Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Journey with OCD-Like Symptoms

I have been having unique symptoms for years, but George and I always attributed the symptoms to something else-something related to my chronic illnesses. They went as quickly as they came and we did not think twice. However, gradually, for a couple months now, the symptoms have become so intense that I have struggled to function even on days that I have tolerable head pain.

On November 10th, 2011, I went to the psychiatrist, Dr. K, that I have seen for almost eight years for anxiety and depression. I told him in detail what was happening half expecting to be committed and half expecting him to increase my medication and send me on my way. But neither happened.

I was told I might have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Dear readers,  I am so glad to finally get this post together so I might share with you what has been happening in my life. As you'll read I've been so drained that doing anything is an effort. I am hoping that sharing this intense struggle in my life will encourage you to feel comfortable to share your struggles as well. So many people think that they must  "hide" from their friends and loved ones parts of who they really are. But, how can we truly feel loved if we are not known? I'm not suggesting everyone speak on a public platform like this, but telling one person in one's life a part of who one is can be freeing. 

I am not ashamed of my possible OCD. I am certainly overwhelmed by the symptoms and do not wish to have what seem to be OCD attacks in front of people because it is such a vulnerable place to be, but I'm not ashamed.  I am not ashamed of my OCD-like symptoms because it is a disorder where my brain has malfunctioned just as I am not ashamed of my chronic Migraines where my brain does not work properly. From the moment I got this diagnosis, it has not changed how I thought of myself. In fact it would be a relief to have an explanation for what has been happening. OCD is just another part of my journey.

What causes OCD?
Per Jefferey Schwartz, M.D, UCLA researcher and author of the book, Brain Lock: Free Yourself from Obsessive Compulsive Behavior, OCD is thought to be an imbalance of the biochemicals in the brain and a "locking" of four parts of the brain: the occipital cortex ("the error detection system"), the caudate nucleus ("the automatic transmission and filtering station for the front part of the brain that controls thought"), the thalamus ("the central relay station for processing the body's sensory information) and the cigulate gyrus ("It's wired into your gut and heart-control centers").

Basically according to Dr. Schwartz, "The brain starts sending false messages that the person cannot readily recognize as false." In short, my OCD brain lies to me. It is hard to tell the difference between a real message and a false one.  For example, a person with OCD may be holding the prongs of the cord of an unplugged curling iron in their hand and still be getting a message from their brain that the curling iron is not yet unplugged.

What is OCD and how does it affect me?

***Please note that the following may be distressing to read.***

OCD is an anxiety disorder, not a personality trait. It can manifest it self in many ways: obsessions about dirt/contamination, need for order/symmetry, repetitive rituals (think Jack Nicholson in the movie "As Good As it Gets"), hoarding, nonsensical doubts, religious obsessions and obsessions with aggressive content.

Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz, author of Brain Lock describes obsessions and compulsions well. I'll be using his definitions to share about my OCD (bold, italics and color are mine):
Obsessions are intrusive, unwelcome, distressing thoughts and mental images. The word obsession comes from the Latin word meaning 'to besiege.' And an obsessive thought is just that - a thought that besieges you and annoys the hell out of you. You pray for it to go away but it won't, at least not for long or in any controllable way. These thoughts always create distress and anxiety. Unlike other unpleasant thoughts, they do not fade away, but keep intruding into your mind over and over against your will. These thoughts are, in fact, repugnant to you."
My obsessions and compulsions fall into the category of "aggressive content" and more specifically self-harm. I am decidedly NOT suicidal, yet for months, have urges to do things that would result in self- harm or death. To reassure my readers, Dr. K, my psychiatrist said, that if I were suicidal, I would have already killed myself a long time ago. Scroll back up and read the "Obsessions" definition again. Remember: these thoughts are intrusive, unwelcome, distressing and keep intruding over and over against my will. Against my will. I am not suicidal. I have OCD. Dr. Schwartz wrote:
People with OCD may even fear they are going crazy--they know that their behavior is not normal. Indeed, the behavior is apt to be foreign to their personalities or self-image.
My obsessions (intrusive, distressing, intruding against my will over and over) surround thoughts of hurting myself: jumping from high places (off of tables, over balconies), biting myself, hitting myself in the head with an object, seeing myself hanging in the hallway by a dog collar, choking myself with an electrical cord, stabbing myself with silverware and the list of unwelcome thoughts and mental images goes on.

