By Sina Tadayon
It's truly challenging to explain to people who don't have OCD what the condition really entails. They often assume it's merely a collection of quirks that make you excessively clean, organized, and meticulous about minor details.
But the truth is, it's a far more complex issue. To illustrate, I'll share my first noticeable encounter with OCD. I was in the 4th grade, riding on the school bus when some older kids began discussing the Dark Knight movie that had recently been released. They mentioned Heath Ledger, the actor who played the Joker, and how he tragically took his own life because he couldn't shake the image of his character from his mind. My OCD latched onto this idea. For the ensuing months, no matter what I tried to do, the image of the Joker was unshakably stuck in my head. It seemed as though there was nothing I could do to dislodge it. Sleep eluded me, eating became a struggle, and I rarely left my house. As a 9-year-old, I feared that I might have to take my own life if this relentless mental image persisted.
I share this story not out of a desire for sympathy or to cast myself as a victim—far from it. We all undergo similar experiences, shaped by our unique environments and the way our brain chemistry responds. This Joker obsession was a significant chapter in my life journey and, ultimately, forms part of who I am today. I am reminded of a quote I once heard: "By denying the worst in yourself, you preclude the possibility of the best." I tell this story because I want those who do not have OCD to better grasp the gravity of this mental illness and to understand the many forms it can take.
Ultimately, everything comes down to knowledge and education. It took me 11 years—up until the summer before I started college—to receive my diagnosis. But once I did, it provided a roadmap to regain control over my life. Without understanding what OCD truly was, I might still be mired in confusion and suffering. Knowledge, therefore, is the first step towards healing.
I firmly believe that one of humanity's most remarkable traits is our ability to adapt. You wake up in the middle of the night to get a cup of water, you can't see because it's too dark, but what happens a few short seconds later? Your eyes adjust.
So, how does this concept relate to OCD? In fact, it doesn't just apply to OCD, but to all mental health conditions, which also adapt to their environment. During my elementary school years, I developed obsessions around subjects that were particularly frightening to me. These were thoughts or ideas that were, in a way, "horrific"—such as the image of the Joker, scenes from terrifying movies, dreadful things happening to my parents, or even me inflicting those terrible things onto my loved ones.
OCD, you see, has a recurring theme. It feeds on the most terrifying, haunting, unspeakable, unthinkable thoughts—especially those that deviate the most from your true character. It relishes these thoughts, allowing them to simmer in your mind, causing you to question their origin and react based on them.
As I entered middle school, my intrusive thoughts, thanks to the adaptability of OCD, evolved to reflect my changing circumstances. I was young, puberty was setting in, and everything about sex seemed novel and intriguing. It was a time of curiosity for all of us, and health education further brought these topics to the forefront. However, my OCD latched onto the darkest aspects of this curiosity, clinging to the most sexually perverse thoughts and applying them to my own life and relationships. Disturbing, unshakable thoughts about pedophilia, incest, and homosexuality induced an overwhelming cognitive dissonance. I questioned myself, "What are these thoughts? I don't feel this way, so why are they stuck in my mind?"
This confusion demonstrates the importance of knowledge. At that time, I didn't realize that these intrusive thoughts were just a byproduct of my OCD. I felt a compulsion to find explanations for their existence that wouldn't compromise my character. I began to conceive words to say, or things to touch, tap, or hit, believing that these actions might stop these thoughts from returning. I crafted elaborate routines to try and purge them from my mind, and reacted vehemently against these thoughts, avoiding any situation related to them. I couldn't even look my parents in the eye or touch them. These were all compulsions, reactive actions performed in a desperate bid to rid my mind of these unsettling thoughts.
The issue with succumbing to these compulsions is that it feeds into the narrative OCD wants you to believe. It reinforces the reality of these thoughts in your world, making them appear more real and tightening OCD's grip on your life. But, when you're in the dark, clueless about what's going on, it feels like there's no other way to cope.
Transitioning into high school was its own challenge. Each year brought a different landscape to navigate, and with each shift, I found myself transforming into a different person. As I've mentioned before, OCD delights in generating disturbing thoughts and embedding them in every corner of your mind. Yet, what it relishes most is personalizing these thoughts, making them intimately related to your own life.
During my freshman and sophomore years of high school, there was an unfortunate succession of school shootings. Intrusive thoughts of murder and violent acts had always been a recurring theme of my OCD, starting from the time of the Sandy Hook shooting. As I've noted, OCD takes perverse pleasure in thrusting you into the center of its horror story, casting you as the main antagonist. Intrusive thoughts like, "What if I were to do something like this? What could prompt me to commit such an act? Who was the shooter? What if I was friends with the shooter? What if I understood why they did it? What if I liked the shooter? What if I was attracted to the shooter? What if I loved that person? What if I slept with them?"
