I was sitting with my parents, discussing my recent decision to begin treatment for my OCD and dad asked the question you should NEVER ask a person with OCD. “What’s the worst that could happen if you left your stove on?” A million scenarios flowed through my head. A bird could fly through the window with a match and my whole apartment could go up in flames. My electric stove could turn into a gas stove and a flame would ignite and a non-existent wind would blow the flame into a wall and burn the whole building down. It didn’t matter that these were, in a non-ocd brain, impossibilities, to me they were very real…and my dad quickly learned never to ask that question again.
OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) is defined by the National Library of Medicine as “an anxiety disorder in which people have unwanted and repeated thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensations (obsessions), or behaviors that make them feel driven to do something (compulsions).” When most people think of OCD, they think of the person who has to flick the lights 17 times before they can enter a room, or the person who has to wash their hands obsessively. And there are some people who’s OCD forces them to stay inside because of the fear and anxiety that comes with just leaving the house and going out into the world. I was very much on the brink of becoming that person.
For as long as I can remember, we used to joke that it would take my dad 10 minutes to leave the house. “did I lock the back door?” “did I lock the front door?” “Is the radio on?” These were all common questions growing up. Yes, any therapist will tell you, that could be where the OCD began. But I was never an OCD kid. It wasn’t until I was 29 that I discovered I had a problem. I had just moved into my own apartment, and for the first time in a long time was responsible for myself and everything I owned.
When I would leave my apartment, I would check to make sure the door was locked. Counting to a multiple of 6 before I could feel comfortable. I stopped cooking at my house, opting for take out or microwave dinners because the obsession of “did I turn the stove off?” became too much, before I’d run through my door checking routine, I’d have to check the stove to make sure it was turned off and the burners felt cold to the touch.
There was the time that I was driving to visit my parents and I was convinced I hit a baby in the street. I spent half the drive convincing myself that I couldn’t have possibly hit anyone. But it got to a point that I couldn’t convince it any longer, I turned around and backtracked a mile. I drove past the scene of my supposed crime at a slow crawl. The whole time telling myself I was crazy and also slowly scanning the streets for signs of a body in the street. Seeing nothing there, I resumed my trip to my parents house. The thought of hitting someone still haunted me. “what if I didn’t go back far enough?” “what if someone had already moved him to the side of the road and I missed it?” So when I arrived, I circled around my parked car, looking for blood or a dent, something to prove I wasn’t crazy. Finally the OCD said “Just kidding, you didn’t hit anything. I’m bored with you now.” and I was able to finish my day.
I constantly handle checks and credit card information at work. (usually my OCD serves me well, everything is deposited and accounted for correctly) One day I had a batch of checks and credit cards that totaled $80,000 that needed to be sent to our business office. I neatly organized everything, placed it in an envelope, and walked it to the office. When I dropped it off with my colleague, I was satisfied, that is, until I left for the day. OCD decided to play and said “I bet you dropped all that money and it flew away, you turned in an empty envelope. Now you’ll have to re-pay $80,000 yourself”. I panicked the entire ride home and my entire night. The next morning, I called my colleague asking for a count of the money and a count of how many checks and how many credit cards I had given him. I wanted receipts to compare to my records. He mast have thought I was nuts. He somehow gave me a run-down that satisfied me and I was calm. The OCD stopped playing and responded with “I’m bored now, bye.”
Once, getting ready to leave for the weekend, I check to make sure the front door was locked 12 times (and saying out loud “yes you locked the door”). Even after that ritual, I drove to grab some lunch. While in line at the drive through, that little devil OCD came back and said “hmm, I bet you didn’t close your front door” and despite remembering counting and talking to myself, I was convinced I didn’t close the door. Somehow, I warped the memory to think I locked it but never really shut it. I drove back home, ran up 2 flights of stairs and saw that my door was indeed closed. I then had to go up to the door and count both mentally, and out loud. Again, the OCD said “I’m bored again” and I was able to begin my weekend getaway, an hour behind schedule.
It was then I realized I needed help. I felt crazy and alone. I was running late to events and costantly thinking about highly improbable outcomes to situations. I had gone through therapy before to help me through other life events, but that didn’t feel like it would help me to just talk about my OCD, I needed an intense plan. I found a great center that focused solely on OCD. I spoke with the founder on the phone to assess what course of action would be best for me. I told him my issues and why I thought it might be OCD and I expected him to laugh at me and tell me that I was crazy and maybe a labotomy would be best. Instead, he said “Yup, you have OCD. If there were a textbook, you would have all the symptoms”. Boom! A diagnosis, I felt less crazy already.
I began a group therapy program shortly after. The main course of action involved me jotting down every Obsessive thought I had along with it’s complimentary Compulsive behavior and counter it with a more logical/non OCD thought. So if I thought “I didn’t lock the door”, my response was not to go check, but to say “Maybe. But I’ve never not locked it before. So lets go about the day and cross that bridge as it comes”. Ultimately my goal in therapy was to be ok with the thought of an unlocked door, and to be able to go about my day. 3 months of intense group work later, my logical thought quickly became “Screw it”. So that when OCD came to hang out on my shoulder to say “Hey, did you lock it?” I could say “Screw you. Don’t care”. Not satisfied, the OCD would respond back with “someone is going to break into your house and turn on your stove”. I would just reply with “oh well, let him, I’ve got insurance”.
It also helped to imagine my OCD as a character. (My OCD is a little green blob with a top hat and an evil mustache, sometimes a monocle when he’s feeling particularly irrational.) This enabled me to respond back to the OCD as a devil on my shoulder, instead of as a problem in my head that needed to be fixed. I credit it with helping me fight it.
I never discovered a clear catalyst for what started the OCD (the focus of my therapy was not to talk about why you had OCD, but what to do to beat it) but in living with it, I’ve learned that it is triggered by moments of stress or anger. When I’m calm, I don’t check the door and I drive without the worry of hurting anyone. But if I am stressed I stand at that door for a while and engage in a battle with the devil on my shoulder. So when I recognize that I am stressed, I simply say Hi to the OCD in a monocle and try to control the amount of times I check.
So thanks to OCD focused therapy, I’ve learned that I am capable of handling even the most outlandish of “What Ifs” so why worry about it now? So what’s the worst that can happen if my door is unlocked right now? I’m sure a lot of things, but I’ve got a life to live right now, and if I come home and find the place has been torched, I can handle it. I’m sure it was a bird with a match and a can of lighter fluid anyway.