Like a lot of people with OCD, I have intrusive thoughts. And like a lot of people with OCD, they’re unpleasant. Mine are mostly violent.
I’m not going to get into any details beyond that. Even saying that much publicly is terrifying.
But in the wake of current events, I’ve heard many, many comments from well-meaning but scared people. “People who have violent thoughts are dangerous! They should be locked up where they can’t hurt anyone!” That’s the gist of most of them, anyway.
Of course, they mean people who have a lot of violent thoughts, not someone like them, because every single person has had a stray thought of hurting someone here and there. They’d just never act on it.
I still struggle to believe that everyone has these intrusive thoughts, but it’s true. We’re not weird. “Normal” people have these thoughts, too. They just don’t treat them as anything to worry about.
I don’t know about you, but me? I worry constantly about my intrusive thoughts. I tried to stay away from situations where I might accidentally be tempted to follow one, even as they revolted me. I worried that if the opportunity came up, I’d feel compelled to do it anyway, no matter how much I didn’t want to.
These were the thoughts that kept me out of therapy for years. I was terrified — terrified — that if I let my therapist know what kinds of things I was thinking, she’d call the police and I’d be locked up for life in a hospital like in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” even though I’d never acted on a single one of my horrible thoughts. For the first few months I was in treatment for OCD, I skirted around my intrusive thoughts carefully. I still struggle with them, although I’m so, so much better than I was.
I’m going to segue for a second here. One of the things I avoided doing for all those years I was avoiding therapy, life, and whatever else I could avoid, was watching certain television shows: “Law & Order: SVU,” “Criminal Minds,” “Forensic Files.” I loved those kinds of shows as a teen, and my sister and I watched “America’s Most Wanted” every Saturday night, talking about local cases as if we could solve them and looking for suspects on rare trips to the mall.
That changed with the intrusive thoughts. If I watched them, I thought, it would mean I was secretly like the suspects in all these shows, a ticking time bomb of violence just waiting for the right victim. Never mind that literally millions of other people devour these shows every week.
I’ve been watching them again. I haven’t done any of the crimes in the shows. And mostly I’ve enjoyed them.
But there was this one episode of “Criminal Minds” that turned me off that show completely. They’re all supposed to be psychiatrists and psychologists, right? In the episode “Sex, Birth, Death,” a teen bumps into Reid in a train station. Somehow he recognizes him, and asks for help. He’s been thinking about murdering prostitutes, and he can’t stop.
Of course, it wouldn’t be drama if there wasn’t a serial killer targeting prostitutes at the same time, but they catch the “unsub,” who isn’t the kid. The kid, instead, puts himself in a situation where he might act out his thoughts of murder, and is so upset and overwhelmed by his desire not to act them out, he tries to kill himself.
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve read a lot about harm OCD over the past several months, and this kid appeared to have a classic case. But here is this team of supposed psych superstars talking about what a danger this kid is to others, and how he would have to be locked up. Not because he had severe OCD that needed treatment, not because he had tried to harm himself, but because they feared a kid who admitted all this thoughts of violence to get help and then turned a knife on himself might hurt others.
I hope no one with undiagnosed, untreated OCD has seen that episode and decided to avoid treatment because of it.
The point is, having violent thoughts doesn’t mean you’re going to act on them. It doesn’t mean you want to act on them, even secretly.
It’s hard to accept, I know. It really is. Right now, today, I’m doing okay with believing that. Other times I still worry I’m a monster even though I don’t want to be.
So when you hear people say things like that, don’t internalize them just because you have intrusive thoughts. You don’t want to carry your thoughts out, and so you won’t. The people saying those things are wrong, and they’re scared, and they forget that rounding up anyone who’s ever had an intrusive thoughts and locking them up means literally everyone.
We all have these kinds of thoughts. The difference for us OCDers is that we give them power to make us afraid. It’s hard to take that power away again, but it can be done.