*Warning: this post contains vivid descriptions of mental illness which some might find disturbing.*
From when I was very small I have remembered having strange and often irrational fears and worries. My mother told me not to play with plastic bags for fear I would suffocate and as a result I would not touch plastic bags for a while after that and would wash my hands if I did. I also remember at an even younger age checking on my family members to make sure they were still alive, as well as having extreme trouble making my thoughts about death in general go away. I would picture myself under the ground or hold a black void in my head that was supposed to represent the nothingness of death. I would look outside into the night sky and fear that while I slept a meteor would crash into the earth and wipe us all out of existence. I could not get the fearful thoughts out of my head. These are my earliest memories that may be related to my obsessive-compulsive disorder, going back to the age of 8 or 9.
As I grew up I became known for getting overwhelmed in large situations or situations involving any amount of danger, often culminating in symptoms that I now believe to describe a panic attack. I also became more of a hypochondriac. My memories are hazy but I remember having my first fears about HIV in high school, despite not being sexually active in any way until I was around 18. When I was around 15 my parents divorced and I spent a long time taking care of my devastated mother. I took all my emotional issues and pushed them deep into the back of my mind where I could not see them. I developed a nasty temper; I did not talk to my dad for a year after the divorce; I began to set up a wall around myself to hide the pain that I was in.
College was when things kind of took off. Because I was having more sex I became pretty obsessed with HIV. I received several HIV tests, despite being incredibly low risk. I think this was the beginning of more clinical OCD symptoms, which corresponded with increased knowledge of disease. I remember become fixated on theoretical exposures to odd diseases that I never would have known about had it not been for my schooling. This is probably when I began to display more ritualized behavior as well — I washed my hands a lot and began doing more internet research.
I remember doing prints of our hands in agar, to demonstrate how much bacteria and fungi were in the ambient environment. My hands were possibly the cleanest in the class — the number of cultures I got was miniscule. I took a bit of perverse pride in this.
I soon took my obsessions online, looking for statistics on whatever current object of anxiety my brain had taken hold of. This was when I remember first seeking the counsel of other people to alleviate my fears as well. Because of the distractions of college, however, my OCD was not stable. It would eat me alive for a week or two, and I would spend hours each day on the internet and on worry, and then for a month after I would have no issue. This was when I began to consider myself possessed by some sort of anxiety problem. Note that I did not say disorder — I called myself a hypochondriac. Seeking therapy was not even close to being on my radar.
It was when I was working in the field near the end of college that I began to expand my obsessive repertoire. I was working with pine trees when I was bitten by something mysterious, causing a decent amount of pain and a vampiric looking mark on my hand. This was (I think) my first encounter with rabies obsession, which has become a key issue for me. I obsessed for weeks with the idea that a bat had bitten me and given me rabies, losing at least three hours a day obsessing and researching. I would find a small piece of online comfort, a refutation of my worries, and finally stop obsessing for a few days until a new dark thought came — a pretty classic OCD feedback loop. Worry, self-consolation, thoughts return, self-consolation, internet research, another intrusive thought.
During this time I was dating my ex-girlfriend, who abruptly suffered a major brain injury and was reliant on me for her care during recovery. I think this fundamentally altered my perspective on life, as I watched first-hand the devastating impact a diseases can have on somebody who was healthy just a few weeks before. I think I grew up quick, and thankfully she made a full recovery.
In other news, at that time I learned that I had a weird mole on my belly. I noticed it for the first time once I became privy to the frailty of the human body and from there on out I could not stop noticing. I obsessed over it, checked it multiple times per day, taking pictures, applying lotion, just barely falling short of crooning to it like a newborn. I ultimately broke down and had it checked by the doctor. This took a week or two, and a huge amount of research on the web and massive panic. The doc said to watch it, but not to worry. It looked okay (later I would discover it was dysplastic. It has since been removed). From then on I started to check my skin more and worry about moles.
My ex and I broke up not long after, and I fled to Europe for a gap year. Maybe I was running from her, or maybe I was running from that dark disturbance that was blossoming up inside me. I don’t know. Either way, leaving home was the last thing I should have done.
Europe became hell. I was alone, working on my computer, and thrust into a different timezone with limited hours to contact family and friends. This made things much, much worse. My OCD was quiet until I reached Germany. I bumped my head in a bus stop full of people. As ashamed as I am to even type this, I became immediately terrified for my life. My fear was that some HIV infected blood was on the area I bumped and it then got into my wound. I scrubbed that area until it was raw and bloody.
This fear went away some weeks later, resulting in me having come to peace with my new disease and accepting a life of anti-retroviral medication. I was pretty convinced I had HIV. This too faded a month or so later. Not my proudest moment.
