“Sorry, I’m a little OCD and like to keep my room clean.”
“Woah, why are you being so OCD; who cares if your desk is neat or not?”
“I like to eat with a napkin because I’m OCD when it comes to messy food.”
This is what I used to think obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) was, just some adjective that meant being clean and organized. I think many people still have this idea today. I am no longer one of those people. I now know that OCD is an anxiety disorder characterized by intrusive thoughts and fears – known as obsessions – which lead to compulsions to alleviate the anxiety from those obsessions. This is my story of living with OCD.
My Story: 31 flavors of OCD
When I was 13, I started having intrusive thoughts about not believing in G-d and couldn’t get the feeling of guilt out of my head. Soon after this obsession came the obsession with cleanliness. This manifested itself in taking a long time in the bathroom and washing my hands repeatedly with an excessive amount of soap. My hands got so dry and itchy that at times they would bleed.
Next, my OCD latched onto the religious practices in my life. This is known as religious scrupulosity and plagues many religious individuals who deal with OCD. Davening in the morning became a living hell for me. I would nauseatingly repeat the words over and over because I was afraid that if I missed a word, G-d would punish me for it. While davening, I would constantly have intrusive thoughts about praying to avoda zara (idolatry), Hitler, or inappropriate images – which would make me restart the prayer. You may be thinking, “Okay so you had a bad thought or believed you missed a word. Go back, say it again, and move on.” I wish it were that easy. The reassurance I would give myself by giving into my OCD and repeating the words only made the doubts stronger and perpetuated the painful cycle of obsessions and compulsions – repetitive actions done in order to alleviate anxiety.
I started to daven out loud so I could hear the words and reassure myself in that way, but not only did this not help, it made my friends hate davening next to me. People thought I was shtark, so holy and connected. “Look at this guy taking 30 minutes in his Shemonah Esrei! Wow such kavanah (focus).” They didn’t know that I dreaded davening and just how painful it was for me. I eventually would stop repeating a prayer after I had lost all my energy, but this could result in a two to three hour davening in the morning.
I also dealt with kissing mezuzahs a certain number of times before entering a room, turning on and off lights an even number of times, constantly checking if the front door of my house was locked before going to sleep, repeatedly checking to see if the gas on my stove was off before leaving the house, and making sure all of my Jewish books were upright. Sometimes, I would have the urge to make sure I didn’t have a siddur on top of a chumash because I thought that G-d would punish me for such a thing. Going to sleep at night took a long time, as these rituals could take up to an hour just to get into bed.
While I struggled with religious scrupulosity the most, I also had unwanted and intrusive thoughts about harming others. This subtype of OCD, known as Harm OCD, made it difficult for me to enjoy watching violent movies or be around knives because of the intrusive thoughts of what I could do with them. People with OCD struggle with these thoughts because the intrusive thoughts of harming people are so repulsive that it becomes hard to just let them go and view them as the intrusive and unwanted thoughts that they are. I would constantly feel like I was an evil person for my intrusive, unwanted thoughts.
The crazy thing was that I knew it all didn’t make sense and that my obsessions and compulsions were irrational, but there was still some part of me that was scared about the “what if they were rational”, and I couldn’t live with that anxiety and constant doubt. The irony of course is that I lived with that anxiety anyways and temporarily alleviating my anxiety with compulsions, in reality, just made my OCD stronger. When I say temporarily, I mean for seconds, or at most a couple minutes.
Anything But Medication and Therapy
Before high school, I went to a therapist and psychiatrist who helped me and started me on medication to help with my OCD. At that point, I thought my life was over. See, I was the guy in middle school who used to judge the kids who took ADHD medication. I always thought that they were messed up for having to take medication every day. I thought that about kids who just had ADHD; now, here I was starting to take antidepressants every day for OCD. I never thought I would be in this place and just the idea of being on medication was so foreign to me. I felt like I was a broken person who would never go anywhere in life.
Afterall, I was taught by the societal stigma to think that people wouldn’t want to hang out with a person on medication. I thought that therapists were just for messed up people. But since life was hell at the time, I had no choice but to give medication and therapy a try.
The medication made my first year and a half of high school an interesting one. For starters, everyone thought I was a loopy stoner who was just out of it. You see, when psychiatrists first start someone on medication, it often takes time to figure out the proper dosage with the least amount of side effects. I was just starting medication and fatigue and loopiness were some of the side effects I had to deal with until the psychiatrist and I figured out what worked best for me. After I got the medication under control, things started looking up for me in high school and in life generally. I still dealt with intrusive thoughts and my davening still took a longer time than normal, but nothing compared to what it was when I was first diagnosed. I didn’t compulsively wash my hands, turn on and off lights compulsively, kiss the mezuzahs a certain amount of times, or do most of my old compulsions.
As high school went on, I got a girlfriend, and Guess what?! My OCD latched onto that too! I know shocker, right! An example of the type of intrusive thoughts I still dealt with was that I would constantly doubt whether or not I was attracted to my girlfriend, if we were compatible, or if we should even continue dating. This is another subtype of OCD known as relationship OCD, where someone obsessively doubts different aspects of a relationship. I would constantly ask my friends for advice in an effort to reassure myself of my decisions, but giving in to my obsessions like that only made my overall doubts stronger.
Over the course of high school, it also became very hard for me to let things go. If I didn’t get a joke, I would keep asking what someone meant by it. If someone jokingly made fun of me, I would continuously ask if they were serious or not. If I felt like I hurt someone’s feelings, I would continuously say sorry to them. This was all because I couldn’t live with the doubt, with the thought that maybe I don’t understand whether my friends were joking or maybe I seriously offended someone. So my compulsions were to constantly ask my friends for that reassurance to make sure I understood. Needless to say, these compulsions became burdensome not just to me, but to others as well, which led to them finding me annoying to hang out with.
Recovery and Everyday Living
I improved a significant amount with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which I started before college and continued through my time as a student in Yeshiva University. One mistake I made along the way was I went to Yeshiva in Israel and thought that since I had a lot of my symptoms under control, I didn’t need to go to therapy. What I found was that the lack of therapy made me revert back to my old habits of OCD, so I started going to therapy again.
A couple summers ago, I attended an outpatient OCD program at UCLA which further improved my symptoms and taught me valuable skills I use to manage my OCD. One of the skills I learned was to lean into the anxiety and doubt and be okay with the uncomfortable feeling. Believe it or not, the urges to perform a compulsion do fade over time. This is by no means an easy skill, and it is one that I work on every day.
I still struggle with some of the symptoms I previously described, but I’m able to deal with them much better and function normally. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have bad times or bad days. OCD, as well as most mental health challenges, are a constant work in progress.
I’ve been there where I felt like I had no hope and there was no way up. I also never thought I would be someone who goes to therapy and takes medication. The fact is that these things don’t make you weak, but there is a stigma in society that they do. True strength means acknowledging your weaknesses and being able to ask for help when you need it. I want everyone to know that they’re not alone and that there are people who care and want to help them.
Despite my OCD, I graduated with a degree in Biology from Yeshiva University with a good GPA, and I plan on studying to become a doctor. Don’t give up or lose hope, even when you encounter therapists or take medications that don’t work for you. The road to recovery is far from easy, but it’s well worth it and you owe it to yourself to take it.
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