We usually start to see OCD behaviors in children at about eight years of age. My mom first noticed mine at around four or five—which is a lot younger than normal—though she didn’t know what they were at the time.
If certain things weren’t done in a specific way, I would freak out. Normally they had to do with symmetry and order. For example, before I would sit down to watch TV or play with my toys, I would have to arrange the blanket perfectly. If my older sister messed it up, I would have a temper tantrum, and it was a big ordeal. My mom thought it was just kind of this quirky little thing that her daughter did; she didn’t think much about it.
But I thought about it. I thought about it all the time. It was all-consuming, incredibly distressing. You can’t rationalize it. You can’t reason with it. It’s just how your brain works. OCD is a lot to deal with at any age, but for a small child, it’s both overwhelming and isolating.
My friends would make fun of me for not sitting down to play unless I had this blanket perfect. They’d egg me on, saying things like, “Just sit down; it’s no big deal.” Eventually, I’d relent. That was a foreshadowing of how OCD specialists like me treat the disorder.
A Time of Consequences
Symmetry and order remained the main theme of my OCD but starting at age eight, not having things symmetrical became tied to a consequence. Specifically, if things weren’t straight, my OCD made me believe my parents wouldn’t come home that evening. That’s a lot of pressure for a little kid, and I kept it all to myself.
I remember that we had this rug with really pretty fringe. I would spend hours getting that fringe just perfect. While my parents were thinking Noelle likes keeping things neat and tidy, I was thinking, if I don’t get this right, they won’t come back from their party. In my mind, my fastidiousness was keeping my parents safe.
In college, symmetry and order became conflated with how well I was doing in school. Whenever a big final came up, my brain would be like, “we need to rearrange the room, or we can’t focus on this paper.”
“Noelle’s rearranging the dorm room,” my roommate would say. “It must be midterms!”
She would laugh at me frantically rearranging my bed and furniture, but it was maddening to me. I didn’t want to be doing that. I had so many other things I wanted to do. But my brain wouldn’t let me.
At that time, I had started taking medication for test anxiety that was not OCD-related. That medication helped me keep a lid on my OCD, but it would rear its ugly head during times of high stress.
Realizing That I Had to Get Help
It wasn’t until after I graduated college that I realized I needed help. That realization was brought about by the theme of my OCD changing to hit and run OCD.
I was doing my normal commute to downtown Dallas, sitting in traffic, not even moving. My brain would be like, “I think you hit somebody.” I’d ask myself, “Did I?” I’d check all of the mirrors, and I’d look behind me. Sometimes I’d have to exit and retrace my steps to ensure that there wasn’t anything I hit.
Once I got to the parking garage, I’d have to check the car to make sure there were no scratches or bumps or dents, and then I would walk to the office and feel unsure about whether I’d checked properly. I’d have to go check again. Sometimes it could take me 30 minutes to an hour to get from the parking garage to the office. But it didn’t stop there.
Sitting at my desk, I’d look up the news reports to see if there’d been a hit and run. I’d spend my day wondering whether I needed to turn myself into the police. I felt crazy. I was in constant pain. It became so intolerable that I sought help.
The first two therapists didn’t identify that I had OCD. They were kind and well-meaning, but the advice they gave me was exactly the opposite of what an OCD specialist would do: they gave me reassurance and encouraged me to continue checking and engaging in compulsive behavior. This didn’t help matters one bit. I became frustrated and began to wonder if I’d ever get relief from what was going on inside my head. Also, it was really hard to even bring up my fears to a therapist. I worried about the prospect of being arrested or locked away for being crazy.
Being Exposed to My Best Chance of Recovery
The third therapist I saw understood that what I was experiencing was OCD. The diagnosis was such a relief. The therapist was able to explain what had been going on inside my brain all these years. It was wonderful to know that I wasn’t alone, that other people dealt with this disorder, and that effective treatment was available for me.
That treatment was something called exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, and it was described as my best shot of getting my life back. Contrary to what the other therapists had suggested, this therapist worked with me until I was able to trigger my OCD by driving on bumpy roads, then successfully resisted the urge to check the car for damage or check the news for reports of a hit and run incident.
Getting an accurate diagnosis made a world of difference. It was so helpful to know that I wasn’t crazy, that sometimes your brain does this thing, and it’s called OCD, and it’s treatable with ERP.
Going to work quickly became a lot easier – plus, I’d show up on time because I didn’t have to go back and forth in the parking garage. I had always thought about becoming a counselor, but as a result of my experience getting effective therapy for my OCD, I decided to go back to school and get my master’s in counseling.
I Speak OCD With Native Proficiency
I started working for a non-profit that helped people with trauma and other issues, but then I gravitated toward treating people with OCD. That’s because I understand what it feels like to live with this disorder. I think my perspective can be important for some people who are seeking treatment.
I know what it’s like to feel as though you’re going crazy and that no one will be able to understand what’s going on inside your head. I think that many members appreciate me saying that I’ve been there, that I’ve been in their shoes, that I know they might be afraid to tell me what’s going on, but that’s something I’m familiar with. My thoughts or fears might be slightly different from what they are experiencing, but I get it. I think being able to connect to people in that way can help some people open up more and, as a result, have a more trustworthy, therapeutic experience.
Thanks to ERP, I can effectively manage my OCD, but that doesn’t mean that it’s gone completely. I still have intrusive thoughts that have to do with harming other people. I can still be triggered by being in a hardware store with things in reach that could be used to inflict harm on another person.
My brain will be like, “what if you hurt somebody?” It can make me feel paranoid for a second, but then I realize that I’m just buying a shovel, and I can hold a shovel! Knowing this is my OCD up to its old tricks is a game-changer. I’m able to have that perspective because of the tools I use and teach with ERP. It has enabled me to say, “I’m not running away from this. I’m going to stand close to that shovel and not let it keep me from living my life.
These days, my OCD is at what I call a “subclinical level.” When I get triggered, it’s merely annoying. It doesn’t bother me much at all. I think that still living with OCD means that I don’t have to rummage around in my memory bank to understand what someone is feeling, because it’s still in the background of my mind somewhere. My job as an OCD specialist is to teach others how they too can reduce the footprint of OCD in their lives until managing the disorder becomes second nature.