You can see how twisted and disturbing these thoughts can be, especially for a young person. This is precisely why education on the topic is so crucial.
As my high school years rolled on, I found myself besieged by an increasing number of intrusive thoughts that would shapeshift based on my circumstances at the time.
As I approached the end of my senior year in high school, for the first time, I began to experience tangible anxiety. High school was about to conclude, I was about to move across the country for college, and I didn't know anyone in this new location. Naturally, I was filled with the sort of anxiety any high school senior would experience in such a situation.
What I hadn't anticipated, however, was that this heightened state of anxiety would trigger an intensified episode of OCD. This time, I was grappling with a debilitating form of OCD known as Sexual Orientation OCD. Just as someone with OCD may experience intrusive thoughts about murder, pedophilia, sexual assault, incest, etc., it's not uncommon for them to also grapple with thoughts that contradict their sexual orientation. The convergence of these intrusive thoughts and my escalated anxiety became unbearable, leading me to believe that seeking therapeutic help was my only option.
While I had seen therapists throughout my childhood—a sincere effort on my mother's part to understand these "bad thoughts"—I was never fully transparent with them about the turmoil in my mind, mainly due to shame. However, once I mustered the courage to be candid with my therapist, everything changed. For the previous decade, I had been oblivious to the nature of these thoughts and idiosyncrasies. I believed I was merely descending into madness, a potential schizophrenic, one unfortunate soul in the entire world.
It only took one session for my therapist to diagnose me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). While this diagnosis didn't magically cure me—there was no magic potion—it did bring considerable clarity. Being able to label and understand what was happening, rather than dismissing it as some psychotic peculiarity, provided a sense of control.
From that point onward, I was devoted to expanding my knowledge about OCD, right down to the chemical reactions involved and their locations within the brain. The more I learned, the more I felt compelled to talk about it. Discussing it provided a form of therapeutic release—bringing it out into the open and acknowledging its presence seemed to diminish its power within my mind.
When I first arrived at college, my OCD was at a record low. I was preoccupied with making new friends and adapting to my fresh environment, leaving little room for the issues in my head to wield any power.
Unfortunately, this period of tranquility didn't last. As I've mentioned, OCD adapts to your environment. It's as if you have two brains. Let's call one your "normal" brain—this brain learns from experiences, matures over time, and uses what it has learned to progress. Your OCD brain, on the other hand, doesn't evolve in the same way. The same obsession or intrusive thought can cause the same level of distress whether you're 10 or 20 years old. It's unable to learn from past mistakes or benefit from prior episodes.
With that in mind, my OCD continued to adapt. Being in college—a phase in my life intensely focused on self-image—I began to experience extreme Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), a condition that might be considered OCD's first cousin. I developed obsessions with everything related to my physical appearance. When summer arrived, I was consumed with the idea of working out and would panic if I missed a session. I was fixated on my skincare routine, carefully selecting the oils and products I used. I effectively prohibited myself from anything that could potentially tarnish my physical image. My most significant trigger was my nose. I detested my nose, constantly hyper fixating on it. Eventually, I decided to get a filler to alter its shape. This became a significant theme for me throughout college—I sacrificed my summer breaks, never truly enjoying them, scarcely going out or spending time with friends. I felt compelled to improve myself substantially before the start of each new academic year.
As my sophomore year began, I was eager to resume school, hoping that my OCD would subside once I returned to my usual routine. Unfortunately, I was in for an unexpected turn. This year was unlike any other. It's somewhat difficult for me to discuss what happened next, but considering I've already started penning down this narrative, I believe it's essential to include it. During the first semester of my sophomore year, my roommate—one of my closest friends—was accused of sexual assault and expelled from the fraternity. This was my first significant real-life awakening. I was unable to comprehend such an event involving someone who slept merely three feet away from me. I was shocked, and the incident impacted me like nothing else before
As I've noted before, OCD takes perverse pleasure in casting you as the antagonist in its harrowing, fictitious narrative. My OCD began to spiral out of control, inundating my mind with its intrusive thoughts. I started comparing myself to my former roommate, asking myself distressing questions like, "What if I were to do something similar? What if I've ever made women uncomfortable? Wait, how many women have I been with? Do any of them perceive me in the same light?" Without any justifiable cause, it flung me back into the heart of the tempest. The situation affected me so profoundly that I avoided any scenario involving intimacy or dating for nearly a year, finding myself unable to employ the strategies I'd learned in therapy.
