My Unusual OCD Symptom Could Have Got Me Fired, Or Worse
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I still remember the first time I recognized that I was triggered. I was at work speaking with a colleague, and realized that I was staring at her breasts. The more I told myself not to do it, the more it happened. I willed my brain to stop but it wouldn’t. My embarrassment growing, I started to panic and I cut off the conversation abruptly. She looked at me with awkward confusion and I ran into the bathroom and cried. I felt ashamed and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just stop. At the time, I had no words for what I was experiencing.
As the staring increased during conversations, women not only noticed, they immediately stopped interacting with me. Men were also overwhelmed by my strange conduct, as I stared down when speaking to them as well. People in my own family avoided me. I became a pariah overnight and I was afraid of their judgement. However, I understood their responses, since my behavior was unwanted, especially to me.
But they didn’t know what was taking place inside my head, they could only observe my peculiar conduct. My thoughts never went beyond gazing, nor did it ever occur to me to touch, which is what made the ever-repeating pattern so tormenting. To the outside eye, it could be viewed as a precursor to activity but, to me, it was an endless, hellish, purely mental cycle. I would become triggered and the cycle would repeat, heart racing, palms sweating, wondering what I did to deserve this.
My behavior only intensified, and I humiliated myself and others as my control over myself decreased. As it happened repeatedly, I became withdrawn. My every interaction was fraught with peril. I could no longer participate in friendly conversations. Every woman I encountered was sure I was gay (this wasn’t about my sexuality). Men on the other hand, reacted very differently when I gazed at their genitalia. Many seemed intrigued, however they were confused as hell, as I ran away immediately after interacting with them. I became the laughingstock of the company due to a behavior I couldn’t control.
Not only did I become overly stressed over every interaction, the anxiety seemed to trigger the compulsion even more. My heart raced, my pulse quickened, and I thought I would surely die of embarrassment. I started to avoid looking at people. My day to day became a nightmare. Fear took over my life.
The only time I felt some semblance of normalcy was when I got home. It was there I could “unplug” from the thoughts perplexing me. I buried myself in television or the internet, where I wouldn’t be face to face with anyone. I didn’t have to interact and it was a relief from the mental torment I was experiencing.
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My workplace wasn’t the only social situation that suffered. During parent/teacher conferences, I begged them to let me teleconference. I didn’t want to be around other parents and embarrass my child. My family noticed, not only my lack of socialization, but my constant fear. I lived with a knot in the pit of my stomach.
At work, my only solace was staring at my computer monitor or crying in the bathroom. Bathrooms would become a place of refuge for me in years to come. Except for when other women were around. I would be there, in a stall, listening to them whispering and laughing about me. I became accustomed to hearing the word “crazy” used in reference to me. I had become a foreigner to myself. What the hell was happening to me? Was I losing my mind? I was terrified.
Not only was I terror-stricken in social situations, work in particular was horrifying, not just because of the possibility of judgment, but because of the potential for my condition being mistaken for sexual harassment. Talking to supervisors about my condition was another hurdle. I once tried to explain to a supervisor about my condition only to have him physically recoil from me. I assured him it wasn’t contagious. Starting a new job was excruciating. In addition to first day jitters, my stomach turned into a quivering mess, sending me to the bathroom. I was afraid of being fired over my mental illness; something I could not control.
I didn’t want to admit out loud that I was out of control. I had a stigma against “crazy.” To tell someone else meant they would feel sorry for me. I didn’t want to be pitied; I wanted to be helped so that I could resume a normal life.
Finally, after months, I broke down. I was depressed and constantly crying. I didn’t want to live. What kind of person is unable to control their thoughts and/or behaviors? I didn’t want my child to see me suffer or pass on my derangement. I felt unfit to be a mother.
I was afraid I was going to end up in a psych ward, or dead, so I reached out to a counselor. I had been in therapy previously and I knew what to expect; I would communicate in disarray and they would help me make sense of my ideas. I knew the process would help alleviate my feelings of loneliness due to my self-imposed isolation.
I made the appointment feeling relieved, knowing someone would listen to my story of madness. The day finally arrived, and the counselor perfectly described my condition. He told me I was suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder. I had persistent, unwanted thoughts coupled with intrusive urges followed by feelings of worthlessness and a desire to punish myself for having them.
