Until I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in my early 30s, I’d always believed the misconception that OCD revolved around being super organized and not wanting to come into contact with germs. Even after my diagnosis, it took me another two years to really understand what OCD is.
When I was 16, I started experiencing symptoms of depression and urges to hurt myself. If I cut or burned myself, the urges and anxiety associated with them would temporarily disappear. If I hurt myself, I experienced instant relief. Because I was a teenager who was self-harming, I was misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). I remember several doctors telling me, “The self-harm is the only BPD symptom you have, but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else.”
Around 15 years later, I finally received my OCD diagnosis. However, it wasn’t until a year or two after that I really looked into what OCD is. I quickly realized I didn’t even know the basics. I had no idea that OCD involves a cycle of intrusive thoughts that become obsessive, and compulsions are actions a person takes that relieves those intrusive, obsessive thoughts. I also didn’t realize that there are different types of obsessions, outside of germs and keeping things organized, such as contamination, losing control, harm, perfectionism and unwanted sexual thoughts.
Once I was able to better understand OCD, it became clear how my symptoms fit — and it was a relief to fit somewhere. Once I knew what the real problem was, I felt like I had more power to do something about it. I could begin to focus on finding treatment that specifically works for OCD. I also felt less stigma toward myself after learning that having awful, intrusive thoughts is something that happens to me and doesn’t make me a bad person.
What My OCD Looks Like
My obsessions and compulsions are mostly centered around harm. I go through periods where I’m afraid I may have hurt someone and forgotten about it or that I’m going to fatally harm myself if I don’t harm myself in a more minor way first. Every time I describe my obsessions and compulsions to someone, I tell them that I realize none of this is rational, but something’s just not wired correctly in my brain, and I can’t reason my way out of it in the moment.
I also have obsessions around perfectionism, symmetry and doing things in a certain order. Those aren’t as troubling and don’t interfere as much with my daily life (most of the time) as the harm obsessions do.
While my OCD can greatly interrupt my life at times, it’s not all bad. I told my last therapist that I use my OCD for good at work, almost like it’s a super power. The obsessions about perfectionism and doing things in a certain order mean that my time management skills are on point. I schedule the tasks I need to do each day and set reminders for those tasks. This helped alleviate obsessive fears about forgetting to do something. At work, I’m super productive and reliable and my colleagues seem to appreciate that.
My house is very clean and uncluttered. I can invite friends to drop by whenever they’d like without having to scramble to shove things into a closet or move things so they have a place to sit. I keep track of my friends’ and family members’ birthdays so I can be sure to send them something or wish them a happy birthday (I’m one of the few people under 40 without a social media account). I budget and keep track of every penny that comes in and goes out. By doing that, I was able to pay off all my debt two years ago and buy my first home last year.
Some days I have to get dressed three times because I did it out of order the first time and the second time I get dressed cancels out the first. Despite this, I try to focus on the positives and use my “OCD powers” for good.
What Helps Me
When I was first researching OCD and harm obsessions, one of the most helpful videos I watched featured Steven Phillipson, Ph.D., an expert in OCD. He was saying that people who experience harm obsessions fear that just by having these disturbing, intrusive thoughts, they believe they have a greater likelihood of acting on these violent thoughts. He then went on to say, “I tell persons on a regular basis that I would leave them in a room with a knife and my children for a weekend, and I would be more concerned about their safety than I would my children’s safety.”
Even after hearing this, I still occasionally have doubts about what having these thoughts says about me as a person. Whenever I have these doubts, I go back and watch Dr. Phillipson’s video again. Hearing an expert say that he would trust his children around someone who has harm obsessions reassures me that I’m not going to suddenly become a dangerous person.
Learning more about OCD, and harm obsessions in particular, has been helpful for me.
Other things that have helped are:
- Seeing a therapist on a weekly basis.
- Reading other people’s stories about their experiences with harm obsessions.
- I work in web production, so thinking about these intrusive thoughts as bugs or glitches that are going on in my brain brings me some relief.
- I view the intrusive thoughts as something that’s happening to me, not thoughts that are coming from me. Not in the sense that I feel helpless or that I have no control, but there’s relief in knowing that these thoughts aren’t something I’m willingly or consciously choosing to think about.
- Sticking to my routines. I do best when my days are structured and I know what to expect.
- When things don’t go as planned, I try to remember that I can start over the next day. That helps me not get stuck on being upset over things not happening the way I expected them to.
My self-harm has become very infrequent in the years since I’ve been diagnosed with OCD. Once I knew what I was dealing with and understood why I was having these thoughts, what the self-harm really was (compulsive behaviors) and how to deal with them in a healthier way, things got easier to manage.
If you live with OCD, I encourage you to keep going, even on the hardest days. Remember that we can start fresh the next day and things can and do get better.
Elyse Hunt is Web Production Manager at NAMI.