The Object That Symbolizes My Ordeal With OCD

For most of us, the objects we interact with on a daily basis are just that: mundane stuff we’re barely aware of.

The receipt the cashier hands over with our change at the cash register. The earphones through which we listen to podcasts. The plate that we eat dinner from. The pillow on which we lay our head to sleep. Few of these items may seem significant in any way — but for people living with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), they could mean everything.

Though we often think of OCD as being about cleanliness, that’s a big (and problematic) overgeneralization. While extreme worry about germs and the drive to re-check many times that something (like locking a door) was done properly can be symptoms of the disorder, the main criteria for OCD is right in the name — it’s about obsessions (unwanted, intrusive thoughts you can’t stop repeating) and compulsions (irrational drives to do certain things), according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Crucially, those who deal with OCD experience these obsessions and compulsions all the time: Their symptoms last at least an hour a day and truly interfere with their daily lives, notes NAMI. So no, your passion for keeping a tidy kitchen doesn’t count as OCD.

Seemingly insignificant objects and experiences be a big deal for OCD sufferers — they can trigger exhausting, debilitating symptoms; but they can also put them on the path toward recovery, experts and OCD patients say. We spoke to seven women and one man who have faced OCD and asked them about the “thing” that symbolizes their ordeal. Ahead, they share their powerful stories.

Anonymous: Kissing and lipstick

“An intrusive thought I had for years was the fear of cheating on my boyfriend and not remembering it. I never tolerated cheating so OCD preyed on this. I was triggered all the time — whether it was two people kissing on the street or seeing a couple lock lips on TV, it was a constant, ‘Did I just kiss someone and I forgot? Maybe I didn’t see someone else do it — maybe it was me?’

“Cue crippling anxiety and panic attacks. I’d get sweaty and shake — it felt like my insides were a wet [towel] being wrung out tightly. When I was kissing my boyfriend I had to check it was actually him I was kissing. I’d constantly pull back and look at him and tell myself ‘It’s him,’ but within milliseconds the thought was back.

“Now [when] I look back I can see I had traits since I was a child. I couldn’t throw anything away, I only liked even numbers, if I touched something with one hand I would have to touch it with the other to balance it out. My parents feel terrible now that they didn’t spot it earlier, but there was such little awareness back then. Everyone heard of people washing their hands, but that was about it. Today as a society we are much more open and honest about mental health.

“I’ve been taking medication for a few years now and I’ve also been through two courses of CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] and psychotherapy, and a combination of the above with some serious hard work has helped to give my life back. I couldn’t wear lipstick or touch my lips because of potential triggers so over a period of time I had to expose myself to touch in that area. Today I put lippy on without giving it a second thought.

“I wish people would realize that OCD isn’t funny — unless you have OCD, in which case you sometimes have to laugh at the sheer absurdity of the mind. Also, don’t use phrases like, ‘I’m so OCD lol’. It’s not lolz. If you think it is, then it’s not plaguing your every waking minute like OCD does.

“Now I live my life with the lowest level of OCD I think I’ve ever had — or at least it’s the best it’s been in the last decade. To anyone who thinks it’s impossible to ‘come out the other side’ I want to let you know that it will all be OK.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Grace: Towels

“Every time I went to place my towel down somewhere I envisioned my dead body being taken out of my bedroom on a stretcher. And by imagining something happening, you think that it will. That’s how OCD works. The only way I could get out of this thought process was if somebody else could place the towel down where I couldn’t see it — that way I could not imagine my dead body next to it, so it wouldn’t come true. This was just one of the many scenarios in which my OCD would take form.

“I am a psychology graduate and was diagnosed [during college] when I learned more about the theory of evolution and stopped believing in God. I starting thinking of myself as a natural organism, one that wouldn’t go to heaven or hell but decay, just like a plant or bacteria. I have now come to understand why I developed OCD at this time. Because the inevitability of death is so overwhelming, we focus our lives on cultural world views, such as religion or politics, to buffer thoughts of death and allow us to achieve symbolic immortality. When I learned about science, my world views were contradicted and I no longer had faith to protect me from the inevitability of death (this is called Terror Management Theory). Learning about evolution and losing my world views gave me so much anxiety that subconsciously I attempted to regain control through obsessive-compulsive behaviors.

“Ironically, theory of evolution has now become my worldview. By learning about how our homo sapiens ancestors evolved out of Africa around 100 to 200,000 years ago, and the paths they took to make it to Britain, I know how I came to exist today and perhaps, like belief in God or an afterlife, this allows me to achieve symbolic immortality and feel more secure in where I’ve come from and where I’m going.