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As a child, I had been a perfectionist. School had been paralyzing to me, particularly the social aspects of ridicule. The way to avoid it was to be a model student. I became a frequent counter, especially in stressful situations. I would count paintings, park benches, animals, you name it in attempts to calm myself. Therapy allowed me to understand this condition had been with me since childhood. It was as if a vinyl record was playing, only the record was scratched and continued to loop over and over, exhibiting varying symptoms throughout the years, morphing itself. But it was always there. However, this was the first time I’d had a social manifestation, affecting me in front of others to that degree.
Therapy was the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel. My counselor educated me on the disease and provided me with tools to relieve my tension: medication coupled with talk therapy. He also referred me to a practitioner of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprogramming). The EMDR allowed me to separate myself from the OCD. It allowed me to finally understand I wasn’t a horrible person, but rather, it was a disease affecting me; the disease and I were separate. The behaviors I was displaying weren’t my fault. Up to that point, I believed I had to punish myself, but this allowed me to understand it wasn’t me repeating the patterns. I had a disease.
Until this point, I had completely distanced myself from everyone in my life. I thought family and friends wouldn’t comprehend me and that I would be shunned. With encouragement from my therapist, I started to understand how social anxiety contributed to the disease; it caused me to hide. Part of the problem was my isolation. As a single mother, I had to work, but that became a blessing in disguise. One of the solutions was social exposure. My therapist encouraged me to engage with others and tell them my story.
I soon found myself tearfully recounting my story to a compassionate co-worker. She didn’t judge me. The humiliation of what I was experiencing was too much for me to recount myself. She asked me if it was okay to tell others and, relieved that I wouldn’t have to do it, I agreed. Slowly, people at work began to understand my predicament. Women and men befriended me and an incredible weight lifted off my shoulders. I thought, “I don’t have to do this alone; I don’t have to be perfect,
Before therapy, I had written people off as part of the problem, so I thought dating was off limits, too. I didn’t want someone to start liking me then figure out I was crazy and run for the hills. But, to my surprise, I found someone who not only liked me, but wasn’t afraid of my diagnosis. It was our second date when I said, “I have something to tell you,” and proceeded to explain my condition. He cleared the table and replied, “Tell me that again.” After I did, he had a surprising revelation. He told me of how he’d suffered due to OCD. Completely shocked, we talked for hours, and our bond became that much closer.
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After treatment, medication and therapy, I felt like I had a pretty good handle on the disease, only to find out it had never really disappeared, it was just lying in wait for me. I thought I’d go to bartending school and make some extra money on weekends. When I couldn’t stop staring at a girl in shorts in the class, I became unraveled and ran. Unfortunately, I was triggered and left the school in tears, begging for a refund, explaining I’d made a grave mistake. That day, I drove home feeling defeated and like I’d never get over my monstrous reality. I wanted the nightmare to end.
I had to go back to the basics and learn to voice my problem, rather than run from it. As enormous as I considered my overwhelming state, I knew I’d have to confront it head on. At work, I pored over the Human Resources manual and discovered, to my relief, my condition was protected as a disability. I had to tell immediate supervisor and HR, which I did—reluctantly. I continued therapy and medication, acknowledging this was now a part of my daily life. Dealing with embarrassing social situations was part of it and no amount of running would remove it.
Socialization became part of the solution. Although the behavior still existed, the more I came into contact with people who made me feel comfortable, the less likely it would exhibit itself. Inversely, the opposite was also true. Meeting people for the first time is usually nerve-racking for most people, however, sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat had nothing on me; I thought I would faint or throw up. I feared their judgement.
But as time passed, my fears, although still present, have become the background rather than the foreground. I know the demon is there, waiting to rear its ugly head but, when it does, I face it; I don’t run to the bathroom to get away from it. I look it in the eyes and let it know, it doesn’t get the best of me. Yes, I may have to live with it, but it doesn’t get the final say of how I will live my life. It doesn’t get to control me.
Many years since the initial diagnosis, I have a better handle on the situation. I don’t judge myself, particularly when I get triggered. I take medicine to help keep down my anxiety. I have a counselor I speak to on a weekly basis, in addition to friends. I’m more likely to speak up for myself. I don’t wait until my symptoms manifest before I explain them. Not everything will be flawless, in fact, most things aren’t, and I can finally live with that. I had to learn to live with the imperfection of my illness; to laugh through the tears and allow others to support me. I understand that OCD is a chapter of my life; not the whole story.