By Nicholas Ponticello
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.
Most people think they know OCD from pop culture and television shows, but they simply don’t. I have yet to see a television show or movie in which OCD is depicted accurately as a debilitating disease that can cause a person to no longer function in the world. In TV and movies, OCD is too often a comedic character trait.
OCD is not being a neat freak. OCD is not some kind of quirky behavior like organizing your clothes by color. OCD is not being hyper-organized. OCD is not being a germaphobe. And above all, OCD is not funny.
So, what is OCD then? I like to describe it this way. Imagine you are driving your car and you feel a bump in the road. Most people wouldn’t even notice this bump, because it’s nothing, just a pothole or crack in the pavement. But because you have OCD, your immediate thought is that you hit someone. You check your rearview mirror. There’s nothing on the road. But still you can’t shake the feeling that you’ve hit someone. So you go around the block and drive by the place where you felt the bump, scanning the road for bodies. However, one scan is not enough. In fact, the more you check the road, the more convinced you become that you must have hit somebody because your anxiety is spiking and you’re starting to feel panicked.
Okay, so now you’ve spent 15 minutes driving around the block. And in the process, you think you’ve hit three or four more people because you felt three or four more bumps. You park your car. You’re starting to sweat. Your heart is racing. You feel sick. The only way to shake this terrible feeling is to go back and check the road for bodies again, this time on foot. So, you wander around the block for the next twenty minutes, checking the road and checking again. And as irrational as it is, you feel sure that the people you killed were mostly small children, babies even. Why? Because that’s the worst thing you can think of.
As you circle the block on foot, you pass pedestrians, and you start to wonder if you’re going to push them into the street—into oncoming traffic. Maybe you did just push that old man… You look back. The old man is fine. But how do you know he’s fine? You begin to doubt even the most obvious things. Nothing can quell the feeling that you’ve done some irreparable harm.
How does this end? You can spend hours walking around the block. Maybe you finally go home, but you don’t feel better. You feel worse. You feel like you’ve just left the scene of a crime that you committed. Hey! Another idea comes to mind. You call the police to ask if anyone has reported a hit and run. They tell you they have not received any reports.
Well then you can’t trust the police. How can they be sure? Maybe nobody called it in. Despite the irrationality of it all, you must sit with the feeling that you might have killed someone for as long as it takes, maybe hours, maybe days, maybe longer. Yes, eventually the thought subsides, but by then you have moved on to the next obsession: maybe you caught a life-threatening disease from touching the door handle of a public bathroom.
Yes, it morphs like that. There are several types of OCD, all of which involve some kind of unwanted, unbearable obsession followed by intense anxiety and guilt, followed by rituals or compulsions (such as walking around the block) as a means of seeking reassurance. If you can think of something awful, you can bet someone with OCD has obsessed over it.
The good news is, there are ways to get help. There are treatments for OCD including exposure response therapy (ERP) and medication. The International OCD Foundation website is a great resource to find professionals in your area, including therapists and psychiatrists, who specialize in the treatment of OCD. In addition, they allow you to search for OCD support groups or an intensive clinic that treats OCD.
OCD is not a joke, but if you are suffering, there is help and support available.
Nicholas Ponticello is a high school teacher and author in Los Angeles. His debut novel, Do Not Resuscitate, received honorable mention at the 2015 Green Book Festival, which spotlights “books that contribute to greater understanding, respect for and positive action on the changing worldwide environment.” You can follow Nicholas on Twitter at @NickPonticello.