Hi, my name is Kimberly, and I have obsessive compulsive disorder.
I’m not particularly tidy or organized. I have a great job. I am a good wife and an engaged, loving mom. I’m happy. And while my brain might process things a little bit differently than yours, I am generally a high-functioning and healthy member of society.
OCD can seem almost trendy. The “fun” mental illness. Harmless. A punchline. A Buzzfeed article. People love to say, “I’m so OCD!” when referring to the fact that they color-coordinate their closets or like to keep the papers on their desks squared off. NBD. But most of these people do not, in fact, have OCD. And not all people with OCD are neat freaks, germaphobes, or any other stereotypical trope of the disorder. More commonly, OCD flies under the radar, often making its sufferers feel extremely isolated, fearful, and even “crazy” before they understand their unique brain patterns and how to manage them.
Have you ever had a song stuck in your head that you just could not get to stop playing over and over and over again, no matter how hard you tried? That’s what OCD can be like. Except instead of a song, imagine a highlight reel of your fears, worries, and worst-case-scenarios playing like a broken record in your mind. It’s like a glitch in the brain. Like some sadistic gnome sitting in front of a control panel in your head saying “what’s the most horrible, terrifying thing you can imagine? Got it? Great. Let’s run that on repeat for the next 6 hours.”
Or imagine you’re walking down the street, having a perfectly lovely day, when you pass a shop window with a TV in it. On the screen, a gory crime scene suddenly and unavoidably filling your field of vision. OCD can be like that too. Scary, upsetting thoughts that just bust their way into your mind with no provocation at all like the Kool Aid man. (“OH YEAH” my a@$.) These are called “intrusive thoughts,” and they are no more under an OCD sufferer’s control than the weather. So telling someone with OCD to “just stop thinking about it” or “quit worrying” is not only unhelpful, it’s shaming and infuriating.
Before I was diagnosed, I thought I was insane. I worried constantly. I had panic attacks multiple times a day. And terrifying intrusive thoughts left me feeling afraid of myself and questioning my own character. I felt trapped by my own mind, and it could have cost me my life. I felt extremely alone. But once I took the step to get help, my diagnoses was freeing in a way I never could have imagined. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone. Suddenly, I WASN’T CRAZY. And there were things I could actually do to help get back some control of my brain. It was extraordinary news that changed my life forever. I didn’t feel like a person with mental illness; it felt empowering to actually know what was actually going on.
It’s been about 15 years since then, and things have only gotten better. Through the magic combination of healthy living, exercise, creative outlets, therapy, and medication, I can live a nearly anxiety-free life most of the time. Intrusive thoughts, once my constant companions, rarely assault me anymore. It’s something teenage me never could have imagined. So if you’re living with OCD, please know that you are not alone. You are not crazy. And you CAN feel like yourself again. My mental illness is not your mental illness, so please keep trying new things until you find the perfect formula that works for you. It can take some (or a lot) of trial and error, so don’t give up.
And if you’re just a really organized person who uses the Dewey Decimal System in their home library? Well you’re something else entirely.
Kimberly Poovey is a writer, speaker, wife, and over-caffeinated new mom. She runs a teen pregnancy prevention program for a nonprofit and is a founder of Pearls, an organization that serves women in the sex industry and fights human trafficking. You can find her over on Scary Mommy, The Mighty, her blog, and on Facebook.