My Journey with OCD, Therapy, and Finding Happiness

When I was 8 years old, I watched The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. I had one of those young, moldable minds. It was a pretty intense movie for a kid, but the one moment that really stuck with me was the scene when the hobbits almost get killed by the Ring Wraiths. There’s the scene of them sleeping at the inn, and it cuts to the Ring Wraiths walking in, standing over them, and stabbing them repeatedly. Of course, in a moment, it’s revealed that the hobbits had actually planted piles of hay in the beds, and all of them were fine. But the concept had permanently made its mark on my brain, and I became obsessed with the idea: someone was going to stab me while I was sleeping.

I remember being 14 years old, lying awake at night, my brain screaming at me that there was someone standing above me, about to stab me. I would argue with myself: how could that be possible? It was a completely irrational belief, coming from zero evidence! But in the end, my brain always won out with one simple argument: “It’s better to be safe than sorry”.

And so, for a moment, I would open my eyes, just to be safe.

There was never anyone there.

I was raised very religiously. I went to church every Sunday, I prayed every night before bed. I even remember writing a song for church when I was around 6 years old, and my mom convinced me to show the leaders of the kids’ program. I was a model Christian kid.

When I was very young, also probably around 4-6 years old, I remember them teaching us the Official Format of a prayer. They handed us sheets of paper with four squares on them, and they read, in order: “Dear God”, “Thank you for”, “Ask for”, and “Amen”. In other words, prayers were to be like a form letter – they had an opening and a closing, and I had to say thank you before I could ask for something. More specifically, the “Thank you for” section had three slots open: I had to say thank you for three things before I could ask for anything. I think this is the first time I became obsessed with three’s.

I don’t remember when it first came up, but my mom taught me that three’s and seven’s were important numbers in the Bible, and that the number six was that of the devil. It wasn’t until high school that these numbers started becoming important to me – so much so that I would never actually write the number 6. I would draw a six, but at the end, I would go a little bit back through, so that I could convince myself (and God, I suppose) that it wasn’t in fact a 6, but just a curly loop. If it ever seemed like I hadn’t done this, I would go back and make sure I had. You can imagine how hard this made doing my math homework.

This is only one example of what had become an obsession with doing things perfectly. If I ever felt like I had done something wrong, whether it be a prayer, writing a “6”, or a social interaction, I would spiral into a tornado of self-hatred.

Also in high school, it occurred to me that I had to say “God bless you” when people sneezed. If I didn’t, something terrible would happen. Then suddenly, I had to say it three times, because that was the most important number. Then I started doubting that I had done it correctly, so I had to say it three more times – then three more times, because that was three sets of three.

I remember sitting in classes, whispering under my breath and hoping no one would hear: “God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you, God bless you.”

At a certain point, it occurred to me that I hadn’t thrown up since I was about 8. Now a teenager, there was one day that I went to see a movie, and felt really sick. As I was sitting in the bathroom, thinking I was sure to throw up, I mentally promised God that if I didn’t throw up, I would never drink alcohol or do drugs. I didn’t throw up.

For years afterwards, on my way to school every morning, I would promise God that in exchange for me never drinking or doing drugs, I only asked for me to feel happy and loved that day. I became convinced that this deal was the only reason I had a happy life in which people loved me.

In my Junior year of high school, I drank alcohol for the first time.

My life didn’t completely disintegrate.

Rather than realizing that that hadn’t been the reason that everything was going pretty well, I jumped to the conclusion that it was simply semantics, and that I didn’t technically drink, like as a lifestyle, I had just drank alcohol one time. I kept making the same promises, but was very careful about the wording.

The first moment I remember a physical compulsion taking hold was in my Junior year of high school. I had auditioned for the school musical, Jekyll & Hyde, and I really wanted a specific role. That night, as I was waiting for the cast list to be posted, it popped into my brain: I would touch my heart, my mouth, and my forehead. This, to me, was giving my heart to God, words to God, and thoughts to God. I did it once, thinking it would super-power my prayer.

I didn’t get the part.

I became convinced I had done it wrong.

Throughout the next four years it went through a lot of variations – sometimes I would kiss my hand and send the kiss up to God, sometimes I would touch the back of my hand to my forehead, sometimes it was all just certain phrasings of prayer in my head.

I could feel the weight of anxiety pressing on me. In my mind, my life was in an incredibly delicate balance, and if I did one thing wrong, absolutely everything would come crashing down.