As you can imagine, these obsessions create a huge amount of anxiety in me as they are unwanted and assaultive to my spirit.  I see myself dead and hanging in the hallway on an almost daily basis. That in itself is extremely traumatic.
Compulsions are behaviors that people with OCD perform in vain attempt to exorcise the fears and anxieties caused by their obsessions. Although a person with OCD usually recognizes that the urge is ridiculous and senseless, the feeling is so strong that the untrained mind becomes overwhelmed and the person with OCD gives in and performs the compulsive behavior. Unfortunately, performing the absurd behavior tends to set off a vicious cycle. It may bring momentary relief, but as more compulsive behaviors are performed, the obsessive thoughts and feelings become stronger, more demanding, and more tenacious."
Intrusive thoughts (compulsions) come into my head and by trying my best to ignore them, I have panic attacks and high levels of anxiety that lasts for hours. The OCD makes me think that if I follow through on a compulsion (which is my obsession) I will feel better. So, I do and that starts a horrid cycle of continuing to do self-harm.

My obsessions turn to compulsions when I attempt to follow the false message being sent by my brain. My compulsive behaviors are to do the actions that my OCD is telling me. I have jumped off tables, put my leg over the balcony, bitten my arms so badly that bite marks and bruises lasted for weeks, hit my head with any object I can get my hands on, and used a spoon to make stabbing actions at my chest.

The week before Thanksgiving, I ran screaming into the bedroom slamming the doors because I saw myself-dead- (I call her the woman) hanging from a hook with a dog leash in the hallway. I saw the woman come down off the hook and come after me with a dog leash trying to get me to hang myself. Thus the screaming and frantic attempts to keep myself safe.  I see this woman often. (Refer to "Obsessions" definition:  intrusive, unwelcome, distressing thoughts and mental images intruding over and over against my will.)

When I shared this with my brother, he asked, "Do you really see the woman, or do just you think you see her?" And my answer was "Both". My brain is sending a false message that there really is a woman trying to get me to hang myself standing in front of me. So, my brain is telling me that I really see her just like I see George or my brother. On the other hand, in reality, she is not there, so from someone else's point of view,  I just think I see her. 

I know this all sounds wild and crazy, but I'm not crazy, my brain is simply locked/stuck and it is my job through therapy to attempt to unlock it.

How do I treat my OCD-like symptoms?
Through using the bio-behavioral therapy techniques-four step treatment program in Brain Lock, I am learning how to start to manage my symptoms. This four step treatment program has been proven in research studies to enable people with OCD to change their brain chemistry. According to Dr. Schwartz, OCD is a chronic condition that will not go away, but through therapy it can be managed at some level. Often people with OCD are treated with SSRI medications. As my body and SSRI's are not compatible, I am unable to take medication to find relief.

How am I doing?
I am exhausted mentally and physically. I often find myself unable to remember things or find a day has gone by and I have not accomplished anything because I find it extremely difficult to think. My anxiety level is quite high even with medication. I find myself coping with panic attacks throughout the day as I am resisting the urge to do my compulsions. I scream so much I get hoarse a lot.

Since my OCD-like symptoms became daily and more severe, life has been extremely difficult to navigate. I can be triggered by anything and at anytime. My parents were here for three hours a couple weeks ago and I was triggered by the silverware on the table. I am triggered by discussing OCD. I am most vulnerable at the end of the day, when my other chronic illnesses have taken a toll on me. Thanksgiving day was a trial as it was at George's aunt and uncle's house-nine hours from home- with seventeen people. I used my dog Zoe, who I trained as a therapy dog last year, to be my own personal therapy dog. I spent five days over the Thanksgiving weekend with my in-laws but spent most of it in my room, in bed, trying to cope with OCD-like symptoms. Unfortunately I missed out on spending a lot of time with my loved ones.

I am only at the beginning of my biobehavioral therapy treatment process, so as time goes on I will be able to use my learned techniques to change the severity of my issues. Already we have seen baby steps of progress. Though last night, when trying to confront one of my fears, I actually passed out from fear. I thought that only happened in the movies with silly old women calling for smelling salts. Unfortunately I was holding my 8 year old dog, Mr. Knightley at the time but as George was with me, neither of us got hurt.

