Editor's Note: this article contains descriptions of a disorder that creates disturbing, intrusive thoughts about self-harm in the author.
When I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 18 months ago, I was fairly certain it was all in my head. I don’t mean that I was making it up – I mean that the OCD was literally in my brain, in my thoughts.
I have what’s referred to as Purely Obsessional OCD, or Pure O. It’s a super fun version that not many people have heard of, but when you start to describe how it works, people wind up with this strange look on their faces.
A cross between pity and horror.
What do you picture when someone tells you they have OCD? Probably a germaphobe like Howie Mandel, who refuses to shake people’s hands. Or perhaps a poet like Neil Hilborn, who describes the checking and ticks he experiences in his wonderful poem, OCD. These are both fairly typical versions of the condition, but Pure O doesn’t manifest in either of those ways.
For me, I have recurring intrusive thoughts that become looped in my brain and then spiral out of control.
If you’re a mother, you’ve likely had an image flash through your mind of dropping your baby accidentally. It’s probably freaked you out a bit, but you shake your head and then go on with your day. What happens with me, in that same circumstance, is that I can’t stop the image from turning into a mini horror movie. My brain takes me down a horrible path of disturbing ways my baby could be injured and end up dying, how I might end up being the one who accidentally injures or kills my baby, and how I would feel if that happened.
The images replay again and again, and I become more and more distressed, sometimes breaking down into tears.
The slightly reassuring thing is that these images and movies played out in my head are not limited to my children’s fates. No, I have the same wonderful experience with myself, my parents, my husband, and my pets. I’m unable to watch actual horror movies, because some of those scenes end up integrating into what’s already a disturbing narrative happening in my head.
One of the reasons I began writing about this disorder is due to how misunderstood it is. OCD is not the need to keep all food labels facing forward in your cupboard unless you go to work and spend the majority of your day worried that one of your kids or your husband moved a pantry item. It’s not obsessively biting your fingernails, unless by “obsessively” you mean to the point where you stop looking at the road while driving, in order to pick at your fingers. Or until you bite to the point where you consider taking pain medication, because you’ve bitten the skin so deeply in some places.
Most mental illness is on part of a continuum of behaviour. Everyone feels sad or down sometimes, but when it impacts your quality of life for more than a few days, or repeatedly over the years? That’s when you might want to see a doctor.
The same goes for the intrusive thoughts or the compulsive behaviours. Lots of people have bizarre thoughts randomly pop into their heads. The brain is a strange thing. How you react to those thoughts or images and how frequently they appear are what will likely determine whether it’s a good idea to investigate it with a medical professional.
Intrusive thoughts, especially for mothers, can be difficult to share with anyone. The fear that someone may think you want to harm your child just because those images flashed in your mind can keep many women silent.
It’s far more common than you realize, though, so if these thoughts are truly impacting your quality of life, seek out professional help. Every time I’ve written about my experience with Pure O, my inbox has filled with emotional thank-yous from fellow sufferers who didn’t realize that what they were experiencing was an actual condition.
Trust me: you are not alone, and you are not a monster. I promise.