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.
“Where do you want to start?” Dr. K. asked, his eyes scanning the composition notebook in his lap.
That question has never failed to incite anxiety. Part of this is because I’m terribly indecisive by nature. But more than that, the question of where to start always puts me in the mindset of approaching a giant, insurmountable challenge.
I think of when I was in high school, when I, a struggling perfectionist, would sit down to tackle a night’s assignments. The homework from AP and honors classes was extensive, leaving me feeling defeated before I even opened a book.
I think of my mother, whose hoarding behaviors turned our house into an uncomfortable realm of clutter as I was growing up. Once she finally acknowledged the problem, she found it impossible to choose which room she should work through first. “I just don’t know where to start,” I would hear her say, hopelessly, as she pondered over the piles.
Deciding where to start addressing a challenge may give some people a sense of control, but that wasn’t the case for me. In my experience, the question evoked anticipation of impending stress. Pain. Failure.
So on my second day of an inpatient stay, when my doctor asked me where I would like to begin focusing my treatment for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), I was not exactly excited.
I shrugged and sank into the armchair opposite his. Dr. K. turned the page in my notebook.
The previous night, he had given me my first homework assignment: to write down all the rituals I had been performing. He was now looking at that list, and in doing so he was getting a better idea of the extent to which my life had been overrun by obsessive thoughts over the previous three years.
A lot of my rituals were based around making predictions. I would make a prediction about something completely unrelated to my fears and obsessions, and I would associate the accuracy of that prediction with whether or not something bad or unwanted would happen to me.
For example, say I was watching a baseball game on television. I would predict how many runs a team would score in a particular inning, whether a batter would strike out, which team would win, etc. If my prediction was correct, I would gain temporary relief from whatever was causing me anxiety in that moment. If I was wrong, not only would my anxiety spike, but I was now left with the burden of having to perform multiple rituals to make up for it and ensure none of my feared outcomes would occur.
As my symptoms worsened, one of the most unsettling aspects of the experience was realizing just how seamlessly OCD could infiltrate every facet of my life. As time wore on, the proliferation of rituals I created knew no contextual restrictions.
This didn’t just affect me when I was watching sports. Eventually, OCD found a way to slither into every nook and cranny it could find. I had rituals I had to follow when I went to the movies or the gym; when I spoke to friends online; when I walked; when I went to sleep; when I ate; when I showered; when I channel-surfed; when I read; even when I had to blink.
Each time a new ritual entered my regimen, I imagined a map representing my life, with all the previously OCD-free areas suddenly being marked by a giant red X. It was like a country being overtaken by an invading army. OCD was building an empire, and with every one of its conquests I was losing autonomy over my life and, seemingly, my brain.
Now, Dr. K. was looking at my map. He wanted to know in which area we should start the process of retraining my brain to become less reliant on these rituals when I wanted to gain relief from obsessive thoughts.
“Well,” he said, lifting his head from the notebook. “I’d like to get you sports back.”
I sat up straight. Something clicked when he said that.
You see, no matter how many versions of “you are not your illness” I had been fed over the previous years, from doctors and blogposts alike, it had never truly resonated. This distinction did not exist in my eyes. These were my thoughts, I told myself; therefore, this must be my fault.
Even as I lamented the loss of simple everyday activities that were now anything but simple, I was not able to identify it as OCD’s doing. To me, it was entirely my doing.
But when Dr. K. talked about bringing sports back into my life, he was implicitly telling me something else: OCD was robbing me, taking things that I enjoyed or loved and turning them into a conduit for mental anguish.
Now, I would be taking those things back, reclaiming what was rightfully mine. And there was nothing better to start with than sports; during my first meeting with Dr. K., I mentioned how much I loved sports, baseball in particular.
I made significant improvement during that inpatient stay, and in many ways it set the tone for the treatment I continue with today. When thoughts of self-blame enter my mind, I think back to this moment of clarity I experienced in the early stages of my recovery.
To be clear, I don’t see myself merely as a passive victim of the destruction OCD wrought. Of course, I played an active role in what was happening, by engaging in my rituals and perpetuating the thoughts-feelings-actions cycle that keeps OCD thriving. But I believe it’s essential to remain aware that this is an illness, and an illness does not shape one’s identity, no matter how enormous its impact. And while it is important to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions, imposing blame is not only obstructive to recovery, but dangerously misguided as well.
Corey lives in Brooklyn, NY and trained as a peer support specialist as a way of advancing his recovery from OCD.