How often we hear someone casually proclaim, “I’m OCD!” But people who actually suffer with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) do not casually say, “I’m OCD” – because for them, the brain disorder and its manifestations are devastating and torturous.
I have battled a severe case of obsessive-compulsive disorder since I was very young. I am more in control now, but the battle continues daily.
This is not a blog about me as a victim with OCD. This is about sharing a bit of my experience with something that is still very misunderstood by society in hopes of helping anyone who might be engaged in a battle with this serious challenge. It might also help those who have children or a loved one who is silently suffering.
I could write a book on my life with OCD, but my goal is to reveal as much as I can in this brief blog.
The Mayo Clinic defines OCD as a disorder “characterized by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead you to do repetitive behaviors (compulsions). It’s also possible to have only obsessions or only compulsions and still have OCD.”
The obsessive thoughts and the compulsive behavior vary greatly from person to person, but the one common denominator is that the thoughts force an individual to try to control something around them in place of being able to control their obsessive thoughts. In my case, the obsessive thoughts led to compulsive behavior.
For those who do not have OCD – not much of this will make sense. In fact, it might make some think that OCD is a politically correct affliction to excuse bizarre behavior. But I am here to tell you that if you have OCD, or are the parent of a child with OCD, or with a partner or spouse that has OCD, and then all of this will make perfect sense.
At a young age, I experienced a traumatic moment when my father was traveling for business, and to the best of my memory, that was when I recognized my obsessive-compulsive disorder. What specifically happened is not as important as the fact that something did happen, and it is believed that a person is born with OCD, which can be hereditary, and something traumatic occurs that brings to life the OCD symptoms.
My father traveled almost every week when I was growing up and I was obsessed with the fear that he would be killed while traveling. In the earlier stages of my OCD, I had a certain set of clothes I had to wear each day of the week when he traveled and I was absolutely convinced that if I didn’t wear each set of clothes on that particular day of the week – that my father would die and I would never see him again. Wearing the clothes was a way I felt I could control his fate – as ridiculous as that sounds. I could not control my father traveling, and I could not control my obsessive fear that he would die – but I could control the clothes I wore each day.
My Dad was the sales promotion manager for JAX, a locally brewed beer that was distributed in five states. Since many of the distributors my Dad had to visit regularly were in small towns and cities that were not accessible by the airlines, he convinced his company to buy a company plane. My Dad was a great pilot in the Navy and loved to fly, so having a company plane meant that he could continue to be a pilot.
Even though I had faith in my Dad’s ability to fly, I still felt that something could happen to him as he flew the five states in a small plane. I worried – obsessively – to the point where I didn’t even feel alive. I was just going through the motions.
In addition to wearing certain clothes each day of the week he traveled, I had to sit in a certain position on the sofa with my hands and feet locked in a specific position and I was not able to relax until he called that night to let us know that he was safe on the ground and in his hotel. Until he called each night – if anyone moved anything – and I mean anything – even the salt and pepper shakers – I had to move them back in the same place thinking that would somehow keep my father from dying.
As time passed, I got over the obsession that my father would be killed while traveling, and the physical compulsions of wearing certain clothes each day of the week and putting anything that was moved back in its place evolved into silent mental compulsive thoughts that possessed my entire body. I then began to focus on being a perfect person. If I made even the slightest mistake, I would begin a ritualistic thought process that took over my brain. I would talk to myself and to God about “starting over – right now” and never making that mistake, or any mistake, ever again. Since I had OCD – my brain had to find something to obsess over – first my father and then my quest to be perfect. I always felt that I would have to get rid of my OCD in order to be the person I was destined to be.
It is impossible to write out a narrative of the ritualistic thought process that took over my brain, but imagine that you are talking to yourself and God in a prayer with your hands and feet in a certain fixed position and staring that a specific spot on the floor, counter or the wall. At this point – you don’t even feel alive. You feel as if you are just going through the motions of life while trying desperately to hide the deep torture from everyone from loved ones to strangers.
