My car is a mess, I don’t need everything in a certain spot, I don’t have tics, I don’t have to brush both sides of my hair three times, I am the farthest thing from organized and I’m not a germaphobe. So there is no way I have OCD, right?
These are the general misconceptions of obsessive compulsive disorder.
To be fair, at one point prior to being diagnosed, I would have agreed with you. OCD is stereotypically known for those kinds of symptoms. But it goes way, way deeper than that.
I have a fear of vomiting. I hate it. I know, no one enjoys it, but I HATE it. I don’t know what happened to me in a past life, I don’t know why, I’ve never had a super traumatic experience with throwing up. However, I’ve had this fear for as long as I can remember. If I was nauseous, I would hold back for hours before I finally let go. If someone else threw up near me, I would run away and shut my eyes, literally trembling and shaking to the point of tears. I remember in second grade this kid Clay threw up on a rug that had the map of the United States on it, in our classroom. He threw up on Idaho. I never sat on Idaho again. In fact, for the remainder of the school year I would step across Idaho to go sit on a different state. When my sister threw up right in front of our bedroom door one time, for months I would step across that spot, even though it was hardwood floor and the throw up was well past cleaned up.
The term for the fear of vomiting is called emetophobia. The funny thing about people with emetophobia is that they hardly EVER throw up. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve thrown up in 27 years. I didn’t walk around fearing all the time that I was going to throw up, and I didn’t worry all the time that someone around me was going to throw up. But when and if it happened, full panic mode would strike.
In 2013, I came down with a stomach virus for the first time in my life. I was 18 and staying at my boyfriends house, when at around two or three in the morning I didn’t feel right. It had been so long since I had been nauseous or actually thrown up, that I had forgotten what it felt like. Remember that part where I said I would fight it as a kid? Well, I apparently did that as an adult too. Finally at around six in the morning I let myself get sick.
I was physically ill for the next 12 hours.
I was mentally fucked for the next 4 years.
Now, I am fully aware that throwing up is not going to kill me, and once I finally throw up, I’m not a pile of nerves anymore. It happens and once it happens I think “okay, yes, this sucks, but it’s not the end of the world.”
It’s that build up. That anticipation. That “is it going to happen?” The question of when it’s going to happen, what’s going to happen to my body, who’s going to be around me when it happens, etc. is what really gets me worked up.
It’s the fear of losing control.
So after I got that stomach bug in 2013, I would endure years of a fucking nightmare with no answers.
A few days after being sick, I met up with a friend to get lunch. On the way there, I started to feel nauseous. When I started to feel nauseous, I spiraled. Oh my god, it was going to happen again. I was going to throw up. I was sweating, my heart was pounding, I was gripping the steering wheel. I ended up bailing on lunch and going home. Once I was on my way home, it stopped. I was fine, but I sure as shit wasn’t turning around to try lunch again.
Episodes like this would carry on for the next few years. I’d be out having a good time, start to feel sick, tell my friends I wasn’t feeling well while trying to hide the panic on my face, and go home. As soon as I was home, I felt better. I’d be just about to fall asleep, start to feel sick, then be up for the next 3 hours googling symptoms. I’d be about to take a bite of food, start to feel sick, and throw it away. I was petrified of getting another stomach virus. I googled ways to avoid it – and google told me drinking grape juice and taking a vitamin called grape seed complex would prevent stomach bugs. So guess who stocked up on those?
I started carrying around antacids in my purse. If you invested in stocks with TUM’s, Pepto Bismol, or Welch’s Grape Juice from 2013 to 2018, you are fucking welcome. Any time I would start to feel nauseous, I would take Tums or Pepto Bismol, and immediately I felt better. I took Grape Seed Complex and drank grape juice every day during stomach bug season to try and prevent me getting it again.
There was not one time that I actually threw up. I don’t attribute this to anything that I did, because it’s been 7 years, I don’t do any of the things mentioned above anymore, and I still have not thrown up since the day I got the stomach virus.
But every time time it happened, I was convinced this was the time I was going to actually get sick.
I can’t even tell you how exhausting this was.
Fast forward to about 2017. I was laying in bed one night on the verge of falling asleep, when a really gruesome, horrible thought popped into my head. I sprung up with my heart racing. Why did I just have that thought? Does it mean it’s going to happen? Does it make me an awful person? It took me hours to calm myself down. This happened a couple more times after that night, and really freaked me out. I would have to go for walks, get out of the house, or call a friend to stop thinking about it. This will tie into the rest of this post in just a minute.
I started looking deeper into emetophobia and saw that a lot of people got help with phobias by doing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or otherwise known as CBT. CBT also works a lot with exposure therapy, but since it’s much easier to expose yourself to a spider or a clown than it is to vomiting, they typically take another route with the fear I have.
I finally went and saw a cognitive behavioral therapist and explained to him everything that had been going on the last few years. The stomach bug that started it all, the nausea, how going home always helped me calm down, and how taking antacids always made me feel better. I told him about drinking grape juice and taking grape seed complex. I figured while I was there, I would also mention to him the terrible thoughts that would come out of nowhere, and how they made me panic when I had them. What he said next took me by surprise.
“Well for one, you have generalized anxiety disorder.”