“People with OCD are not irrational, they face a problem where they fixate on the smallest chance of something happening and recognize that situations are probable. So much so that they cannot shake off the feeling that it might just happen. A ‘healthy’ functioning human might go through life thinking, ‘Oh, I’ll never die in a plane crash.’ The individual with OCD will think ‘I might die in a plane crash, and I have to do something to control it.'”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Alice: Shoes and socks

“Paralyzed with fright. I know my thoughts are irrational but I cannot control them. Terrifying images of contamination buzz around my mind every minute of every day. Insect infestations are my worst fear. If these thoughts ever became reality, I believe that I would become so anxious that I wouldn’t be able to breathe.

“Insects live on the floor, and I cannot avoid this. Therefore my shoes and socks often become ‘contaminated’. If I walk past something which looks like an insect from the corner of my eye, anxiety strikes. My shoes or socks are immediately dirty, even if I did not touch the imaginary insect. I avoid touching my shoes and socks, and often throw them away, or leave them in the street and walk home barefoot.

“I wish people knew how much pain a simple thought can cause. I wish people did not think I was weird for not being able to touch my shoes or socks. I have to slide them off without using my hands — I wish people would not stare at me when I do this. Most of all, I wish I could live a normal life.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Eve: Newspapers

“For as long as I can remember, I thought the worst of myself.

“At best, I was a failure whom nobody should, or did like. At worst, I was a terrible person.

“Then, when I was 22, my self-loathing turned an even nastier corner. I started worrying that I could be dangerous, that I could cause harm to others. I can’t describe how awful this feeling was. I started avoiding everyone in case I hurt them.

“One day, I read an article about a sex offender and killer. My initial shock and horror was rapidly replaced by, ‘What if I could become that bad?’ Maybe I just hadn’t done something like that yet because I’d never thought of it.

“And so newspaper articles, and the news itself, joined the long list of things I was already afraid of. What if the stories somehow contaminated my mind and made me even worse? To someone without OCD, who has a reasonable opinion of themselves, this sounds ridiculous. But to me, it made complete sense.

“So I started avoiding newspapers. I wouldn’t walk past them in shops, I wouldn’t pass them to people, I wouldn’t look or think about them. Train journeys to work became horrendous. I’d keep my head down, and constantly shake it to try and rid myself of any image I might have accidentally caught sight of. After a time, I began genuinely to lose touch with what was going on in the world. I was trapped in a bubble of my own fear.

“Ultimately I overcame OCD through CBT and psychotherapy. It’s still a struggle, and I still get very anxious sometimes, but I’ve learned to challenge my fears.

“I wish people understood that OCD is exhausting and can truly make you hate yourself. Not being able to trust yourself, constantly battling unwanted thoughts, and doing compulsions you know are pointless wrecks your self-esteem.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Brigid: A hug

“I have had OCD practically since I was born. As a [young child], I would touch things repetitively and walk around in circles, going over and over the same things in my head. It didn’t make my life the misery it became until I was about 16. Obsessed with a fear of harming anyone, and anyone harming me, I retreated into my bedroom, where I pretty much stayed until college.

“In college, my obsessions got so bad, I decided I needed to kill myself. Now, the Catholic church lists suicide as a sin, and I didn’t want to burn in hell forever, so I figured out three loopholes to die without actually doing anything.

“These were: 1. Contract terminal illness. Very hard to do. 2. Freak accident. Fine if it happened, but I wanted to engineer it, so that was ruled out. 3. Be murdered. Now you’re talking!

“I would leave my house at about 2am and scour the streets looking for feral youths to dispatch me to my untimely grave. In order to accrue more heavenly brownie points, I would go out with a loaf of bread, leaving a slice at the corner of every street for homeless people to eat. However, for all my endeavors, I remained unharmed and only the pigeons were very well fed.

“My life made a slight turn outside a 24-hour [grocery store]. A woman laden with shopping bags stopped me at 3am (I don’t know why she was doing her shopping at 3am, but I’m grateful she was), came up to me and said I needed a hug. Boy, was she right! I clutched onto her and wept and then went home. Not home in my university town, but rather home back to my family. I stayed with my family until one day when my parents drove me to the hospital [wearing] my pajamas and I was diagnosed. But I doubt I would have made it to that stage if it hadn’t been for that lady and the hug.

“I would be lying if I said it had been [smooth] sailing since then, but it has made more sense. I am sometimes overwhelmed by my thoughts, but I have the tools to combat them. I wish people would understand, when they shrug off their tidiness as OCD, that it really is a soul-destroying, life-consuming bully. OCD had robbed me of many chances in life, but now I’m taking control. I am more than OCD. I am Brigid.”

If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Lisa: A pen

“I have had OCD for as long as I can remember but it started to get bad once I turned 14. I am now 27.

