About Disabilities · About My Life

Obsessive-Compulsive: My Story

Now that I’ve reposted the story of how I developed and was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, it’s time to share the story of my struggle with obsessive-compulsive disorder. This was originally posted on my old blog in December 2014 and has undergone some edits.

(This post contains discussion of suicidal thoughts, compulsive self-injury, body image issues, and sexual harassment and assault.)

I’ve had the hallmarks of an anxious personality since I was very little. As a child, I was bossy, stubborn, and precocious, desperate both for reassurance from others and control over my own life. Adults often described me as “high-strung” or “moody.” My first ballet teacher said that I was “the only three-year-old she knew who PMSed.” I had screaming fits about vaccinations and hair brushes and swimming pools and basically everything that seemed somewhat threatening. I cried at the slightest provocation.

Me as a three year old in a flowery pink dress and hat
Who, me? Spring 1997

The first obsessive-compulsive episode that I remember having was at the age of eight years old, after my mom first told me about sex. Prior to that, I had operated under the idealistic assumption that God magically made you pregnant when it was the right time. The base physical reality horrified me. This aversion to sex is something I’ve continued to struggle with ever since. Distorted societal and religious education about sexuality is one part of the problem. In 2020, I figured out that I’m demisexual, which is also key to this aversion. I’ll talk about that more in a future post.

Because I couldn’t understand why anyone would have sex willingly, my mind jumped straight to rape, and it would not let that idea go. From then on, when I played with my Barbies, they somehow always ended up getting raped by monsters or mythological figures. It was my first real compulsion, and it was both distressing and uncontrollable. Though I didn’t want to do it, I couldn’t make it stop. I ended up throwing away all my dolls to get away from it. Mom mourned the fact that her little girl was growing up, and I let her believe that was the reason because I had no way to explain the truth.

While I was still struggling with my Barbie compulsion, my family moved from the city where I was born to the small town where I grew up. That’s when my mental illness became more public. I went camping for the first time with the Girl Scouts, which was supposed to be all good fun. As it turns out, I am not the outdoor type. After struggling to force myself to use the spider-infested outhouse, I went with the campers to visit a magic tree you could make wishes on. As a girl who loved stories, myths, and legends, I was very excited about this.

But the magic tree was the opposite of magical for me. As we stood listening to its story, a swarm of bees came down from higher up in the mountains and started stinging people. I didn’t get stung, but seeing everyone else hurt and scared set off a panic attack that continued long after they had all calmed down. They tried to comfort me then, but I was inconsolable. All the stress of the past few months seemed to coalesce. Mom had to take me home early, and for four months or so, I suffered from an extreme fear of bees, also known as melissophobia.

When people say that they have a “phobia” of something, most of the time, they’re referring to a regular fear. But a clinical phobia is actually a terror so strong that it destroys your everyday functioning. Panic ruled over me both night and day, seizing control in a deep and instinctive way. I was in a never-ending nightmare where all I could think about was bees. I researched them and came up with a list of rules that I used to protect myself: no wearing bright colors, no wearing the color black, no wearing perfume, no interacting with flowers, no going outside unless absolutely necessary, and definitely no going outside with food. When it came to flying bugs, I ran screaming first and asked questions later. I broke school rules by hiding in the coat closet at recess.

I threw this lovely vest away because of those rules, Fall 2003

During outdoors PE one day, the sight of a bee set off another panic attack. I fled, screaming and crying, to my regular classroom. When my teacher opened the door, my entire body filled with desperate relief. But my teacher looked at me like I was a monster. I was sent to the principal and school counselor, who lectured me about how education was far more important than my silly little fears. It was clear they didn’t understand me. I didn’t understand me. No one ever said the word “phobia.” No one ever gave me the power to understand what I was going through. The entire experience was a major loss of innocence for me–for the first time, I saw how darkness could unexpectedly come from within, and I was shaken and haunted by the reality of my own self.

The phobia ended after I got an accidental dose of exposure therapy. While I was hugging the wall outside at recess, a bee flew by and grazed me with its stinger. The shock of that event snapped me out of my nightmare state. The visceral fear still often welled up. I had to work hard to control myself, conversationally asking all the bees I passed outside not to hurt me. If I was trapped in a room with a bee, I still had a panic attack. But my entire perspective shifted, pushing me past the worst of the phobia. Over time, little by little, my fear decreased.

