For many people with OCD it seems like OCD appeared at a very young age, but it was several years before getting a diagnosis and beginning treatment. I follow this same pattern. I can only approximate when my OCD began, but my best guess would be that it was putting itself together through elementary school and was well-formed by junior high and high school. Now that I know I have OCD I find it quite interesting to think back on the intrusive thoughts and compulsions I remember quite vividly from childhood. It’s like a giant “ohhhhhhhhhhh…that’s why,” just a decade later.
What I’ve noticed from reflecting back on my own early signs of OCD, and from hearing of other’s experiences, is that the scariness of these thoughts was not dulled down just because we were kids. Most weren’t spared the immensely frightening and disturbing thoughts that can come with OCD (such as the fear of hurting others) in favor of more typical childhood-like fears (getting nervous when in the dark.) Although my OCD has changed over time and intrusive thoughts bother me less right now, I want to tell the story of one of my earliest memories of an intrusive thought. Perhaps it can demonstrate how gruesome the OCD fears can be, even in young children.
It happened on a trip to Disney World. (I’m guessing I may have been somewhere between 8 and 11 years old.) Just like any other little kid I loved Disney World. It’s magical and exciting and oh so fun. Of course though some rides are scarier than others and little kids don’t always go on the biggest rides. You’ll never guess though at the end of that trip what had become the most-anxiety provoking ride for me. The Tower of Terror? Space Mountain?
Oh no. It was the innocent and peaceful Peter Pan’s Flight. In this ride you get in a car that looks like a boat and hangs from the ceiling. You “fly” around through the scenes from the Peter Pan movie. It’s beautiful. I have always been a fairly curious person, interested in noticing the details of rides or how they worked. At one point in the ride I remember there was a giant volcano. I was curious as to how they had made/painted it so I leaned ever so slightly in my seat (and I mean barely a few inches, nowhere close to falling out) so I could get a glimpse of the inside of the volcano, and then BAM! Every muscle froze. My eyes glazed over and it felt as though my heart had stopped, though it could feel it racing in my chest. A terrifying thought had come from out of nowhere and was now glued into my brain on repeat. The thought? Perhaps I hadn’t leaned because I was curious. Perhaps I had leaned because I wanted to fall out and I wanted to commit suicide.
I felt betrayed by my own thoughts. I was a happy little kid. I didn’t want to die, let alone inflict this upon myself. This made me feel so scared that I had had such a dark and violent thought. Not only was the thought now stuck in my mind but I also now had to replay the event over and over in my head trying to make myself believe with certainty my motivation for leaning was purely curiosity. Over and over I replayed what had happened on the ride and spent hours trying to reason with myself and convince myself I wasn’t suicidal. This went on continually for hours, and still popped up for a few more hours in the days that followed.
Years later I can reflect back on this and see clearly that this was an intrusive thought caused by OCD and the replaying of the event was the compulsion. But at the time I had no idea and was of course so scared by my thoughts I told no one. I have been trying to figure out why I, along with so many others, waited so long to tell others about our odd fears and compulsions and perhaps this is one reason. We are terrified by the seriousness of our thoughts and simply don’t know what to do with them or how to even ask for help. It also makes me wonder what we can do in the future to help kids realize they can share these thoughts with adults they trust and that they can get help. I believe one solution is that children should go to mental health checkups just as they go to physical checkups. Maybe we could catch the signs of mental illness sooner and decrease the length of suffering before starting treatment. I first heard about this idea from a Howie Mandel interview and I think it is a wonderful idea.
I would love to hear others’ stories of their early memories of their OCD or other mental health problems, if anyone feels comfortable sharing. I find it very helpful to think about and process my memory of this event rather than keeping it bottled up indefinitely and maybe others would also find this useful. Also, hopefully telling this story can continue to show the truly serious and utterly terrifying nature of OCD, even for little kids.
P.S. I still love Disney World.
NOTE: Having a fear of being suicidal as part of OCD is very different than actually being suicidal. If you are feeling suicidal please tell someone you trust, call 911 (the emergency service in your country), or call a hotline.
US: 1 (800) 273-8255 http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/