I’d be 26 years of age before even knowing the medical name of this internal hell that had plagued me for so long; or that it was even a medical disorder as opposed to a personal one. Until then, I simply thought; one, I was crazy. And, two, that I’m the only person in the world going through this nuttiness (one psychiatrist I’d visited had in fact referred to me as being “nuts.” At least he had a diagnosis, incorrect as it was. The others couldn’t even offer an opinion).
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a very strange and insidious phenomenon. In the first place, it’s nearly impossible to explain it in such a way that anyone who doesn’t have it can actually understand. What’s worse is, when you do try and explain, most people truly do think they understand.
Put, simply, OCD is a chemical imbalance in the brain which manifests itself in two ways, often combined.
Obsessions are thoughts, images, or impulses that occur over and over again and feel out of your control. The person does not want to have these ideas, finds them disturbing and intrusive, and typically recognizes that they don’t really make sense. Obsessions are accompanied by sickly, horrifying feelings of fear, disgust, doubt, and intense guilt.
Compulsions are a “magical” way of trying (though, it never works) to make the obsessions go away. They are acts the person performs over and over again, often according to certain self-imposed “rules.”
Because everyone experiences the above to some degree and at some time during their lives, when trying to explain this to people – especially the intrusive thoughts aspect – most people respond by saying, “Sure, I’ve had that too.” But they haven’t. Not to the “insane degree” OCD sufferers have. Many of the obsessions are so disturbing they are beyond mere words.
To have an idea of the level of discomfort they cause, you’d have to take the worst of your “bad thoughts”, multiply them exponentially by ten, and have them echoing in your head during practically all your waking moments (and, often, even in your nightmares) in order to be able to fully relate. Quite frankly, I hope you cannot relate to this!
What’s even more disturbing is that the bad thoughts tend to “hit you” at the very center of what you value most. In my case, G-d and my Parents. It seemed as though every “thought of horror” involved these two major areas of my life.
So, for example, if I had a bad thought, I’d then have to do a “compulsive” act to cancel it out. I remember one time when I was driving past a graveyard, when I had a horrible OCD-thought about my Parents. So, in order to “undo” the thought, I’d have to drive back past the graveyard “two times” (I guess, once to cancel it out, and the other to do the actual drive) without having the thought.
Yes, right! And just try “not” to think of a purple elephant. Can’t be done. So I’d be driving back and forth past the same graveyard for an hour, torturing myself trying to get past it twice without having the thought. I was paralyzed. I just couldn’t make myself leave. Finally, realizing it was never going to “work”, I’d leave, but would be in emotional misery, obsessing for days, about the actual thought before it would leave.
Even walking past a doorway, if I got a “bad thought” I’d have to retrace the steps twice . . . without having the thought, of course. You can just imagine how many times I’d have to walk back and forth before I wouldhopefully make it through twice without the thought.
And, imagine the people who watched me do this. I tried my best to cover it up but, strangers often looked at me as though I were strange (and who could blame them) and friends eventually found it too difficult to be around me.
I remember once, when I was a television broadcaster, shaving while getting ready for a local celebrity softball game. While shaving, I had a bad thought and slightly cut my face. I was worried that every time I saw the scar after that I’d re-have the thought so I tried to somehow shave that same spot without having the thought.
Wouldn’t happen. So I kept trying, and managed, over the next 45 minutes, to cut up some of my face, and nearly be late to the game . . . that I had organized!
There was one period of about six months that when I’d get a bad thought, I’d make a fist and hit myself repeatedly in the face – and very hard! – as though that would “hopefully” make up for my having the thought. In other words, as if by physically punishing myself I could alleviate the guilt for having the thoughts. Of course, it never worked.
I look back upon this now – and there was so much more – and wonder how I got out of it without doing some very serious physical damage to myself.
Unlike compulsive gambling or drinking (themselves very distressful afflictions), OCD compulsions do not give the sufferer even one speck of relief. None! While the gambler enjoys the thrill of the actual play, and the alcoholic does in fact look forward to that drink, such is not the case with OCD. Rather, the rituals are performed to obtain relief from the discomfort caused by the obsessions. But it never works.
Once it was determined that what I was experiencing had an actual name, there was some light at the end of the tunnel. Not that I could picture ever being cured. And, though I wouldn’t wish OCD upon anyone, there was still some comfort in knowing I was not the only one. I suspect that research into OCD was delayed much longer than need be because too many sufferers, fearing the judgments of others, never admitted their symptoms.
The road ahead was long and there were many, many setbacks along the way.
One Summer evening, leaving work during a rainstorm, I sat outside waiting for the rain to let up so that I could get to my car without getting drenched. As I sat there, just thinking, I had a particularly horrible OCD thought which set off a chain of other related thoughts. What came more furiously, the downpour of rain or outpouring of horrid, disturbing thoughts, I’m still not sure. For not the first time though, I – a grown man respected in the business community – just sat there bawling my eyes out, and pleading to G-d, “Stop these thoughts . . . PLEASE!” But He didn’t.
Today, through medication and behavior therapy, the symptoms are a bit softer and, for me anyway, most definitely livable. One is never actually cured from OCD, but can always strive to be even more functional. Living with OCD is a “different” sort of life. You’re never totally free from its grasp. You can’t exactly decide to simply “not participate” in its manifestation.
But, you live your life and you work around it. And you hope that your story can help others to know that there are lots of us who do understand them, and that there are places that have a wealth of information about it, such as the International OCD Foundation (www.ocfoundation.org), which has done marvelous work in this field for close to 25 years.
There is nothing good in one’s life for which OCD can take credit. That is, successful people with OCD succeed despite it; not because of it.
Actually, perhaps there is one positive aspect of OCD.
Because of it, I have an almost extraordinary amount of empathy for others who are suffering; suffering with and/or from anything. And that has helped me in that it’s allowed me to help many others in different ways.
Is that worth having OCD? No, absolutely not. But, if, for whatever reason it is in G-d’s plans that I have this disorder, I’m glad I can at least be a conduit for comforting others. And if that is why I have OCD, to in some way be able to assist in G-d’s work, then I am certainly fine with it.
*If there is an Epilogue, of sorts, to this story, it’s that, for the past 15 years or so, I have had a great life. Even while living in fear at times of the next series of “bad thoughts”, I mainly live in gratitude at how fortunate I am to do work I love, touch lives in a positive way, and be surrounded by close family, friends and acquaintances, both online and off.