I went to college. I was studying acting at New York University, a school I never thought I had a chance in attending.

If you want to plunge yourself into a stressful situation and exacerbate any anxieties you have, I recommend attending an acting school in New York City.

I felt constantly judged, constantly critiqued, and more obsessed than ever with doing things perfectly. I had gained a bit of weight during my Freshman year, and my new obsession was losing it. There were days that summer that I only ate 900 calories, and was proud of it. I hated being myself. I felt disconnected from my brain and my body. And at that point, what was left of me?

A new compulsion had arisen: a complete obsession with numbers. I don’t know where it came from, just that in my mind it was my job to process numbers, or else the world would be in chaos. So every time I saw a series of numbers, I had to make them into some sort of organized equation. For example, if I looked at the clock and it read: 12:34, in my mind I would say “12=3×4”. Until I had done this, I felt that twinge of anxiety in my chest.

Of course, this wasn’t enough. I then had to come up with every possible combination of the numbers, or else I couldn’t move on mentally. I’m sure there were a lot of times that my friends felt like I had mentally checked out, probably thinking I just wasn’t paying attention, but I was actually just trying to do math in my head as quickly as possible so I could return to reality.

This whole time, every time I did one of these compulsions, I knew that they were irrational. I knew they made no sense. I knew that if I tried to explain them to someone, I would sound crazy. But all that I could hear in my mind, every time I tried not to do one, was “better to be safe than sorry”. So I didn’t tell anyone.

One day Freshman Year, while walking around New York with a friend of mine, I mentioned that I did this. I explained it as a weird mental habit – I didn’t want anyone to know how crazy I was. And he said, in a fateful moment, “That sounds a lot like OCD”.

OCD? But I didn’t wash my hands all the time. I didn’t have to put on hand sanitizer after I touched a door knob.

I had no understanding of what Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder was. But, fittingly, it stuck in my mind, and I decided to give it a Google, just to feel satisfied that that wasn’t me.

It was absolutely me.

I read through articles about OCD and felt a literal rush of relief. In contrast to the constant anxiety I had felt for years, I had a sudden glimmer of hope. I wasn’t crazy. This wasn’t just me. I had a diagnosable disorder, one that was shared with a fair amount of people out there.

It took me about a year to decide to go to therapy. I had tried for a little bit to give myself therapy, but it was impossible. When your brain is working against you, you can’t fight back alone.

I went to a therapist and explained everything. All my issues, my past, my compulsions, my obsessions. She told me officially that yes, I had OCD, and frankly, a very severe case of it. Severity of OCD is basically measured by how often during the day you have your obsessions and compulsions, and for me, it was almost 24/7. Most of the time I was able to escape it during sleep, but lately, I had started even doing compulsions during my dreams.

My therapist gave me a very thick booklet that listed every possible obsession and compulsion, and I was to mark how much each one applied to me. I went through and was amazed that every one I had was represented. Religious obsessions, it turned out, were common.

We started with the least bothersome ones – I remember it was knives. I had always had an obsessive fear that knives were going to suddenly fly out of people’s hands and stab me in the eye – I know, it sounds absolutely ridiculous, but to me, it was a reality. For homework, my therapist told me to just hold and use a knife, and feel the anxiety, and not do anything about it. It was a challenge, but I could do it.

I remember walking out of therapy one day along the street and realizing that there were no obsessions or compulsions running through my head for a solid minute. I walked down the sidewalk and felt free for the first time in years of my young life.

The biggest one for us to conquer was the fear of throwing up. It had been so solidified in my mind for years, that I told her I would genuinely rather die than vomit. She asked me on my first day if I thought I could say “I’m going to throw up”. I said I honestly couldn’t see a day where that was physically possible. Whenever I was watching TV or a movie and someone threw up, I was overcome with anxiety and went through every compulsion I had until it was gone. When I was 11 and our grade was supposed to watch Supersize Me, I walked out before the scene where the guy threw up. I couldn’t physically handle it.

After conquering several other smaller obsessions, my therapist asked me to go home and write down the words “I’m going to throw up”.

