AMA: When You Say The Wrong Thing

Question: “What should a person do if they realize they said the ‘wrong thing’ and set someone off?”

Thanks for the question, Anonymous Reader!

It can be easy to accidentally say something triggering to a person with OCD, especially considering people like me can be triggered by something innocuous that comes up in everyday conversation. For example, for many years - and even now, to an extent - I couldn’t handle when people would say that they were sick, especially if they gave details. I could just picture the germs in the air wafting towards me, sucked into my lungs with every breath, as they carried on with their conversation.

The first thing to understand is that you can’t “take back” what you said, even if you qualify your statements with reasons why they might not happen. To use the example of someone saying they threw up last night, saying “I feel a lot better now” doesn’t erase the fact that you were sick and I know about it. Same thing for my post about the bats a few weeks ago - even if my friend said that the incident happened some time ago, it wouldn’t erase that there had been bats in the rafters at some point and there could be one there now. Rather than try to fix the thought, try to fix the aftermath - move from prevention to triage in the moment, and see what your friend needs.

I find it most helpful, if someone knows I’m having an obsessive thought, whether or not they “started it,” to have a distraction. I can use this to crowd out the negative thoughts pouring in and buy myself time to figure out what to do, all the while doing something fun with a friend, which never fails to cheer me up.

Here’s an example where that worked very well: I was at an anime convention with my best friend and their sister and brother-in-law. We ate at a nearby Italian restaurant - my favorite - and a few bites into my meal, I discovered there was meat in my food, and I’d eaten some. As a vegetarian, I firmly believe that eating meat will cause me to throw up, and when my best friend’s sister said it out loud, confirming my thought, I started to cry in the restaurant.

All three of my friends asked me how they could help and what I needed. First, I needed someone to help me deal with the waitress and figure out the bill - in other words, the practical things that fly out of my mind when I’m having a bad moment. They led me back to the convention, and one friend suggested a trivia game that I hadn’t thought of attending, but the start time was soon enough that we would need to get in line - a concrete goal - and then I could distract myself by trying to solve the questions. It wasn’t long until I was laughing at the game - I might not have eaten dinner that night, but when I think back, I have more memories of my friends helping me and the trivia questions than the worry about throwing up. 

Also, it’s important to note that you don’t need to beat yourself up over it. Maybe keep your friend’s triggers in mind for future conversations, but a lot of obsessive thoughts come in with no triggers from other people, or things that are so common they’re practically impossible to avoid. Just show them that you care in whatever ways you can, and they’ll trust you to be a friend in both good times and bad.

Readers, what questions do you have about living with OCD? Feel free to send them to No Shame On U and I’ll answer them!

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.



Looking In The Mirror

It didn’t take me long to learn there were two people named Andi (pseudonym for privacy) in my Pokemon Go group. It also didn’t take me long to hear the two referred to as “the Andi people like” and “the Andi people don’t like.”

When I asked about “Andi people don’t like,” I was greeted with eye rolls, fallen faces, and sighs. People couldn’t describe what they didn’t like about her in specifics, only that she was annoying. The topic of conversation changed.

I soon learned that people would go to extraordinary lengths to avoid her. One week, after a Community Day event, she asked if people would be trading pokemon at a certain location. Responses poured in that everyone was busy. Literally everyone, even the people I knew were looking forward to trading. Then, I heard about another meeting going on in another location, from a private chat, kept from her so she wouldn’t show up.

I’d never seen anything like that from my group that I generally consider nice. When I moved to Chicago, they were quick to welcome me in, and I’ve made most of my local friends from this crowd. I talk daily with many of the people, and didn’t know what in the world could make such nice people turn against someone so strongly.

I imagined different scenarios. There are certain faux pas in the game that she might have committed. Maybe she bragged too much or was obnoxious in some other way. But it took me almost nine months of living in Chicago to meet her for the first time and assess her for myself.

She ventured out to a meeting we had on Sunday, one of our weekly trade nights. Since this was the one right after Go Fest, I was thrilled to come and trade pokemon with a lot of people. After trading once each with everyone I knew to build friendship in the game, I found myself sitting next to a girl who I didn’t know, who loved my cosplaying pikachu plushie I bought at Go Fest and eagerly asked me what I had to trade. I didn’t have her information in the game - we weren’t friends yet - but when she gave me her username, I immediately recognized her.

