This piece is part of our Mental Health Month blog series, where we highlight and explore lesser-known mental health challenges. Here’s Bianca’s experience with and perspective on Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
As a kid, one of my favorite things to do was organize the aisle of school supplies at the grocery store. I’d spend so long there that my parents would have to pull me away every time. Seeing the clutter slowly disappear gave my young mind the inimitable satisfaction of seeing things come together exactly as I wanted. Being able to turn the chaos created by other customers into order and structure supplied my brain with a small but very real sense of calm and relief that I craved in other aspects of life.
This is nothing more than a cute story. It’s not part of a bigger puzzle like you think it is. It’s just a quirky thing you would do as a kid. Stop trying to convince yourself it’s more serious than it actually is.
At six years old I began relentlessly picking at my nails and the surrounding skin. If I am able to feel the point where the skin meets the nail, there is a nagging instinct to pick and pull until I all but eliminate the space where they become one. Whether it’s biting the nails down to the cuticle, using a clipper so excessively that it’s hard to tell if I even have a nail, or tugging at the skin until it’s red and raw, this habit culminates into a much more intense and calming wave of relief than organizing grocery store isles ever could.
It’s not a compulsion. You don’t “need” to do that. You have complete control and you could stop at any time if you tried hard enough. This isn’t a symptom, it’s just another coping mechanism you don’t want to let go of. Face it: even when it comes to mental health, you’re an imposter.
If I see a loose strand of hair, especially on a person, I have to remove it or walk away to stop hyper-focusing on it. If a food has a certain taste and texture combination, my stomach churns and my body shudders. If I get dirty, particularly by a liquid, I will scrub my skin long after it’s clean because the lingering sensation of a foreign substance on my body makes me deeply uncomfortable. If I leave a task unfinished, the feeling of being incomplete tugs at my body from the inside until I finish the task. I also have a debilitating fear of uncertainty and the unknown.
Now you’re trying too hard and everyone knows it. Nobody will believe that you actually have OCD because you don’t. These are all just stereotypes of what OCD looks like, which only confirms that you are faking it. You’re a fraud. This isn’t due to mental illness, you’re just difficult and high maintenance.
When my OCD is in high gear, the obsessions and compulsions are often about OCD itself. I ruminate over whether I’m actually feeling a compulsory need to research my symptoms or if I’m simply looking for an excuse to hold on to unhealthy habits. And when I act on those compulsions, the whole time I’m questioning whether I could stop if I really “wanted to” or if a “true” compulsion means no control at all. I worry that what OCD looks like for me doesn’t merit the diagnosis.
You’re not compulsive enough to have OCD. And when you are, it’s because you’re trying to force yourself into the label. Stop being dramatic.
This aspect of my identity is still very novel to me. Every day I learn new things about how my OCD manifests, and I am figuring out in real-time what that means for my relationships, health, and job.
It’s only been a few months since you decided you had OCD. People with a “real” diagnosis deal with this their whole lives and now you are being disrespectful to them. What is wrong with you?
I’ll be going about my normal routine when one tiny thought or action reminds me of the countless OCD-related articles I’ve read, and I will realize that this thing I have done for years is not merely an embarrassing quirk of mine but a compulsion that my brain is using to mitigate the intrusive thoughts.
You only read all those articles to reaffirm this unfounded theory. You interpreted what you wanted to from those articles because that’s how confirmation bias works. Stop kidding yourself.
The past few months have consisted of daily revelation announcements when I sort out why some things are targets of the obsessions and what experiences have become the foundation for my compulsions. Following these revelations, my partner will smile and we’ll celebrate these signs of progress. And tomorrow, if I have another revelatory announcement, I will be proud of that progress, too. I deserve to be proud of myself.
You don’t deserve anything.
On average, it can take a decade or longer to receive an accurate diagnosis or adequate care for OCD. I’ve spent so much of my life wondering why I couldn’t get rid of certain habits, as well as why I felt an insatiable need to maintain those habits and see them through so frequently. I felt like a jumbled mess of clues and questions with no idea how to string them together (or if I even could). The dots were always there, but a diagnosis at age 24 finally helped me connect them.
That still doesn’t mean—
Although this process has been cathartic in many ways, there was still one particularly hard pill to swallow: Relationship OCD (ROCD). Much of the eight years I’ve spent with my partner has been dedicated to being a better and healthier person for both of us. Often that meant fighting against what I didn’t yet know was OCD, especially obsessions about my relationship and the compulsory need to be constantly reassured.
You constantly need to be reassured because you are insecure, clingy, and afraid. That’s not OCD. That’s just you.
Prior to discovering ROCD to be at the root of those needs, I felt pride in the growth I’ve experienced, the changes I’ve seen take place, and the appreciation my partner shows when he notices those efforts. But mental illness has a talent for twisting good into bad.
You can do all the therapy and self-reflection possible, but your brain is wired this way. You will never be free of the obsessions. You will never escape the compulsions. You wanted to believe that if you worked hard enough, eventually there would come a time when you wouldn’t have to deal with these thoughts and worries. You foolishly believed you could sort through it all in hopes of one day finding that you had overcome. But you can’t. No matter how much you try, you can never outrun the incessant, exhausting anxiety.
Despite these fears, I haven’t stopped learning about OCD. Maybe that’s a compulsion in and of itself—to validate myself and eradicate the gray areas—but maybe why I do it isn’t as important as what it gives me. The more I learn, the more I understand. With every piece of knowledge, I gain clarity on where these thoughts come from, why they can be so hard to fight, and why they lead me to do arbitrary but comforting things like touch a surface an even amount of times on each hand. Every day offers another reminder that the things I have been so cruel to myself about are the very things I deserve to give myself grace and compassion for.
I’ve started to understand that a diagnosis isn’t a death sentence to my progress, but a flashlight for when the journey is obscured. Coming to terms with my OCD does not mean relinquishing my ability to keep moving forward and fight against the intrusive thoughts. ROCD does not make me unlovable, a burden, or too much work. It doesn’t make my love any less real or important. In fact, my efforts to have a healthy relationship despite these struggles have only highlighted the truth that I am a good partner worthy and deserving of the very love I give.
OCD may be a large and ongoing chapter of my story, but it is not and can never be the only chapter. It will affect my journey going forward and even how I think about the journey looking back, but it doesn’t negate the healing I’ve done or the milestones I’ve accomplished thus far. Although I am still processing how OCD affects me, I write these words with confidence because I believe that as long as I continue to wake up every day and show up for myself, nothing can keep me from moving forward.
Nothing, not even OCD, can take away how far I’ve come.
Your diagnosis is not the end of your story. Healing and treatment are still possible. We encourage you to use TWLOHA’s FIND HELP Tool to locate professional help and to read more stories like this one here. If you reside outside of the US, please browse our growing International Resources database. You can also text TWLOHA to 741741 to be connected for free, 24/7 to a trained Crisis Text Line counselor. If it’s encouragement or a listening ear that you need, email our team at firstname.lastname@example.org.