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My heart ached when I heard the report of the school shooting in Florida last month. As the horrific images appeared on my television screen, my mind flashed back to my twelve-year-old self when I was glued to the news coverage of the 1999 Columbine school shooting. My initial instinct was to immediately change the channel but I chose not to; there was something different about this day and the days that followed.

My world was turned upside down after the Columbine shooting. Shortly after, I was bombarded with a variety of violent thoughts. The incessant thoughts, triggered by the event, disgusted me; I struggled to comprehend what was happening. While I had always believed I had sound moral character, I began to worry that the thoughts meant I had something in common with the shooters and that I was somehow flawed. I avoided anything in my environment that could trigger the thoughts. As a child, these thoughts tormented me. Choosing to disclose little about them, I often battled them alone. While obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) is difficult for everyone, harm OCD can be especially traumatic for children.

For years I struggled with the violent thoughts. My coping strategies were to seek reassurance about my moral character and avoid anything that could trigger the thoughts. When other shootings were reported, a rush of fear and anxiety would fill my body; it was worse when the shootings involved schools.  I wanted nothing more than to hibernate until the stories and images of violent shootings no longer appeared in the news. Immediately following a violent incident, I avoided all forms of media and tried not to discuss the subject.

I was in graduate school when I was diagnosed with OCD by a therapist. Knowing that I had a disorder helped to ease the burden as I understood the thoughts had nothing to do with my morality. However, I still feared the thoughts. I also feared people’s reactions if they were to know the truth about my thoughts, even therapists. In some ways disclosing to a therapist was the most terrifying because if they couldn’t understand then who would?  I sought treatment for my struggles, but it took years for me to find the right therapy, a therapist I trusted, and a safe environment where I was committed to facing those thoughts.

The most effective treatment for my OCD has been exposure and response prevention (ERP). It was not easy as it went against everything I had trained myself to do. I began with simple exercises. I will never forget the session I became so intensely affected by my therapist simply uttering the word “Columbine”; hearing the world triggered a flood of fear, anxiety, and shame that I had carried with me since I was a child. For years if that word came up, I would flee from the situation. During that particular session, there was nowhere to hide; I had to face the emotions that arose from hearing the word. As the therapy continued, I was eventually able to say the word, write about the event, read about the event, watch a violent film, as well as hold a knife and a fake gun. Some days I could handle it; other days, I left the sessions and broke down.

The hardest part of the therapy was working through the painful memories and acknowledging the moments of my life which OCD had stolen. However, it didn’t take long for me to see the progress. For the first time, I felt like I was actually stealing moments back. I could see that I spent more time living in the moment rather than fleeing in fear. Many days the fears were still with me, however, they were no longer consuming. My life slowly began to change because of the work I was putting in; the weight I was carrying began to feel lighter.

The school shooting in Florida last month was different for me because it was the first time in almost twenty years that I was able to watch news coverage of a school shooting and see it for what it was: a tragic event that was incredibly heartbreaking. My OCD tried to sneak in, but I was no longer running from my thoughts; instead, I allowed myself to be present. As horrible as that day was, it was also the day that I realized just how far I had come in my therapy journey.

I’m grateful I was able to stay present, as I was inspired by the brave students who began to speak so passionately about ending gun violence. I’m glad that I didn’t change the channel in fear, as I was one more person listening to their calls to do something about ending this violent epidemic in America. Their voices are the ones worth listening to, not my OCD’s.

This story is part of our blog series called “Stories from the OCD Community.”  Stories from the community are submitted and edited by Toni Palombi. If you are interested in sharing your story you can view submission details at www.iocdf.org/ocd-stories.

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