By Michael Rudden
Michael Rudden is a Chicago-based editor. He has lived with various subtypes of OCD for most of his life. He enjoys telling jokes, going on long runs, and writing love letters.
I’m a poetry lover, and one of my favorite works is John Milton’s Paradise Lost. It’s filled with romance, adventure, and plenty of life lessons. Of all its memorable quotes, however, one has always stood out to me:
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
When I first read those lines in college, I thought they were beautiful. As someone with OCD, I also learned they could be true.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always loved making people happy. Sometimes that meant being the life of the party; other times, it meant being an insatiable romantic. Also for as long as I can remember, I’ve had OCD. As we know, OCD attacks what matters most to a person, and mine is no exception. Spurred by a few unhealthy relationships, my love for others became burdened by an obsession of whether I was “good enough” for them, whatever that would happen to mean at the time. Despite my long history of OCD, however, I didn’t realize that this was just another one of my brain’s irrational obsessions, because unlike my other compulsions, the ones I developed toward relationships were difficult to spot. They were almost all in my head.
For a while, my relationship OCD escaped even my own notice, because my mental compulsions seamlessly embedded themselves into my everyday behaviors. I always loved exercise, for example, so it was easy to miss how one day—as I obsessed over being “attractive enough” for my partners—I began mentally scolding myself or catastrophizing when I failed to break a record at the gym. The same went for dieting; my love for healthy eating twisted into a self-loathing ritual where, in my head, I shamed myself to alleviate the anxiety of potentially eating too much “bad” food or not enough “good” food. Socially speaking, I was still an extrovert, but OCD analyzed and reanalyzed every joke I made, every way I could be perceived, until compulsive ruminations cluttered every corner of my brain. Eventually, these compulsive urges to scrutinize and hate myself—disguised as “motivation” to become the ideal son, friend, or boyfriend—drained the joy I had from my everyday life. I remember the feeling that I was walking around with a tree full of cicadas in my head—each screaming about how I should be better—and I’d collapse in my bed under the uncertainty that I may not be fun, or helpful, or otherwise good enough for the people I loved.
My compulsions reached their peak following the end of a meaningful relationship two years ago. Despite months of processing, going to talk therapy, and exhausting the internet of articles about “being over your ex,” my heartbreak morphed into a relentless anxiety, an obsession that I might just be a failure, and I fed that obsession with mental gymnastics. I reviewed the relationship in my mind for hours a day, fruitlessly searching for certainty that I did the best that could be done, only to worsen my stress by compulsively reprimanding myself out of fear that I wasn’t moving on “correctly.” Every day was a cycle of replaying painful memories and compulsively punishing myself in increasingly harsh (and now physical) ways. I was too ashamed to open up to my friends, and I was afraid I’d be a burden, so the feeling of isolation added to what was becoming depression. I’d come home to sleepless nights and countless tears, plagued by obsessive-compulsive thinking, a thinking that both refused to let go of my past relationship while also demanding that I be “perfect” for my current ones. I outright hated myself.
It took me long enough, but I’m grateful that, eventually, my state of mind reminded me of the overt obsessions and compulsions I faced in my adolescence. While I was no longer counting or washing, something felt familiar. It occurred to me that my mentality could be another bout of OCD, though perhaps now more insidious. I researched articles, and I learned about mental compulsions. I saw that I checked all the boxes, so I did my research and found an amazing therapist who specializes in OCD and ERP (exposure and response prevention—a leading treatment for OCD). I told him about my struggles with mental compulsions, and we got to work.
It’s been six months since I started seeing my new therapist. We’ve accomplished a lot, and while I still have a long road ahead, I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m learning how to productively disengage from my obsessive thoughts, and every day I get a little better at resisting my mental compulsions. On the outside, things may look the same, but they’re different in all the ways that matter. Now I exercise because I want to—not because I have to—and I’m unapologetic when I treat myself to dessert. As for the people in my life, I love them and spoil them despite the uncertainty that I may not be doing it perfectly—for once, I’m willing to accept that.
I still reread Paradise Lost, and those two lines still stick out to me, but nowadays they fill me with hope instead of hopelessness. At my lowest, I thought OCD defined me, but it doesn’t. I’m defined by all the ways I leave the world a little happier than I found it, and thanks to my therapist, ERP, and my own resolve, OCD will not take that from me.