Recently I read an article from themighty.com. It was a wonderful article that I wish I’d read many years ago. It talked about an aspect of Obsessive-compulsive disorder that is not often thought about when one thinks of OCD. Obsessive-compulsive disorder to many people is someone who cleans incessantly or washes their hands one too many times. It is much more than that.
My OCD started when I was a child. I went undiagnosed for many years. I knew I struggled with a variety of things but this was my “normal.” One thing that plagued my early years was persistent worrying. I worried every time it stormed that there would be a tornado and my family would die. I worried that something would happen to my parents and I would be all alone. I worried that if I talked to someone I would be rejected. Sure, everyone worries about things like this every now and then but I was very young.
One experience that comes to mind that really triggered my OCD was my dad choking when I was about 7 years old. I remember it very vividly. The panic and the horror were embedded into my memory. My dad recovered but I didn’t. I made rules for myself when it came to eating. I decided that I couldn’t eat hard things, or any food I’d read in my parents Reader’s Digest magazine that was considered a “top” choking food. (carrots, nuts, hot dogs, etc). As a child it was easy to get away with not eating very much. I felt like if I could stick to a list of “safe foods,” then I could prevent choking.
As time went on this need to prevent choking intensified. I had a larger list of foods I “couldn’t eat.” The foods I did eat were chewed a million times. I chewed my food until it was a liquid and then I swished it between my teeth to make sure there were no large parts that would choke me. This caused me to eat very slowly. I was embarrassed at how I ate and would often fill my mouth with food and then excuse myself to go to the bathroom and spit it in the toilet. Eventually, being made fun of by my peers at the lunch table wasn’t worth it and I would just have water or juice for lunch.
Looking back on my childhood I can recall many moments that showed aspects of a slowly intensifying mental illness. A family member passed away in a car accident and I thought it was my fault. I thought that somehow I’d willed it so. Though this was impossible, I confessed it to my mother like I was in a court room. I sobbed and told her it was me…I did it. She assured me I didn’t, but the guilt still felt so real.
My mom recorded in my baby book that I refused to sit with Santa at 4 years old because “he wasn’t wearing his gloves.” I can only imagine it was because of my OCD. My OCD has taken on many forms over the years, each one unique and debilitating. It had become so much of my life that I didn’t even realize it was the culprit of so much of my anguish. I didn’t even consider it. I saw multiple psychiatrists and therapists whose diagnoses varied from bipolar disorder to depression to panic disorder, etc. None of them mentioned the possibility of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
However, in college I realized that I felt a lot of anxiety if the gas pump didn’t stop on a number divisible by 5. I felt a lot of anxiety if I didn’t complete a thought before the stop light turned green. I replayed images in my head over and over and over again because I couldn’t stop them. I checked and rechecked everything. I started to become obsessed with everything medical. I decided my lymph nodes were too large and measured them multiple times a day. I would ask friends to feel them and measure them for me. I took my temperature hundreds of times a day and I would google symptoms for various illnesses because I had to. If I didn’t, I would get the illness and it would be my fault.
My obsessive-compulsive disorder turned my life into a mere existence, rather than actual living. I spent multiple hours a day checking, rechecking, obsessing, thinking, preventing, acting on my compulsions. Sometimes, it became too much and I would break. Thankfully, I’ve had the support of an amazing therapist, psychiatrist, family and husband. I am on medication and I am living my life. I still struggle sometimes, but I am happy.
One reason I decided to write about my struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder is because of the article I referenced above. For one, the article makes me feel less alone in the world. I feel stronger having read it. I feel like someone that is not a horrible person but someone who is afflicted with a mental illness. I have a disability. I have OCD. I can admit it and I can deal with it and I can live with it.
Secondly, I referenced the article because there were many comments on the piece stating that they didn’t understand why people will mental illnesses continued to reproduce. Some felt that it just made sense to stop having children if you were just going to pass these debilitating issues on to your kids. I read the comments and suddenly I was flooded with all of this guilt that I’d been working on for the past 4 years.
You see, I’m a mother of 2. I have two perfect children that are my everything. My children are a true blessing. I know most mothers feel this way about their kids, but I consider myself to be especially lucky. I’m lucky that there was plan bigger than myself for my life. After I got married, I wrote in red lipstick on my mirror, “Don’t have children. They will be like you. Don’t be selfish.” Shortly after I wrote these words… I was pregnant. I cried and I feared having a child that had to live like I’d lived but he was coming regardless.
I had my son and he is now 4. Unfortunately, he is showing signs of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Fortunately, I get to be his mother and he is my son. I’ve been able to recognize his issues and tackle them early on. He is in play therapy, he receives special services, he is encouraged, adored, advocated for and loved immensely. He is happy. I’ve been told over and over again by everyone that meets him how genuinely happy of a kid he is. These words comfort me more than anyone knows. If my boy is happy, then we are doing something right. And the really amazing thing is that helping him isn’t a one way street. He has helped me just as much. I’ve exposed myself to many of my own fears so that I could appear strong for my son and alleviate his worry. In many of these situations, I’ve gotten over my own issues. He has helped me in major ways and he is only 4!
Having a child when you have a mental illness is not selfish. If I neglected him, refused to acknowledge his issues or my own because I didn’t want to deal with them or admit they were there…that would be selfish. I choose to help him, advocate for him, work hard for him, guide him, talk with him, get him services, laugh with him and love him forever. I choose to continue to help myself and show myself some compassion.
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a disability but it doesn’t have to define my life. I can be a good mother with OCD and I can have a happy child with OCD. We will get through it together.