It surprised me that this girl, who was so nice and welcoming to me even when I wasn’t in a great mood, was “Andi people don’t like.” Sure, she was eager to ask about what I had for trade, and happily chattered away as we swapped pokemon with each other. She often repeated herself when asking for certain pokemon and expressing her likes and dislikes. When we achieved our goals - twice - she was thrilled to talk about it.

It didn’t take me long to notice that people were treating her differently. When she got up to move to a different chair, and forgot her drink - something many people had done over the course of the night - she was publicly scolded. No one thanked her for the special lures she put up to attract pokemon, which cost real money and would usually lead to a good deal of gratitude. Many people talked over her like she wasn’t even there. And as far as I could see, no one but me took the time to help her meet her goals in the game.

Long story short, I didn’t see anything in her that would cause such a visceral reaction. I didn’t understand why people would go so far to avoid her and exclude her. It reminded me of all the years I spent desperate for a single friend - and then it came to me.

I recognized a lot of her behaviors - repetitive speech, overexcitement, fixation on one thing above all others - in how I play Pokemon Go. I screamed when I found a special pokemon only the day before, but my friends - these same people - were amused rather than turned off. Maybe it’s because I spend a good deal of time trying to act “normal” no matter what’s going on on the inside, or maybe it’s because my first impression was “normal” and I only reveal my true self in bits and pieces as time goes on.

I spent years in therapy trying to be “normal,” to hide the things I was obsessing about, whether positive or negative. Some people are even surprised when I admit to being phobic about things, because I can keep even my most visceral reactions on the inside for months. Even with close friends, it takes me a while to be annoying, to squeal with joy and reveal exactly how deep my hobbies go. Few people know I have the Lord of the Rings movies memorized. Few people have the link to the archive where I post my fanfiction for LotR and other franchises. Few people are treated to my thought process when I try to figure out which pokemon to evolve or what I should name it.

As I sat and traded with Andi, I felt like I was looking in a mirror and seeing my younger self. Not to imply that I’ve advanced or grown in some way to the point where I don’t act like this anymore, but I have had enough experiences like Andi’s to be cynical of new friends. I take a very long time to trust people enough to show my real self out of fear that I’ll be seen as annoying or “too much,” out of fear that it’ll be me asking when we’re meeting and everyone else says they’re busy to avoid me.

I think Andi was incredibly brave to come to the gathering on Sunday, where she probably knew people wouldn’t treat her well. She was still optimistic and genuinely happy, especially while she was trading with people. It was truly nice to meet her. She wasn’t repulsive in any way I could see. She was just someone being herself and trying to make friends in her own way, trusting in a way I learned not to after I was on the receiving end of cruelty so many times beginning in my childhood.

I withdrew after years of bullying, not trusting even my closest friends to know everything in my head that I’d love to share. I hide in plain sight, using all the techniques my therapist gave me to not become the annoying one. I shower my friends with gifts and care and love, even if I don’t get those things in return. I do whatever I can to balance on that precarious wire of being normal and being myself.

I’m sure that, out of the two Ellies in my grade, I was the “Ellie people don’t like.” I know there were plenty of parties, events, lunches, and more that I’ve been excluded from since grade school. I know that a lot of it likely comes from the fact that I had very visible compulsions back then, and people were scared or disgusted by that. It also probably had to do with my very visible passions that didn’t match what the other kids were interested in, from fantasy novels to video games.

Now, I was on the other side of the mirror, the side I always wanted to be, but it was impossible to enjoy it knowing that someone else had taken my place at the bottom - and that the people who had put her there were my friends who treated me so kindly when I didn’t act like that.

I don’t blame Andi for not coming to many of our meetings, if she even knows they exist, but I do hope she comes to more. Whether or not we end up being the best of friends, I firmly believe she deserves to have a chance to experience friendship and kindness like anyone else. In the meantime, I’ll send her gifts in Pokemon Go, where I’ve labeled her as simply “Andi.” As a human being, it’s the respect she deserves, and I can only hope the rest of the group will see that one day. 

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.



When ANTs Come True

When I started Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) a few years ago, I was told to think of my intrusive thoughts as ANTs, short for automatic negative thoughts. By learning which type of ANT I was experiencing, I could learn how to defuse its energy - to kill it, like I was squishing an actual ant.

When I learned these facts, I also learned - whether from the doctor or my own assumptions - that my ANT thoughts were false. For most of the obsessive-compulsive thoughts of my childhood, that was true - I wasn’t going to throw up because I touched a doorknob two times instead of three, nor was I going to literally break my mom’s spine because I accidentally stepped on a sidewalk crack.