Imagine tripping over one word as you go through this thought process or not having the right “feeling” you want to have during the conversation with yourself and God, and having to start the ritual over from the beginning. I would start over by repositioning myself in the exact spot and start over. If I told myself that if I thought about certain things during the ritual, I would have to start over. And what happens when you tell yourself not to think about something? You think about it! And I did – over and over again.
Now, imagine sitting or standing in a rigid position – staring at a specific spot – and specific means a certain spot in the grain of the wood or a flaw in the paint on the wall or a mark or piece of lint on the floor - and going over the same verses in your head over and over and over for 10 minutes, 30 minutes, even hours at a time. That is OCD, and it is a silent torture. It’s not that you can’t physically move on – it’s that you can’t mentally move on.
I obsessed on the air through my radio career, and would listen back to shows when I knew how much I was suffering inside, and I couldn’t hear the effects of my suffering on the show. I was often stunned that I was able to hide the suffering so well.
The OCD episode could strike at any moment and countless times every day. I have never actually counted but I wouldn’t be surprised if I had five very extended episodes and a hundred shorter ones. I wasted so much of my life brain-locked in OCD episodes.
Again – writing this is not about me – but I am using my experience to enlighten those of you who may be suffering or may be with someone who is suffering. This is also for those who are quick to think that OCD is a faux disorder and is part of a society that is over-diagnosed and overmedicated.
Unfortunately, many people who do not have OCD are quickly diagnosed and put on medication – while others remain untreated and in silent torture.
I wish someone would have told me what was wrong with me in the early stages of my OCD, but when I was young, OCD was not understood or recognized, and my parents, who knew something was wrong with me, took me to a psychiatrist twice only to be told – “I can’t find anything wrong with him.” That convinced me that I was the ONLY person in the world that had a brain that worked the way mine did – and that was a very lonely feeling.
As a straight male, one of the reasons I think I relate to gays and lesbians is because I grew up with this horrible secret hidden inside of me and I went through life with the thought that no really knew me. I know gays and lesbians who share similar feelings about their childhoods, teen years and even adulthood.
I was married twice, and neither of my wives knew I was OCD. I never shared my silent torture because I honestly believed they would not understand. In fact, I didn’t even know how to explain it because I thought I was the only person in the world who had a brain that worked the way mine did.
Today, I still battle my OCD daily, but it is under control. So there is hope for anyone dealing with an obsessive-compulsive brain.
Through reading, I first realized that there was a name for the way my brained worked. I started to seek help in the mid-90s, but nothing changed. Nothing changed until I was in Portland in 2000 when I had a major breakthrough!
I believed that I had to get rid of my OCD in order to be the person God wanted me to be and be the person I knew I could be. My life changed when a psychiatrist told me that rather than trying to get rid of my OCD, I should accept it as part of who I am. He told me that I was in very good company because many celebrities and creative and intelligent people have OCD. He was trying to explain that the same brain that deals with OCD is the same brain that could lead me to do many great things.
At the exact time the psychiatrist told me to work on accepting my OCD as part of who I am, I was reading a book on Zen. In the book, I read that there are things we like and don’t like about ourselves. A light shines on us and that’s what we like about ourselves. But the light casts a shadow – that’s what we don’t like about ourselves. To get rid of the shadow, we would have to get rid of the light. That was the moment of my breakthrough. I still struggle at times, but I have learned to accept who I am – I have OCD and that is part of me – which I completely accept.
If any of this discussion about obsessive-compulsive disorder is relatable to you or someone in your life, then it may serve as a flashpoint when you realize that what you are dealing with has a name – OCD. And hopefully, if you relate to this then you will begin to get your OCD under control like I did when I first related to something I read about OCD.
I am never offended by anyone who casually says, “I’m OCD!” I understand the difference between picking up a new common phrase to describe a habitual moment – and someone, like myself, who suffered the silent torture of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The lesson that I learned in that breakthrough moment about myself is a lesson for everyone. Accept who you are and remember that to get rid of the shadow – you would have to get rid of the light!
If you would like to talk about this – feel free to send me an email: Scoot@WWL.com.