I was well aware of that one and I’ll write about that a different day.
“For two, you have obsessive compulsive disorder.”
I didn’t have OCD. There was no way I had OCD. Look at my room. Look at my car. Look at my life! Organized, neat and tidy is something I’ve never been.
That’s when he explained to me that those are only a few of the symptoms of OCD. That there are many and much more common ones that a lot of people don’t know about. I was having anxiety attacks that had been fueled by my OCD. He said there was an actual name for my specific OCD. “Pure O.”
He explained that the O part of having OCD is having an obsessive thought. In my case, the thought was getting sick. The C part was the compulsion – what we do to get rid of the thought. In my case, the compulsion was going home or taking medicine to feel better, and loading my body with anything grape.
And those weird thoughts I was having? They’re called “intrusive thoughts”, and they are extremely common and not as talked about, because people are embarrassed by them. As a matter of fact, everyone has intrusive thoughts. Have you ever been driving and thought “I could crash right here if I wanted to”? That’s an intrusive thought. For someone without OCD, this thought typically comes, the person shrugs and says “yeah I could, but I’m not going to”, and goes about their day. For someone with OCD, we have that thought and immediately ask ourselves why? Why did we have that thought? What does it mean? Does it mean we’re an awful person? Does it mean we’re going to actually do it? What if we actually did it? Obsessive.
Going for walks, leaving the house, calling a friend. Compulsive.
My therapist then explained that OCD is like a dog begging for food. The O is the dog. It comes up to the table, AKA your brain, and it’s there. The C is feeding the dog so that it just goes away and stops bothering you.
But what really happens when you feed the dog?
It doesn’t go away. Or it might…for a little bit. But it will only come back because it knows it’s going to be fed if it does. The more table food you feed the dog, the fatter it gets.
By acting on my compulsions, I was only feeding my OCD, not fully treating it. And by the amount I was feeding it, that bitch was getting thiccccccccc.
I had to stop acting and just ride it out. He explained that yes, it would be hard. Yes, I would have anxiety. No, it was not something that was going to be easy or change overnight. Yes, I would have times that I fed it anyway just to stop it. But the more I resisted on acting on the compulsions and just got myself through the thought, the more my brain would realize that just because I thought I was going to get sick, doesn’t mean I actually was, and the more I realized I wasn’t actually going to be sick, the more my brain would get bored of the thoughts.
And for me, he was right.
I had to stop carrying around Pepto Bismol and TUMs. Stop drinking grape juice (which I wasn’t that sad about), stop taking vitamins that don’t actually fucking do anything and aren’t even approved by the FDA. I had to stop calling friends when I was in a panic. I had to stop running home the second my stomach felt a little bit funny.
So I did, and it was really fucking hard in the beginning. REALLY hard. There were absolutely a few times where I caved. But the more I did it, the easier it became, and the better I felt.
And the less I had the obsessive thoughts.
My brain was getting bored.
The conversations I had with this therapist got me thinking back to my childhood. I remember a time as a kid, maybe around 8 or 9 years old, where I was always afraid that the stove was somehow on and the house was going to burn down. So I’d go out to check the stove. It was off. I’d get back in bed. But is it really off? Did I look well enough? I’d go out and check again. Yep, it was really off. Get back in bed. Maybe I should check on more time. Go out, check again. Yes. Really off.
That eventually stopped, and then it was the door. Is the door locked? What if I don’t check, it’s not, and someone breaks in? Go out and check the door. Yep. Locked. Get back in bed. But is it really locked? Go check again. Get back in bed. Lather, rinse, repeat about 3 times.
One night I had the thought about the door, but I was so tired and didn’t feel like getting up. So I refused to get out of bed to check. I made myself stay in bed and go to sleep. The door was locked the next morning when I woke up. Next night, the same thing. Forced myself to stay in bed without checking the door. Next night, same thing. Eventually after forcing myself multiple nights in a row to stay in bed without checking the door, my brain got bored of the idea and stopped. As a child, I was unknowingly starving my OCD. And I never had a crazed mass murderer break into my house.
I’m not cured of OCD. OCD is not something that goes away, which to some might sound pessimistic but it’s the truth. The fact of the matter is it’s a chronic condition; something we have to live with, and I still to this day have my moments. But there are ways to live a normal life with OCD. Just like any other mental illness, OCD doesn’t define you, it’s not a label that’s smacked on your forehead, and it doesn’t make you who you are. It’s only a part of you, and just like all parts of you, you are in full control of it. The most important part is educating yourself so you have a clearer understanding of what’s going on, and getting help. CBT may not be for everyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only option. There are plenty of therapists that specialize in OCD, medications if that’s a route you want to take, and simple lifestyle changes you can make that will make all of the difference.
And if you’re someone who doesn’t have OCD, I highly recommend researching it anyway. Not only is it interesting, it’s enlightening as well. The misconceptions we have of OCD and what it entails, not to to mention how poorly OCD is portrayed in the media (don’t get me wrong, I still love “Friends”) is absolutely insane.
Have you been diagnosed with OCD or have a phobia? I’d love to hear about your experiences, what you’ve been through, how you’re handling it, and of course if this post helped you relate at all. Send a message or email!