Recently my oldest daughter, who’s 7 years old, asked what I was afraid of. What scares me? Besides the usual fears of being a stressed out parent, unable to control the world and protect my kids at all costs, I couldn’t think of a specific thing that scares me. Not one that my daughter could understand, at least.
Because, I am not afraid of things—I am afraid of thoughts.
The fears that weigh me down are mental images and the overwhelming feelings that accompany them. My brain is what I am most afraid of; it creates my heaviest burdens by producing relentless and ugly thoughts.
I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and with that comes obsessive thoughts that feel like worms working their way into my brain, creating holes and pathways where fears can hide. They tunnel their way through and in between ordinary thoughts like what to pack for school lunches and internal reminders to schedule dentist appointments; they make space for imagined scenarios to take root and mercilessly taunt me with the potential to become reality.
I had my first obsessive thought when I was a teenager. My OCD had been showing its face for a few years, but I didn’t have a name for it. I was doing a lot of checking and counting. I struggled with clothing, shoes, angles, and even rooms feeling right on and near my body, so I did a lot of adjusting and doing and undoing. It was just who I was, and I adjusted to accommodate it.
But then I got my driver’s license. I remember being on a bridge and feeling the pull of the power I had. I was overcome with an impulse to jerk the wheel. I wanted, or thought I wanted, to drive over the edge. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to drive off of the bridge. I was afraid I would.
I knew I shouldn’t be thinking about driving off of bridges, but I didn’t tell anyone because surely that would make me seem crazy and like a danger to myself. The idea of sharing my dark thought only made the dark thought seem darker. So I kept it in and continued to accumulate thoughts that terrified me. I began to see myself hurting animals; I conjured gruesome images that were stained with blood I imagined drawing from their bodies.
To be clear, I never did these things. I never ever wanted to do these things. I felt tortured by these thoughts.
When I went to college, I imagined what it would be like to just not show up to places or to show up to places where I wasn’t invited. My brain invented scenarios that would cause my own self-destruction and homelessness. I worked myself into panic attacks based on unfounded and hypothetical fears. My fantasized behaviors, ones I had very little to no chance of acting out, generated my panic.
When I graduated and moved to Vermont, I began to see a therapist. She diagnosed me with OCD and PTSD triggered by years of childhood abuse, but I only talked about the anxiety and my tics. I didn’t tell my therapist that I went to the bathroom 10 times before leaving the house because I was afraid I would have to pee while I was out and wouldn’t be able to find a bathroom. I didn’t tell my therapist that every time I drove by a bicyclist or pedestrian, I panicked over an apparent compulsion to run them over with my car. I didn’t tell her that sometimes I stopped the car to be sure I hadn’t actually hit or run over someone. I didn’t tell her I saw a man with a knife standing outside my slider, in my backyard. He beckoned me to come outside, to tempt what may happen. I would open the glass slider and the image would disappear.
I also kept it to myself that I could see myself killing someone; that I was certain I had it in me to hurt someone I loved, because I had visualized it so many times that it felt like I already had.
While reading a self-help book to better understand the chemicals swirling in my brain and to put science and meaning behind my OCD, I learned that intrusive, uncontrollable, and obsessive thoughts were possible symptoms too. These thoughts or images are involuntary, are usually upsetting, and can turn into obsessions. Worrying about the door being locked or my alarm being set always made sense to me in terms of what I already knew about OCD, but in my reading, I learned that worrying about death, murder, and destruction can be part of OCD too. Learning this didn’t make me like these thoughts, but they helped me understand that having them didn’t make me an awful person.
That is what made, and still makes, these unwanted thoughts so miserable. I know who I am. I know I don’t want to hurt anyone. In fact, I do everything in my power to protect everyone I know, sometimes to my own detriment. Now that I have children, the images not only cause anxiety and panic but a sadness that threatens to swallow me whole. You see, my kids are sometimes part of my heavy and burdensome thoughts. I don’t just worry about them—I see my worries become realities in my mind. But understanding that these are just thoughts helps. I have accepted them as normal parts of my brain. Acceptance doesn’t always come with peace, but I allow myself to visualize what I am afraid of.
For me, pushing my thoughts away makes them worse. So I sit with them. I watch them as they slither their way through my brain, dragging actual memories through events that never took place even though they feel as real as the ones I have experienced. I breathe and sweat and ache through these fears. I remind myself they are not real. The flicker and hiss of what isn’t true taunt my sanity and break my heart. But I stay and accept that I can’t escape my fears.
Yes, I use therapy and medication to alleviate these intrusive thoughts. And yes, I fight them off with reason and truth, but I can’t deny them. I look at them and tell myself they are not real. They have never been real. My thoughts are just fears shedding their skin.
Snakes, I told my daughter. I guess I am afraid of snakes.