Sometimes, when people wonder what it’s like to live with OCD, I explain it in moments.
As someone who can, after many years of therapy, make it through a day without having the negative kind of obsessive thoughts, OCD usually isn’t on my mind. But it can sneak up, sometimes in even just a single moment, and change the way my whole day is going.
Here’s an example: This week, I went out on a short walk with my coworker. We sometimes do this during the afternoons to clear our heads and get some fresh air, if it’s not raining or snowing. Sometimes, we even manage to fit in a Pokemon Go raid if there’s one nearby.
On this particular stroll around the block, we found a dragonfly on the ground acting strangely. My coworker commented to me that it may have flown into something like the birds and bats sometimes do with this building.
“Bats?” I asked, thinking of a book I read recently. In this book - Stephen King’s Cujo - a friendly St. Bernard is bitten by a rabid bat and kills several people.
She informed me that she’s seen bats crashing into the glass windows of our building before, and in one instance, Animal Control had to come and pick up the bat. She pointed to the rafters we were currently walking under, and said that bats nest there.
She changed the topic then, but I couldn’t.
Thoughts instantly flooded my head: “That bat must have had rabies, or Animal Control wouldn’t have been called. What if this dragonfly has something similar? At least it didn’t touch me. But a bat could have. What if a bat did touch me? In the book, the bites are small enough to not be noticeable. I could get bitten by a bat… I could have been bitten already.”
Forget the fact that it was a nice, sunny day with no bats in sight. Forget the fact that I saw a strangely-acting dragonfly, not a bat, and dragonflies can’t even transmit rabies to humans because they’re not mammals - not to mention, I don’t even think they can get rabies at all. Forget the fact that the bat incident this co-worker was talking about might have happened years ago. These things only occurred to me later, when I had calmed myself down.
It’s a strange feeling to be fine one moment and going down that rabbit hole of thoughts a moment later. It’s been the work of my lifetime to learn how to recognize the thoughts for what they are and stop them, which I learned primarily through cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). I know now that my most common thought patterns involve thinking many steps into the future, and a good way to solve this is to try to walk back the steps.
Like this: It would take a lot for me to get rabies. There would need to be a bat there, in broad daylight, and I would need to somehow not see it even though I’m looking up and bats have dark colors. It wouldn’t come out in the sun in the first place, and even if it did, I would notice it immediately, and so would my co-worker. I work right near a hospital, and treatments are effective if they happen soon after the encounter. Just because I’m near the rafters doesn’t guarantee I’ve got a fatal disease.
Thinking through this helps me slow down and get off the runaway train of thought before I descend into a true panic.
I don’t know why my brain chooses to panic like this about some things but not others. I can watch the trailer for “It” without worrying about a clown coming to attack me, but this book stuck with me for some reason. It didn’t stop me from hugging dogs at the park or dread the visit of my own sweet dog, who is currently on his first visit to Chicago since I moved. But it did make me jump just a little when I saw a big St. Bernard in my neighborhood, until I saw his tail was wagging. And it caused that same response at even the mention of a bat.
As an adult who hasn’t done compulsions for years, this is usually the main way my OCD manifests. It can be over the simplest things, and if it’s bad enough, I need to rely on others for help. For instance, I needed my friends to stick up for me at a restaurant when a waitress made fun of my reaction after she served me a meal with ground-up meat and I didn’t notice, and as a vegetarian, I was convinced the amount I ate before I realized would make me throw up. It wasn’t until I got some over-the-counter medicine for nausea and took it - even before I felt nausea - that I really felt better.
Most days, I don’t have an incident like this, but I try to be prepared for when I do. If something affects me like the book, I mention it to the people closest to me in case I need help later on. I have an app on my phone with CBT refresher lessons. And I do my best to fill my days with happy things that don’t leave room for other stuff to creep in.
Most importantly, I try to love myself even when these thoughts do come in. As a child, I used to hate my brain - and consequently, myself - when I’d lose myself in obsessions. It’s still a hard process to love myself even in these darker moments, but I try to tell myself that my OCD is where my creativity comes from, and turn my attention to one of the many fandoms and other forms of creative expression that I love.
In the grand scheme of things, after all, it’s just one moment. And I can choose for my next moment to be positive, breaking that cycle and taking control back into my own hands. Another battle won, I can return to a life of peace.
Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.