I can describe and give an in-depth, detailed account of the intricate ways OCD affects my mind all too well. My mind and the mechanics have always fundamentally been the same. Never once do I remember my mind being any different than the way it already is, was, and always has been. However, I've discovered focusing on this path too much ultimately only causes more confusion...and more problems. I’ve experienced how it leads you “down the rabbit hole” into an endless cycle of a game you can’t win. And I know, because I’ve played. Endlessly. Sure, you might win some battles, but it’s never long lived. Eventually, after each loss, you’re left more damaged and confused than the last time.
Not long ago, I was so focused and obsessed on figuring out my mind that I refused to quit, to a fault. No matter how much distress or added suffering it caused me I pushed on. Even though I’ve lived with these conditions my entire life, I had never actually stumbled upon anything tangible until a handful of years ago. I had become obsessed with the intrusive and unwanted thoughts plaguing my mind everyday. Once I discovered these “impostors,” I couldn’t leave them alone. I needed so badly to comprehend the entirety of these conditions. It was like I needed to know almost more than I needed to breathe, quite literally.
Ultimately, I have found that to truly grasp the totality of these conditions on a constant basis is impossible. Even if I could, to always have an answer for every unanswered question is literally hopeless. It’s draining and defeating. However, once I learned that OCD is largely hereditary and biological, it provided me with a figurative sigh of relief. I think it really helped to know that no matter what, these conditions are here to stay regardless of my attempts to fully understand them or not. In other words, it is irrelevant if I am able to understand the ins and outs of OCD if I’m going to let it completely consume me.
As I sit here trying to think of what aspects of my story to elaborate on; I find myself concerned that I won't hit on all of the insightful and significant aspects I've found most paramount to my recovery. I almost feel overwhelmed with the various ideas flooding my mind about the countless things I have learned from my experiences with mental illness. While I have been diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, I have also been diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety. I do not suffer from the classic OCD symptoms such as physically carrying out compulsions (washing hands, locking/unlocking doors, extreme organization/tidiness, etc.) even though that's what the general public would assume when they think of OCD. I discovered that “Pure Obsessional” OCD or “Pure O” is the category I fit under most. Pure O describes individuals with OCD to purely have obsessions without physical compulsions, but only mental compulsions. I primarily deal with an onslaught of intrusive, unwanted thoughts, but use mental compulsions (avoidance, reassurance seeking, mental rituals, etc.) to seek relief. These thoughts initiate impulses or mental images of horrible, violent, immoral, or sacrilegious actions. Constantly. All day, every single day, of every single second, I am at the mercy to ALL of these frightening, torturous, and unwanted types of thoughts or images. Put me in any seemingly harmless situation or circumstance and my mind will quickly and quite literally figure out what the worst-case scenario would be. And then it will aggressively spend the rest of the time trying to convince me of this situation becoming a reality. This might include extreme embarrassment, death, ridicule, violence, or failure. Further, all of these same thoughts can and will happen in regards to people I deeply love and care about as well. It doesn’t matter. It could be any of the above. What ever happens to adversely affect me the most at that current point in time is what seems to gain the most strength and momentum over my psyche. Timing is key however. Most of these thoughts don't bother me in most circumstances because I usually can rationally gauge how unrealistic they are. However, very certain and specific thoughts at just the precise moment, in just the right environment, will still somehow knife its way to my heart. No matter how many walls you build or battle-tested strategies you implement, these thoughts never stop eating at you.
One of the more ironic aspects to my story is that while I can remember being effected by OCD as far back as I can remember, I literally had no idea that this is what plagued me throughout my life until I was about 23 years old. Looking back on it all, it’s almost like I always knew something was different about me, but I wasn’t willing to acknowledge it. And if I wasn't willing to acknowledge it, then I definitely wasn't willing to let anybody else either. I seemingly did a good job of hiding my symptoms seeing as nobody ever noticed anything “different” about me. The symptoms of OCD did not quite “debilitate” me as I was able to grow, progress, and develop adequately during the early years of my life which also might play a role in why nobody ever noticed anything. The most detrimental and debilitating effects did not hamper me until later in life. In fact, it was quite the opposite growing up. I happened to be pretty successful with almost anything I tried and would even go as far as to say I excelled in most areas. I always made honors student (college and high school), participated in competitive sports throughout my life, and always seemed to have plenty of friends. After graduating high school in 2005, I ultimately pursued a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and graduated in 2009. I then furthered my education and graduated with a master's degree in Social Work by 2011.
I don't say any of these things to boast or brag, not whatsoever, but mostly to emphasize how fortunate I was growing up. I truly believe that if it were not for my family's love, support, and cultivation for success, I would be no where close to where I am today. They never let me settle and always pushed me to fulfill my potential. They taught me how to work hard and empowered myself to achieve anything in life. I am forever indebted to them for these lessons. Always having everything I needed growing up, I basically lived as “normal” as a life you could imagine. However, the inner workings of OCD were well at play this entire time. Somehow, someway I was able to live with and manage the symptoms of OCD without truly questioning my organically overactive, over-analytic, obsessive, and ruminative mind. The endless attempts to slow down or stop unwanted intrusive thoughts had just become second nature. Unfortunately, this natural instinct eventually faded away.