What fascinates me about OCD is its singular focus on one intrusive theme at a time. When I am obsessing over a particular thought or idea, I find myself realizing that all past obsessions seem frivolous and a waste of my time in retrospect. Yet, the obsession I am currently grappling with never feels this way. This current obsession, unlike the previous ones, feels urgent, significant, and uniquely troubling. It always feels like the most monumental issue I'm dealing with in the moment, or that I've ever had to face. And this holds true until the next obsession takes over, making the previous one seem inconsequential in comparison.
As my sophomore year neared its end, I was elected president of my fraternity. My peers chose me, they said, due to my "passion" or "obsession" with the fraternity's success and growth. This role consumed me; I sought perfection in every facet of it. I saw it as an extension of my own character, and I wanted it to be seen in the best possible light. So, predictably, I became obsessed. This new form of obsessive-compulsive behavior was different from any other I had experienced before, but it was true to OCD's nature nonetheless. I found myself pacing around my room for hours, engaged in phone call after phone call, meeting after meeting. It began to tax me mentally. In a single year, I learned more about life, and myself, than ever before.
However, although I did encounter a host of obsessive-compulsive-like symptoms during this period, as previously mentioned, they were significantly fewer than in any of my other years. I attribute this to the singular purpose that the position provided me. Labeling the role as stressful would be an understatement, but all my stressors fell under one umbrella, all emerging from the same metaphorical trash chute. I suppose what I'm trying to convey is that, despite it being the most stressful year of my life, my OCD symptoms were some of the lowest. Now, why could that be?
Complexity, with its multifaceted nature, serves as the underlying catalyst that sets off a chain reaction of mental health disorders and physically debilitating ailments. It weaves an intricate web around people's lives, making existence so convoluted that the notion of death might, at times, seem more appealing. The concept isn't as difficult to understand as it may appear.
Consider a society like the Hazda tribe in Tanzania. Their daily routine is simple, pared down to the essentials: hunting for sustenance, eating, and engaging in communal dances. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- this simplicity, they rank among the world's happiest people.
Contrast this with our Western society. Here, we've entangled ourselves in a vast tapestry of complexities. Our lives are saturated with multifarious obligations, responsibilities, and relationships. To add another layer of intricacy, we've created virtual duplicates of our lives through social media, each additional layer contributing to an ever-increasing web of complexity.
Furthermore, our societal narrative equates success with monetary wealth and power, rather than intrinsic happiness. According to this doctrine, the road to such "success" demands navigating through this maze-like existence, where you're expected to juggle a million tasks, work tirelessly, and make constant sacrifices.
Jordan Peterson, a renowned psychologist, once likened this scenario to an over-inflated balloon: "Imagine if you take a balloon and blow it up beyond its tolerance; it will then burst at its weakest point. That is what a genetic susceptibility is like. If I were to continually heap complexity onto you, at some point, you'll rupture at your weakest point. Maybe you'll fall physically ill, or resort to drinking, or develop an anxiety disorder. You might contract OCD or become depressed."
Do yourself a favor and ponder this: ask yourself what tasks you need to accomplish tomorrow. Now, follow that with another question: why do you need to do them? The answers could be revealing.
Following my tenure as president, I felt somewhat adrift. The thing I had devoted so much of myself to was no longer part of me. What would I obsess over now? With my identity now reduced to a single entity – myself – I started obsessing over my physical appearance. Over the next half year, every waking moment was devoted to physical self-improvement.
You might ask, isn't it normal to want to look good? Indeed, it is, but only to a certain extent; beyond that, it becomes excessive. I would spend hours at the gym and in the pool daily, maintained a skincare routine akin to a 45-year-old mom living in Orange County, got a perm, had a nose filler, invested hours in researching the right clothes, and kept a diet that consisted of raw chicken, spinach, and egg whites.
The problem wasn't really the routine itself, but rather the havoc that ensued if any minor detail were to be altered. Any slight change would send me into a downward spiral of distress, convincing me that my life was over, that I would never look good, and that my confidence was ruined. The only response I could muster was to do more. Spend an extra hour at the gym, eat an extra serving of chicken, get a facial, try acupuncture, swim an extra hour, go for a tan—anything to make up for not being perfect. It became a cycle of trying to perfect perfection. Any step down had to be compensated with two steps up.
