The following is from a former client who wishes to remain anonymous.
“I think you may have obsessive compulsive disorder.” Those were the words my primary care physician said in April, 2009. I had gone to his office to beg for yet another prescription for Xanax. It was the only thing helping me through the past couple of months. He said he wasn’t going to write me another prescription until he knew what was going on. Without going into specific details, I poured my heart out to the doctor. I felt as though I had lost complete control of my life and all the “what ifs” swirling around in my head were killing me. That’s when he said, “I think you have OCD.” Little did I know, he knew exactly what he was talking about. Let’s rewind ten years to where it all began.
I was 14 years old and had just started ninth grade. As if going into high school was not hard enough, my dad had been cheating on my mom with a much younger woman, so my parents were going through a bitter divorce. My life was crumbling in front of me. One day I was watching a movie at my grandma’s house with my younger siblings. All of the sudden a thought popped into my head. “What if I’m gay?” It was a completely random, irrational thought that most people would discount and move on. Not me. I panicked. I remember holding in my tears, going home to my room, grabbing a notebook and writing “Help me, God” over and over. I must have written that phrase 500 times that night. That was the beginning of ten years of inner turmoil that led to severe anxiety and depression.
Throughout this post, I write about “the thoughts” almost as if they were an actual person. That’s what they seemed like. This little devil that never left my shoulder. To clarify, the thoughts were never, “I am gay, and I am hiding it/ashamed.” They were, “What IF I’m gay, and I don’t know it?” Ridiculous, right? I lived with the thoughts for the next ten years. They were always there. Everyday. I never uttered a word to anyone about the thoughts for the fear they would confirm the thoughts. I became an expert in avoiding anything that would trigger my anxiety. I was careful about the way I walked and talked. I never uttered the word gay. I couldn’t look at rainbows or watch movies with homosexual content. My cousin came out as a lesbian, and I avoided her and the rest of my family. If the thoughts started, I could usually “control” them by writing or saying phrases over and over again in my head. I prayed for the thoughts to go away. I also became an expert in hiding. No one knew what I was going through. I hid my inner turmoil from the people I loved the most.
In February, 2009 things came to a head. I had been living 10 years with the thoughts. Finally, I lost it. Not just on the inside either. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. All I could do was cry. The days were hard, and the nights were unbearable. The only thing that got me through the night was popping a Xanax so I could sleep. I remember thinking, “If this is what my life is going to be like, it’s not worth living.” There was a part of me that wanted to die. Everyone around me could tell that something was VERY wrong. Yet, I still didn’t utter a word of the thoughts to anyone. I had lived 10 years with the thoughts, and I didn’t want to do it anymore. Reading that now brings tears to my eyes.
Back in the doctor’s office, I didn’t call him an idiot directly, but I am sure the look on my face said it all. “Me, have OCD? You’ve got to be kidding. How did you get OCD out of what I just told you? I’ve seen As Good As It Gets. That is NOT me. I’m not a neat freak. I don’t lock doors over and over, step over cracks. Nope, that’s not me. This doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” He gave me only one week’s worth of Xanax and a prescription for Prozac. I started the Prozac, and went through the Xanax before the week was up. I had four more really rough weeks before I started to feel the effects of the Prozac.
About two weeks into it, I started thinking “maybe there’s something to this. I mean, he is a doctor.” So I searched for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder on the Internet. There it was, in the top five signs you might have OCD — unwanted and intrusive thoughts about one’s sexuality. I had been looking for an answer for 10 years, and there it was! Tears immediately came to my eyes, and I felt a huge sense of relief wash over me. A weight lifted.
I continued researching OCD and found people on an OCD forum who had been going through the exact things I was. I realized that I do have OCD. Now don’t be confused. Just because I knew this was the answer, the thoughts did not go away. They were still there, a constant nagging in my brain. Yet I felt a sense of relief. I knew there was something more there. I called the local mental health department and got contact information for two psychologists who specialized in treating anxiety and OCD. I got voice mail at both numbers. I hung up without leaving a message at the first number. On the second call I decided to leave a message. The doctor called me back within an hour. I told her everything, things I had never told anyone before. She responded, “It definitely sounds like OCD, but I would love to meet with you.” I scheduled an appointment as soon as possible.
I was indeed diagnosed with severe OCD, “pure-O” to be exact. This meant that my compulsions were primarily mental. Before, I thought of OCD as something people were doing physically (i.e., locking doors, excessive hand washing). I thought you could see it. Turns out you can’t always see the effects of OCD. The psychologist told me there was no cure for OCD. It’s not like a physical illness that you can treat with medication, and it will go away. However, I was told with the right therapy (exposure and response prevention or ERP), I could change the way my brain processed my OCD, and live a normal life, out of the grip of OCD.
With pure-o, I couldn’t stand the unknown. I wanted to be 100% certain that I was not gay. Guess what? The only thing for CERTAIN is UNCERTAINTY. I was never going to be 100% sure. She asked if I wanted to live free of OCD? Of course I did. She then said that the only way to free myself from OCD was to stop fighting the thoughts and to accept uncertainty. Accept the fact that I could be gay.
In ERP, you expose yourself to the things you fear the most, and instead of trying to get rid of the anxiety or run from it, you stay in the anxiety until it passes. For ten years, I had been running away from the thoughts, and now she was telling me to run to them. Sounds logical, right? (Note the sarcasm!) To be honest, I am surprised that I didn’t run out of her office that first day. But I trusted her, and I was going to do EXACTLY what she told me to do. We created a hierarchy of things that would bring me anxiety. Items at bottom of my hierarchy would cause little anxiety and items at the top would cause great anxiety. I remember her example of something that could be at the top of the hierarchy — going to a gay bar. SAY WHAT?!? But I committed.
For the next 6 months, I exposed myself to my fears and to uncertainty. I hated letting go of my need for certainty. I did things that brought me so much anxiety that I would be shaking and crying while completing the exposure. I wrote stories about me being gay. I read coming out stories. I watched shows with gay characters, and I spent one-on-one time with my cousin who is a lesbian. I remember my last therapy session very well. We went to a community center for gay youth. Together we sat in the waiting room. I didn’t talk to anyone, just felt my anxiety without fighting it. And you know the funny thing? I sat in that community center for only 10-15 minutes before my anxiety went away.
What I learned from my six months of therapy is that when you run from a thought, you are confirming to your brain that it is something to be feared, when in all actuality, it isn’t. In contrast, when you expose yourself to your fears, and bring the anxiety on yourself, you are telling your brain that it is not something to be feared (even if you are scared in the moment). The more I exposed myself to the fear of being gay, the more I belittled “the thoughts”. I will never have 100% certainty that I am not gay. And I am OK with that.
My therapy did not stop at the end of those six months. I still had to work on it myself, and there were times I relapsed and had to get myself back on course. But I NEVER went back to where I was before therapy. Now in November, 2015 I can honestly say I have never been happier. I remember the sad and hopeless days. I remember the day the thoughts started. I remember the day I thought that life wasn’t worth living like this. I remember the many sleepless nights and the tears. I will never forget that pain. But the happiness I feel now is so much stronger than the pain. “The thoughts” are gone. They aren’t gone because I wished them away, or because I avoided them. They are gone because I attacked them head on. It wasn’t a small or easy battle. It was long and painful. I still have OCD, but I am living a life outside of OCD’s grip. I won!