Updated: Mar 11, 2020
At 8 years old, I won a prize at my catholic school for being the most dedicated student during Lent. Lent is a religious observance that happens once a year, requiring people to abstain from something they enjoy to focus more on God. I gave up potato chips that year, and every day during lunch, I’d walk up to my teachers and ask them to confirm that the food on my plate didn’t contain potatoes since that’s basically the same thing as chips, right?
The teachers thought I was cute so they awarded me for my devotedness. Little did they know, I believed that if I didn’t perform perfectly during Lent, I would go to hell. Everyday, during and after school, my brain was on a continuous loop trying to determine how my moral actions would affect my chances of getting into heaven. Whether it was repeating my goodnight prayer until it was perfect, or ceaselessly asking God for forgiveness if I believed I sinned, every moment of every day I was held hostage by my own brain. It wasn’t just a silly childhood fear. It was my first experience with undiagnosed OCD and the beginning of a journey that would be incredibly lonely, frustrating, and ultimately liberating.
Eventually, like many OCD themes, my religion-focused OCD gave way to make room for new, scarier themes. I would go on to deal with some of the classic OCD subtypes which revolved around death, relationships, harm, and health..etc. For several years, each theme ebbed and flowed throughout my life like a really unhealthy relationship. Then at 17, a theme arrived and never left - Reddit calls it Schizophrenia OCD, also known as the fear of developing a psychotic disorder (not to get confused with actually having psychosis). Explaining my experience with this theme is complex and nothing I write will translate just how terrifying that time of my life was. I was trapped and I did not believe I would ever feel normal again.
This is how it started: 7 years ago, my best friend and I were having a conversation about her uncle who developed schizophrenia; me being curious, went home and googled psychosis symptoms for 6 straight hours. How fucked up of my OCD brain to latch on to such knowledge. After that moment, I spent years believing I was becoming schizophrenic. My brain knew every symptom a schizophrenic person experienced and convinced me I was developing them all. During those years, my intrusive thoughts became increasingly paranoid. “I wonder if that car behind me is following me,” led to “why did I think that – this has to mean i’m paranoid and becoming schizophrenic.” (#insertthoughtloophere). A thought like this would run circles in my brain for up to 8 hours a day, non stop, no matter what I was doing.
Other times, I convinced myself I was hallucinating. If I heard an unclear noise, I would ask those around me if they heard it too. After learning that people with psychosis commonly hallucinate insects, my camera roll quickly filled with images of spiders because I needed my boyfriend to confirm that the insect I saw was real. I became fixated on the size of objects because I knew some people with schizophrenia had trouble with visual perception. I was extremely aware of my emotional affectations; when I’d talk to people, I’d make sure that I was smiling just enough because I worried that I could be perceived as having ‘flat affect’ - a severe reduction in emotional expressiveness. I can recall every single time a friend or family member jokingly called me crazy during this time of my life because it catapulted me into a deep mental spiral for days. I knew my fear was irrational, but I couldn’t stop acting out my compulsions.
Not a single friend or family member knew what I was going through. I was a master at hiding my compulsions and perfecting normalcy, I don’t blame them for not realizing I was struggling.
No matter how normal I pretended to be, I knew I needed help. After two years of mental purgatory, I went to a psychiatrist, told her everything, and prepared myself for a schizophrenia diagnosis.
“It sounds like you have OCD,” my psychiatrist replied after I told her about my so-called schizophrenia symptoms.
“No, no there’s not a chance. I’m clearly exhibiting behaviors of someone developing psychosis.”
I knew the OCD stereotypes and couldn’t relate.I have never compulsively hand-washed nor am I terribly clean. After explaining this to my psychiatrist, she assured me her diagnosis was correct. I was suffering from a form of OCD where sufferers engage in hidden compulsions like rumination, counting, checking, and other mental rituals that aim to minimize their biggest fears.
“Some people with OCD believe they will develop AIDS from touching a door handle. You believe you are developing schizophrenia because of your thoughts. It’s easier to avoid a door handle than it is your thoughts,” she said.
“So now what?” I asked her in desperation.
”Well, you can book an appointment with a therapist and join our anxiety support group.” she replied.
So that’s what I did. I went to an in-network therapist who only wanted to talk about my childhood trauma. With more hope, I attended the anxiety group. I listened to people complain about real life problems like work, school, and social anxiety. I could relate to those things, but that wasn’t why I was there. What was I supposed to say? “Hi, I’m Gaby and for 16 hours a day my mind tries to convince me I’m going insane.” I quit and decided I would battle my OCD alone.
I managed to deal with my OCD symptoms for another 2 years after my initial diagnosis, but then life happened, and things got bad again. This time I decided I would put my OCD brain to good use and learn everything I could about the disorder and how to beat it. It was clear that to treat OCD I needed to see an OCD therapist who specialized in exposure and response prevention therapy, also known as ERP. ERP is a type of treatment that encourages you to face your fears and let obsessive thoughts occur without neutralizing them with compulsions.
I found 5 therapists in my area and started sending out emails. I sent the same frantic email to each therapist.
“Hi there - I am a 23 yo female living in the Bay Area. I’ve been dealing with OCD for a long time and recently had a bad relapse. I am looking for treatment and hope you can help asap! The best way to reach me is via email since I work during the day..”
Of the 5 I reached out to, one stuck out. A day after reading my email, my soon to be therapist agreed to talk to me at 8pm. The conversation lasted over 40 minutes. She could feel my pain, and I could feel her empathy. Now, almost a year later, I am thrilled to write that I am on the road to recovery from OCD, thanks to my amazing therapist. We have one-one sessions bi-weekly and meet once a month during our support group.I do my OCD homework, keep active and eat well - all things necessary for my recovery. Everyday isn’t perfect though - I have good days and really, really bad days. The only difference now is that I can manage those bad days better than before.
Like many of us, my life has been filled with tragedy and a shit-load of change. I find that my brain’s way of coping with these experiences is to turn inward and seek control in imaginary places. My OCD likes to show face during times of trauma and immense joy - so the next time something unfortunate or even great happens, I’ll prepare myself for the battle with more knowledge and power than I had before. Bring it on OCD.
PS: I want to give a really special shoutout to my parents, step-parents and boyfriend for believing me when I said I was struggling and helping me get the help I needed. Without your support and literal monetary contributions I would have never been able to write this. Love you all.