Let’s talk about mental health for a bit. No, I’m not talking about depression or anxiety, which is what the mental health conversation usually surrounds. I want to talk about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

“OMG, I’m so OCD! It drives me crazy if my house isn’t clean or when my desk isn’t organized!” No, we’re not going to feed into those stereotypes, because that is not OCD. If those thoughts lead to thinking that you’ll contract a deadly illness or that the mess will lead to a hoarding disorder then that is OCD.

The Start of My OCD

I’ve had OCD for the past seven years. What started out as perinatal OCD turned into full-blown OCD after having my son. I didn’t know what was happening to me. Heck, I’m still trying to figure out what OCD is, how people develop it, who is most vulnerable, the subtypes, and how the brain plays a part in it.

My first touches OCD included thoughts of my son being harmed. Violent, sinister, horrible thoughts. It brought on intense anxiety.

Why were these thoughts popping up?

Was I wanting this to happen?

Should I have ever been a mom in the first place?

What if I act on these thoughts?

These thoughts, along with untreated major depression and anxiety, led me to being hospitalized for eight days. That was then followed by a month of intensive outpatient therapy and medications. I avoided my son and isolated myself from my family. How could I be such a monster? What kind of person thinks those thoughts? I hated myself in those moments.

Eventually I got better, but bonding with my son was hard. I kept trying to re-establish my relationship with him for years. In some ways, I still find myself trying to because of the feelings of guilt for missing out at the beginning. Then in 2020, I had another episode. This one more intense than the first and involving more subtypes of OCD along with it.

From Thoughts to Compulsions

This was the height of COVID-19 and the summer of protests against police brutality. The thoughts came back, paralyzing me, stressing me, debilitating me.

What if I, or someone in my family, contracted COVID and died?

Do I need to start on a will?

What if a civil war breaks out?

Am I safe?

Then thoughts about death and existentialism came up. I’m terrified of death.

What happens after?

Am I a good enough person to get into heaven?

What is the point of all this if we’re all going to die?

I tried reconnecting with God. Reading bible verses gave me comfort. Then other thoughts came to mind.

What if God doesn’t love me?

What if I’m not living my life correctly according to God?

I just couldn’t catch a break. My OCD latched onto everything I cared about and tried to twist them into something dark and scary. After attending a protest myself, I was in the ER with heat exhaustion and the sheer panic of feeling this impending doom and like the world was crumbling around me sent me into a spiral of panic. For days on end, my heart was beating hard and fast in my chest. The thoughts did not stop, and what was worse is the thoughts of my son being harmed came back more violent, gruesome, distressing. I took a leave of absence at work and spent another month at the behavioral health facility.

I felt panicked driving. What if I get into a car crash?

I felt panicked watching TV. What if the content of this show triggers an intrusive thought?

I felt panicked listening to music. What if I hear something said that causes me to start spiraling?

I literally shut myself in my room and avoided my son and family. I couldn’t eat and needed pills to sleep. Even the feeling of the pills starting to kick in sent me into a panic of questioning, “Why was I feeling so weird. This isn’t normal!”

That is when I started doing compulsions. I did everything to try to stop the thoughts. If it was a violent thought, I’d try to replace some of the element of the thought to make it less violent. If I had a thought about COVID, I’d seek reassurance from myself and others that we wouldn’t get sick and die. If I had thoughts about God hating me, I’d pray and try to purify myself to be more lovable. I distinctly remember that first night of my episode, unable to calm down, my mom crawled into my bed with me, holding me, whispering to me that things would be okay. Given my heightened state of panic, my body started to twitch, like I was shivering, shivering with fear. Even my mother’s own embrace couldn’t comfort me and get me out of my head. A few days after I started on new medication, I sat down to (not) eat with my family. My mom looked at me and said, “I don’t know if I like these meds you’re on. You seem completely catatonic.” Through the brain fog and unfocused gaze, all I could say was, “It’ll pass. I’d rather be numb like this than experiencing what I have been.” Things got better for awhile. I finally got into a nice groove, so nice that I thought, “Eh, I don’t need these medications anymore. I’ve been okay for awhile.” Although the anxiety of another episode always loomed in the back of my mind, I figured I was fine enough to not need any support.