However, there were many long-term physical and mental effects of my phobia, including chronic headaches and increased sensitivity overall. Something was clearly wrong with me. Part of me shied away from facing it, but another part of me was determined to find the truth. I developed an interest in psychology, and my desire to use creative writing to better understand myself also grew. I needed to understand myself. I was terrified of myself.

When you have obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), it tends to center on what you care most about in life. My core obsession is personal moral perfection, also known as moral scrupulosity. My secondary obsession, for a long time, was body image, categorized as the separate but related condition of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD). My tertiary obsession is with romance, which is referred to as relationship OCD.

I began developing the body image issues soon after the bee incident. They came from a combination of family issues and my moral OCD making me feel that I had to make up for my lacking integral worth with a beautiful outward image. It started with my nose. Distressed with the way it looked, I began wearing concealer and trying out new facial products that were meant to minimize pores and decrease redness. I hid my face from people, terrified of them seeing it without makeup and even worried of them looking too closely when I did have makeup on. The issue gradually “spread” across my face, though multiple people, including dermatologists, told me my skin was lovely and healthy.

People with body image issues like BDD often suffer from a kind of hallucination where they literally see something in the mirror that isn’t real. In my case, I often saw an eruption of pus-filled pimples, gigantic pores, and general redness across my face, with my nose forming the strawberry-like centerpiece of the imagined disfigurement. My mind basically zoomed in on any small imperfection until it formed my entire image. I was also sensitive about other body parts at various times: my stomach, my hair, my jawline. Sometimes I would have a freakout about something, only to discover the next day that it looked perfectly fine.

Me in fifth grade, looking perfectly all right despite tilted glasses and a rumpled shirt
I hated this picture, Fall 2004

Meanwhile, I struggled with the feeling that something was deeply wrong with me, that in some way I had broken or ruined the beautiful soul God had given me. I felt unworthy, unstable, and misplaced. With my combined religious and relationship OCD, I came to believe I was destined to “save” someone with my love, and that in doing so, I would be able to “fix” myself.

When I was in sixth grade, our family doctor realized that something was different about my youngest brother. One of the many possible diagnoses was sensory integration disorder, which is now considered a part of the autism spectrum, and for a while, my family thought I had it, too. A year and a half later, my brother was diagnosed with autism. My problems, which seemed so much smaller than his, faded into the background. I had at least discovered through research what a phobia was, but I didn’t know how to make right my inner brokenness.

I did my best to make myself ​into someone as perfect as possible. As I went through the crucible that was middle school, I struggled to act more “normal” while also strictly adhering to all the guidelines set out by my church, my parents, and my teachers. I strove to excel in my grades, in my cello-playing, in my outward image, in my religious observance, in my every choice. I hoped that eventually this would make me enough, but I knew I would have to work a thousand times harder to be half as good as other people. I wrote thousands of pages in my diaries ruminating on what was right and wrong and planning the details of my life. I was torn between the urge to overshare so people could run in the other direction before I got attached to them and the need to at least present myself as a worthy person. Any challenge to my morality threw me into a spiral of self-hatred where I had to justify myself not only to the challenger but also to my own unrelenting mind. I cried all the time. I constantly sought reassurance from the people I trusted.

This was all exacerbated when I first fell in love. I had always been a romantic who aspired towards marriage, but none of my childhood crushes came anywhere near the intensity of the feelings I had for the guy I met and fell for in seventh grade. I didn’t choose him. I actually hated him at first. He was reckless, brash, and often cruel. We had no interests in common. But I saw a brokenness in him that matched the brokenness in me, and the fact that he was able to be so unrelentingly defiant in the face of that intrigued me. His clever sense of humor, his passionate nature, and his apparent reciprocal interest together pushed me in head-first.

In some ways, this experience did improve my life. The guy I loved inspired me to become a far more prolific writer, taught me to fear myself less, and gave me the courage to push back more against adults who behaved in abusive ways. I needed that defiance in my life. I needed the push to step out more into the world.

But my OCD also turned my feelings for him into a giant twisted mess. I was convinced he was my salvation and I was his, and that led to my romantic feelings becoming a raging obsession. By the time I hit eighth grade, I was spending hours a day writing in my diaries about this boy did. I couldn’t think or talk about anything but him. I don’t know how I maintained any friendships through this; ironically, this was probably the point in my life when I had the most friends because I was trying so hard to be “normal” enough for people to like me.