When it came time to sign up for Pokemon Go Fest Chicago, however, I began to reassess if all ANTs were false - and what might happen if one was true.

The ticketing system for the main Pokemon Go gathering in the Americas was done entirely by lottery. There was an equal chance for everyone who entered to get in, but with far more entries than tickets, I started to worry almost instantly. What if I didn’t get in? My thoughts quickly followed a pattern I’d learned to identify as “catastrophizing,” one of the categories of ANTs. I was so many steps ahead of what was going on in real life, and the thoughts only got worse as wave after wave of tickets got sent out and my name was never drawn.

I ended up getting a ticket from someone in my local Pokemon Go group who I’d only met once. It directly contradicted the thought plaguing me that not being able to go meant I had no friends. Thankfully, I didn’t have to follow the thought path any further. Sure, I hadn’t won the lottery, but I did still wind up with a ticket that thrilled me beyond belief. Now, all I had to do was prepare for an incredible day at Grant Park with friends new and old.

As the day got closer, however, several friends of mine began to worry about the weather. Spring wasn’t following its typical pattern in Chicago, and the event was rain or shine. I’m usually fine with being in the rain, but considering I’d be playing on my phone the entire time, that quickly became a new worry. And it wasn’t at all something I could reason through.

As part of the CBT process, you’re supposed to find some alternative thought to think that takes power away from the ANT. But for the thought that it might rain, and the event might get canceled or my phone might get ruined if it wasn’t, there was no good solution. All three of these things were perfectly possible. I could wind up playing for an entire day in the rain and soak my phone, or the event I was looking forward to so much could just get canceled.

The four-day event began on Thursday, and with my ticket designated for Sunday, all I could do was watch and wait. It felt good when the sun shone on Thursday and Friday, but Saturday dawned with a thick cover of clouds and only got worse. It wasn’t long before my phone started to buzz with notifications: Pokemon Go Fest was closed.

All I could do was write to my friend who’d been worried about this problem most of all, who’d gotten the thought into my head in the first place. My friend who was now sitting at a bar a few blocks away as her Saturday ticket was rendered useless. And all I could say was an incredulous “it actually happened.”

I’d followed all the CBT guidelines. “Thoughts are thoughts, not threats” ran through my head, and in every circumstance so far, that was true. But now, with my friend’s Go Fest experience being ruined and my own time the next day in jeopardy, I didn’t know what to think.

It’s true that my being scared of rain that day didn’t make it rain, but I felt defeated as I watched it pour down the windows of the bus, my friend texting me miserably. It took almost two hours to get the attendees back in the park, which was now covered in a thick layer of swampy mud.

It wasn’t an irrational thought that my friend had. Nor were my worries about what Sunday would be like. It had rained. The thought we were afraid of had happened. An ANT was real.

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t nervous on Saturday night as my friends checked the weather again and again. I worried about the rain even as I woke up on Sunday morning and was relieved to see that nothing was happening, but the fog descending on the tops of buildings kept me anxious as I headed over. There was no easy way to get the thoughts to not happen. It could rain, very easily. It probably would, given the color of the sky. And there was nothing I could do to fix it.

In the end, few people would have described Sunday’s weather as perfect. It was cold enough that I needed to bring a jacket, which didn’t look great with the cosplay I planned - nor did the mud that completely coated my white shoes. It was foggy and dim and the photos all came out dark. But it was perfect for me - the only rain was a brief drizzle, and with my phone and my Go Fest experience intact, I couldn’t have been happier.

I still got to do everything I wanted. I caught over 800 pokemon and met people from around the world while spending time with friends who’d flown in for the weekend. I got to play trivia with my team and participate in quests that made me feel like a real wilderness explorer. And even when the skies threatened imminent rain, the day went on.

Thinking of this brought me back to an uncomfortable therapy session when I first began CBT. My therapist asked me to tell her what would happen if a horrible thought in my head actually happened. She asked me to detail the exact steps. For throwing up - an obsession that took hold throughout most of my childhood - it would look something like this: I’d feel nauseous, I’d go into the bathroom, I’d probably pace or sit down on the toilet, and then it would happen.

“Then what?” she asked. It struck me that I had an answer for everything that happened before, but nothing for what would happen after. The ANT always felt like the end of the world.

“I’d clean up,” I remember saying. I described the process of finding cleaning supplies and taking a shower.

“And then what?”

I had no more answers. I’d read a book, maybe, or play some video games. I’d probably call home, if I wasn’t there. I’d get in some comfy clothes and relax in my squashy armchair. There were options. My fate wasn’t locked into reliving the experience for the rest of my life. I’d survive, just like my friend did when her fears of rain came true.

