By Colleen Sherry
Let’s call my OCD a creature – an elusive being that rears its head and cries for all to see. Unseen by many, it ponders carefully before striking out into the physical world when the time is right.
As a six-year-old, my thoughts should have been carefree. However, it was then that my creature decided to lash out. Upon seeing something intriguing, my mind told me that if I wanted to remember it, I would have to stare at the image for no less than three seconds and say the phrase: “Okay, now good.” This compulsion is the earliest symptom of my OCD that I can accurately recall. If I did not perform this ritual, I believed that something would go wrong.
Eventually, my rituals and tics would evolve from psychological to physical as the creature grew over time and began to control my movements.
During my early teen years, my symptoms became more prominent. I began clearing my throat several times a minute because I felt that I was not clearing it in the right spot, or that I had cleared it too much on one side. Six months later, a new ritual appeared. This time the creature was telling me that if I did not touch each side of my body the same amount of times, something terrible would transpire. If I brushed up against a friend, I would double back and brush up against their other side. Strange looks and scowls became a common occurrence. The two-minute walk from the school bus stop to my house began taking me nearly 30 minutes because I had to avoid stepping on any sticks or leaves otherwise I had to go back and walk over them twice.
At times, I pulled at my hair and screamed into my bedsheets, crying over how unfair it was that I needed to perform these rituals.
In my father’s opinion, the worst compulsion was the horrible, unyielding feeling that no matter what my ailment was, my family, friends, teachers, and peers would think I was faking. On the frequent occasions that I woke up sick and weak, barely able to open my eyes, I would refuse to stay home unless I was running a fever; if I had no quantifiable evidence of illness, the OCD creature warned me that no one would believe I was sick. This was all the more unfortunate, as throughout my entire life, my body has been racked by disease and sickness, the result of several stomach conditions and Hashimoto’s disease. Trips to the hospital and specialists were a common occurrence.
My more severe obsessive thoughts became evident to my parents as a result of the frequent doctors’ appointments. What teenage girl begged and cried for her parents to believe that she was ill her when they already believed her? Even when bombarded by medical evidence, I thought to myself: You’re a faker, stop making up your disease, your anxiety is not real, no one believes you.
My parents insisted I see a psychiatrist. Reluctantly, I agreed that therapy would be beneficial. Inside my mind, my OCD creature paused in careful observation.
The psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), began by addressing my social anxiety. At that point, I refrained as much as possible from engaging with large crowds and public spaces. After a myriad of sessions, the psychiatrist recommended I take Lexapro to manage my generalized anxiety disorder and lessen the stress of my obsessive thoughts. I was then assigned homework: I had to stand under the heating vent in my bedroom and allow hot air to wash over my body on one side. The hardest part was silencing the howls and screeches of the creature as it thrashed against my willpower, wailing in protest to let the other side of my body experience the heat too. Such a significant deviation from my natural instinct made me shudder and gasp for air. I lasted for almost 40 seconds before giving in and turning around so that the vent evenly distributed heat on my body. I did not give up; I persisted.
To pass the time in school, I practiced touching certain sides of my desk, or rubbing a pencil along my leg, and testing how long I could last before surrendering to the cries of the OCD creature. My psychiatrist advised me to think about my situation like a car: either I could drive or my OCD could drive. I decided that I wanted to drive. I kept persisting with the homework until I was able overcome the OCD.
The scratches on my body where I had clawed areas of uneven skin began to fade. My voice, usually scratchy from all the coughing the creature told me to do, smoothed out. I no longer ground my teeth in an effort to chew my food evenly. When I placed a hand on my arm in silent contemplation, I was aware of the OCD creature screeching inside me to place my hand on the other forearm – but I ignored it.
The creature in my mind lunged forward only to be tugged back. A leash now tethered it to the back of my mind.
I am grateful that my OCD has not been worse, for I am aware of the struggles other people endure. I am grateful that the additional medication I have been prescribed specifically for OCD, which sits on my nightstand as a safety net, has remained unused.
My OCD creature has closed its eyes and drifted into a peaceful sleep – hopefully for good.
Colleen Sherry is a 15-year-old high school freshman. She hopes to shed light on mental health stigma by sharing her story.