The Trauma of Not Being Traumatized Enough: My Life with Pure OCD
by Pinar Tarhan
When I was 19, I had just finished my freshman year of college, and I was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder and bipolar disorder. The weeks before the diagnosis, I already knew that I had a mental illness; in fact, I was sure I was going mad. Every waking moment was filled with thoughts that terrified me. These thoughts were worthy of the internal workings of a movie villain; the Joker would want to be my best bud. Because I thought these thoughts, I wondered if I actually wanted to act on them. And I worried: If I wanted to do that, then I must be the worst scum humanity had ever seen. Pretending I was okay was hard. Remembering to breathe regularly was even harder.
I suffer from Pure-O, Harm OCD. I have safety-related compulsions, which I believe I subconsciously unleashed upon myself to minimize the risks of life: refusing to touch steak knives, staying away from ledges and people who are close to ledges, staying on the far side of the sidewalk to avoid traffic, checking if the water is turned off: whatever I can do to make sure I’m not going to harm myself or others. Whatever way there is to hurt someone, anyone, in a violent, deadly way; I’ve thought about it. At one point, one of the psychiatrists tried to comfort me by talking about another Harm OCD patient (anonymously, of course) who thought about stabbing her baby. Yeah, that terrified me further, and put me off of having kids. Another thing that disturbs me: the fact that I live on the sixth floor. I’d move out, but it is my parents’ place, and therefore rent-free. Besides, I want to live abroad, so I need my savings.
Even after I learned the reason for the disturbing thoughts in my head, the shock didn’t wane for some time. For one thing, I had been mostly a happy person. As far as I knew, there was no mental illness in the family, apart from one case of depression. I had never gone through a major trauma. In my head, what I had (not) been through didn’t give me “the right” to be going through such an ordeal as having a mental illness (or two).
Knowing what I know now, I’m surprised I didn’t exhibit any real symptoms before I was 19. I grew up in Turkey, and I didn’t belong. Turkey is such a weird melting pot: Europe vs. Asia, Mediterranean vs. Balkans, Modernity vs. Religion. What makes it challenging is that many people carry different values from each group, so you’ll have parents who will, one day, be hip and understanding, and the next will want you home by nightfall. But one thought always prevails in our culture, “What would my neighbors/parents/friends/relatives think?” This forces an insincere sense of community and extreme collectivism. And I’ve always been a black sheep: I was extremely individualistic, free-spirited, idealistic, and creative. I didn’t care about religion or society, which led to many fights with my parents. But they loved and accepted who I was.
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I wasn’t that lucky with friends, often finding myself excluded. Despite being friendly and outgoing, I didn’t have best friends until I was 16. I was bullied a little, annoyed a lot, and in return, grew to love my own mind. I was my own best friend, and frankly, I liked myself more than I liked the other teenagers around. Doing stupid stuff just to look cool wasn’t my thing.
So I wrote. I’d been crafting stories since I was little. I created screenplays with characters that did everything I couldn’t do.
In my late teens, my life consisted of studying as much I as I could while holding my head upright. When I couldn’t, Ally McBeal and other enjoyable shows provided me with an escape, and something that resembled a life. I believed that, once I was in college, I would have the kind of life I wrote about or saw through the TV screen.
Sometime after freshman year ended, these extremely revolting thoughts invaded my head. I was shocked, disgusted, and terrified all at once. They were mostly violent thoughts, about harming myself and others, even those who were closest to me. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. Like everyone, I’d have the occasional weird thought. Rarely, I would go through moments of depersonalization– feeling as though I wasn’t living my life, but merely observing it unfold before me. Everything felt detached and foreign, but this feeling would usually pass after a minute or two.
This time, the horrible thoughts weren’t going anywhere. The more I tried to escape them, the more they persisted.
I was convinced I was a psychopath. The thoughts got so frequent and powerful that I wanted to die, just so they would stop. I didn’t want to kill myself; I just didn’t want to wake up. I started fantasizing about sci-fi-like procedures that would erase the thoughts completely–anything but the hell my brain was putting me through. I would cry frequently. My parents quickly realized something was wrong and they took me to a psychiatrist.
Unfortunately, that psychiatrist didn’t dig deep at all. She made it all about sex, and I wanted someone who wouldn’t channel Freud. The next ones didn’t understand me at all either. But giving up was not an option. I wanted the old me back. Luckily, the fourth time was the charm: we found the psychiatrist I’m still seeing today. He thoroughly listened to me. He got a sense of who I was, and why I hadn’t responded well to my previous doctors.
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The doctor was compassionate, but mildly amused at my fear of myself. He assured me I wasn’t a danger to anyone. I was just suffering from Pure O, a version of OCD. I was also mildly bipolar, which explained the mood swings. It took me a while to accept I had a mental illness. All my life, the media had taught me that, in order to suffer from mental illness, you had to endure some kind of a severe trauma. Pop culture also defines OCD-sufferers as being all about organization, cleanliness, and doing certain things a certain number of times. I, allegedly, didn’t fit the bill.Sure, I had some compulsions, but there was no specific number. Sometimes I checked things twice, sometimes five. If there was someone in the house to whom I could delegate “the responsibility”, I didn’t check at all.