I’m sad that rain had to be part of my friend’s Go Fest experience, but there is still something that happened next. She’ll get to catch extra pokemon this upcoming Saturday, for more hours than she missed during the storm. Her Go Fest experience will look different than mine, and not at all like she imagined, but she still got to attend, and there are many moments of happiness to find even with the darker times.

It struck me, then, that thinking like this could be a way to defeat this unexpected kind of ANT. After all, I loved Go Fest, muddy shoes and all - and even though it didn’t look like the perfect experience I imagined in my head, I still had the amazing time I dreamed of when the event was first announced.

Trying to see more than one way for things to go right is a new idea for me - I tend to be very rigid in my thinking - but it’s a new path I’d love to explore. And when it’s time for Go Fest next year, I’ll make it my goal to endure the process of waiting for tickets and weather forecasts with the confidence I use on other types of ANTs. And to catch lots of pokemon, of course!


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.



There’s A Person Under Here

Trigger Warning: Suicide

Mom called me last week to ask my opinion about something: she’d been approached by some friends whose son, about my age, recently attempted suicide. The parents needed to leave the house but didn’t want to leave him alone, and asked my mom if she’d be willing to step in for a few hours.

My dad and grandma, she explained, were less than thrilled about the prospect. As a skinny person currently in a walking boot for a foot injury, they feared that she was susceptible to danger. They didn’t know this young man, but they believed that he might have an inclination towards violence to others after he harmed himself.

This is a misconception I’ve heard a lot about people with suicidal thoughts or who have made attempts. Research states - and I can agree after my own crisis several years ago - that the desire to end one’s life is not about trying to be harmful or destructive to other people. It’s about trying to end the constant pain in your head, a pain that takes over absolutely everything until you can’t eat or sleep or drink or have a single uninterrupted thought. In fact, I was so absorbed in my own world that I barely noticed other people, let alone wanted to harm them.

Mom turned to me, she said, because as someone who has a great deal of personal experience with mental illness both with myself and my friends, some of whom have also had suicidal thoughts, she thought I’d know which side was right. I couldn’t say for sure - I’ve never met this guy and don’t even know his name - but I thought of myself in a similar situation and told her to agree to the parents’ request.

I won’t lie and say I wasn’t a little nervous during the day, especially since I felt responsible for her safety when she left the decision to me. We had safety measures in place that I’d advise for going to anyone’s house if you don’t know them well - telling other people the address and having a certain word to text if you need help - but I was happy (and not surprised) to hear she didn’t need them.

She called me, tired but completely fine, a few hours later. She told me about the sweet, chatty young man who told her all about the things he’s interested in and asked her what she likes. He was a kind host who offered to make her lunch when he made some for himself and spent almost three hours talking to her. On the way out, she told his parents that he seems like a sweet boy who will get through this. They hugged her with tears in their eyes.

She told me that her time there reminded her of my interaction with the rabbi at my college, years ago. When I told her I was having suicidal thoughts - even though I clarified that I had no means to end my life nor did I plan or want to harm myself or anyone else - she became afraid of me. She went from someone happy to invite me over for Shabbat dinner and let me babysit her kids to someone unwilling to talk to me one-on-one or let me see her family.

When I tried to broach the subject to my rabbi and she was afraid, I felt like I’d done something wrong, perhaps even ungodly. And when my crisis was over and I saw her on campus the following year - even when I explicitly told her that “I’m fine now” - she was unwilling to interact with me. The relationship we’d built over two and a half years meant nothing anymore, and I felt like it was my fault.

I can’t say for sure what this guy was feeling, but I know if it was me, I would have loved to find kindness instead of fear and acceptance instead of rejection. By giving him the gift of a few hours of distraction and not feeling like a freak, she likely helped him immeasurably, as she helped me.

I couldn’t be prouder of her for making the right choice, even though it was hard and maybe even scary, and I can only hope that others will step in like she did. Whether it’s someone you’ve known for years or a stranger, people in a mental health crisis deserve the same love and respect as everyone else, and I appreciate that her impulse was to look for a way to be kind rather than a way to get out of the situation.

She admitted to me that she was afraid - she didn’t know this guy, and there is still that small chance he could have decided to hurt her - but she chose to trust him, unlike the rabbi who shunned me. Inside the scary story of a suicide attempt, she found a human where others were afraid to look. And that can make all the difference.

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.



