ARC Blog

What’s It Like?

Understanding Life with OCD


The short answer [to what’s it like] is “from a little annoying to sheer hell and anything in between.” I make this statement from personal experience. I’ll describe what it was like for me at its worst.

Every day, I couldn’t wait for the day to be over so I could to go to bed.  Sleep was my only relief. On awakening, I had an immediate sense of foreboding. What was the day going to be like? What new horrors were going to happen? Were my worries from yesterday, last week, and last month going to continue to haunt me? Would they ever go away?  Would there ever be any true relief from this living nightmare?

Every day, I would have to try not to look out the window accidentally and if I did, try not to look at something over and over again to figure out what it was. I’d try not to listen for any sounds out there. Was that a cry for help? Is that object off in the distance someone on the ground in desperate need of help? If I don’t go check to see what that unidentifiable thing is, I’ll never know what it really is and it will haunt me to the last moment of my life. Maybe someone died because I didn’t go out there to check. Was that a siren? Did someone find the imagined person and call an ambulance? Was the ambulance too late? This was the nightmare of hyper-responsibility for the wellbeing of others – an obsession driven by the fear of an emotion, in this case, guilt.

The other worst obsession I had went like this:

What if I touched something that was contaminated with HIV? – even just a single virus.
What if a microscopic drop of saliva containing the virus landed on my lips while someone was speaking to me who may be infected?
What if they may not even know they’re infected?
No one was exempt from my fear:
Maybe my doctor is infected; maybe my dental hygienist; maybe even my parents. I was afraid that I could get infected. I was afraid that I might already be infected even though I had absolutely no reason to believe that I was.
What if I spread the contamination?
And if I have HIV, no one will ever want to be around me; I’ll die alone.

When I first went for help, I was given the wrong diagnosis and the wrong treatment by four individuals. It wasn’t until 1984 when a young psychiatrist at New York Hospital, Michael DeMeo, got it right.   He referred me to a psychologist, also in New York City, Gordon Ball. He taught me, as he phrased it, “to become your own therapist.” In four short months, I was OCD-free! It truly seemed like a miracle.

However, it wasn’t a miracle at all – it was the result of a very simple intervention called exposure therapy.  Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great Bostonian writer of the 1800s, once stated the concept beautifully, long before it was applied in psychotherapy: “Do the thing you fear, and the death of fear is certain.” If we tweak Emerson’s phrase slightly, we get the solution to OCD: “Repeatedly do the thing that makes you feel uncomfortable and the discomfort will eventually end.”

Watch for PART II in November’s newsletter on how to apply this principle and live a life that puts OCD in the background of your life.

Alan Carriero is a retired clinical social worker who specialized in treating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  He himself experienced extreme OCD and overcame it more than 30 years ago.  He now works part-time at the Anxiety Resource Center in Grand Rapids, facilitating support groups for OCD and Anxiety Disorders.


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