Anxiety is a universal human experience. In basic terms, anxiety results from an inability to control some aspect of our lives. It's our body's response to our attempts to find answers to things we don't know or may never know. This is why the unknown can cause so much anxiety—it's simply beyond our control. To me, anxiety is best represented by the question "why/what?", whereas OCD builds upon this concept and is encapsulated by the question "what if?". That's a truly unsettling notion—it's all-consuming, creating anticipations for events yet to occur, essentially making you live not for today, but for an uncertain tomorrow.
Let's imagine someone has an extreme sensitivity to smoke. One day, as they're walking down the street, they catch a whiff of a cigarette. The presence of cigarette smoke is an uncontrollable factor in their life, which in turn breeds anxiety. This anxiety compels them to ponder questions like "why did that happen?" or "what does this mean for my breathing?" and so forth. OCD takes this a step further, leading them to contemplate, "what if I didn't walk this way?", "what if I was a few feet further away?", "what if I covered my face with my shirt?", "what if I rinsed my nose with salt water tomorrow, would that reverse the effects?". It's a never-ending cycle that magnifies the smallest of issues, transforming everyday problems into climactic battles in the narrative of one's life.
As my first semester of senior year drew to a close, I found myself at what seemed to be the most significant crossroads of my life. I was no longer president of my fraternity, and as a senior, I had no desire to remain involved with the organization. I had future aspirations of getting involved in real estate development with my treasurer and a close friend, but I found it unfulfilling. It wasn't my passion or dream; it was his. A recent relationship—the first time I had truly experienced love—had come to an end. All these events converged at the same time, making life appear overwhelmingly complex. As a result, the air in my balloon began to escape at my weakest genetic predisposition—my OCD and anxiety.
Every morning, I would wake up feeling as if I had taken a sucker punch to the gut. I felt genuinely lost. Everything of significance in my life had dwindled away. I was like a dog chasing its tail, clinging desperately to the last remnants of my former existence. Eventually, it reached the point where I decided to go home for a while and genuinely prioritize my mental health. In essence, I needed to step back from the fog and see it for what it was from the outside.
Returning home, I was met with open arms. My parents did everything within their power to support me: therapy several times a week, appointments with a psychiatrist, medication, meditation, tapping, and even electromagnetic stimulation. This became my new routine.
The first week was challenging. The second week showed improvement, and by the third week, the fog truly started to lift, and life began to seem less complicated. Then, one night, as I rested my head on the pillow, everything changed. I dreamt of myself at the Oscars, clutching that coveted golden statuette, clad in a green velvet suit with a black bow tie. I woke from that dream grinning ear to ear. Suddenly, my vision wasn't limited to just a few steps in front of me—I could see the entire tunnel. I had found a new sense of purpose.
The months of depression evaporated with that single dream. Depression is not mere sadness—it's a sense of hopelessness. When you're depressed, you don't languish in bed all day because you're "sad." You stay in bed because everything seems devoid of meaning. However, instill your life with purpose, and everything can change—sometimes in an instant.
Our approach to mental health in today's Westernized society often fails to provide adequate solutions. We are so disconnected and out of touch with each other that we struggle to help one another effectively.
A psychiatrist, curious about the use of antidepressants in third-world countries, once visited a farming village in East Asia. He approached the local shaman and began to inquire about their treatment methods for individuals struggling with mental health issues. "What do you give someone who is suffering from depression?" the doctor asked. In all seriousness, the shaman replied, "Well, we would just give them a cow."
"A cow?" echoed the doctor. The shaman then recounted the story of his brother, known as one of the village's best farmers. One day, while working on the farm, his brother had an accident and broke his leg. Confined to bed rest for months and unable to farm, he lost his sense of purpose. His cries of despair echoed through the village. Recognizing his suffering, the villagers collectively decided to pool their resources and buy the farmer a cow to aid him with his farming duties. The very next day, the farmer was back on his feet, out in the fields farming with his new cow.
The moral of this story is that these people acknowledged the suffering of one of their own, and rather than resorting to medication or hollow words of comfort, they rallied together to help him rediscover his purpose, assisting him in getting back in the saddle—or in this case, on the cow.
With my senior year drawing to end, I felt content. I had nearly a handful of courses left that would pour out to an extra semester that would be finished abroad in Spain, Physically I was adhering to my routines and had planned to get a rhinoplasty done in the summer, and I had garnered some type of plan as to how I would begin approaching my acting career I felt in control. Now again as I mentioned before OCD ebs & flows, its a blessing and a curse, when its good its good, when its bad its bad. I was about to get a taste of the bad.
