Throughout my adolescence, I unknowingly struggled with different types of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My OCD has mostly manifested through 4 specific subtypes, which sometimes overlap with each other. Though I wasn’t officially diagnosed with OCD until I was a freshman in college, I displayed behaviors that were symptomatic of OCD long before that.
The experience that truly marked the beginning of my struggle with OCD happened when I was a young teenager. I would repeatedly stare at pictures of a famous female singer, trying to figure out if I was attracted to her. Laying in bed at night, I conjured up mental images of the singer, testing my sexuality.
I started to wonder if I was attracted to other girls that I saw in real life. I would frequently question my attraction to females, and obsessively wondered: was I becoming attracted to girls? I was confused. I had never questioned my sexuality before, so why was I doing it now?
What I was unknowingly experiencing was sexual orientation OCD (SO-OCD), a subtype of OCD, which makes you continuously question your sexual orientation. At the time, I didn’t know that my thoughts were a symptom of a mental illness. I thought it was just something weird that I was experiencing, and that it would eventually disappear.
By tenth grade, the SO-OCD had disappeared – only to be replaced by contamination OCD by freshman year of college. Contamination OCD is a type of OCD that centers around the fear of contamination. You might fear that you or other people are “contaminated” in some way. This could include the fear of: getting sick, bodily fluids, dust, dirt, contracting STIs, and germs. It could even include being afraid of other types of “contamination,” such as another person’s breath or their emotions.
Living in a shared bathroom with other girls in college was a perfect catalyst for an OCD episode. Sharing a toilet, sink, and shower with random people triggered my anxiety. I often went to extremes to avoid the dirty environment. After a traumatic experience during my freshman year (unrelated to OCD), I became severely depressed, and decided to seek counseling services. However, in the process, I found out that I had OCD. I struggled with contamination OCD for the duration of my college years, though freshman year was undoubtedly the worst.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, I came back home to finish my college courses online for the rest of my senior year. During this period, the contamination OCD morphed into rumination OCD. Rumination OCD is when you spend long periods of time mentally reviewing, analyzing, or trying to understand a thought or topic.
In quarantine, I had lots of time to think – and not for the better. By the time I graduated from college, the rumination had become extremely severe. It only worsened over the summer. Because I didn’t have any course work to do anymore, I didn’t have anything to focus on. Trauma from my past bubbled back up, and my mind ran rampant.
Every day I would wake up and ruminate about the trauma. When I thought about the trauma, I became more and more annoyed, angry, and agitated. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The repetitive thoughts consumed my brain, and I couldn’t focus on anything else but the traumatic experiences. I was moody, depressed, irritated, and annoyed. It was the same cycle each day.
I was absolutely miserable.
By early fall, I decided to start taking medication to alleviate the rumination. I had originally started medication a few months prior, but I had stopped taking it, believing I could handle the illness on my own. However, by this point, I knew I needed some extra help to get my thoughts under control.
The medication worked well the first few days I started taking it. I felt more emotionally balanced, and I could tell I wasn’t overthinking situations as I normally would. When I woke up in the morning, I felt calm. I didn’t want to keep revisiting the past trauma. My brain finally wanted to move on.
However, the effects of the medication soon wore off, and I no longer felt like it was working as well as it should. Nevertheless, I continued taking it, thinking I should give it more time to work.
Currently, alongside rumination OCD, I also struggle with magical thinking OCD. This type of OCD is when you believe that certain rituals or actions will prevent something bad from happening to you or someone else. As a result, you end up doing what the OCD tells you to do in order to alleviate the fear. If I don’t do something in the exact right way, I become afraid that I’ll be punished for it or that something bad will happen to me - such as getting a sore throat. This thought pattern has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
If I don’t walk a certain direction in my house, or complete one chore before another, I become afraid that I or one of my family members will contract COVID-19 and become deathly ill.
Logically, I know that these events are totally unrelated to each other. However, my brain tells me that these events are connected. My fear is usually stronger than my logic, as I’m frequently incapable of shaking away these irrational worries. These beliefs often drive me to participate in odd behaviors, such as walking back and forth in my house trying to decide which direction I should walk to my kitchen – or else one of my family members will get in a car wreck.
OCD is a strange illness. Quite frankly, it makes no sense. I like to think of OCD as magnets stuck all over my brain – the magnets representing thoughts that won’t go away. At times, I feel like I’m going crazy. I’ve decided to change my medication to something that works better for me. I’ve also decided to go to counseling to heal from my past trauma. In this way, hopefully, the trauma won’t keep popping up repetitively in my brain. With medication and counseling, I hope to recover fully from OCD. I long for the day when I can live fully in the present and not ruminate on the past.
Until then, I’ll continue to peel the magnets off my brain, piece by piece.
Written by: Katherine Brown