By Debbie Massa
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.
Looking back, I have experienced obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a child. It was never diagnosed in my youth. Decades later, after witnessing my father pass away unexpectedly, the trauma ignited the OCD until it stole every aspect of my life from me. Over the course of 4 years I became a person I didn’t know and to be frank, didn’t want to know. I dreaded getting out of bed in the morning. I would clean the house until I was exhausted; when I was doing the laundry, I would check the tags on every piece of clothing to make sure that I knew how it should be washed. The constant cleaning and checking was taking all of my energy and interfering with my life.
I was officially diagnosed with OCD in 2017 when I was accepted to a partial hospitalization program. I desperately wanted help but I was fearful and could not get myself to go. I continued to deal with trauma, OCD, and anxiety.
Earlier this year, my 17-year-old daughter wrote a paper on mental illness and chose to research OCD. She interviewed a doctor named Michael Jenike, the founder of the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital, who probed my daughter to find out why she chose this illness. Realizing it had something to do with me, after meeting with my daughter, Dr. Jenike visited me. At this stage, I was not leaving the house. During our 3-hour encounter, the doctor explained that I was ill (he reconfirmed that I had OCD) and required residential care at McLean Hospital. While I was waiting for an opening at the hospital, I was blessed to have Dr. Jenike’s son, Eric, visit me at home. A behavioral therapist, Eric treated my symptoms with exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy.
When a place finally became available at the OCD Institute, I packed my bags and left for the hospital accompanied by my husband. I had no idea what to expect. I desperately wanted my life back and was eager to learn how I could achieve this. I spent 6 weeks at the hospital. Each day felt like wave surfing; some days were great while others were unbearable. I consider myself to be a strong person, however this was the hardest thing I have ever done. As an inpatient, I gained insight into the various different ways that OCD can affect individuals.
I was treated by an amazing team of professionals who taught me that I had to face OCD head on. It is not my enemy; it is a part of me and always will be. Each day, I participated in 4 hours of ERP therapy. This process helped me to understand who I was and who I wanted to be. I was dedicated to learning all I could about OCD and the techniques for managing it effectively. After 6 weeks, I knew my biggest challenge was preparing myself for the real world – the world outside of the hospital that I would soon encounter. Despite the trepidation, I was excited to leave and believed I had learned the tools to face the world with OCD.
It has now been two months since I was discharged from the hospital. I continue to see Eric each week for therapy. I am patient with myself as I continue on my journey to a better life. I have joined OCD support groups and challenge my OCD each day. I try to be mindful, I help others through volunteering, and use opposite action. I make choices and accept my mistakes along the way. It is by no means easy, but the word that Eric continues to teach me is “flexibility.”
I have found that the best way to help yourself is to help others in need. This is what keeps me going. While some days or moments can be difficult, the key is to keep moving through your day.
I am committed to raising awareness about OCD, especially about how it effects people’s lives. We need to acknowledge the pain of mental illness like we do physical illness. All those who are suffering need to be reassured that there are people who care.
I would like to thank the OCD Institute at McLean Hospital, Dr. Jenike, and Eric Jenike for caring for all those debilitated by this illness.
I hope my story inspires others to reach out for help as it can change your life. It certainly changed mine.
Debbie Massa is 50 years old and has 4 children.