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  • Mitch Blatt

Revising my Story of OCD

For me, it looks like the hand-washing thing, and health worries in general. This little “worried voice” would go “oh my God, I just touched this publicly-used thing! Gotta wash my hands NOW NOW NOW or I could get sick, or spread unknown germs to my loved ones!” or “Is the fridge door fully closed? I better make sure, lest the food go bad and get me sick if I eat it.” I was fine until a surgery in November of 2022. It was a routine surgery to replace the battery of a medical pump that sends muscle relaxant into my legs, but the recovery had a big complication, a little something known as “baclofen withdrawal”—shaking, anxiety, overly-tight leg muscles that made walking difficult and the simple act of sitting in my desk chair extremely painful; I was dealing with a lot of bad stuff. Everyone has a different limit for how much stress they can take, and, apparently, that was mine; it was like a switch got flipped, and something barged into my life—that little worried voice starting up with the “I touched x, y, z! Gotta wash my hands RIGHT NOW!!!”—bringing along a side order of depression. In February 2023, I was a mess; tons of inexplicable crying almost every day, my hands getting washed so much that they were beet-red, lizard-dry, cracked and bleeding. My parents and friends were confused and irritated by this behavior.

That all changed when I got diagnosed as suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. In early March, I started taking daily doses of Paxil along with practicing some cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). In April, I started seeing a therapist who specializes in treating OCD, anxiety, phobias and such. I told her that my family and I were hoping to take a month-long trip to Europe in May, and she taught me some skills to resist the urge to engage in compulsions and to live the life I wanted to live, rather than the one OCD wanted me to — buying stuff at gift shops, touring the Banksy museum in Frankfurt, riding the rides at Disneyland Paris, and taking cabs to eat out at fabulous restaurants. Guess how many crying episodes I had on that trip. One! I was holding handrails and poles in the subway for balance, using public bathrooms, opening doors touched by who-knows- how-many strangers, and touching armrests and tables in restaurants. Those all sound like ridiculous things to be afraid of, right?

But that’s what OCD does; it makes the amygdala (the part of our brains that sounds the alarm in response to danger) throw up tons of false alarms. It tells you the story “You know this thing you care about (health/sin/morality, etc.)? Yeah, you’re (at risk of getting yourself or your loved ones sick/bound straight for Hell/the worst kind of bigot imaginable). Doing this one little ritual will relieve your anxiety...for now.” And whenever you encounter something that brings the thing you care about to mind (touching something “germy,” in my case), OCD repeats the same line. It gaslights you into seeing innocuous things as dangerous and into questioning your actions (whether that’s “did I wash enough?”, “did I accidentally offend God/this person I’m talking to?”, or even “I keep having intrusive thoughts of harming people! Am I a violent psychopath?!”). From where I’m standing, it’s a bully that weaves a convincing, but false, story of danger lurking around every corner, saying, “This and that and the other thing are dangerous! But don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’m on your side here. Just do this one little ritual and your anxiety will go away. I’ll wake you up to all the dangers that lurk around you, and also provide the solution. Pay no mind to how manipulative that is.”

Thankfully, through a combination of therapy and medication tailored to my specific case, I started retelling myself the story I’d known for over 20 years—touching publicly-used surfaces like handrails or grab bars in buses and subways is fine. OCD may have lowered my tolerance to uncertainty for things like “Is this surface clean?” or “Did I wash my hands enough after using the bathroom?” but I can raise it back to the pre-surgery level it’s been at for over 20 years.

I came up with a philosophy: “if OCD says to do something, don’t do it (plan B: modify it, so that I’m doing it on my terms). If it says don’t do something, do it.” To illustrate: when OCD said “OCD’s stigmatized; you shouldn’t publish this article because you’ll lose face in the eyes of anyone who reads it,” I took that as a sign that I should.

I’m not saying there weren’t hiccups during my vacation where I did things like wash the bathroom sink handle (to remove “bathroom germs” so that I wouldn’t be “re-contaminating” my hands when turning off the faucet), or where I’d go through a bunch of soap in a short amount of time, but I learned to not kick myself over those hiccups. Now that I’m back ho me, I’ve found myself slipping back into some compulsions, but I’m doing my best to apply what my therapist has taught me and what I’ve re-taught myself.

Hopefully, reading my story has changed the story you tell yourself about what OCD looks like (or given you inspiration and hope, should you be someone who also struggles with OCD). I hope that I’ve shown you how to look past the stigma and treat sufferers with compassion rather than as the butt of jokes —“pushed your perspective in a positive direction,” you might say. If you or someone you know is one of the 2-3% of Americans who suffer from intrusive thoughts and irresistable compulsions, don’tbe afraid to tell your loved ones and seek professional help from a qualified therapist. It may be tough, but recovery IS possible!

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