It was when I reached Poland that my problems became overwhelming. Alone, already anxious, homesick, and rapidly withdrawing socially, I became obsessed with my skin. Over the course of a month and a half I had checked every corner of my body, often looking at a given mole 10 times or more in a given day. I located one particularly odd looking one on my thigh and became possessed. I remember staring at it and sobbing because I felt so incredibly helpless against the force of will that my anxiety possessed. A foreign country, limited access to healthcare, and melanoma — I was going to die alone in another country, or so I had convinced myself.
I became cogent of the fact that I was picking at my arms until they bled, something that still carries into today. I also began to only rent single rooms, to myself, cloistered away from others. I regretted everything, regretted leaving the US, regretted not at least trying to soothe my pain earlier; but in the end I did not want to be seen as a quitter, a loser, somebody who couldn’t handle life. I turned everything inwards and began to have destructive thoughts, thoughts of taking a scalpel and cutting the mole out myself. I could do it, right? I just needed some booze to disinfect the wound and take the edge off the pain.
Despite desperately not wanting to admit defeat and return home, I also knew something was wrong. I decided that if I couldn’t go home I could at least find a familiar place to stay, perhaps to heal. I needed a change, a calling, something I could immerse myself in. I began studying Mandarin, a language that only the most obsessive can master. Studying Mandarin made me forget about myself.
I had loved my earlier trip to Taiwan and so I decided to go there to study Mandarin. I flew into Hong Kong, which I liked a lot, and then finally to Taiwan. I enrolled in a local language school and began to study, which is also about when I met my wife. I consider this one of the three good things that came out of the whole trip, and why now I do not regret going abroad (the other two are 1. finally getting help and 2. becoming mature enough to do the first two things).
It was a few months into our relationship that I began to lose my shit again. My skin cancer fear became all consuming, leading to more arm-picking and obsessive skin checking. I also had HIV worries, similar to the earlier example. I became more germaphobic in the city, washing my hands obsessively and becoming extremely distressed by coughing people. I would sometime wear gloves when out and about. I had 2 moles removed as well, one of which was dysplastic (unfortunately this made me feel vindicated).
By the time I came back to the US to visit I was beside myself with the thought of returning to Taiwan. It was out of love for my wife that I went back, but I became more and more miserable. I cried often, more than I ever had in my life. It became weekly. I stayed in my dark little apartment and obsessed over more moles, leading to the second removal. I hated the city and I hated myself.
I had my first suicidal thoughts in Taiwan. I would picture throwing myself into traffic, as it seemed easier than all this worry. I began to have thoughts of cutting, burning, or stabbing myself. I began to think that the people around me were horrible people, and I began to hate humans and society at large. I wanted to be dumb and ignorant and began to drink a beer or two every evening to calm my nerves.
I had rabies fears if I saw bats, often scouring the scientific literature to analyze the probability of running into a rabid bat in a suburb of Taipei. For all of you out there with similar concerns: not likely. Later, a dog nearly bit my wife’s friend while we were all on vacation and I panicked, totally losing myself for the rest of the trip. It ruined our vacation. I had thought maybe the rabies became an aerosol, or that my wife touched the pants where the dog almost bit. It was a clear break with reality. Two years later and her friend still lives, thank heavens.
I think the straw that broke the camels back was asbestos. I saw funky ceiling tiles at school and became obsessed. I thought that I had been exposed to lots of asbestos during my many classes at the school. I would die painfully and there was nothing I could do about it but wait. I inspected the apartment and sealed off an area with a bit of broken wall, afraid it contained asbestos. I could not handle coming to school anymore — I would hold my breath and open the windows to the classroom, pretending it was too hot. Finally I began missing class, and then I dropped out. I kept a piece of the broken wall in a jar and often inspected it for fibers. I would stay up until four o’clock in the morning and sleep until two. I was at a breaking point and I knew it.
When I dropped out of school and started having suicidal thoughts I knew I had to come back to the US. I thought my wife and I were done, our relationship a victim of my OCD, but I surprised even myself by proposing to her that we marry upon my return. She surprised me even more by agreeing to the idea. I really love my wife, and I think my relationship with her has played a key role in helping me recover. I told her it wasn’t her fault and I, for the first time in my life, admitted that I had a serious problem.
It all fell into place after I returned home and was officially diagnosed. I’ve since sought treatment and been medicated after my last embarrassing incident involving a deer leg and the head of the Wyoming CDC. Fortunately my OCD was very receptive to medication and I was very receptive to therapy. There was something wrong with me — chemically. It wasn’t my fault anymore.
My OCD is both my curse and my teacher, the reflection of my deep insecurity about the uncertainty inherent to life, taught to me since birth by a society that fears death and grasps desperately at illusions of control. I don’t think we will ever be friends, but I will forever listen to what it has to teach.
If this story sounds familiar to you, please seek help. There is no need to suffer as long as I did, and I hope my story can help others find the courage they need to get the help they need. You will learn a lot and feel better.