If you’ve ever felt anxiety, which I’m sure all of you have, it’s easy to explain OCD. What happens is you have certain triggers in the world – whether they be things, actions, thoughts, or words. When these triggers come up, you become obsessed with them, and feel a sudden rush of anxiety. Depending on the severity, and on the trigger, the anxiety can be simply worrisome or absolutely all-consuming, to the point that you start having a panic attack. This anxiety simply will not go away until you perform a compulsion, some sort of act or thought that in your mind, neutralizes the threat.

From what I’ve read, it seems like OCD stems from an error with your brain. There’s some piece of your brain that, when you feel anxiety, is supposed to suddenly click on, so you can move on with your life. If you have OCD, that piece never clicks, and you are stuck, buried in anxiety until you can dig your way out with compulsions.

The concept of my therapy was that if I just sat with the anxiety, and let it wash over me, let it take over everything, just sat with it, and didn’t perform any compulsions, eventually it would just go away. It was hard to believe after years of using compulsions to survive my daily life, but I was willing to learn. I wanted so badly to take my life back, to be control of my own thoughts.

And so, one day, I sat down and stared at a notebook, and wrote the words “I’m going to”. I sat there for probably ten minutes, staring at the page, full of anxiety. How could I do it? How could I write the words “I’m going to throw up”? I would rather die. My brain was on full alert, screeching at me not to do it, to do a compulsion instead.

My brain and my hand had a disconnect. Through the fog of anxiety-ridden thoughts I willed myself to do it. Slowly and painfully, I wrote the letters down. “I’m going to throw up”. And suddenly, it was as if the OCD storm in my brain had been blown away. My anxiety rushed out of me like water down a drain, and I laughed out loud in utter relief.

So what if I was going to throw up? It wasn’t going to kill me! If it happened, it happened. I wasn’t going to live my life in fear of the possibility!

And that was it. That was the moment I decided it: I wasn’t going to live my life in fear of what could happen.

I returned to therapy the next week full of excitement to share my realization. My therapist was proud and excited for me. After conquering that one, nothing seemed to stand in my way. I could say it out loud: “I’m going to throw up!” There was still anxiety in me, and it was certainly not an easy road from thereafter. But I had conquered one of my hugest phobias, one that had plagued me since I was a child, and I felt so incredibly powerful.

The years went by. I moved from New York to LA and back to New York. I stopped praying. I stopped making math equations in my head.

The road to change wasn’t linear, and it wasn’t immediate. One obsession that stuck with me was counting calories. Every day I mentally approximated how many calories I had consumed, to reassure myself that I wasn’t overeating. It would take a little while longer for me to get rid of that one.

It took me a good deal longer to stop worrying about doing everything perfectly. I still struggle today to accept when I feel I’ve made a mistake. But I am slowly learning forgiveness, and acceptance, and how to get that piece of my brain to click and let me move on.

A huge part of this was leaving New York for good. At the end of 2016, a year and a half after graduation, I left to work on a cruise ship in Hawaii. While overall, it was incredibly difficult, it was the best thing for me and my anxiety. I was working 60-80 hours a week with no days off. I had no time for anxiety. I was too active to worry about calories – if anything, I was worried about eating enough, not too much. I was surrounded by a new group of people, and I could start over with my newfound confident self. I met someone and we fell in love. We left the ship together and started to travel the world.

Since then, I have learned to kayak, taught students about nature, explored Europe, and led tours of black bear habitat. I have climbed literal mountains, dealt with incredibly difficult emotional situations, and learned to share myself openly with the world. I have had dream jobs and nightmare jobs. I’ve met selfish people and selfless people. I’ve gone from only allowing myself to eat healthy food to eating French fries and ice cream whenever I want. I go to the gym because I want to, not because I feel I have to. I lie in bed and think because I choose to, not because I can’t sleep from the anxiety. I accept my circumstances and choose happiness, rather than regret. I leave situations that make me unhappy, and enter situations that I know will bring me a new challenge.

I don’t count. I don’t pray. I try my best not to worry.

My life was never a delicate balance. It was a solid rock, a foundation of friendship, love, and strength on which I could stand tall. And after years of crouching down, hiding, trying to protect myself from things unknown, it feels absolutely amazing to finally stand up and be who I am without fear.

I am so happy to wake up every day and be who I always wanted to be.

I am so happy to honestly say that I love myself.

And I hope that if you’ve experienced something like this journey, that this helps you see that there is absolutely a light at the end of the tunnel.

There is a beautiful, joyful, happy life out there waiting for you. You just have to reach out and take it.

About Penny