Seventh grade me sitting on my bed typing on a laptop
Portrait of a young perfectionist writer, Early 2007

In a spiral of obsessive energy, everything came crashing down. In retrospect, I think this boy probably returned my feelings, but I became convinced that he didn’t. I fell into the deepest depression I’ve ever experienced. I spent hours writing in my diaries about everything that I had done wrong. I blamed myself for his lack of attention, and I did so with violent self-hatred. I wrote over and over again about how stupid I was, how ugly, how useless, how wrong. Ultimately, it wasn’t simply about this boy–he’d just become the focal point for all the problems I already had with myself.

The situation only worsened. I grew up a Mormon, and the LDS Church recommends against dating before the age of sixteen and having serious relationships before adulthood. The Church also doesn’t recommend dating nonmembers. To me, these statements weren’t just “recommendations.” When you have moral scrupulosity, there’s no room for that. To me, the stuff we talked about in church was all set in stone. I was thirteen, and I was madly in love. The boy I loved was basically the opposite of a Mormon. Someone reminded me of this, and my life fell apart.

Two contradictory obsessions began warring in my mind: my obsession with the boy and my obsession with morality. I desperately wanted us to have a deep and epic romance and save the world from evil together, as you do. But I also knew that the Church said I wasn’t allowed to date him, and therefore, all of this obsessing I was doing over him was wrong. The constant mental anguish of having warring obsessions was beyond any description. I felt nauseated all the time, had panic attacks often, and had no brain space left for other topics. I couldn’t decide whether I was more of afraid of the guy returning my feelings or not returning them. I agonized about it nonstop. It was nothing short of torture.

In mid-winter, I reached my breaking point. I no longer cared about either side of the argument; I only wanted it to stop. But I had no control over my thoughts. I described it to my best friend as “the devil and God fighting a war inside my brain,” and with no alternate explanation, I truly believed it.

Me, in eighth grade, outside a graffitied middle school door, looking troubled
Portrait of suffering, Late 2007

The only way out, I thought, was death, and it was getting to the point where I was willing to do just that if it would free me. However, like most suicidal people, I didn’t actually want to die. As time passed, I fell further and further into “magical thinking” and denial, which gave me enough hope to stay alive. The obsessions continued to fight in my head for some time, but eventually, as the weather warmed again, they started to quiet.

The turning point came when a friend asked if I could do “study dates.” My mom’s confirmation that those were okay helped me escape the mental spiral. Another thing that helped was that my history teacher took me aside to say that he had read my free writes for class, which included plenty of depressive obsessing and self-hatred, and that he was concerned for me. I mostly just felt embarrassed, but I did start re-evaluating how other aspects of my life were contributing to my mental health issues. Finally, though it was horrifically hard on me, the boy in question moved away. My feelings for him lingered for years, but my obsession faded.

My mental health never again became as bad as it was in eighth grade, but I continued to struggle throughout high school. When my BDD was at its worst, I was going to the bathroom five or six times a day to “fix my face.” I sat in class unable to think of anything but when I could next reapply my makeup. I arrived to classes, concerts, and other events late because I couldn’t get my face just right. I sometimes took a thumbtack to my skin in an attempt to destroy the “wrongness.” For the entirety of ninth grade, I wore only baby doll tops because I was convinced that my stomach was enormous. This also caused disordered eating, where I allowed myself only 1200 calories a day and exercised for hours on end trying to burn the rest off. The urge to exercise became almost as powerful as the urge to apply makeup.

In tenth grade, I took driver’s ed, which was a horrific experience. I’d never been all that interested in driving, and the responsibility I felt for getting it right so that I didn’t hurt anyone was tremendous. Between my new obsession with staying right on the speed limit and the trauma of seeing gruesome car crash videos in class, I quickly decided that not driving was the better choice. That’s still something I’m working on.

In eleventh grade health class, I learned about the existence of BDD and immediately recognized it in myself. I started trying to get better on my own. I fought every day to see around the hallucinations in the mirror. It was a slow and painstaking process with many setbacks, but the low-level antidepressants I started for my fibromyalgia in twelfth grade helped some. I also tried to “become more confident,” since that was the only way I could explain my other mental health issues. That, unfortunately, was not successful. I continued to have panic attacks and crying fits, I continued to hold myself and the people I loved to an unreasonable standard, I continued to ruminate all over the pages of my diary, and I continued to believe that I needed a guy to make me worthy of life. My hope for that was fading, though.

When it came time to leave home for college, I was nervous but excited. I did struggle to adjust, but for a while, during my freshman year, I thrived like never before. Then, various stressors touched on all my unresolved traumas, and I slid right back to where I was before.

