By Kyle Cunningham
My life took a drastic turn during my freshman year of college. Instead of enjoying what should have been the best time of my life, I spent the year struggling with obsessive thoughts and compulsions. I had never encountered such thoughts before. I believed that everything I was touching was contaminated with a harmful toxin; therefore, I had to constantly wash my hands in order to prevent harm to myself or others.
I then began to have obsessive thoughts that I was hurting people. I was afraid to get close to anyone because I thought if I touched them or bumped into them that I was somehow hurting them. Every time I hit a bump in the road while driving, I thought I had run someone over. I would get out of the car and spend countless hours looking for the person I thought I had injured or killed.
When these thoughts entered my head, I would try to tell myself that the thoughts were not real. However, this was difficult as I would experience a physical and emotional response that made me feel like these terrible things were actually happening. For example, my heart would race, I would feel sick to my stomach, and I would break down in tears and feel consumed by guilt. The thought would play repeatedly in my head. I prayed constantly to God to forgive me if I had done these things; I also asked God to take away the thoughts.
The irrational thoughts were like a snowball rolling down a snow-packed mountain, becoming bigger and bigger as it made its way down. Each time I reassured myself that the intrusive thought was irrational another one would arrive, then another and another until I was so overwhelmed I performed compulsions. I tried everything I knew at the time to stop this snowball from becoming bigger but nothing I did helped to stop the thoughts.
My condition progressively worsened to a point that I had to drop three classes during my second semester of my freshman year. After I finally opened up to my family about my experiences, I sought treatment and was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I was referred to a psychologist who specialized in the treatment of OCD.
During my sessions with the psychologist, I began to learn about OCD and why my obsessive thoughts seemed so real. We began exposure and response prevention (ERP) and cognitive behavior therapies to treat the OCD. The psychologist also referred me to a psychiatrist who started me on selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI). While the ERP and cognitive behavior therapies were emotionally and physically draining, they were effective. The OCD snowball began to slow down until it finally melted.
As a result of the therapy, I ended up graduating college in four years. I also completed a master’s degree in two years.
Six years later, as I was undertaking my second master’s degree, my OCD reappeared. Again, I began to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the obsessive thoughts; they were worse than before.
The cognitive behavior strategies which I had learned through my therapy were no longer effective. In an effort to deal with the thoughts, I began to drink heavily. It seemed like the only way I could get rid of the thoughts was by drinking, and I was willing to do this to have peace for at least a couple of hours. Of course, the day after such heavy drinking felt terrible. After recognizing that I had hit rock bottom, I called my parents. I dropped out of my master’s program and spent 7 days at an inpatient OCD center that provided 24/7 care for individuals suffering from severe OCD.
During this intensive inpatient treatment program, I worked hard towards restoring my life once again. Over the 7-day period, the counselors instructed me not to fight the obsessive thoughts; rather they suggested I should accept them as thoughts which could be true. While accepting them as being true provoked my anxiety, this strategy also enabled me to eventually see them for what they were: irrational thoughts.
Accepting that these horrendous thoughts could potentially be true was the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. After I was released from the inpatient treatment program, I continued to see my psychologist weekly for ongoing therapy. Through my continued work with my psychologist, I was able to manage my OCD. The massive snowball melted once again.
While my OCD will be with me for the rest of my life, I am determined to fight it each day. I take comfort in knowing that my prayers over the years were answered even when I did not realize it. In my darkest moments, God gave me strength to continue to fight. I am grateful for my family who would do anything for me, and for the wonderful people in my life who have helped me fight the battle against OCD.
Kyle Cunningham holds a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from Texas State University and works as a director of operations for a service company in Texas.
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.