In His Own Words: Living With Obsessive-compulsive Disorder
Robert is a 69-year-old stockbroker. Although he first felt something was wrong in kindergarten, he wasn’t diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder until 1969. He has not let obsessive thoughts control his life. He has served in the military, married, raised two daughters, and has enjoyed a successful career. Here, he shares his frustrations with and triumphs over the disorder.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
Back in 1937, I began to notice a necessity to repeat things. I kept saying over and over, “Now I’m five. Now I’m five.” At about 8 or 10, I started to do rituals and repetitive things and became fearful in social situations. The obsessive thoughts lead you to do rituals as an antidote to the anxiety they create. I didn’t want anyone to see me doing the rituals, so I didn’t want to be around people.
It was hard concentrating in school, because the obsessive thoughts kept grabbing my attention. I had to reread sentences in a book twice. I kept counting up and down. I knocked on every desk in the classroom. I kept thinking something dreadful was going to happen.
The first time I was terrorized by the thoughts was in 1940. I saw my grandmother and mother baking a chocolate cake, and they handed me a cake knife and said I could taste the chocolate. It was exquisite, but this intrusive, uncontrollable thought came into my mind, saying to pick up the knife and stab someone. I ran from the room and put my head between my brother’s and my bed, trying to make a vice that would keep the thought away. I never told my parents about my thoughts and rituals. I was afraid they would think I was crazy.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
When I was 37, I told my doctor about the thoughts. He suggested I see a psychiatrist, who gave me a test. All my symptoms were listed on it, even looking at a knife and wanting to hurt someone. He said I had a severe case of OCD.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
I thought it was great that millions of people had what I had. A lot of them never talk about it. I studied everything about OCD.
How is your disease treated? How do you manage your disease?
I’m on a small dose of antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. With OCD, you can get depression and anxiety at the same time. I was diagnosed before there was behavior therapy. I developed my own behavior therapy and devised ways to stop doing rituals. For example, to ignore cracks in the sidewalk, I started to touch the crack with the tip of my shoe. Then I slowly moved my foot over the crack. One day I stamped on it, and it felt so good. I came up with an idea to use an obsession to fight an obsession. To stop checking if the lights were out, I repeated, “the lights are off” five times and refused to let myself go back to check.
The thoughts still go around. I call them the OC demons. There is no cure, but I don’t have to react and do the rituals. I have to work at it and have trained myself not to pay attention to the thoughts. I use humor. I change my thinking to something else, something beautiful. Spirituality helps. I’ve become more prayerful.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to your illness?
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
A year and a half ago, I went to my first support group meeting. I thought I had accomplished a lot on my own, but the members made me see things I didn’t realize.
Did/does your condition have any impact on your family?
I didn’t get married until I was 40. I always wanted kids and decided my social fears were keeping me from finding a lovely person. She gave me two wonderful daughters. I still had a few rituals when we married and was taking medication. My wife comes to the support group, and last summer, we went to an OCD convention.
What advice would you give to anyone living with this disease?
OCD is not your fault. You are a good person who may get terrible thoughts. You can overcome the rituals. Fight it and never give up.
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.