How taking an SSRI for OCD changed my life.

This item is a co-publishing of Public square of the base And Mindseta partnership between Slate and Arizona State University focused on mental health coverage. Follow the mood on Twitter.

I’ve had OCD for as long as I can remember. My parents just didn’t know what to call it. I sounded like an average worrier. No go-karts for me at birthday parties and no rides at Disney outside of “It’s a Small World” (which now looks scarier than any roller coaster because of the singing animatronics). I refused to learn to ride a bike. I got my driver’s license but I haven’t driven a car since I was 18. There are few things more humiliating than having to ask your mom to take you to town for a bagel in your late twenties.

A frantic narrator ruled my inner monologue, and I had, until recently, resigned myself to letting her monopolize the microphone. But then, a year ago, I decided to try something I had never even considered before: medication. I had done years of cognitive behavioral therapy, but it didn’t get me far. I felt like Sisyphus, only the rock was my mental illness and the top of the hill was the fully realized version of myself making stew for his friends without worrying about accidentally poisoning them. Now, on medication, I feel like I’m finally getting to know myself for the first time. My head is clear. I never thought I needed an SSRI, but now that I’m taking one I can’t believe I’ve been through so much before. And I can’t believe how much my friends missed stew.

The compulsions came while I was in college. I became obsessed with my health and possible contamination, especially infections and illnesses through open wounds. I wiped my body with alcohol swabs every day, even when I didn’t have any cuts, just in case I couldn’t see them. My skin has probably had more contact with the alcohol than my tongue. Of course, I went to parties, but I would have had panic attacks if someone had touched me with their elbow.

And then in 2015, while at home on Long Island for spring break (I was very cool), I was presented with my biggest fear: a real medical emergency. A pain in my lower abdomen that I assumed was gas – my mom tried to burp me thinking it was trapped – turned out to be appendicitis. An exploding appendix isn’t really something you can avoid, so I got my first taste of exposure therapy that day. And did I mention the day was March 15? Yes, the Ides of March. The universe has specialized in English, I see.

My body, my safety, my health – those things I was obsessed with – were out of my control and in the hands of the hospital. OCD tricks you into thinking you can protect yourself with an ironclad grip on your reality, but you can’t. You can’t control everything. Much like New York, you can play with your radiator all you want, but ultimately your building controls the heat. So there I was, rolled into the operating room with no choice but to let go. The anesthesia helped too.

When I woke up in the recovery room, I was greeted with apple juice and a realization: I was fine. I would be constipated for the next seven days, tricking my aunt into lighting a candle in a church for me, but I was fine! Well, well in the immediate sense. Soon after, I would go through a few months of intense cognitive-behavioral therapy—walking the streets of Manhattan touching doorknobs and trash under the supervision of a medical professional. Then I had a few good years where OCD was in check: I started dating the man who is now my husband, I graduated from college, I went to Guy’s Mt. Pocono Kitchen Proud. I was on top of the world.

Until the OCD came back quietly. Gradually trying to get rid of the fruit flies in my apartment turned into hours of cleaning and inspecting the bugs. Then we had a global pandemic where people were shopping at Clorox, and I became even more obsessed with sanitizing. I washed my hands 30 times in a row after touching an “outside world” jacket just in case I didn’t wash them properly on the 28th and 29th time. When we found out that COVID was mainly spread through airborne droplets, it was too late for me. Handwashing had already spread to compulsions that had nothing to do with the virus. Every drawer had to be closed in my apartment. I had to check my carbon monoxide detector dozens of times before going to sleep. My studio where I was 24/7 with my husband became a sound stage for my TOC. A petri dish for my behaviors.

I could feel my brain shorting out when I tried to accomplish even simple tasks like getting dressed…I definitely washed them pants, right? Maybe I didI didn’t do laundry yesterday and I imagined it. Best to put them in the dirty basket. Every moment of my day, I was beholden to my compulsions. So I finally agreed to start meds after long conversations with my mum, sister and best friend all of whom stepped in independently of each other and that’s when you know it’s very severe.

I was afraid to take medicine. I didn’t want to introduce another variable into my life. It just seemed like OCD was part of me. I felt like I had to get out of it. I will soon be my normal self, I kept saying. I believed in medicine for other people, but convinced myself that my OCD “wasn’t bad enough” to warrant it. I always had a hard time admitting that I needed help. But I had to let go, like I did the day I said goodbye to my appendix.

When you have OCD, it’s like everything is setting off a fire alarm. The people you love can tell you there’s no fire all they want, but when the alarm is still ringing in your head, all you can focus on is getting away from it. building on fire, except what I was trying to escape was the can of soup that was sure to give me botulism.

But now that I’m on medication, the fire alarm is quieter. My SSRI – which psychiatrists often prescribe for OCD – allows me to sit with the discomfort of not satisfying a compulsion. It makes obsessive thoughts less sticky. I can finally go about my day and take care of normal things now, like, do i look weird in this hat?

After a year of treatment, I would be lying if I said I still haven’t checked the stove or the front door lock, but that no longer controls my life. Now I can actually enjoy a restaurant with my husband without thinking about a crumb in the front guest seat. And I’m so grateful to my husband, my parents, my sisters and my friends for being so involved in my life and noticing when something was wrong. Now I have come to know the Katherine who has been buried under her buzzing thoughts for so long. The Katherine who loves to travel, who loves to cook, to explore, to see, to touch, to experience life and who, perhaps—after a few lessons from the Bell Auto School—will love conduct.

State of Mind is a partnership between Slate and Arizona State University that offers practical insight into our mental health system and how to improve it.

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