One of the defining features of OCD is the presence of intrusive thoughts. But here’s the thing that really threw me for a loop when my therapist and psychiatrist explained intrusive thoughts to me: Everyone has them.
Everyone. Your friends, your family (even your grandma), your co-workers. Very few people on this planet can claim they’ve never had a single intrusive thought.
The difference between the mentally healthy and those of us with OCD and anxiety disorders that center around these horrible thoughts?
They see them as weird thoughts that can be safely ignored. We see them as something horrible — either a sign that we’re terrible people, or a clue something awful is going to happen and it will be our fault.
For me, if I have a brief thought in passing about hurting someone, instead of thinking, “Oh, weird. I’d never do that,” and moving on, I latch on. Why would I think that? Does it mean I want to do it? I should analyze every remembered interaction with that person to try and figure out why I would have that thought. Then I should analyze every fiber of my being to determine if I’m the kind of person who could hurt someone else. If I can think of situations where I might harm someone — for example, in self-defense — then I’m clearly the same as a serial killer. The fact that I would have these thoughts means I’m morally deficient somehow. Now I need to pray and go to church every day. But if I have violent thoughts in Mass, then I’m just proving that nothing can help me, I’m lost and can’t be saved. And so on.
The cycle feeds into compulsions — I pray, pick at my skin, chew the inside of my mouth until it bleeds and hurts to eat or drink — and physical symptoms like fluttering in my stomach and a pounding heart any time I’m around that person.
And it’s rarely just one thought — for about 18 years, I spent all of my time worrying that I was a budding serial killer, that I was a blasphemer who was going to hell, that my reluctance to evangelize to my family meant I was damning them to hell (I’m not even a religious person!), that I was going to accidentally make my cats sick by giving them the wrong food, that I was going to accidentally expose my cats to rabies, that I was going to expose myself to rabies, that I would get botulism, that I would give other people botulism by giving them tainted food by accident, that I would lick or bite people during conversation, that I would stick my arm between train cars even though I didn’t want to, etc. Every time the steam began to run out on one thought, another took its place.
A lot of us with intrusive thoughts of the anxious, obsessive variety are afraid to talk about them. We think (or at least hope) we wouldn’t really do those things … but what if other people think we would? What if we end up in jail or one of those terrifying institutions from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? Worse, what if we belong there?
That silence feeds into the thoughts and reinforces the fear that there’s something wrong with us.
It also feeds into the idea that we’re alone. That there’s something wrong with us because we’re the only one having these thoughts (other than serial killers).
We’re not. Everyone has these kinds of thoughts sometimes. Even therapists!
I think getting to the point where I really, truly believed my therapist when she told me this was a huge turning point in my treatment. Going from “But what if it’s just me?” to “It’s definitely not just me” took a lot of the power out of my awful thoughts.
And that’s why Aaron Harvey, who lived with undiagnosed OCD for 20 years, founded IntrusiveThoughts.org. The site is meant to shed light on intrusive thoughts, share what they “sound” like for people with OCD and related disorders, and share resources and information about getting treatment.
His goal, he explains on a GoFundMe campaign related to the site, is to humanize the lesser known symptoms of OCD and bring them out into the open, so that others can get help without suffering for years. Eventually, he hopes to do the same with other mental illnesses.
If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with OCD or intrusive thoughts, Harvey’s site is an excellent place to start. It already has a bunch of information, including summaries of several types of OCD, from harm OCD to scrupulosity OCD to relationship OCD.
Photo by Michael Dunn~!