Maybe this time I’ll wake Dad up. I woke Mom up last night and don’t want her to be annoyed. My unsteady hand nudges Dad awake. “Dad, did you lock all the doors?” He wakes up and I ask him a second time, this time a bit louder. I want Mom to hear too because Dad didn’t ALWAYS lock both locks on the door. “Are the doors locked?” Dad replies, “Yes, Maddie, they’re locked.” “Are you sure?” I just had to know. Mom says, “Yes Maddie. Everything’s OK. Now go back to bed.”
Out into the hallway I went, waiting for about 30 seconds at the top of the stairs, teetering on the brink of uncertainty. I knew I could trust Mom and Dad, but what if this time they were not right? I had to go check myself. Downstairs I went, checking every lock, locking and relocking it and holding down the lock as hard as I could to make sure no intruders could enter.
After this few-minute ritual, I retreated upstairs to my room into my bed where the dark engulfed me. Then I looked around the room and meticulously viewed every wall and crevice, and any space in my closet or under my bed where there could possibly be anyone, anything hiding. If I scream loud enough, my parents should be able to hear me. The voice inside my head demands, “Count the walls again Maddie. One, two, three, start over, you missed a spot.” I look again, one wall, two wall, three wall, ceiling, under the bed”. The voice gets louder: “You missed a spot under the bed. Someone might be under there. Oh, and don’t forget the closet.” I check the bed again and the closet.
The voice won’t let go: “When you turned your back to the closet, someone could have gotten under the bed.” I turn my back against the wall to view both the closet and the bed. Back into bed. Count the walls one more time. “You have to count in a multiple of three,” the voice says, “then you can sleep.” One, two, three walls, look at the ceiling. Now, I can close my eyes. I squeeze my stuffed animals a little tighter and pray that I will be safe tonight.
Some of this story may sound typical for a child scared of the dark or monsters under their bed. I’ve had friends before tell me, “Oh yeah, I used to have to check with my parents if the doors were locked.” I’m sure they did. However, the difference between their — this is my favorite — “normal” mind and my altered mind is this: I. Cannot. Stop. This bedtime ritual continued for two to three years, every night. In those moments of uncertainty, the voice takes over.
My name is Maddie Marquard, and I suffer from anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
What is OCD?
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is a disorder of the brain and its behavior, causing extreme anxiety due to time-consuming obsessions that are often followed by compulsions. It is a debilitating disease, as my mind is engaged with either an OCD thought or compulsion to some degree as often as two-thirds of my day. Most times it is not noticeable to others, but I am still engaged with and battling the OCD.
Let me say that OCD is more than just being anxious. I am not taking away anything from anxiety as that is a debilitating counterpart to this disease. I will laugh to myself anytime someone is cleaning or organizing and says, “Oh, I’m just OCD about my room.” No. You most likely are not. But you did just use a debilitating disorder as a way to describe how you organize your room.
Let me quickly break down the three letters. Obsession: intrusive thoughts that produce unease, apprehension, fear or extreme worry. Compulsion: repetitive behaviors aimed at reducing the associated anxiety brought on by an obsession. Disorder: a derangement or abnormality of function; a morbid physical or mental state. Although cleanliness and organizing are compulsions associated with one type of OCD, I do not suffer from this and not everyone with OCD does. Just ask my roommates about my messy room at home. I bring this up to expand your knowledge of a disorder that can manifest itself in various ways, each one as potentially debilitating as the next.
Whether it be the word depressed, ADD, retarded, or the like, I ask you to be aware of the words you are using. Just because you are sad does not mean you are depressed. Just because you are distracted does not mean you have attention deficit disorder. Just because your friend made a silly comment does not give you the right to call them retarded. I encourage you to reconsider casually using disorders as misplaced adjectives to describe fleeting situations.
My obsessions and rituals focus much more on personal interactions and situational feelings of things not being “just right.” Being a perfectionist to a flaw is something I have worked on for 12 years. Rumination is one of the most common compulsions I use to attempt to ease my anxiety or intrusive thoughts. Rumination is the compulsive, focused attention and repetition of bad feelings and experiences from the past. The repetition of situations, words or phrases will never take away the anxiety; it only perpetuates the cycle.
The cycle goes a bit like this. A thought pops into my head, which produces certain feelings, which trigger my behavior. This is the normal process for which our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are intertwined, regardless of having OCD or not. Let me give an example of how this works in my mind. The thought that I have to prove myself to others often pops into my head in social settings. This thought then triggers feelings that I am inadequate, less than others, or unworthy of love. These feelings then trigger behaviors to talk more, act funnier, ruminate, or compulsively count in my head, repeating phrases over and over.
