Approximately 2.2 million American adults suffer from some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The ways OCD manifests can vary greatly, and symptoms can range from obsessively counting or obsessive thoughts, to religious hand washing, to not wanting to step on a crack.
Regardless of the manifestation, OCD is usually marked by the belief that completing the compulsive behavior will somehow stop something else from happening, or wanting the alleviation of anxiety that happens once you finish the compulsive act.
Both my brother and I experienced OCD growing up and well into our mid-20s; it's no surprise we both developed it, given that we grew up in a highly anxious, manic-alcoholic environment.
This clearly created our anxiety, and my belief is that one of the easiest ways for us to manifest this anxiety was in the form of compulsions. I can now look back on every occasion my OCD was extreme and correspond it with heightened periods of stress in the family home.
I'm not ashamed of my experience with OCD, but I also know the stigma and shame felt by those who suffer it. Trust me: it's embarrassing trying to pretend you "left something in the house" because you want to check you definitely turned the iron off, and it takes patience to stand with your hand over the stove for 10 minutes convincing yourself, "It's OK, the stove isn't on!" Yes, that's been me.
One of the most frustrating aspects of my condition was that I knew I was being irrational. One day, when I was overwhelmed with my compulsive behavior and I was declaring my insanity, my brother said to me: "Rachel, crazy people don't question if they're crazy." Well, that was a good sign, because I constantly questioned myself; but the relief in knowing I wasn't crazy didn't take away the annoyance.
When you suffer from obsessive-compulsive behavior you waste A LOT of time and it's not uncommon for OCD sufferers to lose jobs, relationships and other opportunities — it can be incredibly disabling.
What had me radically reduce my compulsive behavior was implementing this strategy:
When I felt the desire to do a compulsive act, or if I caught myself about to engage in one, I'd ask myself: "What am I really anxious about?" Often I realized that something, usually a subconscious thought, had caused an increase in my anxiety.
Then I sat with those thoughts. The desire to act out a compulsion to reduce the anxiety is very tempting, but following through on the act further strengthens the neural pathways associated with that behavior, further increasing the likelihood of doing the compulsion again.
When I acknowledged that the root of my OCD was anxiety, and when I acknowledged anxiety was a form of unresolved energy wanting to be recognized, I made a disciplined habit of willingly sitting with that anxiety. Eventually the compulsive desire passed, and while it wasn't always comfortable, it did give me the sense of peace I was searching for.