In retrospect, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was glaringly obvious. In grade 11, I remember sitting outside my bedroom at 2 am, wrapped in my blanket, trying desperately to stay awake so that I could keep an eye out for potential flames through the crack of my parents’ door. In grade 12, I walked home from school to make sure that the hair dryer was off; I hadn’t even used it that morning, but I had spent first period trying not to cry as I became convinced that my house would burn down.
The late slips piled up as the year wore on: I was spending more and more time frozen on my porch, checking the doorknob to make sure it was locked, before finally getting to my first class sweaty and nauseated. At night, I would stand statue-like in my kitchen, staring at the knobs on the stove, trying to convince myself that they were off. I’d stick my hand in the oven to make sure it didn’t feel hot, and I’d grow increasingly agitated as the anxiety bubbled up inside me, unable to complete my rituals as long as I was being distracted by images of my family dying.
The harder I worked to assuage my fears and quiet my mind, the more complicated and time-consuming the rituals became. I started doing things precise numbers of times, and redoing everything that didn’t feel ‘right’. Every time I developed a new strategy, the illness would claim it for itself, twisting it until it became another ritual instead. That’s the thing about OCD: no matter how much you give it, it takes even more. The only way to beat it is to starve it.
I started taking Zoloft shortly after my eighteenth birthday, and began Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) concurrently with my first semester of university. I did not go willingly – my mom told me that she would withdraw her payment of my tuition if I didn’t get help. As it often does, OCD had invited its buddy Depression to join the party, and they were trashing the place. I was irritable and prone to fits of unpredictable rage. More concerning, I was becoming increasingly reluctant to leave the house, and she reasonably predicted that I wouldn’t be able to get myself to class if I kept following that trajectory. I was furious and felt like I was backed into a corner, but now I recognize that she was demonstrating tough love that day, and I could not be more thankful. The prospect of CBT was terrifying to me, and I definitely needed that push.
I sat in Dr. O’Neill’s chair with trembling hands and a mouth full of cotton as I explained my disorder – my obsessions, my compulsions, and the inordinate amounts of time they were consuming. She helped me create a plan to combat my OCD, explaining that I was going to have to learn to live with uncertainty and anxiety – “nobody can feel anxious forever; it will eventually have to dissipate” – and that we would build up from the least anxiety-provoking scenarios to the most. As much as I hated my compulsions and recognized their irrationality, there was still a part of me convinced that they were the only thing standing between my family and disaster. Working to defeat them felt like putting my parents and sister in deliberate danger, and this did not appeal to me at all. Regardless, I did the challenges one by one, ripping myself away from the stove and the door long before I was convinced it was safe to do so. And surprisingly enough, nobody died and my house remained standing even without me to ensure it.
Fast-forward four years, and here I am, finishing my degree and leaving my house unencumbered by fear. I would never say that my OCD is ‘cured’ or that I have ‘beaten’ it; it is likely something I will struggle with for my entire life. However, it is in remission and I am now equipped with the tools I need to keep it in check. I have the occasional relapse, but I know what the warning signs are, and I can make an appointment with Dr. O’Neill before it gets out of my control.
I appreciate every day how fortunate I am to have supportive, understanding parents and a father who works for the government: his health plan provided me with the resources to receive CBT, the cost of which would otherwise have been prohibitive. Not everyone who struggles with mental illness is so lucky. For a lot of people, the cost of mental health care and the stigma associated with mental illness present insurmountable obstacles in pursuing treatment. I hope that by dragging mental illness out of the shadows and bringing it into the spotlight of public discourse, this can change. You’ve probably heard the statistic about 1 in 5 Canadians being affected by mental illness. If each of us shares our stories, then who can possibly ignore it?
 Not her real name
Chava Saunders is a recent graduate from Ryerson University’s Psychology program. She will be starting her Master’s degree in the fall. When she isn’t repeatedly checking her doorknobs, she enjoys documentaries, cycling, and Reddit. Chava Saunders is a pseudonym.