That introduction is a bit morbid, however I wanted to introduce this topic in a very honest and realistic manner. I began having my first symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when I was 6 years old, although I really didn't realize what I was experiencing. Because the human brain is hardwired to remember instances of fear, I can recall my obsessions at that age very well. I distinctly remember sitting in my kindergarden class, playing with those weird connect-y colourful cubes (I was making a princess castle, naturally), when all of a sudden images of my entire family being horrifically mangled in a car accident flashed through my mind- out of the blue. I had never witnessed an accident or been in that situation before- I just had this urgency that my family was in immediate danger, and that I was going to be an orphan. A voice in my head kept repeating that my family would die soon, followed by images of destruction and death. These thoughts began to occur more frequently and intensely. I developed many other obsessions within the next few weeks. I would be in the hallway, waiting in line to take a drink from the water fountain after gym class, petrified with fear. I remember weighing in pros and cons in my head, being so thirsty from running around in gym but being so terrified that I would catch a disease from the water fountain (I had recently seen something about diseases on the news). Starting at age 6, I began obsessing over how I could keep my family safe from their 'imminent death', how I could avoid germs at all cost, how to keep someone from abducting me, how to keep my house from burning down, and a menagerie of other obsessions that I won't get into, because it would take too much time to list them all.
Because I was so young, and felt so helpless over these constant images/voices flashing through my mind, I started to develop routines and rituals as a way to cope with the images and voices that were swirling around my head. I mean really, that was all I could do to feel in control of the situation at such a young age. This is one of the distinguishing factors of OCD- the use of what's called "magical thinking". I thought that if I did things in a certain way, or counted something, or ordered/hoarded items, that the images and voices would go away, and everyone I loved would be safe. The compulsions started at age 7. Most of my compulsions were performed inside my head or when I was alone, so naturally it was tough for my family to know how much distress I was in all the time.
Here are some personal examples of my obsessions, and what compulsion I performed to try and rid myself of the torturous images/voices:
Obsession: My family being murdered
Compulsion: Praying for 1 hour every night, repeating each prayer exactly 4 times (because in my mind, 6 was a number of death, so saying anything in a multiple or factor of 6 ex. 1, 2 or 3 would mean my family wasn't protected, and would be murdered.) If I said the prayer and it didn't sound right in my head, or wasn't the exact right timing, I would need to start over again. Even if I got it right on the 2nd or 3rd try, I would need to do it again until it equalled 4, 5, or 7 tries, because I needed to avoid 2 or 3 or 6 in order for my family to stay alive. In my mind, this was not an optional ritual. If I didn't do this right, I wouldn't sleep, because it would be my fault that my family wasn't protected. This ritual started when I was 7, and was finally broken down/phased out when I was 17, and started getting help.
Obsession: My parents dying in a car accident
Compulsions: I would hoard away any piece of paper that I could find around the house that had their signature on it. I couldn't throw out school forms or notes they had signed, because in my mind, if I threw it out, that parent would immediately die. In my eyes as a child, I was responsible for my parents being alive. This ritual started when I was 7, and ended when I was 15.
Obsession: My house burning down
Compulsion: I checked the oven probably 10-15 times before I went to sleep each night. I would also try and repeat certain phrases in my head to avoid the possibility of a fire in my house. This ritual happened from when I was 9, and ended when I was 18.
Obsession: Me being infected with a fatal illness
Compulsions: washing my hands for long periods of time, after touching anything someone else touched, anything I deemed 'dirty'. This means I was washing my hands upwards of 50 times a day, until they were raw and bleeding. I also tried using hand sanitizer religiously, and stronger chemicals that caused burns/discomfort occasionally, all to ensure my hands were disinfected. I also was/am petrified of doorknobs and other public items which carry a lot of germs, so I tend to avoid them. This ritual started when I was 7 and it still somewhat of a struggle for me to suppress currently.
There are many other obsessions and compulsions I have experienced. The point of me writing this all out is not to ask for sympathy, or scare anyone with how different my mind works, but mainly to show you all that people with mental illness go through so much that others are unaware of. You can't ever really know what is going on in someone's life. I had a tremendous amount of difficulty growing up with OCD, mostly because I felt so isolated and concerned I would be rejected by my childhood friends if they found out. In regards to my friends in elementary school, I was able to appear fairly 'normal' on the outside, but it was extremely difficult. Many regular activities that young children love, I had to pretend to enjoy while dodging these obsessions and the need to perform my compulsions. For example, my friends in elementary school loved sleepovers, but the entire time all I could concentrate on was that I had no way to ensure my family was alive if I slept at their house, and I couldn't check their oven enough times without seeming weird, and their family had germs that could infect and kill me. Often I found myself just following along with whatever other people were doing or saying, because I needed to keep my illness a secret. So much of my life in elementary and high school was in my own head, so I probably appeared to other people as boring or vapid. Truth is, I was just mirroring what other people were doing to stay afloat.
I am forever grateful for those family and friends who stayed around and supported me from childhood up until now. And to my mental health team at McMaster who finally helped me come to terms with my life struggle with OCD and anxiety. When I was younger, I knew something was wrong, but I never told anyone, out of fear I would be teased or isolated from 'normal' people. I was scared my family would look at me differently. But in reality, even though dealing with my OCD was the hardest thing I've ever done, it's made me the person I am (as cliche as that is). And a lot of people love the actual me. Including myself (finally). So if you are struggling with coming to terms with a possible mental illness, and fear of non-acceptance, feel free to message me or contact a mental health professional. Because living in fear won't help you recover. And I guarantee you will be happier and healthier once you and those around you accept it. And if they can't accept it, they aren't worth being around. The truth is, you aren't defined by your mental illness. It isn't who you are. It's something that is inflicted on you due to neurological abnormalities and environmental conditions. No one should blame or reject you for it. Because more often then you think, there is someone around you going through something similar.