A couple months ago a writer for a national women’s magazine interviewed me for an article about media portrayals of mental illness. See, I have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and I had written a piece about the Girls episode when Hannah struggles with her own OCD symptoms, so the writer wanted my perspective.
Then last month the fact-checker at the magazine emailed me to verify that the information they were including in the article was accurate:
Alison Dotson, a Minneapolis-based editor who currently suffers from OCD.
My name was spelled correctly, which hardly ever happens—people tend to add another “l.” And I am an editor in Minneapolis. But, I told her, “It’s not quite accurate that I currently ‘suffer’ from OCD. I have it, but I am doing really well, and I want that to come across.”
In other words, I kicked OCD’s ass.
For a long time, it was in the lead—in a major way. It had set its sights on gold and it wasn’t going to back down. My losing streak is pretty embarrassing.
OCD 1, me 0.
OCD 2, me 0.
OCD 3, me 0.
OCD 500, me 0.
Okay, OCD, I get it. That’s kind of your thing, being really, really persistent.
I let OCD win for the longest time, not because I was being nice and wanted to give it an inflated sense of self-esteem, but because I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know I could win. I didn’t even know how to begin.
Throughout my teens unwanted thoughts tormented me for days, weeks, months at a time. My obsessions were once so intrusive and stubborn that I thought I’d never get rid of them. I’d get past one type only to stumble into another—I was on a hamster wheel of intrusive thoughts. There was no beginning. No end. Just repetition.
Nothing helped. Not crying, not praying, not yelling at the thoughts, not pinching myself really, really hard so I’d focus on the physical pain instead of the emotional. And my intrusive thoughts were so unbearable and embarrassing I couldn’t bring myself to utter them out loud to anyone else, not even my mom, who could have tried to get me some help.
So I kept everything to myself. During the worst obsessive periods I felt torn between wanting to stay home alone to cry and not wanting to be alone with the thoughts, to be around people in a desperate attempt to forget about what was impossible to shake. The obsessions were relentless. They were everywhere, even in my dreams. I’d toss and turn, unable to fall back to sleep after waking just to find that I was still me, living this life, and the obsessions were still there. They were stuck. I was stuck. And weak and beat down and scared.
And alone. So, so alone.
In middle school and high school I was obsessed with the fear that I might be gay—I know now that this is called homosexual OCD, or HOCD. But I didn’t know that then.
Then, toward the end of high school, I began to obsess about God and Jesus, religion and sin, heaven and hell, good and evil—I know now that this is called scrupulosity, or religious intrusive thoughts. But I didn’t know that then.
And in college, I obsessed about something that seemed far worse than those two obsessions put together, and that’s saying something, because they both brought me to my knees. What could possibly be that terrible, you ask? Thoughts and images of wrong, immoral, illegal sexual acts that I never, ever actually wanted to act upon—I know now that these were sexual obsessions, and I’m not alone in having them. But I didn’t know that then.
No, then I thought that I was the scourge of the earth, a danger to others, unworthy of love or forgiveness or acceptance. I was full of shame, and there were times I thought I’d never get over it—not the obsessions themselves, and certainly not over the guilt they caused. Sometimes I just wanted to die.
When those freaky sexual obsessions latched on to my brain, I found myself in perhaps the lowest point of my life. I needed help—badly—but I was afraid to see a doctor. Who could help me when I didn’t know what was wrong? A therapist, a sexual rehabilitation expert, a general practitioner? A hypnotist? I didn’t know if my symptoms meant I was sick in a way that could be cured or sick in a more depraved way, a way that would land me in prison or on the news. I honestly believed that once I uttered my deepest fears to a doctor, she would kindly nod while pressing a panic button beneath her desk, a button that alerted the police or a psychiatric ward. Perhaps even more paralyzing than this irrational fear was the fear that I was beyond help. That felt like a fate worse than a smeared name, hospitalization, or imprisonment. I’d simply be imprisoned in a different, less tangible way, by my own mind instead of four walls.
For weeks I felt desperate to find someone and just as desperate not to, to get over this on my own, hoping one morning I’d open my eyes and it would all be over, just like that. And I would never have to tell anyone, never have to expose my shameful secrets. I could just live, and breathe, finally. But that didn’t happen. At work I’d borrow the Yellow Pages from the top drawer of the filing cabinet and bring it into my office, quietly flipping through, writing down names of different doctors and therapy centers. I even called the sexual center at the local university, but I couldn’t tell them why I needed to come in. I was absolutely terrified. When I finally realized I might have OCD and made an appointment with an OCD specialist, finally met him and heard his kind voice, I cried. I had OCD. And this was a good thing.
Suddenly I wasn’t alone. Not by a long shot. And I had never really been alone, but those ugly, intrusive obsessions led me to believe otherwise. My psychiatrist told me I wasn’t a bad person, that there were others like me, and that he could help me.
Equipped with a name for the running loop of unpleasant thoughts in my head, I set out to learn all I could about OCD. First I read the book my psychiatrist recommended for me, and then I read a few more. I threw myself into learning every last detail, scouring the Internet for articles, especially case studies about OCD sufferers who managed to stop obsessing.
I started taking medication, which helped almost immediately—it wasn’t a 180-degree change, but it was a start. I followed the advice my psychiatrist gave me and tried out the tips I found in books. When a bad thought pops into your head, give yourself permission to think it. I combined the advice from one book with a tip from a friend, and as out there as it may seem, it worked wonders. When an obsession presented itself, I’d stop what I was doing, calmly think, I don’t have time for this right now. I can come back to it later, after work, when I have time to work through it. Then I’d envision myself putting the thought in a box, closing the lid, and pushing it aside—for later. But usually I got through the day without needing to revisit that particular obsession.
I was diagnosed with OCD more than seven years ago, and while weird, unpleasant, and disturbing thoughts still enter my mind, I know how to handle them. I don’t berate myself, I don’t panic—I calmly talk myself through it. I tell myself everyone has strange or scary thoughts from time to time, and this one doesn’t mean anything. It was just a thought, I’ll think. You couldn’t stop yourself from thinking it, but you can move on now. Don’t let it bother you—it’s not a big deal!
This self-soothing thought process comes pretty naturally now, but it was hard work at first. It took a lot of practice, and patience, to get to where I am now.
OCD 0, me infinity.
Alison Dotson is the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life (Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing, 2013), out this month.