriate knowledge or resources for what she was battling. By naming my OCD for what it was, Dr. Harrison lifted years of shame and stigma from my tired shoulders, as he validated my experience and reassured me that others had been through the same challenge.
The next few months involved therapy, unsuccessfully experimenting with medication, and amusing my mom, by reading all of the self-help books she could get her hands on for me. With time, the severity of my intrusive thoughts subsided and my quality of life improved drastically. I attribute most of this healing to the diagnosis itself and the impactful conversation I had with Dr. Harrison. Although I only worked with him initially and continued on to see other clinicians, I ultimately view Dr. Harrison as the bridge between my shame and empowerment. Holding the power of a clear diagnosis, I was able to take control of my mental health for the first time in my life. I learned to talk about the intrusive thoughts I was having, rather than repress them, and to lean on friends for support, rather than perform compulsions that only offered temporary relief.
I went on to worry about high school boyfriends, prom, and college applications more than car crashes and natural disasters. I slept in hostels in Europe instead of lying wide awake on my parents’ floor. I earned a degree, moved to the city, and formed a community of lifelong friends. And yet, none of this is to say that I have been cured of OCD. It’s just that now my OCD looks different than it did when I was in the sixth grade. What used to be a monster in my closet has become a characteristic I am proud of, and yet I am still aware that I need to constantly manage it.
My OCD leads me to care deeply, allowing me to foster incredibly gratifying, lasting relationships with others. The disorder also sparks creativity, providing me with a constant independent film playing in my mind. And yet, even now, sometimes the film is not one I want to be watching. However, rather than relying on fearful compulsions, I have learned other ways to turn these films off, or at least dial the volume down. I regularly attend therapy, I lean on friends for support, and I share my experiences with others.
I will admit, my hands are still cracked. They are worn from rock climbing and working at farmers markets and gripping my bike handrail and cooking with my boyfriend. But I can honestly say, my knuckles are not bloody from knocking anymore.