OCD – So Much More Than Counting

One two three four

One two three four

One two three four

One two three four

According to the New England OCD Institute, OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) breaks down into four categories:

  1. Contamination and Washing
  2. Doubts About Accidental Harm and Checking
  3. Symmetry, Arranging, Counting, and Just Right OCD
  4. Unacceptable Taboo Thoughts and Mental Rituals

1 through 3 are obsessions and compulsions. You obsess over not being clean so you wash your hands, or you worry that if you don’t check to make sure the doors are locked then someone will break in and kill you so you double-check the doors. Number 4 are obsessions only, meaning you have obsessions but no desire to act on them. For example, if your thoughts revolve around raping people then you have no desire to act on it because you are repulsed by your thoughts. That’s the defining difference between a rapist, pedophile, murderer, etc., and someone with OCD. The former derive pleasure from these thoughts and the person actively looks for ways to feed them. Someone who suffers from OCD and has taboo thoughts feels nothing but shame and guilt and has no desire whatsoever to act on the obsession and may even avoid situations for fear of being triggered.

Personally, I struggle with the last three.

I remember very clearly the first time I realized I could control things. I was raised by an abusive man and I suppose in a way I was trying to find things I could have control over as control was always had over me. One day I’m walking out of my bedroom and I get halfway down the hall before I second guess if I turned the light off in my room. I knew I turned the light off but I had an overwhelming need to go back and check. I go back to my room and the lights are off but I just stand there flipping the light switch on and off. And that’s the first time I realized I could control something, even something as insignificant as a light. With this newfound control, I became obsessed. Eventually it turned into more than light switches. I now had to check and re-check water faucets, as well as all doors and cabinets. I knew the doors were closed and locked and the water faucets weren’t running BUT if I didn’t go back and check for the fourth time then my mom would most definitely die. I had to check and lean on everything four times, four seconds each. This was my control.

Eventually, I couldn’t even leave my office or home without calling my mother. I’d have her listen to the door lock so she could tell me to walk away but it was so extreme that even with her confirming it was safe to leave, I couldn’t. I was frozen with fear. I would go into a fit of rage and punch walls and kick things because every part of me wanted to leave but I couldn’t. What if the doors were not locked? Overtime I’ve learned coping mechanisms and have been on and off medication depending on how bad my compulsions. One thing I find helps is to turn the knob so hard that it makes my hand hurt. That way when I’m walking away and I have an urge to go back and double-check the door, I think about my hand hurting and I know my hand wouldn’t hurt if the door was unlocked because it would’ve opened. I’ve just had to learn to trust myself.

Now, before we get into the next part I’d like to reiterate that taboo thoughts are obsessions ONLY. Long before I began counting and checking, I suffered from horrifying thoughts. When I was as young as 13 or 14, I couldn’t sleep at night because all I could think about was hurting people. As I got older it branched into sexual acts. I’d close my eyes at night and the images running through my mind were worse than you can imagine. It got to the point that I couldn’t sleep so I’d walk around my house all night trying to busy myself. I was overwhelmed with disgust and fear. I thought something was horribly wrong with me. What if I’m going to become a murderer or rapist? I didn’t want to hurt people but it was all I could think about. The guilt and shame I felt because of the obsessions is indescribable. Now, if I didn’t feel repulsion in response to the thoughts I was having, then there would be reason for concern. I was consumed by my thoughts and I couldn’t figure out where they came from or how to make them go away. At this point in time, I wasn’t aware OCD was a thing so I assumed the worst about myself.

You can imagine how confusing this was for me. For the longest time I was convinced I was a horrible person. Both my therapist and I think I’ve developed these obsessions and compulsions as ways to deal with the trauma of my childhood. I had a deep-seated rage at a young age because I was treated so poorly by my step-father. Unfortunately, that rage showed itself in an ugly way. The obsessions on top of being raised to believe I was insignificant led me to my first plan of suicide. I didn’t want to be here if I wasn’t loved or if I was going to cause harm to others. Over time, I’ve learned what triggers these thoughts and have been able to keep the obsessions to a minimum. I know to be mindful of what I watch on TV, what books I read, and what podcasts I listen to. Knowing what to avoid and taking medication has helped significantly.

People almost always say, “if the thoughts bother you so much then why don’t you ignore them or try not to think about it?” Honestly, if it were that easy then I’d have done it from the get-go. I’ve learned that trying to fight them just causes me to obsess even more. If you fight the thoughts then it feeds the obsession. I fought them for the longest time until I confided in a friend and they asked me why I don’t acknowledge them and then let them go. THIS WAS LIFE CHANGING. It was very difficult to allow my mind to go there but once I did, I realized it took the power away from the thoughts. Now I’m the one in control of them, not the other way around. Through therapy I’ve also learned to acknowledge them as odd thoughts and then move on with my day. If you are someone who suffers from thoughts like mine, I know it’s difficult but you need to reclaim authority over your mind and decide what you give power to.

Taboo thoughts are a regular topic of conversation in my therapy sessions. We’ve discussed exposure therapy which is a form of treatment designed to help people face their fears. The idea is the more you’re exposed to the things you’re afraid of, the more it desensitizes the fear and subsequently the anxiety that stems from it. With this therapy, we would watch videos that would trigger me and then discuss what I am feeling in a safe space. Hopefully over time I’d get to a point where I’m not triggered as easily. This is not something to do unsupervised, I haven’t allowed us to try it because I’m terrified of the thoughts and the last thing I want is to start obsessing again, even if it is supervised.

Out of all the things I have to battle, this is by far the most difficult. I’m repulsed by my own thoughts and it makes me question who I am as a person. What I’ve come to learn is these thoughts do not define me. The simple fact I’m so disgusted by them goes to show I have empathy and would never want to hurt anyone. They’re only thoughts. They don’t have power unless we give them power.  The less you try to fight the thoughts and keep them from happening the more likely you are to stop thinking about them and be able to let them pass on through. It’s here for a moment and gone the next. They do not define you.

A lot of people have thoughts like these. I feel the need to speak of taboo thoughts openly in an attempt to bring light to something that does occur but isn’t discussed for fear of judgment. You’d be amazed how many people are suffering from the same things as I am.

The thing I struggle with most is who I can share this with which is irony at its finest considering I’m now sharing it with the world. I struggle with intimate relationships because I’m worried what my partner will think of my obsessions. Will they want to marry me if they know? What about kids, what if they worry I’ll hurt them? This is something I’m still trying to come to terms with. People can run from things they don’t understand but I remind myself that if my partner chooses not to educate themselves on the things I struggle with, and do their research, then they don’t deserve to be a part of my life. I am not my mental illness and I am worthy of love just as much as the next person.

In full disclosure, I’ve recently had a flare-up of taboo thoughts and it’s something I’m working through in therapy and with medication. I have to accept the fact OCD is something I will live with for the rest of my life but it does not define me as a person. I know I am a good person who has had a difficult life. This has caused me to cope with things in odd ways and it’s taken me a very long time to accept that.

Know that you are not whatever your obsessions revolve around. Life is hard and we all do whatever is necessary to cope. WE decide if our thoughts have power. Remember that you’re the one in control.




*If you would like to read more on OCD, check out New England OCD Institute

3 thoughts on “OCD – So Much More Than Counting

  1. Awesome, Alexa…we really are creatures of both nature (inherited) and nurture (learned). My mom was OCD and I’ve always wondered whether I inherited it from her or just learned it from her from my earliest days. Probably a bit of both? But I’m so proud of you for putting it on the line like this to help others…Brava!


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