“You still have a choice,” my younger brother told me after I noticed that his personal battle with obsessive compulsive disorder was going well. We were kids then, and I was in hell.
People might typically wash their hands in a matter of seconds; it sometimes took me as long as one hour. If my breathing pattern was off, if I felt the lathered soap didn’t clean an exact area of my hands, if I accidentally touched the sink while rinsing, the pattern would start all over again.
But it didn’t end there.
Everything in my life was wrapped into exacting rituals that simply felt correct, were painfully mandatory, and tortured me on a daily basis. Walking to school required precise steps between concrete slabs on sidewalks. Breathing required a very carefully articulated rhythm so as to avoid imagined germs from passersby. Failure to breathe correctly resulted in coughing, and repeating the cough until I was convinced that the germs were expelled from a particular section of my lungs. I coughed all the time. Even praying before meals was excruciating: If I lost focus for an instant, the prayer would have to start all over, or, I believed, God would not listen and would somehow decide to hold me in less regard than the rest of the world. My meals were very often cold by the time I allowed myself to eat. Being Catholic, I prayed at night and crossed myself before going to sleep. If the sign of the cross wasn’t perfect in its execution, the ritual started over. I sometimes went hours lying awake at night, waiting for the right breath to begin the ritual again.
Coughing, praying, stepping, tapping, counting, twitching, reading, writing, breathing – they were all the torture that was my OCD. I kept it mostly to myself; my mother had no idea what OCD was. She was a working woman, a “green-card” immigrant without even a high-school education. When she saw me praying she thought I must be destined for priesthood. My father probably noticed that my brother and I were off, but he had (and still has) an irrational aversion to medical facilities, and seldom sought medical advice for anything not obviously life-threatening.
It wasn’t until I accidentally stumbled upon a documentary about OCD while channel surfing that I even realized others outside the family shared the same waking nightmare.
Despite my knowledge of the condition, however, I failed to use logic as a weapon against my mind. The urge to complete the rituals was ravenously instinctual, absolute in its unforgiving and imagined requirements. Yet, my younger brother one day broke free.
Always quiet yet headstrong, he told me one day that he stopped all the cumbersome rituals because he simply, “didn’t like it.” To quote, “I didn’t like it. So I forced myself to stop, and that’s that.” It sounded too simple to be true, I wished it was true, but anyone with OCD knows it’s just not that simple.
When I asked how he could possibly deny the unstoppable urge that forced us to count and tap, he replied, “I have a choice. I chose not to do that anymore. You need to realize you have a choice, and if you choose not to realize that (you have a choice), then you choose to continue (the rituals). And that’s all up to you if you want to do that.”
No higher genius has ever been achieved by a twelve year-old.
For years I observed him as he went about his new life. His words stayed with me, I contemplated them through high school and college. I considered the method of his personal victory: he didn’t merely choose not to conduct the rituals that OCD demands, that would be impossible. What he did achieve is the realization that he, indeed, had the power to choose. Once he achieved that victory, he must have chosen, I reasoned, to endure the mental anguish of not conducting the rituals, versus the mental anguish of complying with them.
I prepared myself mentally for the battle to come. I realized that the world would not end if I didn’t spend hours praying over my food, and that no bad luck would visit me if I didn’t cross into the next sidewalk slab at just the right angle and pace. Slowly, I accepted the grinding discomfort of denying myself one ritual at a time, one instance at a time. I may as well have been told that I could breathe underwater if I so chose to do so.
But, amazingly, I was slowly winning. The coughing stopped; I accepted the extreme discomfort of imagined germs in my lungs over the extreme physical discomfort of constant coughing. Eventually, the discomfort of not coughing subsided into nothing at all. The best descriptor for the small victories was that it was like kicking the most gripping bad habits I’ve ever had in my life. By the time I graduated from college, my OCD was firmly under control. I never once saw a doctor for it, which is probably not the brightest thing to do, but my mind was my own now.
Over ten years later, there are still some rituals that pop up here and there. OCD is OCD and I don’t think it ever truly goes away. However, the important thing is that I have the choice. It truly comes down to me, and sometimes I just need to sit down, realize that fact, and take ownership once more. The struggle for me has never gone away, but my OCD now is almost just an afterthought. I hope this helps others going through the same imagined threats that I did as I battled my way out of my own mind’s devices.