By Alison Dotson, author of Being Me with OCD
When I was in high school I was the very definition of a goody two-shoes. I didn’t drink or smoke or go to parties. Instead, I spent most of my time with my theater-geek best friend, holing up in her parents’ basement to watch movies, eat Doritos, talk about boys, and make video parodies of The Real World. I was obedient beyond understanding; my parents didn’t even bother giving me a curfew.
While my behavior was near pristine, unwanted thoughts would torment me for days, weeks, months at a time. Acting happy was often a chore. At my lowest points, I would immediately feel guilty when I laughed and had fun: Who did I think I was, being carefree when I was a terrible person who had arguably the strangest, most immoral thoughts ever? Punishing myself felt better than feeling happy, because I couldn’t forgive myself. And I couldn’t expect anyone else to, either.
I didn’t know there were people I could talk to who would understand—my parents, a therapist, maybe a school counselor. How could I open up to someone who might not understand, though? Of course it’s hard, especially for school personnel who have so much on their plate, to be intimately familiar with every mental disorder, not to mention all of the different ways one disorder can manifest itself.
One frustration people with OCD tend to have in common is other people’s perceptions of what having OCD means. Most people think it has everything to do with germs and excessive hand washing, repeatedly turning the oven on and off, and having to do things a certain number of times. But there can be more to it than that. Sometimes people with OCD have none of those symptoms.
In middle school I’d never been kissed, never even held a boy’s hand, but I was plagued with the fear that I might be a lesbian. I liked boys, genuinely wanted to date them. I had a desperate crush on a boy two years older than me—it was the stuff of angst-filled love songs and romantic comedies. But I couldn’t stop distressing over whether I liked girls instead.
Eventually I realized there was nothing wrong with being gay. After that, the obsessions about being gay stopped bothering me. They were no longer taboo. And I really wasn’t gay. But since I didn’t seek help for my intrusive thoughts (mainly because I didn’t know I could be helped) I just moved on to a different forbidden train of thoughts.
These were religious obsessions. I’d blow perfectly normal doubts out of proportion, berating myself until I burst into tears of frustration. I’d basically damned myself to hell, and it’s pretty hard to be happy when you think your fate’s already been sealed—a devastating fate, no less. And then there were the obsessions about diseases and accidents. If I read a book about cancer, I thought I had it; if I saw a movie about someone being caught in a fire or in a car accident I’d assume I’d end up in a house fire or car accident, too.
Even as I’d double over in laughter with friends, tears streaming down my face, the obsessions were there, even if only in the farthest corner of my mind. They were like a stain on my character, immovable, a nuisance. Light moments were overshadowed.
I still carried on, of course. I still laughed. I still smiled. Through it all, I seemed normal to others. When I was really down it often came across to my mom as typical teenage angst, hormones gone awry, making her sweet daughter undeniably crabby and rude. But the truth was that I was often miserable and overwhelmed by the obsessions. It was easier to lash out in anger than show weakness by crying. What if she asked what was wrong? I’d have to lie. How do you explain that you’re sad because you’re a bad person? How do you confess that you’re plagued with blasphemous thoughts or weird sexual obsessions?
The more adults who are armed with the knowledge to help kids with OCD, the better. OCD Awareness Week is October 14–20, making now a great time to increase your own awareness. A good place to start is this fairly long list of common obsessions, obsessions that seemingly “normal” and happy students may be dealing with in silence.
It’s important to understand that OCD is not a laughing matter, that many of us live with a tremendous amount of guilt and shame. No one should have to suffer through this alone. That’s where caring, informed adults can come in. I’ve benefited from an amazing community of OCD sufferers and survivors as well as mental health professionals who have dedicated much of their careers to helping people like me—and there’s always room for more open minds and shoulders to lean on.
Alison Dotson is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life, new this month on the Free Spirit Website. You can read more about Alison on her blog at alisondotson.com
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This was always me and I’ve always felt alone like no one understands, so thank you. I am an adult now with a family and it is still hard to cope with OCD everyday but I do my best.
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