Embracing the Complicated Journey of Having OCD

I watched water rush over my hands as my daughter, standing beside me, looked up at my face with interest. 

She asked, “Why are you washing your hands? Were they dirty?” 

The answer was too complex for a simple yes or no, but still I said, “Yes, they were dirty.”

I knew what question was next, the dreaded inquiry of every toddler her age, “Why?”

The static sound of the water focused my thoughts, as I considered whether or not it was time to tell her about my obsessive-compulsive disorder. Why were my hands dirty?

To my daughter, my hands were obviously clean. I hadn’t played in the dirt, used the bathroom, or done anything else that suggested they needed to be washed. I didn’t know how to tell her that pulling up her pants right after she’d just used the bathroom, combined with a whole host of associations that didn’t make sense, immediately made my hands feel contaminated. To me, my hands were dirty.

In the following days, she would go on to ask me a few more times why I was washing them—sometimes warranted, sometimes not—and each time I wondered if my OCD was doing too much. I had to admit that it might be time for me to consider medication to regulate my behavior, and it felt like the final nail in the coffin for my mental health.

As a kid, I’d count the spots on the ceiling of my grandparents’ house while I laid in bed and entertained thoughts that they would die in the night, leaving me defenseless and alone. During the day, I indulged in various innocuous compulsions that slipped easily into my day-to-day routine. It worsened when I became a teenager, unable to stop myself from showering until I had washed each limb of my body a certain number of times, or until they felt “just right.” 

The rituals grew. They were mostly related to orderliness and cleanliness, but at the time, I always thought these were expressions of my perfectionism and need to be an academic achiever—lining my pens and papers up in my bag just so, and then redoing them over and over and over. I am conscientious and focused, I thought.

I have this fear that when people hear I have OCD, they will judge every single thing I do—looking at the disorder as a summation of who I am.

DW McKinney

If at any point I questioned any of my habits, I chalked them up to symptoms of stress or puberty—the need to turn the door knob a certain number of times before leaving the house, or my desire to walk in and out of rooms until I felt myself being released from some invisible force. Nothing to worry about.

It wasn’t until college that I truly suspected something was…off, but I couldn’t directly confront what was wrong with me. No one in my family talked about their mental health; that was “white people shit.” This belief followed common mental health ideologies in the Black community, coinciding with the outdated idea that mental illness was a sign of weakness—an admission that you were incapable of performing to a certain measure. This prevailed in ideas like the Strong Black Woman, which was the expectation for Black women to constantly cope with and endure social, emotional, and cultural pressures without showing any weakness. It does not allow for Black women to be fragile or ask for help. It is a concept that I alternate between embracing and dismissing in my own life today. 

It was only recently that my community and the American culture at-large began having more open conversations addressing mental health and disrupting generational stigmas. Even then, I wasn’t open about my obsessive-compulsive disorder until 2018. I wanted, and still want, to be strong. I want people to see me and know that they can depend on me. Admitting that I sometimes need to step back, take a breather, that I struggle, doesn’t (and shouldn’t) affect the perception that I am dependable. 

Yet, I have this fear that when people hear I have OCD, they will judge every single thing I do—looking at the disorder as a summation of who I am. There’s also the fear that this isn’t real; it’s made up and I am just fooling myself. But I know that’s a genuine symptom of OCD, and something I wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t recently opened myself up to a community of others just like me.

This past year, I began participating in weekly online dialogues with folks from around the world who also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s been amazing and comforting to have people validate my experiences.

 I remind myself to take it step by step, and it’s gotten easier every time.

DW McKinney

Because of the confidence that these dialogues have given me, I feel more comfortable publicly admitting my OCD and finding ways to discuss it. I still get a little nervous to speak up. Sometimes I choose to watch silently on the sidelines during the online discussions because I still can’t admit it to my peers. But I remind myself to take it step by step, and it’s gotten easier every time.

This openness is leading me to normalize my health for myself. I’m removing the stigma of mental health disorders that have been ingrained in me since childhood. I’m allowing myself to create a new normal that comes in several shades, and by doing so, I am normalizing OCD for others as well.

During a recent visit with my paternal grandparents, my Nana mentioned she’d been reading some of my recently published essays and she had no idea “that all that was going on” with me. I don’t know if she didn’t quite know how to put my OCD into words or if she couldn’t bring herself to name it, but the fact was, she acknowledged it. Nana said she wished she had known what was going on with me then, so she could’ve helped. But for now, she admits that it’s given her perspective on how to interact with one of my younger cousins who’s begun to show similar behavior as me.

I just sat there nodding, listening to what she said, but I could feel something changing inside me. I felt excited and joyful, especially because she didn’t judge me and instead met me with understanding and genuine love.

I want to get better, but I don’t want to lose that spark that makes me who I am.

DW McKinney

It was the kind of response I am hoping to receive from a therapist, should I make the big leap and seek more professional help—I’ve waited so long, the referrals in my inbox are steadily collecting digital dust. 

I know I should see a therapist, but my body seesaws between acceptance and tensing up at the thought of probing my OCD-related behavior further. But more so than my desire to be seen as normal, is a greater hesitation of taking prescribed medication to help control my disorder. It’s a viable OCD management option, but it could also change me, suppressing my personality or physical energy. 

I want to get better, but I don’t want to lose that spark that makes me who I am.

At some point, I will make the big leap and seek professional help. I have to. I’ve begun thinking about my quality of life for the next few decades and I want to make sure that I am as capable as I can be to enjoy life with my family.

For now, I am happier and more confident. I know that my OCD doesn’t completely control me. And the next time my daughter asks me Why? I won’t be ashamed or afraid to tell her what’s going on. I can let her know that despite my mental health disorder, I am the mother she’s always known—normal, imperfect, and loving all the same.

LET'S TALK: if you have OCD, how are you learning to accept and embrace your journey?