By: Maheshwari Rajesh
Disclaimer: This is my story. Whatever I talk about applies to me, but may vary from person-to-person. Understand that my personal opinion is my truth—not necessarily yours.
I've always been the kind of kid who overthinks things, who spends too much time mulling over the trivial aspects of life. I would get excited about a new idea and dive into it headfirst: From magic tricks to recycling, these were impermanent stages in my life, temporary obsessions and hobbies which never lasted more than a few months.
But, in my late elementary school years, that brevity changed.
At the time, I was experiencing some family health issues, making a huge part of my life seem out of my control. This fueled an incessant need to cling on to something, anything that could anchor me in that period of despair and desolation, and I found germaphobia.
This, like most things, started small—an extra squirt of hand sanitizer here and there to “be safe" or a prolonged shower so I could “feel clean”. Yet unlike what I initially thought, my flames of irrational fear didn't go away. Instead, the more I fanned them, the stronger they grew.
Thanks to my OCD (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) I began noticing people too, driving myself crazy with what they were doing. My thoughts spiraled (They touched this, which touched that, which touched me, making me dirty) and I was on high alert, acting like the germ police, making sure that nothing “dirty" ever touched me—and if it did, I’d cleansed myself soon after. At school, this was all in my head, though it didn’t take long before I began to lay down the law at home.
I created “rules" for my family to follow and forced them to practice my stifling ideal, all in hopes to ensure that they were as “safe” as I was. But in reality, I often made their lives a living nightmare. I banned school things—which I thought were “dirty”—from touching home things. This included notebooks, iPads, backpacks—everything had to be wiped before it could touch something that was “clean".
Looking back, it’s not as if I wanted to do it—I felt like I had to. My mind was split into two: my rational self and my other twisted, paranoid self (which for this article's sake I'll call “The Voice"). Like two wolves battling for turf, these two halves of me waged an ongoing war in my mind, and I was the collateral damage. The side that ended up winning more often than not was, you guessed it, "The Voice".
But why? Why did I succumb to "The Voice" when I knew it was wrong?
Simply put, I listened because it gave me relief. “The Voice” was incredibly charismatic and convincing, striving to make me believe that doing something irrational would make me feel healthy and safe; it was like a guilty conscience that nagged me even when I was innocent. When "The Voice" thought something was dirty, it made me feel like I had an unscratchable itch, which could only be cured by caving in. Listening became a shortcut to feeling better; complying became an addiction to soothe my worries. That was the only thing that seemed to provide me with a semblance of relief—temporary relief, but relief nonetheless.
Even though fighting it seemed like I was only delaying the inevitable, some days I felt healthy, ready to try and take on "The Voice". I attempted to ignore it, bury it in my mind so deep that, hopefully, it wouldn't resurface. Sometimes this worked—my day might have been crazy enough that I just forgot about it. But that was a stroke of luck in a game of chance. In general, no matter how loud I protested, "The Voice" was always louder.
I was painfully aware of what I was doing wrong, but I couldn’t stop: It was like watching myself trip over that same thing over and over again but being unable to do anything about it. And it was maddening, not because it was simply annoying, but because at that point in my life, I’d never felt farther from my true self—the person I used to be before this whole ordeal. I thought I lost myself, making the idea of recovery for me seem more and more ludicrous by the day.
Moreover, I wasn’t the only one hurting. Second-hand OCD also caused a tremendous amount of hopelessness and pain to my family as well. When asked about it, my mother said, “It was hard to stand by and watch her struggle, not knowing what was going on. It was unprecedented in our family." Due to the stigma towards mental health in the Indian community, there was this idea that having a mental problem made you “flawed”. Talking about mental illness was taboo, and since the topic wasn’t adequately discussed, I felt like I was the only one going through problems in my “perfect community”. This also meant that because my family didn’t know of anyone else who had suffered from OCD, when it came to recovery, they were as lost as me.
So, they made a game plan, deciding to try different tactics: my parents obeyed me and my sister defied me. The former momentarily pacified me while the latter enraged me. But this was a conundrum my family couldn't solve—a painful, real-life mystery. “The more we helped, the worse it got, but if we didn't follow her rules there was still a price to pay. No one knew what to do," confessed my mother.
Thankfully, when my family realized that they couldn't do anything, they took me to someone who could. While I recognized the rational benefits of therapy at the time, I'd spent so long hiding this part of myself from nearly everyone in my life that I was apprehensive of spilling my story and problems to a random stranger. Yet, though things were rough at first, therapy turned out to be one of my best decisions I’d ever made, opening my eyes to what I was going though. I quickly learned that a great way for me to fight my OCD was to actively distance myself from it (that's why I've been calling it "The Voice"), and realize it's like a junk mailer: sending me spam and seeing if I'd react. It was taunting me, and I had to find a way to trick the system.
That meant I had first to think small.
Like a video game, I needed to fight the smaller enemies, before tackling the boss. Only then could I build my skills and resilience in order to fight more effectively. And along with that also came another skill I learned—the ability to fool “The Voice". The key was that even if I listened to “The Voice” when it told me to clean things, I didn’t have to do it in the way it wanted me to—I achieved the end goal, but did it through different methods. This proved that even indirectly following it was still an act of defiance; it gave me a fighting chance, and I took it.
Needless to say, after a while, I sometimes forgot "The Voice" was even there. I came from using one travel-size hand sanitizer per day to one per semester. I was amazed with myself—I'd never thought that recovery was in the cards, yet there it stood before me. I became more confident because, for the first time in my life, I could genuinely ask myself, “What do I want?" and be able to do it, no questions asked. "The Voice" would still whisper into my ear every once in a while, but I’d learned to let it blur into the background. I ghosted my OCD, and, eventually, it stopped calling back.
But even though I recovered, this wasn't the end of all the problems my family and I faced. “This isn't something any of us could just walk away from," my sister had told me, and she was right: sometimes I know “The Voice" wants to try crawling through the mental walls I've built in my mind. The reason why it's so smart is that it goes through different channels—it knows it can't use germaphobia anymore, but it knows there's other tactics. OCD comes in numerous types, leaving various avenues for "The Voice" to potentially slip through. However, I'm not afraid. I know how to confront my demons, even if I know I can never fully erase the scars they’ve given me. And honestly, that’s okay. As a person, I've come to understand that there’s a little OCD in all of us—what matters is how we choose to handle it. I overcame this illness, making me a fighter and a survivor.
My battle with OCD transformed me into a mental health advocate, leading me down a long and beautiful road that I might’ve never found before. I've become more empathetic and compassionate, able to understand others’ pain better after having gone through my own. My experiences have taught me that the one universal constant in all of our lives is not just suffering, but also hope. We all face issues; what matters most is what we learn from them and how we use that pain to help us grow. That’s why I can't get caught up in what happened in the past when I have the future to look forward to. After all, my OCD didn't break me—it made me stronger than I ever was before.