Welcome to adulthood, Early 2013

While my “mental breakdown” then was mild compared to eighth grade, the contrast was striking against how I’d been during my first semester. I was constantly crying and panicking over little things, mostly related to men and misogyny. I had to keep leaving in the middle of classes to get a hold on myself. I also was developing worsening body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs), which are compulsive actions that damage one’s own body. Examples include excessive hair-plucking, skin-picking, and nail-clipping.

Finally, a friend suggested I get free counseling through the college. I argued with her about that, convinced that this was just me reverting back to “who I really was” and that counseling couldn’t fix something like that. After that elementary school counselor, I didn’t have much faith in counselors anyway. I told her that we didn’t have to be friends if she didn’t like the real me. That’s when she said, “But wouldn’t you always like to be the way you were last semester?”

With that surprising thought in mind, I agreed to try. The student counselor I saw turned out to be really kind and thoughtful. She didn’t diagnose me, but she did help me work through some unresolved traumas, she supported me in my decision to transfer colleges, and she got me through to the summer. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to find a good counselor at home. I also experienced sexual harassment over the summer that led to me breaking down worse than ever. I didn’t have a lot of support from others with that, and I once again lost all faith in myself. For a while, I had nausea-stricken panic attacks every time I left the house. My BFRBs worsened to the point where I was now getting infections in the places where I had ripped my skin open with tweezers.

I pushed myself through the summer with help from a few friends whom I trusted to protect me outside the house. (Less helpful was a trusted adult telling me that if I had more faith in Jesus, I wouldn’t struggle so much.) When I arrived at my new college for my sophomore year, my mental health immediately crashed again. So I rushed to get into counseling. There was an initial consultation with a woman I didn’t think believed or liked me. But I was then assigned to an anxiety specialist who immediately diagnosed me with OCD.

Somehow, though I had never considered it before, I knew what he was going to say just before he said it. The diagnosis was both shocking and obvious. Though I had previously believed the stereotypes about OCD, which depict it as being all about germs and organization, the counselor’s explanation of moral scrupulosity led to everything falling into place.

Me in my sophomore dorm, smiling as I take the selfie
A girl with a diagnosis, Spring 2014

All the questions and confusion and wrongness that I’d spent so much time agonizing about suddenly made sense. Suddenly, I had the answers to my life. Of course, my OCD didn’t take that lying down; I ended up sobbing on the phone with my mom for over an hour after that appointment about how I was “a liar” because my mental illness was exaggerating my feelings.

But on the whole, things began looking up. My low-dose antidepressant was changed and raised to a dose that was appropriate for OCD. This reduced the strength of my obsessions and made it much easier for me to resist my compulsions. I attended regular counseling, where I unlearned a lot of unhealthy thought patterns and reframed my perspective of the world. (Just knowing that I have OCD makes a huge different for me in being able to control it!) I also named my OCD “Codi” and gave her a separate identity, which helps me distinguish between obsessive thoughts and healthier ones. This concept is what ultimately inspired #OCDStory, with help from my writing friend Julia Byers.

I returned home again after that semester to try and get everything together. There, with a new counselor, I learned about how my OCD helps me as well as hinders me. I figured out how to use it in a healthy way instead of an unhealthy one. I processed more of my past traumas, and I slowly unwove the tangled complexities of my mind. Over time, I realized how much pain I had been in and how very intense my self-hatred had been. It honestly wasn’t until I started feeling better that I was able to see how much I’d been struggling. When I experienced self-love for the first time, I cried. I never could have imagined the incredible beauty of that feeling. I never could have imagined before how happy and at peace I could be.

By the end of 2014, I had my OCD under an appropriate amount of control. I still relapse sometimes. It’s hard to fight the part of you that’s most desperate to protect itself. But I’m BDD-free, which is a huge victory, and I’m able to manage my mental health as a whole. I am incredibly grateful for my diagnosis, for my new understanding of life, and for the people (and the emotional support cat I adopted) who have helped me along the way.

Spartacus, a black and white kitten, lying in a box full of blankets perched on a windowsill
Spartacus the emotional support cat, Fall 2014

I want to pass that joy on to you, too. So if any of this sounds familiar, please seek help. If you suspect that there’s something not right with the way you’re feeling and thinking, get help. You have no idea how much it could do for you. If you have loved ones who are experiencing something like this, I also hope this post will help you better understand. I’ve been fortunate to respond so well to treatment, so keep that in mind.

Someday, I hope my #OCDStory will be available to the public to offer additional insight. Writing this novel has been a difficult, complicated, and revelatory experience that has taught me so much more about my own mental state. I think it really could be The One that gets me published.

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