I was around the age of 23 when I finally began to realize something wasn’t quite right. Ironically, this is about the time I started experimenting with street drugs. I was later officially diagnosed with OCD, Anxiety, and Depression at age 26. By that time, things had gotten a lot worse. My drug addiction had grown out of control and my symptoms were running rampant controlling my life. Only 2 months after my 26th birthday did I get fired from my job as a social worker. At this point, I seemingly had lost interest in everything (work, friends, girls, family, exercise, etc.). It got to a point where I simply had zero desire to ever want to get out of bed. I'm still ashamed to admit the only thing I ever looked forward to was sleeping or doing drugs...both of which became primary escapes of mine. I had become addicted to the fast guaranteed relief from my symptoms that drugs provided. By coping with drugs on and off for 2 years, I got lost in the facade that drugs can create. I had devolved into what I call some sort of functioning “drug addict.” I was always drawn to the drugs that made me feel most like I was “enough” and no longer inadequate which generally tended to be “uppers.” The lure of this pseudo-freedom became my primary means to escape from all of the pain my symptoms initiate. The blaring noise in my head of constant negative mental chatter, harsh criticisms, absolute discontent, and never-ending despair always left me desperate for an escape.
Of course, by the time I realized how much worse drugs actually made everything; things had already spiraled out of control. My symptoms of depression had severely heightened and before I really knew it, I began contemplating suicide. These thoughts occurred before I was ever fired from my job, but gained added traction from this most recent “failure” of mine. Never once had I given attention to the thought of ending my life until then, but once I had I couldn’t shake it. It was almost like I had become obsessed with the idea of dying. Here is where I by far experienced the darkest moments of my life.
By the end of my worst episode, all and any of my motivation had been sapped. I had lost all interest in doing things I used to consider fun or enjoying. It didn't matter how much I had loved to spend time with friends or family, go to the beach, or workout. I had lost interest in the hobbies most vital to my survival. I literally had come to lose touch with reality. I spent more time in my head than what was going on in front of me. I can tell you it’s not a fun place to be, at all. Nothing was important to me anymore and the more unimportant everything seemed, the more severe my suicidal thoughts became. It was as if the life I had was so far out of reach that it felt like nothing more than a mirage. My life had lost all meaning to me. For a while leading up to this, things were definitely tough sledding, but not until I hit rock bottom did I truly become suicidal. I was literally contemplating the ways I could take my life.
Wanting to kill your self and not wanting to live are two very different things. I didn’t really want to live at times, but this was different because I wanted to escape the pain, forever. Yet, there is a profound quote that really sums up this whole situation and became the groundwork to digging myself out of this black hole. It says “Suicide doesn’t end the chance of life getting worse. Suicide eliminates the possibility of it ever getting better.” This is such a true statement and inspired me to not give up. In addition, what helped drive me even further is another quote saying “Suicide does not take the pain away; it only gives it to someone else.” The idea of giving my family my pain because I didn’t want to bear it anymore empowered me to never let that happen. I couldn’t imagine how negatively it would have impacted my mother especially. I couldn’t stand the image of horror she would have to withstand caused by my own actions. Ultimately, I dedicated myself to be 100% committed to my recovery, being sober, and spending time with my family. It felt like eons before I began making progress, but I soon saw the fruits of my labor by making headway into my recovery. Once I overcame feeling suicidal or having any inclination to hurt myself, I still did not have much of a desire to live. I knew that my life had changed for the worse without a doubt and I was not hopeful or confident in my ability to regain my life again.
It was still all too easy to beat up on myself. I would get caught up with analyzing how far I had fallen and then wallow in my own pit of self-despair, shame, and guilt. I always had ambition and already held myself to a high standard. So, when I realized how far off I had dropped, it only compounded more feelings of guilt, negativity, and doubt. I was having an extremely difficult time believing it was even a realistic possibility to live a normal life again. I had barely survived up to this point. Any improvement seemed impossible because I knew it would require never-wavering determination and persistence, as well as patience. I was no stranger to working hard but, even then, a deep convicted belief in your self is absolutely paramount, which is an uphill battle I wasn't sure I was prepared for.
You see, once you’ve lost hope, you’ve damn near lost it all. Hope for a better future is what gets you out of bed in the mornings. Hope allows you to persist and continue on even after defeat. Having hope will always give you a chance, no matter the odds. Without hope, you lose belief in all and any of your capabilities regardless of what your track record has been. However, facing these odds and overcoming them does not have to be impossible even though that's exactly how it felt. As I sit here typing this, I realize that it’s imperative to point out that losing all hope does not have to be a death sentence. I can say that while it seemed like a death sentence at the time, I’m living proof that it doesn’t have to be. Come to find out, you can actually make progress when you feel hopeless. I found improvement to be a possibility. Although the improvement was very minor, it was still progress. No matter how small, improvement and progress is nothing to underestimate. I had to re-learn how to find satisfaction from even the most minimal of strides, but it was necessary in order to ever build from it. Here is where I truly learned the wonderful value of building momentum from the progress we make. I developed a true appreciation for the value of progress, not perfection. I had come to full-circle to finally grasp the idea that perfection is the enemy of progress. I found that the more progress I made, the more momentum I began to create. And the more momentum I gathered, the more confident I began to feel which allowed me to start re-gaining power over my life again...Now I’m fast forwarding a bit, but this is definitely where the turning point started and I began recovering. I was unemployed for about 6 months where I focused on my mental well-being and overall health until I obtained another job as a social worker and haven't looked back since.
