Having unwelcome, disturbing thoughts can be an unnerving experience. Here is my story — and some tips for coping — to help you feel less alone.
I was 6 years old when I first took note of my obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). I recall it initially manifested as a feeling of significant discomfort when I’d follow my parents through the grocery store and feel as though something would go terribly wrong if I didn’t touch every single cereal box in the aisle.
I noticed the same sense of impending doom when my mom would put my right shoe on before my left. Years later, in the college quad, I would peel off from my friends to travel up the left side of the diverging staircase as they went up the right — otherwise, someone was definitely going to meet their death that day.
If I look back on my life through an introspective lens, I’d say that my disorder surfacing as these small quirks seldom impacted my life in a negative way. It was the OCD emerging as unwanted, intrusive thoughts that cast a dark, distressing shadow over many years of my adolescence and young adulthood.
As a freshman in high school, my brother’s English teacher assigned him to watch the critically acclaimed “Dead Poets Society.” I was a sixth grader. The film’s end was my first exposure to suicide as a concept.
I laid awake that night with wide eyes and a racing pulse, and what ensued in the following weeks was a confusing, disturbing, life-altering spiral that ultimately landed me in therapy for the first time.
I was consumed by the need to know anything and everything about taking one’s own life. “Is my mom going to do it?” I thought. “Is my dad? Am I going to kill myself in my sleep? Does the fact that I’m thinking about it so much mean I want to?” For days on end, I let the thoughts fester and ruminate, distracting me from schoolwork, playdates, and conversation.
Eventually, my suffering came to a head. I exploded into a slew of sobs and jumbled words, leaving my parents alarmed and abruptly aware. They quickly set me up with a child psychiatrist, and soon I was making progress.
I don’t remember how or when my trapped thoughts dissipated during my middle school years, but I remember when they returned because it was with a vengeance.
One sunny afternoon, almost a decade later, in the playroom of the toddler I nannied, I sat with her on the floor, singing songs and building legos. A thought invaded my brain, so sudden and strong, “What if her parents come home and I am abusing her?”
My heart raced, my chest tightened, and my mind ran off again with the whys, whats, and wills. “Why would that thought enter my brain?” “What does this mean about me?” “Will I act on this?” “I must be a monster.”
With child abuse being one of the most egregious acts one can commit, I was terrified to talk to anyone. I would later learn that fear of admission is common among sufferers of intrusive thoughts. As the thoughts and images grew more trapped, I grew more distraught. The more I pushed them away, the stronger and more disturbing they would return.
I began believing every good trait I possessed was fallacious. I isolated myself from my friends and family because I felt undeserving of their love and company. I wept after colleagues gave me praise at work because I felt fraudulent and mendacious.
I grew so exhausted feeling at odds with who I thought I was that I began to believe that death was the only way I would feel relief.
In another helpless explosion, I dissolved once more in front of my parents. After several long and difficult discussions, I put myself back in therapy with their help. Only then did I learn there is a name for what I experience, a reason why I experience it, and about 6 million others experiencing the same thing.
Through therapy and professionally guided research, I was able to reflect on my past struggles, understand myself better, and take note of some patterns.
I realized any time the storm of these thoughts swept in and tore me down, I was going through a particularly stressful event or significant transition, i.e., a death in the family, a new school, puberty, graduating college, the post-grad job search, etc. My OCD was triggered by these stressors and would rear its ugly head in the form of these disturbing, trapped thoughts.
Another thing I’ve learned about intrusive thoughts is how to better understand and manage them. Potentially one of the more popular methods for coping with intrusive thoughts is a six-step process that goes by the acronym RJAFTP. This method can be found in the book “Overcoming Unwanted Intrusive Thoughts” by Sally M. Winston, PsyD, and Martin N. Seif, PsyD. Essentially the six steps are as follows:
If you can relate to the thoughts I’ve described in this article, I strongly encourage you to try these techniques to help you get back to a better mindset.
I know there are people out there right now questioning everything good they once knew about themselves. It’s an agonizing feeling I know all too well and hope to never feel again. The reason they might feel so utterly and uncomfortably outside of themselves is that the thoughts they’re thinking are the antithesis of who they are and what they truly believe.
If you’re one of those people and you’re reading my message, there is hope and help within reach, and I implore you to reach for it. I promise the sun will shine on you again.
My one and only hope in sharing my personal account is that this bottled message I’m launching into cyberspace washes up on the shore of someone in pain who deeply needs to reach an understanding that they are not alone.
My most indestructible belief in this life — and I’m sure those close to me will grow tired of hearing it — is that one of the world’s strongest and remarkably effective healers is the shared human experience.
Medically reviewed on May 31, 2023
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