- Posted May 27, 2014 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
OCD's Other SIde
Of course, we see strangers that we assume are mentally ill – we casually deem the lady yelling to herself at the bus stop “crazy” or we grab that proverbial box of popcorn and watch a celebrity’s public meltdown on Twitter. We catch glimpses of overt mental illness, while never being aware the subtle battle those we care about may be facing.
We see it time and again – a person commits suicide and the voices of “they seemed so happy” rally around the candlelight vigil. But, what most don’t realize is that many of us with mental illness are good, excellent even, at making ourselves appear happy while never disclosing the heavy cross that we must bear. If there were an Oscar for this kind of acting, Meryl Streep would have nothing on us: we’d win every time.
For me personally, the tail end of college is a time when I feigned this happiness. While my peers were concerned about finals, perfecting the art of the keg stand, and anticipating the future with hope so thick it almost became tangible, I was wondering razor or rope?
You see, I have OCD, but a kind you probably haven’t heard of. This is, in part, because the kind you have heard of isn’t always accurate.
All too often, OCD is painted as the most benign of mental illnesses, or not considered much of a mental illness at all. It is a disease widely characterized by hand-washing, neatness, organization, and extreme repetition. Hollywood, in part, is guilty of perpetuating this way of thinking, often portraying those with OCD as quirky or comedic characters. But for those of us who have it, we are doing anything but laughing.
My OCD – and I say “my” intentionally, as if I’m claiming ownership: it is part of who I am and who I’m not - doesn’t manifest in tidiness or the need to color coordinate. The laundry that has been sitting at the foot of my bed for the past week and a half is enough to tell you that. Instead, my OCD began as a tremendous fear of AIDS (I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been tested despite never having even the faintest of risk factors), to an obsession with prayer, from a preoccupation with the safety of others to a fear that I’d somehow caused Columbine by smoking pot one night my junior year.
It wasn’t until my final year of college that my OCD created a whole new monster and introduced me to harming obsessions. In my wildest imagination, I couldn’t have fathomed a deeper hell.
First, it started with my car: I was simply driving down the highway one day when the thought that I had caused an accident popped into my mind. Of course, there was no sign of any sort of collision occurring, but that didn’t stop me from needing to be sure; so, I turned around and checked.
I look back on this day as the day the can was opened and worms began crawling everywhere.
For close to a year, I was petrified of causing an accident and, as a result, avoided the highway at all costs. I wasn’t as concerned about causing an accident on side streets or residential neighborhoods: my mind didn’t have room to worry about 40-mile-per-hour rear endings or 25-mile-per-hour sideswipes. It was all filled up worrying about fatalities. Since highways involved cars going at the highest rate of speed, they seemed like the most dangerous.
I’ll never forget the day I stopped worrying about causing accidents; it was a Tuesday evening in late August, the sky was in its transition period where it’s not quite night and it’s not quite day. I was driving through my hometown of Aurora, Colorado when I saw an older gentleman sitting on a bus bench reading the paper. I drove by him with little more than a glance when, no more than three seconds later, I began to fear that I had run my car into him…and I had done it on purpose.
Thus began the obsession of fearing that every time I got behind the wheel I would floor the gas and run over any pedestrian or biker I saw. After this fear took off, I never again worried about accidentally causing an accident. When it comes to worrying, my mind was and is like an airplane bathroom: only one occupant at a time.
For a while, I was able to ignore these thoughts simply by not driving. But every time driving became inevitable, they would return. It would take me a half hour to go five miles and ten minutes to simply drive down the street. There was so much fear that I had run over someone, whether or not a person was actually there. And, with this fear, came checking: I’d check intersections for people lying maimed and injured, the undercarriage of my car for dead bodies, and even puddles of oil, wondering if they were indeed oil or actually blood.
But, even with all this, things weren’t horrible…yet. When I wasn’t behind the wheel, I was generally carefree, unburdened by the fear of harming someone else. That was until my OCD got even more creative.
I’m not a huge movie buff, but I’m a huge cheesy movie buff. What I mean by this is I love the made-for-tv-movies on channels like Lifetime that are dripping with so much cheese that those with lactose intolerance probably shouldn’t watch. One of the commonalities many of these movies have is they make it look so simple to kill someone.
A shove down the stairs, a snap of a neck, strangling someone for only about 1.5 seconds – all of these acts, in the movies, result in fatalities, leading me to believe, and fear, that death was easy to inflict.
So, I started to fear I would harm people even when I wasn’t driving. I feared throwing a child down an escalator as mall onlookers watched in horror; I feared strangling the girl who used the bathroom stall next to mine; I feared breaking the neck of my English professor when I saw her walking outside on the quad.
In the moment, I would know that these thoughts were just that: thoughts. But, as soon as the person was out of my sight – the child on the escalator, the girl in the bathroom, the professor on the quad – I’d start to wonder: wait, did I kill them?
So I would check. I would run after their able bodies to assure that they were in fact breathing or, if I was unable to find them, I would look for bodies. So many bodies.
This wasn’t something that happened once a day or once in a while: it was every day and it was draining. You’d never guess how much time you can actually waste searching for dead bodies that never existed.
It’ not that I actually wanted to commit harm. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Those who understand OCD know that whatever you find the most repulsive in life, OCD takes and shoves down your throat. For instance, if someone with OCD finds germs the most repulsive, OCD will try to convince them that they have some kind of communicable disease; if they find bigotry the most repulsive, OCD will try to convince them that they are racist; if they find the taking of life most repulsive, OCD will try to convince them that they are a murderer.
Of course, a lot of people have these types of thought and fears, whether or not they have OCD. The problem with people with OCD, however, is that we can’t simply ignore our thoughts. It’s like an email address with the Spam filter broken: all the junk goes right to the inbox where it’s read, filed, and given credence.
This type of OCD is spoken of so infrequently that many of us who have it don’t know that we do. So, instead, we jump to the conclusion that these thoughts are a reflection of something we want to do and that is enough to bring even the strongest of us to our knees.
And, yet, OCD is still cast aside as annoying – yes – though not shattering. But, for those of us who have it, we know that OCD is rarely a disease that merely annoys: instead, it is a disease that tortures.
So, talk about it, talk about this other side.
You just never know who you might save.