What can you do to help?
My brother made me feel quite loved when he asked, "How can I help when you are going through this?"
*If you are physically with me when I have an attack, the best thing is to allow me to do what I need to do to get through it using my therapy techniques. It is probably best not to try to engage me, but continue with the activity you were doing.
*If you are not someone that is physically in my life often or ever, being understanding that my energy is lower than normal is important to me.
*I'm fine talking about my OCD-like symptoms.  Its not a taboo thing. If you have questions, please ask. I really appreciate my family members who have asked me straightforward questions. I am an open book. OCD is more common than once thought.
*Do not feel sorry for me. My life is full of joy. This is just another part of my journey.

If you made it to the end here, I am extremely thankful you stuck it out! Hugs to you!


  1. Wow Kelly. I admire your strength and courage for posting this. I admired your strength when I first started reading your blog and saw you weren't working from your migraines. Myself, I have chronic migraines and am starting treatment today at an inpatient program a few states away from my home. Your conscious effort to choose the joy in life is so encouraging. Thank you!

  2. Thanks Caylyn for your support. I just popped over to your blog to read a bit about what is happening in your journey right now. Gonna add it to my blog roll so I can stay updated! I'm so sorry you are at the point that you need to be hospitalized. I will be thinking of you and praying for your stay. I've been an hospitalized for chronic Migraine six times for 7-14 days at a time. (I was at Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago.) So, if you want anyone to chat with while you are there (if you have email), feel free to email me. (Its on my homepage). I know how hospital stays can be. My quick and unsolicited advice is to make sure to be the squeaky wheel and ask every question that comes to you. :) Thanks again for your comment. Hugs!

  3. Wow Kelly, thanks for sharing about OCD. I actually learned quite a bit by reading your post. Will be praying for you. I think this is my first time commenting but I've been a long time reader of your blog. I have chronic migraine and I am a believer as well, so we have that in common. Sending *hugs*

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this part of your life, Kelly. Not a lot of people talk about this, so I know you'll be helping others out there who are experiencing similar things.

  5. Your experiences sound terrifing. Thanks for sharing your story, I knew very little about OCD before reading your story.

  6. Kelly...thx for sharing...
    I am terrified for you having to go thru so much. I like several other posts didn't realize how severe ocd was and could be.

    You amaze me by your strength and courage to share and move forward. Sending you hugs..

    SGLY ;-) tiffany

  7. Posting so openly and honestly about this is a wonderful thing. I admire it. You are an inspiration.

    Talking about things like this still often seem like a taboo, some people will shy away, afraid. I have Bi-Polar illness. I've been stable for a while, but sometimes...the traits come out.

    I can relate to more of what you said than I thought I would. I've known people to have minor OCD, they were more the type that simply had to repeat the same thing over and over...like hand washing, checking locks...
    I've never heard it described in such detail as you have.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Kelly, I read the whole thing. Took me a couple of days to get through it. Very painful to read, I know that sounds selfish but I'm your family and love you very much and don't want you to suffer anymore. Your the first person I say a prayer for every night, I want improvement for you, not yet another disease. I could see with all you have endured that something like this might happen. It is curable,and with some time I feel you'll conquer OCD and anxiety. I suffered from horrible panic attacks and I'm fine and have been for years. I know it's not the same situation but you can prevail. I love you, Aunt Mary

  9. You are one of the bravest people I know. I am so proud of you for sharing this, I can see it was not easy.

  10. Julie-Thank you so much for your prayers and your support! It means so much to me. I am sorry you are a chronic Migraineur as well!

    Heather- I too hope that by sharing I will be helping other people. I never knew about OCD until this past month and I'm learning so much!

    Mo-Thanks for the comment and the support. I am learning about OCD too! I did not know much before this.

    Tiff- Your hugs and encouragement mean the world to me and so do your prayers! It made me smile to see SGLY! I forget I used to do write that everywhere! SGLY! :)

    Wendy, You are a sweetheart. You are an inspiration to me as you share so openly as well.I knew you have bi-polar. I expect some ppl to shy away but that is okay. I hope they will come around and realize I am still me.:)

    Aunt Mary, I know it is painful to read something like this about someone you care about. Thanks for the love and the support and the hopeful words. They mean a lot.

    Nancy, Thank you. I do not feel very brave but I will channel your words when the OCD is fierce. I really am hoping that my journey will help others.