When I was 8 years old, I walked into the living room while my parents were watching “The Mummy 2,” and immediately regretted it. If you’ve seen the film, you’re probably familiar with the scene where the antagonist begins to pull Brendan Fraser’s brain out through his nose, a practice that was common when embalming the deceased in ancient Egypt, and one that I became acutely familiar with that day. For years after, I didn’t allow myself to face my closet door when going to sleep, because if I did, I would see the nasty, ramen-noodle-esque brain tissue coming out of the nose of 2007’s most esteemed movie star. It was terrifying and didn’t stop until I moved out of that house at 16.
You can imagine that it was somewhat nightmarish when I learned that the first viable COVID tests touched the membrane separating one’s nasal cavity from the brain. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I once drove an hour and a half from Pennsylvania to Ohio in order to get a test that only swabbed the lower nasal cavity instead of the invasive PCR. I guess fear makes you do silly things.
Why am I recounting my childhood phobias in an article about mental health? Well, this instance is the first memory I can recall in which what I now know to be OCD became evident. At the time, I thought it was normal. I thought a lot of things were normal, which is why I never thought to ask for help.
There are countless red flags that I can recall from my childhood and early adult life that pointed to the reality of my situation — obsessively counting stairs and floor tiles, pulling off my cuticles so my fingers would look “clean,” refusing to swim in lakes with trees too close to the water in fear of getting impaled — but because I never told anyone, no one thought anything was wrong. Yeah, some kids are just sensitive, but in my case there was something more serious going on.
It wasn’t until I was 16 that I realized I’d been having panic attacks for years, and not until I was 18 that I admitted to myself that I had above-average anxiety. Only recently have I felt comfortable saying that I have OCD. Why did it take me so long to realize if all factors clearly indicated that I have obsessive-compulsive disorder?
There were a number of things that stopped me from making the connection, including the simple fact that mental health issues are rarely spoken of in religious communities. I’m not blaming the church here, but it would be foolish not to note the institutional silence on this topic, especially in Evangelical circles. But for me, at least, the more serious barrier to seeking help was imposter syndrome.
You hear the term imposter syndrome thrown around a lot these days — I guess it’s Gen Z’s newest favorite thing to have. But when I was growing up, everyone and everything was “so OCD.” Every little neat freak within a hundred mile radius suddenly was afflicted with obsessive-compulsive disorder: the horse girl in your geometry class with the multicolored pens, the roommate who doesn’t want you rearranging the contents of her minifridge, your mom who demanded that the house be spotless before you invited a friend over. The designation “OCD” basically became synonymous with a type-A personality, or (if you dabble in the Enneagram) type ones. My issue is that I am both of those things — an A, a one — but didn’t want to be another person who claimed to have OCD just because they like to make their bed in the morning.
But the thing is, I don’t just like to make my bed. I have to make my bed, because otherwise I am a bad, lazy and stupid person. There have been days when I’ve left the house with the bed unmade and thought about it up until the moment I got home to fix it. OCD is characterized by obsessive thoughts and (usually, but not always, linked) compulsive actions, as well by the fact that these behaviors take up a significant amount of time or pose a threat to your well-being. I’m a high-functioning person, so I didn’t think that my obsessions could be characterized as a real impediment — that is, until last fall.
If you were to ask me what happened in October of 2019, I genuinely couldn’t tell you. There are weeks-long gaps in my memory, which, for someone who doesn’t tend to forget much, is extremely disturbing. I wasn’t getting schoolwork done in a timely fashion because I wanted to do it perfectly, but I didn’t feel like I was in a good headspace to do my best work, so I simply wouldn’t work on it at all. The same logic applied to cleaning my room, seeing my friends, calling my family and any work that required self-motivation. My life was a mess, and furthermore, I couldn’t remember much of it. It was at that point that I decided to get professional help.
My therapist is awesome. I feel like everyone says that, but really, the positive changes she’s helped me make in the past year or so have drastically improved my quality of life. The first thing she had me do was make a list of all the rules I had made for myself. I still have the list. Rule #1 reads: “No jaywalking.” That one is, admittedly, pretty normal, but it really goes down from there in terms of rationality. My first “assignment” was to start breaking the rules in little, but meaningful, ways. The only way to interrupt the cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive action is to counteract them with new habits; to change what you tell your brain in hopes that what it’s telling you changes as well. This process, which is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), literally forges new neural paths in your brain. CBT was hard then and is hard now, but as my therapist tells me, “success builds upon success.”
It may not look like success to an outsider, but for me, straightening out my car just twice (instead of five times) or leaving one dish on the drying rack overnight (instead of getting up at 3:00 a.m. to put it away because I can’t sleep) are victories. I am making progress. I am getting better.
I’m not sharing this story just for the sake of transparency. In fact, I don’t really like to tell personal stories unless I think recounting them will be helpful in some way. So what is my point? First, don’t refrain from getting help because “it always gets better eventually.” Just because you consistently feel better after an episode doesn’t mean it won’t get bad again. These kinds of things are cyclical, so even if you’re feeling fine now, begin to seek out resources. I can guarantee that you’ll want some coping mechanisms in your pocket before “next time” rolls around.
Secondly, a word for those of you who still employ the vocabulary of “so OCD,” or a similar variant involving anxiety or depression: stop it. Your words matter, and they aren’t helping anybody. I don’t say this in order to be a gatekeeper. Everyone can get therapy; it’s super healthy. Even if you usually feel fine but need to talk about your current circumstances with a third party who’s sworn to secrecy, you can get help, too. You should never feel like you’re “not [insert bad feeling here] enough.” However, do consider the impact your words are having on people who are struggling, and whether your language is constructive or trivializes the experiences of others.
Finally, don’t give into imposter syndrome. I know just how difficult it is to speak up for yourself, but it’s so worth it. The first time I had a session, my therapist asked me, “Why are you here now; right now?” I gave a long, rambling answer about how afraid I was that this is how everyone felt, and that if a professional told me I was fine, I’d just have to live like this for the rest of my life. Chances are that if you feel similarly, it’s not normal, and you should get help. I’m thankful beyond words that I did.
If you take one thing from reading about my experiences, let it be this: you are your own best advocate, and you are absolutely deserving of help. You don’t have to do this alone.