This article is a co-publication of Zócalo Public Square and State of Mind, a partnership of Slate and Arizona State University focused on covering mental health.
I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember. My parents just didn’t know what to call it. I seemed like your average worrywart. No go-karts for me at birthday parties and no rides at Disney, outside of “it’s a small world” (which now seems scarier than any roller coaster because of the singing animatronics). I refused to learn how to ride a bike. I got my driver’s license but haven’t driven a car since my 18th birthday. There are few things more humbling than having to ask your mom to take you into town for a bagel when you’re in your late 20s.
A frantic narrator was ruling my internal monologue and I had, until recently, resigned to letting her hog the microphone. But then, a year ago, I decided to try something I’d never even considered previously: medication.
I’d done years of cognitive behavioral therapy, but it got me only so far. I felt like Sisyphus, only the boulder was my mental illness and the top of the hill was the fully realized version of myself that made stew for her friends without worrying about accidentally poisoning them. Now, on medication, I feel like I’m finally getting to know myself for the first time. My head is clear. I never thought I needed an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), but now that I’m on one I can’t believe I suffered so much before. And I can’t believe how much stew my friends were missing out on.
The compulsions arrived while I was in college. I became obsessed with my health, specifically getting infections and diseases through open wounds. I would wipe my body with alcohol pads every day, even when I didn’t have cuts, just in case I couldn’t see them. My skin probably had more contact with alcohol than my tongue. Sure, I went to parties, but would have sustained panic attacks if someone so much as brushed past me with their elbow.
And then in 2015, home on Long Island for spring break (I was very cool), I was presented with my biggest fear: a real medical emergency. An ache in my lower stomach that I assumed was gas—my mom tried to burp me thinking it was trapped—turned out to be appendicitis. An exploding appendix is not really something you can avoid, so I had my first taste of exposure therapy that day. And did I mention that the day was March 15? Yes, the Ides of March. The universe majored in English, I see.
My body, my safety, my health—these things I obsessed over—were out of my control and in the hands of the hospital. OCD deludes you into thinking that you can protect yourself with an ironclad grip over your reality, but that’s impossible. You can’t control everything. Kind of like how in New York City you can play with your radiator all you want, but at the end of the day, your building is controlling the heat. So there I was, being rolled into the operating room with no choice but to let go. The anesthesia helped, too.
When I woke up in the recovery room I was greeted with apple juice and a realization: I was fine. I would be constipated for the following seven days, prompting my aunt to light a candle in a church for me, but I was fine! Well, fine in the immediate sense. I would soon go through a few months of intense cognitive behavioral therapy—walking through the streets of Manhattan touching doorknobs and trash under the supervision of a medical professional. Then I had a few good years where the OCD was in check: I started dating the man who is now my husband, I graduated college, I went to Guy Fieri’s Mt. Pocono Kitchen. I was on top of the world.
Until the OCD came sneaking back. Gradually, trying to get rid of fruit flies in my apartment turned into hours cleaning and inspecting for bugs. Then we had a global pandemic, people started Cloroxing their groceries, and I became even more obsessed with disinfecting. I’d wash my hands 30 times in a row after touching an “outside world” jacket just in case I didn’t wash them the right way the 28th and 29th time. When we found out COVID was spread primarily through airborne droplets, it was too late for me. Handwashing had extended into compulsions that didn’t have anything to do with the virus. Every drawer needed to be closed. I had to check my carbon monoxide alarm dozens of times before going to sleep. The studio apartment where I was 24/7 with my husband became a soundstage for my OCD. A petri dish for my behaviors.
I could feel my brain short-circuiting when I tried to complete even simple tasks like getting dressed—I definitely washed these pants, right? Maybe I didn’t actually do laundry yesterday and I imagined it. Best to put them in the dirty hamper. Every moment of my day I was beholden to my compulsions. So I finally agreed to start taking medication after some long conversations with my mom, my sister, and my best friend—all of whom intervened independently of one another, which is when you know the situation is very dire.
I was afraid of taking medication. I didn’t want to introduce another variable into my life. It just seemed like the OCD was a part of me. I felt like I had to ride it out. I’ll be my normal self soon, I just kept saying. I believed in medication for other people, but I convinced myself that my OCD “wasn’t bad enough” to warrant it. I’ve always had a hard time admitting when I needed help. But I had to let go, just like I did the day I said goodbye to my appendix.
When you have OCD, it’s like everything sets off a fire alarm. The people you love can tell you there’s no fire all they want, but when the alarm is still going off in your head, all you can focus on is escaping that burning building.
Now that I’m on medication, the fire alarm is quieter. My SSRI—which psychiatrists often prescribe for OCD—allows me to sit with the discomfort of not fulfilling a compulsion. It makes the obsessive thoughts less sticky. I can finally go about my day and worry about normal things now, like: Do I look weird in this hat?
After a year on medication, I’d be lying if I said I still didn’t check the stove or the front door lock, but it doesn’t control my life anymore. Now I can actually enjoy a restaurant with my husband without some pestering thought about a crumb on the seat from the guest before. And I’m so grateful to my husband, my parents, my sisters, and friends for being so involved in my life and noticing when something was wrong. Now, I’ve gotten to know the Katherine who was buried underneath her buzzing thoughts for so long. The Katherine who loves to travel, who loves to cook, to explore, to see, to touch, to experience life and who, maybe—after a few Bell Auto School lessons—will love to drive.
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