Then there was the gene thing. Sure, my grandmother had gone through severe depression when I was a kid, but she had suffered through a horrible marriage. I didn’t consciously recognize my mother was very obsessive and compulsive about many things. I didn’t know my uncle had been officially diagnosed with OCD. In fact, there had been barely anyone in the family who hadn’t suffered from OCD or depression. My mom came clean about some of her more troubling thoughts, and how my father’s sister had been to therapy. I talked with my uncle about my OCD. At first, he was just very sympathetic and supportive. So I started talking more and more about my situation, and he talked about his own diagnosis, and my mother’s own obsessive and anxious personality.
As I was trying to adjust to my OCD diagnosis, I didn’t even pay attention to my bipolar one. Don’t get me wrong: I clung to my doctor’s every word on that subject, and I tried every medication without missing a dose. I read about my condition. Talk therapy probably would have been beneficial, but is not covered by my insurance.
As my doctor and I slowly found a combo of meds that worked, I felt less like a monster and more like myself. But adjusting to the new situation and taking my mind off my frightening thoughts took more than the meds and therapy. As long as I was stable, I could give in to my “manic side.” I shopped till I dropped, took Italian, and met up with my friends. I worked on my stories. I talked to my parents openly, and I took long walks.
Feeling better, I convinced my parents to let me sign up for a semester abroad the following year. They were understandably anxious, but my psychiatrist agreed with me that it was a good idea. My school arranged for me to join the Erasmus exchange program, and I chose Norway for the ultimate adventure. The previous year, I had already traveled abroad with my college friends to New York and Eindhoven; first abroad trips after my diagnosis. Those experiences had gone brilliantly, so I also hoped I would thrive for a month in Vancouver in summer. It would be a great trial run before I went to Norway. Once again, being abroad did wonders for me. The thoughts that dared to come couldn’t linger. It was bliss.
My first couple days in Halden, Norway were a little strange. It was late summer, and I was by myself most of the time since most students hadn’t arrived yet. I went on long walks around the small town. And I had the rare, unwanted thought. But these were less invasive and less dangerous— stuff like, “What if I threw myself into this lake?” It didn’t even bug me because a) I knew I would probably not throw myself into that lake, b) even if I did, I knew how to swim, and c) I didn’t want to embarrass myself in a new country.
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Then my friends arrived, and I wasn’t afraid of anything or anyone, including myself. It was one of the safest towns on Earth. Most of my friends and neighbors were lovely. I barely needed to study because I was only required to pass. It was as close to a perfect college freshman year as depicted in comedy movies. We partied, we traveled, and we laughed. There was even the occasional romance. I stayed for another term. I took a semester’s worth of meds with me, and I only needed to call my doctor once.
When my obsessive thoughts acted up again, it was the end of the year. My friends were leaving, and I feared I wouldn’t see most of them again. As my history proves to me over and over, highly stressful situations (and by stressful I mean losing things that are dear to me like my freedom, sense of belonging, health, greatest friends I had made in a while), make me feel like I’m drowning.
I also had to return to a country that represented my illness. My country, and most of the people living in it, contributed to it. It felt suffocating on many occasions. I’d go from doing what I wanted when I wanted with people who were like me to many people who followed the fashion and crowds at everything. So I cried and bawled. I was scared of sharp objects. I was scared of myself; again. The invasive “what if’s” made my stomach turn. So I called my parents, kept taking my meds, and cried on the shoulder of my few friends who were still around. This kept me from getting worse until I got home.
When I returned, I was a wreck for a while. But, after I met up with other friends who had spent time abroad, I realized we were going through similar lows. We had to study a lot more, answer to worried parents and, worst of all, exist in a country that felt more restrictive each day. So, from 2006-2007, we met up often to exchange fun stories while we tried to readjust.
As long as I was busy physically, socially, and professionally, OCD didn’t affect me much. Sometimes I’d forget I had it. I hadn’t suffered major anxiety crises in a long time. I was a happy, well-functioning, and busy professional— unless I was sick.
This is a vicious cycle. As years passed by and I learned to juggle two freelance careers as a writer and teacher, most of the thoughts remained in the past. I mostly recognize them as a trick that the chemical imbalance in my brain plays on me. There are certain trigger words and events that can allow the disturbing thoughts to rush back in, but I can handle them. Even when I’m sick, I use other distractions until I’m back to my old, confident self again.
I haven’t talked about bipolar much because my cycles aren’t that extreme. The mania— which I suspect is more hypomania—never has me do anything I’ll regret. My OCD isn’t without benefits in this regard. I’m very conscious about safety and convenience. So I’m not overspending or abusing a substance. Let’s not talk about chocolate, though.
The doses of medication have gone up and down over the years. We have mixed it up or changed it. I’ve been lucky about the side-effects: apart from the horrible depression when I was first adjusting, I’ve been fine. Of course, I have put on little weight, my sleep cycles are a bit messed up, and I sweat too much, though we can probably attribute these to that medicated senior year and spending too much time glued to my laptop.
For the most part, the initial panic and terror OCD inflicted on me is a distant memory. Often, I don’t even have the thoughts, but I just vaguely remember that I had them. My writing is going well, and my biggest concern is that I might not make my Hollywood dreams come true.
I am as content as they come… except that I still have to check the oven, water, and electricity a couple of more times than the average person. And I can live with that.