The OCD vs. Non-OCD Brain
This may sound like a relatively normal thought process. The way I try to explain OCD is that a decent amount of the thoughts that pop into my head are also common to the non-OCD brain. What differs with OCD is the false truth and power attributed to these thoughts. Additionally, a non-OCD brain may register the irrational thought, briefly ruminate, and move on. The non-OCD brain has the ability to take an irrational thought pattern and rationalize its way out of believing the thought as true.
However, with OCD, rationalizing does not work. I could have my parents tell me there has never been an intruder in our home and that the doors are locked 600 times and I still wouldn’t believe them. Why do I ask them then? Here’s how it works.
First, let me define an OCD thought. An OCD thought is one that pops into my brain and gets snagged. It replays loudly over and over in my head until I attend to it. I once had a therapist describe this very accurately: It is as if someone is yelling in my ear with a megaphone and the person won’t stop until I address his or her presence. When triggered by a thought, or obsession, I become anxious. Therefore, I engage in a compulsion, or repetitive behavior, to relieve my anxiety and try and rid of the thought. The thing that is most frustrating is that even while I engage in the compulsion, I can recognize that the behavior makes absolutely no sense. For example, I know that repeating a phrase in multiples of three is not actually going to change anything. However, I continue anyway because the compulsion briefly reduces the anxiety brought on by the obsessive thought. However, after the anxiety subsides for maybe a few seconds or minutes, the intrusive thought comes back. That is the dangerous nature of compulsions; they do not actually work. They briefly lower anxiety but never rid me of it. The goal is to practice getting rid of compulsions and realize that the body is not actually in danger.
The best way to allow the anxiety to subside is to accept that the thought is there but that it will not do any harm. Sounds simple enough. Not so much. This thought is suffocating. My body produces a physical and mental response to this anxiety created by this thought that smothers me. At its worst, it paralyzes me and I cannot get myself to move for a short period of time.
Anxiety is meant to tell our bodies that it is in danger and we should do something to protect ourselves. The OCD causes the warning system in my brain to malfunction, telling my body it is in danger when it is not. OCD thoughts fill my head, followed by an overwhelming anxiety that makes me feel as if something bad or dangerous will happen if I do not do something about it. And this is where compulsions come into play.
Fighting the Urge to Engage
The challenge is this: Interrupt the compulsion. Do not engage. From the moment I wake up to the time I go to bed, this is the hardest thing I face every day. Whenever I engage in a compulsion, I am reinforcing the thought and perpetuating the cycle. I must sit with the anxiety and realize the intrusive thought will not cause any harm. This anxiety from not engaging can be debilitating. By not engaging though, I give less power to the OCD and therefore actually reduce the anxiety associated with thoughts in the future. However, when the anxiety from thoughts is hindering, it is not easy to refrain from compulsions.
Being diagnosed with OCD and anxiety at age 10, I have been through a wide range of therapy techniques with various psychiatrists and therapists. A common type of therapy for OCD treatment that I participate in is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT is a problem-focused and goal-directed therapy that focuses on examining the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. It works to reframe the thought which changes how the individual feels, therefore changing the behavior. Because it’s an active intervention, patients can expect practice or “homework” to work on outside of therapy.
Where I Am Now
When I share with someone that I have OCD, I usually get this response: “I had no idea.” I like this in some ways. I have taken a debilitating disease and made it unnoticeable to others. However, this disorder can be extremely isolating and lonely when few can relate.
From age 10 through junior year in high school, I thought no one would want to be my friend or be in a relationship with me if they found out. Therapy and medications were my best-kept secrets. Now I realize the extreme benefit of sharing my story. It has allowed me to connect with others fighting the same battle. It has fostered a need and love for deep vulnerability in relationships. For those who have not only accepted me, but also asked me how this affects my life, thank you. Your questions make me feel heard and important. And your love for my whole, most vulnerable self has shown me the most raw love I have ever known. For that I am forever grateful.
With this, I challenge you to open the conversation for all mental illness. Mental illness is no more a choice than any physical malady an individual faces. Please reach out if you want to talk. I would be honored to share in your story.
Sharing Your Story
The Gonzaga Bulletin believes in the power of storytelling. Our newest feature page, “Our Stories,” shares the personal stories of members of the GU community. If you’re interested in sharing your story, send us an email at GonzagaBulletin@zagmail.gonzaga.edu. The stories shared in this space do not reflect the views of the Bulletin.