Learning To Live With Obsessive Thoughts

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Getty Images/Mark Mainz

Think of your worst fear. Now imagine thinking about it all day every day. And not just thinking about it but feeling that this fear may come true—or is, in fact, already true. Now imagine dealing with this in a life of constant uncertainty. This is what it feels like to suffer from Pure Obsessional ('Pure O')—a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

I didn't realize what was wrong with me when it all started. I was in my early twenties—a time that is full of uncertainty for everyone. But it was exactly this uncertainty that my OCD latched onto and used to attack me. I thought I was going through some kind of identity crisis. Coming from an Eastern European background, where mental health issues are still deeply stigmatized and seen as a sign of character weakness, it was hard for me to even consider the fact that I might have a mental disorder.

When I started to have obsessive thoughts and fears, I started researching them online and came across the condition of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. What was happening to me seemed to tick all the boxes, especially those of Pure O, where compulsions may sometimes be hidden rather than overtly expressed. With Pure O, sufferers often experience recurring obsessive thoughts just like in the more traditional forms of OCD, even if they have no observable compulsions. These intrusive thoughts are usually the kind of thing that would repulse or horrify the the sufferer, making them all the more painful to endure.

Finding out that there might be a name for my condition felt like the most euphoric moment: This is it, this is what is wrong with me, I can be cured. At least for a while, it seemed to reduce my anxiety, and so I kept on going back to these web pages again and again to reassure myself that I wasn't going "crazy" but that I had OCD.

Once I'd discovered it, I couldn't stop reading about it—but this made things worse. I started to not be able to be out in public because it made me too anxious. All I wanted to do was seek reassurance by reading online psychology forums and chats. Once, I had to stand up and leave in the middle of a dinner with my friends to go home and check my symptoms. I gave them no explanation, took my bag, stood up and left.

Every day, I would read about OCD symptoms and compulsively check that I had them. I checked 50 times or more a day. One of my friends urged me to seek professional help and even booked an appointment for me because I was so scared to do it myself. I was scared about talking to someone I barely knew about my fears—what if it turned out they were real?

Imagine you are standing on the Tube platform and you look at the train tracks and you think "what if I pushed the person next to me in by accident?" We all get these thoughts sometimes, but we immediately brush them off because we know that they are ridiculous.

However, people with OCD do not—they start analyzing the meaning of these thoughts until they are locked into a constant loop of self-questioning and doubt. When you're in one of these OCD loops you have difficulty understanding what is real and what is simply a thought. You think that if you can have these thoughts then they must be true and there must be a reason for you having them: You must be a bad person.

Getting stuck in these loops made me constantly seek reassurance and confirmation that I wasn't a bad person. I would ask my friends, I would ask random people online, I would ask my therapist: "What if I don't actually have OCD? What if I have made everything up? What if my fears are actually true?" Spoiler alert: reassurance doesn't actually help; it is a temporary fix. You have to learn to live with your anxiety by gradually exposing yourself to your fears, step by step.

At the end of 2014, I hit rock bottom, despite going through therapy. Back at home for university holidays, I couldn't leave my room; I couldn't even talk to my parents because any human interaction gave me too much anxiety. Why wasn't therapy helping? I sat alone in my room for days, compulsively researching to try and relieve my anxiety.

The fact that I couldn't even face my own parents made me realize that I had to do something about it. I was ready to do anything to get better. I changed therapists and started to work on learning to live with the feeling of uncertainty by accepting that OCD is just a part of who I am.

My struggle with OCD made me realize that the stigmatization of mental health issues is not limited to Eastern Europe. In fact, the stigma attached to mental illness that I experienced living in the U.K. was one of the reasons why it was so hard for me to speak out. The general lack of awareness about mental health and its complexities made it more difficult for me to recover because the people who surrounded me—my support system—had so many misunderstandings and misconceptions.

Most people only know about the "compulsive" part of OCD. They immediately think of someone who compulsively washes their hands or checks the locks on a door dozens of times. That's what I had thought before. And intrusive thoughts might not seem like such a serious mental health issue; in all honesty, they can even seem a bit made up. It is easier to see the physical manifestations than it is to understand the obsessions, the thoughts and fears that fuel them.

Obsessions are, however, the most painful and hurtful part of the disorder. OCD targets your deepest and darkest fears, making you obsess about them. You feel like they are real, like your fears are coming true. You do everything possible to prove to yourself that they aren't, but the thoughts are so invasive that the reassurance only relieves your sense of shame temporarily, with anxiety striking back 10 times worse. Meanwhile, the stigmatization of illnesses like these only makes it harder to open up to other people. You feel more and more isolated.

You can't just cure mental health disorders—you won't just wake up one day and miraculously feel better. It takes strength to deal with the additional weight throughout your life; you have to accept it and understand it, like a new companion. It took me half a year to acknowledge that I had a problem and another two years to learn how to deal with it.

When I first considered writing about my experience, people told me that, just like any other health issue, this should probably stay private. But why should it? If talking about mental health conditions can help other people realize that they are not alone and give them the strength to seek help, then we should all try and do it. There is nothing weak about mental illness, and there is no shame in speaking up.

Valeriia Voshchevska is a social media producer at Newsweek Europe.

Learning To Live With Obsessive Thoughts | Opinion