Understanding that OCD has a prominent biological component was important for me to comprehend because it played a large role in my recovery. I needed to know that this wasn't “my fault” so-to-speak. I had spent my entire life striving to be “perfect.” I always strove to be the best that I could be, while never tolerating short-comings or inadequacies. Failure, or even average, was not an option. Yet, I had to understand that I didn’t do something “wrong” and that I never did anything to bring upon such debilitating conditions to myself. I had to understand these things because it constantly gave me something to fall back on. It allowed my mind to rest as I sort of had my “answer” as to why I was the way I was. Grasping these concepts also taught me a very hard fact of life. A fact of life we all have to accept at some point if we want to be happy, ourselves. I had to accept that a part of me (a large part) was “flawed” no matter how much I tried to fix it, erase it, or run from it. It’s a hard pill to swallow knowing that no matter what you do, you can never rid yourself of this mind cancer. There’s just some things that are out of your control. However, this was a very insightful revelation to my recovery because it taught me about a very powerful word. Acceptance. By grasping how to accept certain facts of life, such as myself, I came to realize that I am already perfect in my own right. To me, true acceptance of yourself means you can acknowledge your faults, but know you are no lesser of a person because of them. Once you have done this, I believe you have achieved true beauty. However, to do so is more of a marathon than a sprint and to completely love your self as a whole (e.g. mind, body, soul) is always a work in progress. I have learned through experience that no matter how hard we try to plan or predict life, we will never ever achieve “perfection.” Just as will we never have EVERY answer to every situation or circumstance. We will never be able to always be right...no matter how hard we try not to be wrong.
It's the exact same revelation and “coming to” that I think most people have to experience after being tossed and turned by the waves of life. It's almost like I have been forced to laugh off life's idiosyncrasies simply because life isn't always supposed to be logical or “make sense” all of the time. After struggling so much with the anxiety caused by my control issues, I finally realized that it's impossible to be in control of every single area of your life during every waking second. No matter how hard you tried or how much effort you sacrificed. Sometimes there is simply just nothing you can do about the circumstances life gives you. That's it, though. There's nothing less, yet nothing more to think about. It is what it is. You accept it, eventually. You have to. Through acceptance, you achieve transcendence. Accept anything and you can transcend everything.
No matter what happens to us, at the end of the day, we always get a choice. We may not have control over everything that happens to us, but we CAN have control over how we react to EVERY thing that happens to us. Our reaction is a choice. It always has been and will be. We might not be able to control what someone does to us, but they will NEVER control how we decide to react either. We have the option to exercise that choice every single day of every single moment. After whatever life (or mental illness) happens to throw at us, it’s at our discretion to decide what we do or don’t do. To decide how happy or sad we will let something make us. So long as we believe and have faith that things will always work out for the best, they will. By always seeing the silver lining and choosing to be optimistic, we will greatly increase the odds of success simply by believing it to be so. I know that sounds so cliché, but it reminds me of a quote that helped ground me at times by Deepak Chopra saying “The best use of imagination is creativity. The worst use of imagination is anxiety.”
I can’t emphasize enough how important our perception and mindset is to our success in overcoming our symptoms of mental health. This same mindset and perception is what will give you an edge in life as well. If you'll notice, your attitude determines your altitude in everything you do. These two components are directly correlated with each other. We always can decide and dictate what type of attitude we have, which means it’s something that’s always in our control. And if our attitude is always directly in our control, then so is our level of success (i.e. altitude). No matter what we believe, it can always be changed for the better. And if we believe we can be better, we can DO better. Remember, whether we believe we can or can’t, we are right.
Even though, I thought I couldn’t get better (or recover) and although it felt like climbing a mountain of impossibility, I was able to change these beliefs. It's not a quick process and definitely will not happen over night. Not until I was able to put in a little bit of time and effort, but I can promise that if you’re willing to climb the mountain (work), the view from the top will be breathtaking (results). Finding a way to stay consistent and motivated to keep making progress is the only barrier you’ll experience once you have began to create momentum. Plateau's are 100% to be expected, but it will be up to you and you alone to continue building off your momentum. What you do with your potential and where you take it is up to you and nobody else. Never lose sight of your dreams because your potential is limitless. Take it from me because I've been there. Even though I was certain things would never get better, here I am living my life to the fullest and pursuing my dreams.
-Catlin A. Palmer, MSW