Before getting diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder last year, I thought the random disturbing thoughts that seemed to appear in my head of their own accord were normal.
I remember experiencing them during my teenage years, mentioning it to my boyfriend at the time, and feeling confused that he brushed it off so completely. At that point, it felt like I might lose control of my hands while driving and steer my car off a bridge. It wasn’t a fear, per se— it was an image flashing through my mind, as I drove over the bridge, of that exact thing happening.
Fast forward more than 20 years—these intrusive thoughts have woven themselves into my very existence, now that I’m a mother. This is a side of OCD that not many people talk about. The face of OCD is a person obsessively washing their hands more than 40 times a day, or checking that the oven wasn’t left on 15 times, even though the oven wasn’t even used. Fewer people share the horrifying thoughts that sometimes cause that behavior, intrusive thoughts that haunt many of us with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Sometimes, one of these intrusive thoughts will shake me to my core, prompting me to grab hold of my kids and envelop them with as much love as I can muster.
There are some days when intrusive thoughts don’t show up on my radar at all, but when I’m going through a rough patch, this is what my day can look like. Please note that I am unable to disclose certain thoughts because they upset me too much to share.
On any given morning, I change a diaper or pull-up, shortly after waking. My son is two-and-a-half, but I still envision him falling off of the changing table and cracking his head open on the corner of a drawer on the way down. I may lift him into my arms afterward and toss him over my shoulder, at which point I see myself accidentally letting go and, yet again, my son smashing his head open as he falls.
We all make our way downstairs for breakfast, and I get flashes of either my son, daughter, or me falling down the stairs. This is likely due to the concussion I suffered after slipping on stairs outside our cottage and hitting my head. Or possibly the ligaments I tore in my ankle, after falling down the stairs at an old house of ours years ago. I’ve fallen down a lot of stairs in my life, okay? This is a legitimate fear.
Making breakfast for the family and lunch for my daughter’s day at school usually involves images of losing control of my arm and stabbing myself in the eye with the paring knife with which I’m cutting fruit. It may also include picturing my son or daughter burning their fingers in the toaster.
Brushing my children’s teeth often brings forth an image of one of them running away from me—toothbrush still in their mouth, tripping and impaling themselves. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I’m fully aware of this. One of my coping mechanisms has been to pick at the dry skin on my son’s head, which he still has at age 2. It’s a compulsion I find nearly impossible to control and results in my poor son having a head full of dandruff most of the time. I struggle with guilt over this, and it’s certainly a bone of contention between my husband and me, his telling me to stop whenever he notices it.
When it comes time to walk my daughter to school, I face the worst of these intrusive thoughts: my daughter running ahead of me and getting hit by a car. In those brief flashes, my mind takes me through each moment of horror, from the moment of impact, to me screaming and running to her, to me on my knees next to her as she dies in my arms. This entire scene takes seconds to play out in my head, but it plays again and again, as long as we’re walking together.
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Any driving I may do during the day may involve unbidden images of driving off the highway or into the guardrail, or gunning it through an intersection where I should have stopped, and getting t-boned by another vehicle. As I’ve said before, these flashes of worst-case scenarios last just a second or two, but sometimes repeat multiple times, at which point I will shake my head, to try to literally shake myself out of it.
As a mother, some of my scariest moments are those that involve intrusive thoughts with my children getting hurt (sometimes by me), or my own death. These types of images can become all-consuming for me because naturally, this is every parent’s worst nightmare. Sometimes, one of these intrusive thoughts will shake me to my core, prompting me to grab hold of my kids and envelop them with as much love as I can muster. Other times, I have driven myself to tears, imagining these scenarios in such minute detail that they become almost real to me. These are the moments when I consciously consider creating some type of ritual to “cross off” each thought from my psyche. I don’t, though, for whatever reason.
One of the most important things I learned years ago, during an undergraduate psychology course, is that all human behavior exists on a spectrum. Many people have occasional intrusive thoughts, however it becomes a pathology when it interferes with your daily activities. Clearly, that’s what’s happening in my own life, and I’m in the process of addressing it and getting treatment. If you feel thoughts like these are interfering with your own life, it may be time to seek out treatment, or at least a diagnosis, as well.
Artwork by KAREN HONG