by Eden Mekonnen
Edited by Sarah Desouza
When I was eleven years old, I spent the first half of my days hating middle school and the other half terrified of going to sleep. My imagination ran so wild with possibilities that going upstairs at night by myself made me feel sick. I used to turn on all the lights and even made up this rule where I could only sleep after 3 a.m. Some nights, I wouldn’t sleep at all. There are always conditions with my fears. If it was after 3 a.m., I was safe. If someone else was awake, I was safe. It wasn’t always logical but it made sense to me.
I prayed often, with intrusive thoughts flooding my brain every time I prayed. I tried to fight them, going as far as trying to remember thoughts in order to somehow un-do them. Church was a place of comfort as well as a trigger. When our Sunday school teacher talked about demonic possessions and hell, my mind convinced me that if anything like that could happen, it would for sure happen to me. I have always felt the need to know and prevent every possible outcome.
I have pure obsessional OCD. This means that my brain takes the values that I have and uses them against me. I’ll have someone I deeply care about, and my brain will overwhelm me with awful intrusive thoughts about them. They come in the form of images and words. The OCD that most people are familiar with involves counting, compulsive cleaning and doing tasks repetitively. Pure OCD is more difficult to detect. All the compulsions are mainly in my head. I spend the day trying to go about life with intrusive sexual, violent or just downright insulting images or words appearing in my head. They randomly pop up when I look at people on tv, strangers, or even those I care about.
When it isn’t about people, it’s about ideas and actions that I’m up against. Morality is a huge deal for me and so many OCD sufferers. The situations in our heads are so serious that it could literally mean life or death for us. I am often trying to figure out if I deserve to be alive. Consequently, my OCD has also caused severe depression and generalized anxiety.
When I was 16, I had my worst episode. I considered suicide for the first time. I was convinced that I was going to hell, that I was unforgivable and my thoughts made me an awful person. It didn’t help that I would compulsively look up information on what was “forgivable” and what wasn’t. Religion became an obsessive theme for me. I spent that whole summer in complete terror unable to fully enjoy my time with family that I was visiting. I spent a lot of time inconsolable and asking for reassurance, which actually feeds OCD and hardly helps. I was prescribed sleep medication from a psychiatrist and told to not focus on religion anymore as if it was that simple.
I often joke about how when God was making me, he overdid it on the intrusive thoughts and then equally overdid it on the amount of lovely people in my life to try and somehow balance it out. Some days I’m overwhelmed with gratitude that although my mind knows no peace, I am grateful for the memories I get to make with the people in my life. Other days, I’m struggling with the weight of living in a chaotic world, unhelped by the constant conflict going on in my head.
I lived in shame for so many years, trying and failing to explain to my parents why I was afraid all the time. I could hardly decipher who I was and sometimes, I still can’t. I was convinced for a long time that no one could possibly love me fully if they knew about my intrusive thoughts. College was a pivotal point in my life. I started therapy my first year. I had someone to help me begin to unravel the shame I’d accumulated. But my first antidepressant in college did next to nothing for OCD, as I hadn’t been diagnosed with it at the time.
Pure OCD has progressed throughout my life in different forms. The obsessions started with religion, then morals, then the possibility of losing loved ones. I can’t describe it as anything other than constant torture. My OCD is still at its peak right now in my twenties. I’ve suffered from OCD since I was 11, but it took me until I was 23 to find a therapist certified in Exposure Response Prevention, which is the best treatment.
After I graduated, I started exposure therapy, and I finally found the right medication for OCD. I found several communities on Reddit and podcasts from people with pure OCD. I found an ERP therapist through the NOCD app. My first therapy session with my ERP therapist was cathartic. It was so liberating to tell someone my worst intrusive thoughts and fears and have them understand. They told me to try to resist compulsions — for me, that meant ruminating on thoughts and their meanings — I struggled with it but I celebrated the days that I succeeded.
I’m undergoing a second round of ERP with a different therapist in my area. We do exposure exercises to combat my obsessions. The exposures range from visual to imaginal exposure that I have to write down and say aloud until my anxiety goes down. I often feel frustrated during sessions when my therapist makes my fear out to be something so non-threatening. ERP is difficult but I’ve found it is not more difficult than the years of torment I’ve been through. I can feel so much progress already. My psychiatrist has also put me on prozac to treat my OCD and depression, and there’s been a drastic improvement.
It’s difficult for me to look back on years of suffering alone when I shouldn’t have had to. I have lost years to OCD, and I am discovering that my suffering does not make my life any less worth living. I cherish every moment of joy and all the growth I’ve experienced. I am constantly working to form self-neutrality until self-love is possible. I’ve had to redefine what strength means to me. It’s no longer about wanting to appear tough and failing to anymore, it’s about finding joy and being vulnerable enough to share my experiences with others. I’ve connected with other OCD sufferers in ways I never thought I could. I feel understood in ways I didn’t think were possible not too long ago.
I spent most of my life completely unaware that what I was going through wasn’t my fault. I’ve learned that your mental health can be something that is managed, not something easily controlled.
When I think about other Black women with OCD, I think about how difficult it is to seek help when you are expected to just get over it. I think about how debilitating it is to have the world judging you as your own brain is similarly unrelenting. So many of us build our lives around OCD and try to be productive with it looming over us. But Black women, know that you aren’t alone and that you don’t have to pretend to be okay when you’re not. To anyone reading this that suspects they might have pure OCD, I want you to know that you aren’t the problem. There is help out there. My hope is that we will live in a society where everyone has the access to get help and the support they need to live through this condition.
Resources for OCD: