Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – a textbook definition:
An anxiety disorder in which people have recurring, unwanted thoughts, ideas, or sensations (obsessions) that make them feel driven to do something repetitively (compulsions), such as hand washing, checking on things, cleaning, counting, etc.
Most people hear “OCD” and think of “cleaning obsessions”, “germs and contamination issues”, “counting repetitions”, or other sort of repetitive habits. The most common portrayals of OCD and OCD-like behaviors in the media involve organization habits, cleanliness rituals, or counting and repetitive behaviors. So although I always joked that I had OCD because of my organization habits and fear of germs, it was always just that – a joke. I’d never heard of the obsessive thoughts side of the disorder. I kept what I now know are those thoughts completely to myself, for I would have been mortified if anyone were to find out I had such awful things going through my head. It wasn’t until my 2nd psychiatrist started poking at my “OCD-like” habits and asking me more and more questions that some of it started to slip out.
I used to be terrified of taking the subway. And while the germs and cleanliness were and certainly still are relevant issues for me, those were not my biggest concerns. So eventually I told my psychiatrist, while standing on the platform waiting for the train to arrive, a frequent thought crosses my mind:
“Push this woman in front of you over the platform edge in front of the train”.
With this 1 simple thought, my whole body tenses, my legs start to shake, and I feel the urge to step away from the woman. My hands ball into fists and I dig my nails into my palms so hard they leave a mark. I feel genuine fear for this woman’s life. I feel genuine fear over what I might do. My feet are rooted in place and I can’t move.
Let me first just say, I am not a malicious or angry person and I have no reason to dislike this woman.
Why did I just think that? What is wrong with me? What kind of person wants such a horrible thing? I could never actually push someone in front of a train, right? Is there somewhere inside me that wants to push someone in front of a train?
And for the rest of the day, I will obsess over this thought and feel terrified of myself and what I might be capable of. The next time I think about taking the subway, I will think twice and take a cab instead.
My psychiatrist said, “Give me your worst. What’s the worst thought you’ve ever had? The one you think is so awful and shameful. I’ve heard it all. Someone once told me they wanted to throw their baby into oncoming traffic”.
So, I told him about the recurring subway thought. And the one about driving on the wrong side of the highway. And about jumping off of a balcony. And about tripping someone walking with a cane.
He said that the woman he knew “was the sweetest, kindest person and would never in a million years throw her baby into oncoming traffic”. He explained that a thought is just a thought. It only has as much power as you give it.
I know that I’d never truly push someone in front of a train or drive on the wrong side of the highway. But for years, I thought maybe I really was capable. I didn’t know such thoughts were a symptom of a disorder because that side of OCD isn’t as commonly known. I was so terrified of this person I thought I was becoming. So I want to share some of my other obsessive thoughts for other people who don’t understand.
A lot of my thoughts revolve around my family and the people I love getting hurt because that is what I am most afraid of. Part of my anxiety with these thoughts involve superstitions. As much as this may sound silly or ridiculous, I believe that by thinking something, I am “jinxing” it and will cause it to come true. For example, when I know my dad is traveling for work, I worry about his flights. If I have the thought that his flight might crash, I believe that by thinking that it might crash I will cause it to come true and crash.
Although most of you reading this won’t see it as this, just writing that last sentence was a HUGE step for me. So for today, I’ll take that victory.