During a visit home to celebrate my brother's high school graduation, I received a letter from my school's Student Rights and Responsibilities office. They were trying to suspend me from school without due cause. My OCD launched itself into overdrive, painting me as the antagonist in a narrative that was far removed from my true self. It warped my life. After months of recovery, trying to move past the stressors and the anguish of my previous purpose, it felt as if OCD had latched onto me once again. I felt weak, as if I was being dragged back into the hell from which I'd worked so hard to escape.
Months passed, and although the situation with my college and educational career remained uncertain, and I knew I wouldn't be able to study abroad, I understood that the only way out of this state was to realign with my routine and newly found purpose, and also to proceed with my planned rhinoplasty. It seemed like the only element of my future with any certainty to it, so I wasn't going to let it slip away. I did everything I could to make it a reality. It wasn't just about the procedure - I needed it to happen for my sanity.
On June 29th, 2022, I went in for my rhinoplasty. This marked the beginning of a particularly intense episode of hyper-fixation on my nose. For the initial few weeks, I resisted showering and going outside; for the following four months, I'd only consume liquids via a straw, steadfastly refusing to take a walk or see anybody. All I wanted was to ensure my nose healed perfectly.
This all-consuming obsession drove my kind-hearted mother, who had been supportive throughout, to the brink of exasperation. My behavior was irrational, my approach, exasperating. Yet, in my mind, a narrative had firmly taken root during those months: if my nose didn't heal perfectly, then I wouldn't look perfect. If I didn't look perfect, my chances of becoming an actor would diminish. And I was willing to do whatever it took to prevent that from happening.
Eleven months later, I'm penning this down. Since then, I've relocated to Los Angeles, fueled by dreams of making a mark as an actor and writer. Like every phase of life, the past few months have been a roller coaster of highs and lows, propelling me into a new chapter filled with unique challenges and rewards. Currently, I grapple with similar obsessions as mentioned earlier, meticulously orchestrating every second of my life towards the ultimate goal of becoming an actor and writer. Yet, I've also encountered a whole range of obsessions and compulsions over the past months. Whether they are fleeting or firmly anchored for months, they persist, serving as a constant reminder of the intricate dance with my OCD.
Yet, I've gleaned a few insights along the journey. My life's motto has gradually evolved into this principle: you have to FALL, to LEARN, to GROW. You must muster the courage to take a fall, the discipline to extract lessons from it, and the confidence to harness those lessons for personal growth. This principle applies universally, not just to OCD or mental health. It acts as the catalyst that bridges the gap between where or who we are and where or who we aspire to be. Without it, we remain in a state of stagnation, firmly entrenched in our comfort zones.
Now, there exists a therapeutic approach that aligns perfectly with this thought process. The most successful therapy in the treatment of OCD is known as Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP). The fundamental premise of this therapy is to confront the obsession head-on, and through repeated exposure, acknowledge the irrationality of the obsessive thoughts. Over time, this practice helps to untangle the obsessive knots that are formed in the mind. Let's consider my hyperfixation with my nose as an example. I would be encouraged to touch my nose, cover every mirror in my house to avoid checking for any changes, and then simply sit with the resulting discomfort. The rationale is that anxiety does not naturally sustain a heightened state—it eventually subsides. So, if I can learn to bear with the discomfort and allow the anxiety to diminish without relying on a compulsion as a coping mechanism, then my brain can build resilience to handle similar situations in the future.
From an outsider's perspective, this process of confronting obsessions might seem straightforward, even simple. However, for those grappling with OCD, these obsessions often present themselves as life-or-death situations, and I assure you, this is no exaggeration. They trigger the fight-or-flight response, a primal physiological reaction to perceived harmful events, attacks, or threats to survival. The compulsive behaviors observed in OCD represent an inappropriate activation of the "fight" component of this instinctual response. Instead of engaging in battle or fleeing from a tangible, physical threat, individuals with OCD often find themselves 'fighting' against perceived threats or dangers. This usually manifests through ritualistic behaviors or mental acts, employed as defensive strategies against these imaginary threats.
Life is a narrative, a story. That's how each of us perceives existence. We envisage ourselves as the protagonist, casting the psychological and metaphysical challenges we face into archetypal roles that humanity has been using since time immemorial. In our lives, we all have entities and individuals we perceive as allies, mentors, or shadows. We're all engaged in the same hero's journey, each with our unique story to share.
The journey I've shared with you today details my struggle with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and highlights key experiences that have provided me with precious learning opportunities. I sincerely hope that something you've read today equips you with the tools to be brave enough to stumble, disciplined enough to learn, and confident enough to grow.
This blog also appeared on NOCD's blog.