“At work, I once went to a meeting with a notepad but no pen. Seconds before going into the meeting I dropped my pen on the floor and had to leave it, as I felt it was contaminated.

“In the meeting my boss asked me to make a note of something and leaned over the table to give me her pen. None of my colleagues know about my OCD so I had no choice but to take the pen and write. I felt such a panic taking the pen from my boss — I tried to hold it in a way where I was barely touching it.

“After the meeting, I rushed to the bathroom to wash my hands but unfortunately there was another woman in the toilets so I couldn’t wash my hands because it didn’t feel ‘right’. I felt my hands were dirty for the next few days and continued to wash them a lot, as well as using [antibacterial] wipes on everything in sight.

“I used to resort to avoidance as much as I could. For example, I’d avoid going places with friends. But over the last year I have pushed myself a bit more. I have started therapy and I’m also now on medication so I am hopeful this year things might start to get better.

“I wish people would stop using the phrase ‘I am so OCD’ and that they would understand that it is so much more than eating all the blue Smarties first or doing something a certain way. The anxiety is like someone is putting a tarantula — or whatever your biggest fear is — on you. The thoughts are in your head from the moment you wake up until it’s time to sleep, and falling asleep can be hard, too.

“It makes me feel bad for not being able to do the things I should and has ruined many exciting times for me. It makes everyday tasks very difficult. It is mentally draining and really hard to fight.

“I was once told it was an invented illness by someone. I know to most people it sounds so bizarre but I wish people could understand, for us with the illness, it is very real.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Anonymous: Mirrors

“I’m in the line for the changing rooms. The girls in front of me are complaining about having gained weight over the holidays. ‘Oh my God. Are they talking about me?’ I think. The girl behind me discusses everyone’s outfits at last night’s party and I’m sure that once I’m in the changing room she’ll laugh with her friend about my clothes. The girl at the changing room entrance looks at my chosen items. Why did I even think those blouses would fit me? The girl’s look says it all.

“Once I am in the changing room, I try to concentrate on my breathing to stay calm. Within seconds my mind goes into overdrive and I’m in full-on panic mode. I look so ugly, why would anyone ever like me? I am not good enough for anything. I take my T-shirt off, trying to avoid looking into the mirror, but I can’t. There are five really big scabs and a number of smaller ones. OMG, is there a new spot? I can feel it. Now I can also see it!

“15 minutes later, I have ‘dealt’ with all the ‘problems’ — tears have added to the mix. My whole upper body is red and I’m feeling totally distraught. Having reapplied layers of makeup, I hand all my clothes back, not having tried on a single item.

“I am a compulsive skin picker, and mirrors are my personal hell.

“No one chooses to struggle from a mental illness. And it is not a ‘personality quirk’. I wish for people to understand that sometimes even something as trivial as holding onto the handrails on public transportation, locking a door or, like in my case, looking in the mirror, can be the biggest struggle for some sufferers. It would be every OCD sufferer’s dream to be able to just ‘get a grip’ and ‘snap out of it’. Unfortunately, an overnight cure hasn’t been invented yet.

“Over the past three years, since discovering what my issues really are, I’ve been trying to tackle some of them. It’s been a long and hard journey, spiked with ups and downs, small successes and setbacks, but I won’t give up hope, nor will I stop fighting for the life I want and the ‘me’ I want to be.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

Ross: Contact lenses

“I worked in a shop where a colleague once spent a whole afternoon tidying the candy display. It looked beautiful.

“Their explanation? ‘Yeah, I’ve been a bit OCD about it.’

“A surge of anger blistered in my stomach. Firstly, one can’t be ‘a bit obsessive-compulsive disorder’ about something — that’s just poor grammar. Secondly, unlike me, my colleague wasn’t convinced a customer would develop a spontaneous nut allergy if the Snickers weren’t evenly distributed. They weren’t convinced that strawberry laces put on shelf two meant someone violently choking on one. They didn’t believe leaving Freddos by Dib-Dabs would mean they’d conceive an accidental child.

“It was an intense 15 seconds.

“Eccentric thought patterns became a big feature in my life at 17. At worst they embedded themselves in daily routines: ‘Wash your contact lenses x many times or you’ll go blind’. After a few years, the anxiety of both ignoring and obeying thoughts became too much and I sought help from a counselor.

“My confectionery encounter changed my relationship with OCD. After gently enquiring if my colleague had OCD (‘not really’), I realized I had no right to be angry. They didn’t know they were using the phrase ‘OCD’ ignorantly. Since then, I’ve made a conscious effort to talk more openly about my experiences.

“Counselors told me to separate myself from intrusive thoughts to help rationalize them. So discussing them with others is hugely empowering. Plus, I hope to help educate people, subsequently helping to break down the stigma still surrounding mental health.”

Photographed by Flora Maclean.

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