Living with OCD

In 2023, I got a fantastic job offer: better pay, better benefits, and doing something I thought I would love. But the reality of the change set it and of course, I began to doubt.

What if I’m not good enough?

What if I’m not the right candidate?

What if they realize I’m not good at this and then they fire me?

I backed out of the position. I was so frustrated with myself. Did I self-sabatoge this amazing opportunity? No, I didn’t. As I learned, OCD can flare up even when good change occurs. This time I was mad at myself and my brain. With no job, no health insurance, and running low on money, I had to seek help once again. Same ole story: new medications, new therapist, new routines. This time I was prepared. I had an action plan even in the midst of my unwanted thoughts and panic. I knew what worked for me in the past and I was determined to get better quickly.

Yet, once again my OCD evolved. I started to repeat words in my head and had songs stuck on repeat, a type of OCD called “ear worms.” My dreams started to involve my biggest fear of my son being hurt and a barrage of themes around my relationship with my partner being destroyed. Around Halloween I was convinced some of my son’s candy was poisoned after ingesting it. I fell into the same old habits of doing mental compulsions and avoidance, it was second nature to me. I couldn’t eat or sleep, my thoughts would follow me into the night and I would wake up in a panic. It wasn’t until I started therapy and did more research on OCD that I started to resist my compulsions. I thought my compulsions were trying to keep me safe – to assure me I wasn’t a bad person who wanted these thoughts to happen. I didn’t know compulsions fuel the cycle of OCD. I had to stop engaging in these activities if I wanted to get better.

During this time I reflected on what OCD had done to me. I felt split in two. On one hand, I’m a mom, a worker, a lover of animals and reading, someone with ambition and tenacity. On the other, I’m a fearful, scared, out-of-control, irrational hermit who lives in their own head. If I could describe a real-life scenario of what it’s like to have OCD, it’s as if you’re trapped in a lion enclosure. Yeah those animals aren’t wild and have likely lived in the zoo their whole lives, but that doesn’t mean they won’t attack you. You’ve got your back to the wall, wondering if they’ll kill you. It’s paralyzing. It’s imminent. It’s consuming.

I had a hard time reconciling who I am when I’m in the throes of an episode and when I’m not in one. It’s still so hard for me to come to terms with that side of myself. It’s like someone takes control of my brain and wants to cause me the most distress possible. But one thing I always try to remind myself is that these thoughts are not reality. A question I ask myself is this: Could this actually happen? Yes, it’s possible. Is it likely to happen? Probably not. Dealing with uncertainty and doubt is the foundation of OCD and we have to learn to live with those feelings.

Breaking the Stigma Around OCD

I’m a person who has an illness, one that could last a lifetime, and I have to accept that. I know my thoughts aren’t real. They’re imaginations from my brain as a result of life stressors, brain chemicals, and possibly genetics. The more I learn about OCD, the better understanding I have of it and the better equipped I am to accepting myself and educating those around me. I’ve participated in research studies to understand the link between genetics and OCD. I also engaged in a study of the prevalence of OCD in Latine populations. I’ve made it a point to openly talk about my illness with my family, friends, and partner. My goal is to shed the stigma surrounding it and to make people realize OCD is not a cute buzzword to carelessly throw around. For some people, it can cause attempts to take their own life or cause them to not leave their house. I hope that we can start to have conversations about the less common mental health issues like OCD, schizophrenia, bipolar, and borderline personality disorder without inducing stereotypes.

I’ve gone through this whole experience feeling misunderstood, feeling like no one could ever understand, but I’ve found an incredible support system who try. I am loved, supported, and heard. I want to thank everyone who has listened, even though they can’t sympathize or understand, who has helped me care for my son when all I wanted to do was hide in my room. I still worry for the next episode, if there ever will be one again, but I’m steadfast in knowing I can get through it if it does happen.