by Andrea Harrell
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.
I have had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for as long as I can remember although I did not know it at the time, especially in childhood. When I was a child, I felt I was different from other kids, but I couldn’t figure out why. I was afraid of everything and lived in a constant state of anxiety. Every year life became scarier and I wondered why everyone else didn’t seem to notice how scary the world really was.
The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) defines OCD as a “mental health disorder that affects people of all ages and walks of life and occurs when a person gets caught in a cycle of obsessions and compulsions. Obsessions are unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings. Compulsions are behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease his or her distress.”
My own obsessions and compulsions have changed and morphed over time. Over the years my fears have included: harming family members, contracting AIDS, yelling inappropriate words out loud, losing memories, and driving off the road. While these fears are somewhat random, the common denominator is uncertainty.
Over the years I learned to smile and throw myself into my schooling while my health continued to decline. By the time I was in my last year of graduate school, it was a struggle just to eat or leave my apartment for class. I was finally diagnosed with OCD at the age of 22; the therapist told me that I had likely suffered from the disorder my entire life. After doing some research, I discovered that it takes an average of 14 -17 years from the time OCD begins for people to obtain appropriate treatment due to factors including a lack of professionals trained in the disorder, inability to afford the cost of the treatment, and fear of stigma.
I ultimately completed two partial hospitalization programs over the course of two years to learn to manage my mental health. In the days leading up to my first treatment, I fought the urge to take my own life. The IOCDF reports that 36%-63% of OCD adults experience suicidal thoughts and about one fourth have attempted suicide. As I was living in an area with no OCD treatment programs close by, I had to temporarily relocate to the Chicago suburbs in order to receive treatment. After completing the second program and returning to Champaign, IL, the waiting lists were up to six months long to see a therapist who specialized in OCD. In my case, working with a therapist trained in exposure response prevention therapy has been most effective.
I am alive today because of my access to health care, medication, and my amazing treatment team (a psychiatrist, psychologist, inpatient case manager, inpatient therapists, and outpatient therapist). I have also found healing and connection in opening up and sharing my story with others, whether that is through my close friends and family, fellow patients I met during my treatment, or strangers in online support groups.
I am partaking in the 1 Million Steps 4 OCD Walk in Chicago this June to support those living with OCD so they may have the chance to live a life they did not think was possible. During my darkest moments, I could no longer see myself graduating from graduate school or working in the healthcare sector (especially in a hospital surrounded by the very illnesses that triggered my OCD). But thanks to the resources I had access to, I returned to those dreams and turned them into reality: I have now completed my master’s degree and work as a speech-language pathologist for a number one ranked medical organization.
Even though I am doing better than I ever have before, managing OCD is still a daily battle. OCD continues to eat away at my time and even my money. I adhere to a strict regime of medications, biweekly therapy, and monthly psychiatry appointments.
Please consider joining me in helping to make it a bit easier for those amazing, strong, brave, courageous individuals with OCD. There are many ways to support the cause including checking in with a loved one who has the disorder.
Andrea Harrell is a speech-language pathologist in a hospital in the Chicago, Illinois area. She loves animals (especially horses and her dog, Murphy), hiking, traveling, Sunday afternoon naps, and listening to a good podcast or audiobook. She lives by Glennon Doyle’s motto: “We can do hard things.”