“Goodnight—goodnight—goodnight,” I shouted to my sister each evening as we lay in our beds not too far across the room from each other. Each goodnight had to be said in just the right way with a precise tone and rhythm. If those “goodnights” didn’t feel just right, then I would sound off with more and more until, finally, one met my standards. Usually I’d giggle myself to sleep thinking that my repetition of words was a bit silly.
I was only twelve and knew I was different than most kids who didn’t have to say things over and over again. Sometimes I’d have to touch things again and again until the touch felt just right and until I had some sort of mysterious closure.
Things really flared up when I learned from my religious aunt that repeating prayers on the rosary, in just the right order, could somehow protect myself and others from harm. I also felt immediately assured and protected after reciting my sins in the confession booth and praying the exact numbers of Hail Marys that the priest had prescribed.
When my parents drove our family three hours to the beach for our annual vacation, I would pray over and over again in the back seat knowing that it was my prayers that kept us safe. If I dared to stop praying, an accident would surely occur. Once we arrived at our destination, I didn’t share my secret that it was because of me that we had safely arrived.
These seemingly purposeful repetitive thoughts eventually became exhausting. Soon I was praying not just on long car rides but on and off throughout the day for anyone that might be in harm’s way. My mind was constantly on guard for impending doom. I was inwardly proud of my ability to prevent dangerous circumstances from happening to others.
Sometimes, in grammar school, I’d twirl my hair round and round until the twirl felt just right. By the end of the day, my finger would tire from all this senseless exercise. My classmates figured I was just playing with my hair as any kid might on occasion.
A few years later, I developed small tics which eventually became quite maddening. I covered my face with my hands when I felt a tic coming on. Only once did my father catch me while I was watching TV in our living room, and he yelled out to ask me what the heck I was doing with my face. “Just being silly,” I said. Inside, I knew I was lying. For the first time, too, I was embarrassed. Something was surely wrong with me, but I didn’t know what.
Once I entered college, I discovered that my odd behavior was due to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). I also realized that the OCD had the positive aspect of helping me achieve outstanding grades. I repeated homework assignments over and over until I got them just right. My goal was perfection and nothing less. On the negative side, my anxiety of doing everything unblemished became crippling and exhausting. When the stress of too much homework overloaded me, my anxiety drastically escalated.
I recall rolling over and over one night in bed wanting to shake out the contents of my tormented mind. Repetitive thoughts of lists to memorize for homework tumbled round and round in my head like a skipped record. The more I attempted to shake off my ritualistic thoughts, the more frustrated I became.
I continued to hide my condition from my family and friends and even my husband.
Then, one evening when my husband was working outside on the ladder, I decided that instead of praying that he would not fall, I would not pray at all. I would ditch my OCD for good. I was tired of it. Well, wouldn’t you know, he fell off the ladder and broke his heel. I apologized to God for not praying to have kept my husband safe. For the first time, I felt guilty about not giving in to the powers of OCD. I also confessed my peculiar condition to my husband.
That incident triggered fierce episodes of OCD thereafter. It never crossed my mind that even if I had prayed, my husband probably would still have fallen off the ladder because he had mistakenly placed it on a patch of ice. After that, I needed to be extremely safety-oriented lest anyone get hurt. I prayed methodically day and night and about any situation that had even a minute possibility to cause harm.
Long trips in the car with my husband reminded me of the trips to the beach with my parents. Repetitive thoughts and prayers filled my head again, and my body tensed until I thought it would explode. And each time we arrived safely, I knew if was because I had prayed just right.
The more stress I had, the more my OCD took over. I felt trapped and alone. I was especially sad when I overheard two friends of mine laughing about a segment on TV that featured a person with OCD. They hysterically laughed with mockery as they ran around the room mimicking the patient touching things over and over again. “Do I tell them now about me?” I pondered. I remained silent as I looked on, and then I walked away frustrated that I didn’t have the nerve to speak up and tell them that I too suffered with OCD.
As the decades went on, I continued to keep my OCD a secret except to my sister who had always suspected something was a bit off with my behavior. My husband became increasingly concerned about the hold that OCD had on me.
Over the years, I gradually learned to manage the OCD and squash it before it conquered me. The first step I did was to practice daily relaxation and deep breathing techniques. This was essential because my OCD flared if I was in a stressful situation. These techniques were difficult at first because I found it hard to focus for too long without anxiety creeping in. Week by week, and month by month, though, I became quite adept and found myself feeling calmer and less panic-stricken over stressful events.
Another important factor was learning to let go of perfection. Wanting to do everything perfect put a lot of pressure on me. Accepting that it’s okay not to be perfect allowed me to also become more relaxed. Equally important was not pursuing too many tasks in one day because a cluttered “to-do” list only served to exacerbate the OCD.
This alone, was not enough to conquer my OCD but allowed me to move forward with behavioral treatment.
I discovered that by not giving in to OCD that it’s strength would weaken over time. I began a program that challenged the OCD in small increments. If I sensed harm and wanted to immediately pray a certain way to relieve the stress, I’d force myself to not pray for a few moments and thus tolerate at least a small bit of what I feared. Initially, this was extremely challenging because not giving in created its own stress. It took great determination to smother my anxiety by utilizing the relaxation techniques I had mastered. It was also important that, each day, I progressed by gradually increasing my tolerance. It was critical for me to realize that nothing bad happened when I didn’t pray, and that everything was okay without my trying to control it.
My goal was to completely let go of fear-based prayer. Eventually, over a period of approximately eight months, OCD no longer controlled my life. It took great diligence, courage, and patience on my part as does winning over a powerful addiction.
These days, the OCD comes and goes on occasion in a very mild form, but it’s not the monster it once was. The best thing is, on most nights, I can get to sleep without saying “goodnight—goodnight—goodnight,” over and over again.