My Fifty Year War with OCD
It started suddenly on a beautiful fall day. The sun shone brilliantly through the windows of a large country kitchen where I was an overnight guest of a farmer and his wife. We had finished eating breakfast. The farmer left to do his chores. I was alone in the kitchen with his wife when something happened that has affected my life to this day.
This thought hit my consciousness like a bolt of lightning out of the blue, “I could kill her!” She hadn’t burned the toast! The eggs were eatable! The milk wasn’t sour! She hadn’t offended me! She was not to blame! We were having a pleasant after-breakfast visit. As far as I know, there was no reason for such a thought to enter my head. The thought, once it entered, continued to repeat itself over and over. It took away my enjoyment of that morning and started a fifty year war with such fearful thoughts.
I was twenty-two, engaged to be married in a couple of months, and was the minister of a congregation of 150 people. This fine couple hosted their young, single preacher for the weekend. I remember that morning vividly. My life changed that day for the worse.
Once started, these thoughts had a life of their own. They came unexpectedly. I could not stop them. The more I tried to put them out of my mind the more the fearful thoughts were determined to stay.
These thoughts came in various situations. For example,when quail hunting with two friends, these thoughts popped into my mind as they walked in front of me. “I could blow their heads off!” That immediately took the joy out of hunting! Soon after that I sold my shotgun and quit hunting.
On a snowy Christmas Eve in 1960 at Knox, Indiana, my wife and I were married. Nine and one-half months later, our daughter was born. Soon my frightening thoughts centered on them. Those were my most painful and frightening thoughts. The sight of a gun, a kitchen knife, a TV show like Gunsmoke would set them off. Can you imagine the trauma of picking up a kitchen knife and fearing that you might take the life of your family?
These thoughts weren’t present all the time. Many times I thoroughly enjoyed life. But they were present often enough to rob me of a lot of joy, to cause me to fear myself, and to lower my self esteem. I thought someone should lock me up for the public good. Taking my life seemed to me as a way I could find peace from my nagging thoughts.
I often asked myself, “What is the source of these thoughts? Am I capable of killing my family and friends? Why do I have such thoughts? God, why don’t you take them away?” There was no one I could talk to about the war going on inside my head. I felt alone and scared. At times I felt less than human, a throw-back on the evolutionary scale, half human and half primate.
My wife was the first person I talked to about my thoughts. Bless her heart! Imagine laying that on my wife of less than a year. It might scare her and cause her to leave. But she was strong enough to accept my full disclosure and trusted me enough not to be afraid.
My mother became aware of my problem and arranged an appointment with a psychiatrist in St. Louis. He was the first counselor I told about my struggle. His suggestion that I act out my fearful thoughts in my mind, actually made me more afraid. I never went back.
As the years went by I dealt with these thoughts, sometimes in weird ways. I put a rubber band around my wrist and snapped myself with it whenever I had an obsessive thought. It didn’t help. I wore a glove on one hand as an ordeal that was supposed to help. It didn’t.
As I stated earlier, there were peaceful interludes but always something would trigger my obsessive thoughts. Then off I’d go on another episode. Occasionally, I went to a counselor for other personal problems but would not bring up my obsessive thoughts and my resulting feelings. Often my wife would accompany me in these sessions.
In my late forties, a counselor suggested my problem was depression. I went almost immediately, to see a psychiatrist. The medication she prescribed didn’t help. After several failed attempts with medication, she suggested electric convulsive shock therapy as the best alternative. It did help. Soon medications began to work. I was then also diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder which is caused by the lack of a chemical in the brain affecting mood elevation due to light deprivation in the winter. As the days shortened, I sat near a special light to replace natural light that was in shorter supply during the fall and winter months. This additional treatment coupled with my medication did much to improve my mood.
Still the fear of harming others continued to come and go. The best news I received was when my psychiatrist told me “no one with your personality type ever harms anyone.” What a relief! It helped take the overpowering feeling of guilt away. I still have episodes where thoughts of harming others return, but they are far less frequent and less fearful.
Throughout the years the focus was on depression. I gave little thought to an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In reading about it, I learned that OCD was suffered by many people. That information helped me realize, “I am not alone. I am not a monster. I am simply a member of the human race like all the people who suffer problems in life.”
In thinking about OCD I remembered an analogy by Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher. He said that anxiety is like standing on the edge of a great cliff. The anxiety is caused by the knowledge that we have the freedom to remain on the edge or jump over it to the great chasm below. I experienced that feeling one evening when standing on the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington. As I looked over the edge, I imagined myself climbing over the fence and out onto the beams, holding on with my hands while my body dangled in mid-air. That’s when anxiety gripped me in the middle of my stomach. I was afraid of what I might do. The anxiety was due to my freedom of choice.
I had finally gotten the message about my obsessive thoughts; the problem was the use of my freedom. The fear wasn’t because I wanted to hurt others. It was because I knew that I could and was afraid that I would choose to do so.
It is fearful to look into your life and recognize the freedom you have to do good or evil.
We are awesome creatures. We have freedom to choose love or hate, freedom to take a life or save a life. The power is ours to choose how we will use our freedom.
Most of my life I lived in fear of what I might or could do, like standing on the Space Needle. I could climb over the fence and hang in mid-air. In reality, I would never, ever do that. My legs shook and my stomach was full of anxiety just thinking about it. I chose the right thing because I feared taking the other option. Maybe a little fear of how we use our freedom is a good thing.
I have noticed recently that obsessive thoughts trigger my depression. When free from obsessive thoughts, I am generally happy. When those thoughts dog my path, I am generally depressed. The key for me to handle depression is to deal with my obsessive thoughts.
I am thankful I live in a society where there is help for obsessive-compulsive people like we who suffer from OCD. We can read about it. We can find self-help ideas. We can learn from the experiences of others. We can go see a counselor who may also help us with medication. We can choose to wallow in our obsessive-depressive thoughts or we can do something about it. I am a free man. The choice is mine. It is also yours.