The Outside Trickles In

I try as hard as I can to advocate for an end to the stigma against mental health. I try to be open about the fact that I have taken medicine for years and I believe medicine can be a valuable tool to help people live with a mental health condition. But sometimes, the stigma manages to slip through my guarded defenses and make me question things I believe and try to teach.

A couple of nights ago, I was at a friend’s apartment for game night. As our small group played Catan, we started getting silly - nicknaming the different tiles, rolling the dice in increasingly funny ways, and more. I don’t usually let myself get this silly around other people because I can sometimes get carried away or make people feel like I’ve been “too much.” And then it happened. I don’t remember exactly what it was that caused arguably my closest friend in the group to ask me if I’d taken my medicine.

It felt like someone poured a bucket of icy water over me. The silliness and smiles were instantly gone, even though the others carried on like nothing had happened. But I couldn’t help myself. “What did you just say to me?” I blurted out in the same tone as if someone had called me hideously ugly or disgusting in some way.

My friend was surprised - and even more so when I told her I’d interpreted her remark as an insult. She said she thought I might be having a hard time with something in my life (I honestly don’t even remember what we’d been talking about amidst the silliness of the game) and said that sometimes, when she or her husband forget to take their medication, these thoughts become more prevalent. She saw it as helping, not hurting.

But I saw one thing, and one thing only: I wasn’t good enough. I had displayed some sort of symptom that was abnormal. The next thoughts followed the pattern they have for years: I displayed, openly, that I was not normal. People like normal people. Therefore, people won’t like me or want to be my friend.

I knew this thought pattern from CBT. I knew how it worked and what I was supposed to do to combat it, just as I had when a dog scratched my skin open earlier in the day and I briefly remembered my worries from last week. But this was different. Somehow, I had failed. And all of that came from one simple offhand remark about mental health medicine.

Sitting at a table with friends, I felt the need to be reassured that they weren’t spending time with me because I trade them good pokemon in Pokemon Go or help them with chores and favors. I needed to be told - explicitly and multiple times - that I was invited to this group gathering because they liked me as a person.

“I like how you get passionate about things, even if I don’t understand it,” one person said. “I like hearing about your cosplays even if I’ve never done it before,” said another. My friend who made the remark said she appreciated when I asked her for feedback about a horse’s name in a new Tolkien fanfiction story I’m writing. It was reassuring, but still somehow I felt the remark about the medicine getting under my skin.

It struck me as we continued to play the game - my friends enjoying themselves, as I stayed brooding - that a few minutes earlier, a friend of mine who was allergic to cats like I am was petting our host’s cat as another cat brushed against my leg. When he asked if I remembered to take an antihistamine, I was unashamed to say I had. Why was this so different?

I felt like a hypocrite for going against what I usually believe. My first reaction was self-hatred and thinking no one liked me, rather than believing in myself and knowing that my friends liked me for who I am, medicine and all.

I didn’t question myself about the allergy medication because I knew that didn’t influence who I was, because it was common, and because people still liked me even though I had allergies, and could make accommodations (like putting the cats in a different room) for my comfort.

Mental health shouldn’t be any different. As I’ve learned after my worst crisis, real friends will stick by my side even if I’m the least normal version of myself (and, as my best friend always says, normal is just a setting on the washing machine). People can make simple accommodations like not asking why I’m not eating something I’m uncomfortable with. And it changes how I express myself, but I don’t think the entirety of who I am as a person comes from mental illness. Not to mention mental illness is more common than most people know, thanks to the prevalence of stigma.

I don’t usually fall prey to stigma. I try to fight it on the front lines, offering my experiences as support for others. But this experience made me realize that it still lurks inside me. As someone who is part of society, I grew up learning beliefs that were - and remain - prevalent. I’ve done my best to encourage friends to live their best lives, with or without medication, but I couldn’t see past the stigma when it was my own sanity in question.

In the past, when I’ve heard something like what my friend said to me, I withdraw. I don’t let myself trust this friend as much as I did before. And I trust myself even less. But now, I’m setting a new challenge: to love myself, medicine and all. The silly moments and the tough ones. The times I wax poetic about Tolkien and the times I worry about a scratch on my arm. It’s hard to do with the internalized stigma, but my fight against OCD has also made me incredibly stubborn in sticking to my goals. I’m not going to give up. And I decided to start that very night, no matter how uncertain I felt.

Shyly, I pulled up a picture on my phone. “This is the fabric for my new elf dress,” I explained. My friends smiled, and commented on the color. I couldn’t have been happier to be wrong.


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.