Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Childhood OCD

Having recently heard and read about others' experiences with having OCD as a child, I wanted to write a bit more about my own experiences growing up with the disorder. I have wanted to share these experiences for a while now, especially because these stories from my childhood are the ones that I have talked about the least, since my therapy and exposure work focuses largely on my current symptoms. But as I have alluded to before, I have had experience with different types of fears - different obsessions and different compulsions to accompany them. Some of these fears lasted for only a short while. Others gained momentum, took over my life, and then gradually faded away over the years. And then there are still others whose tyrannical legacy lives on to this day - obsessions and compulsions that are not my primary problem right now, but which wait in the background to be tackled as I overcome my most recent OCD issues.

As I begin to write, I am realizing that I feel a lot of pressure right now to do this post "right" since I don't have a chance to talk about these experiences much. However, I will do my best to just go with it and not worry so much about whether I have reported my memories "correctly" or the way I wanted to. One of the many benefits of writing this blog is that, for once, I feel free to write without doing so "perfectly." There are no grades. There are no evaluations. There is nothing I have to turn in. It's sort of like a little experiment - a trial in seeing what it is like to write without being so concerned about how the end result will be judged. So far, I am enjoying the results :). So off I go!

The first major "episode" of OCD in my life reared its now-so-recognizable head in first grade, when I was only six or seven. I remember other exaggerated fears and avoidance that occurred around that time, but I am not sure exactly where they fell in my OCD timeline - if they came before or after this clearly defined example of my OCD. Nevertheless, I'll go with this first clear example to kick-off my journey down childhood-OCD memory lane.

This first episode was the classic contamination/hand-washing duo. I was afraid of germs and of getting sick. And when I learned about those dangerous invisible foes that lurked all around our world, when I learned about how they could cause disease and even death, things we did on a regular basis no longer made sense to me.

For example, why did we touch sink handles before washing our hands to remove the germs only to touch the same "contaminated" sink handles again right after washing? I didn't understand. I remember trying to find other ways to turn the water on and off at that time so as not to re-contaminate my hands as soon as I had washed. Often I used tissues to turn the water off and therefore avoid getting the "germs" back on my hands. I was terrified and my dry, red, and scaly hands were a testament to that fear! How did people go about their daily lives without being constantly aware of the threat of germs, without constantly being aware of the possibility of contracting a disease and dying? Other kids seemed to naively float about their worlds, unaware of germs, unaware of the constant threat of death...

Much of this time period is fuzzy to me now (which is probably for the best!), but there are a few incidents that stick out:
  • Lunchtime rituals. I remember one day at lunch asking one of the lunch monitors if I could go to the bathroom. She gave me permission and I headed off to the wash my hands. I remember washing, being almost done, and then accidentally touching part of the sink, and starting over. Then I would realize there was a piece of hair sticking to my hand. I would start over again. For one reason or another, I would start over and over and over again, until I was finally able to escape back to the cafeteria. However, I must have been gone for a while, because, upon my return, the lunch monitor who had given me permission in the first place looked concerned. She asked me if I was feeling alright, if I was sick. I told her no, but felt incredibly ashamed and embarrassed! My behavior was attracting attention, attention I didn't want! I certainly wasn't about to admit what was really going on...
  • Spying. I attended daycare at this time in my life, where there were some lovely bathrooms for all the kids. I remember washing my hands in these restrooms and being nervous that someone would catch my erratic washing routine. Or, in order to try to remember how I had washed my hands "before," I would try to surreptitiously spy on other kids as they that germs suddenly seemed to be everywhere, I couldn't remember how I had washed and when, before I became so acutely fearful.
  • The "bathroom bunny" and I - best pals. In order to go to the restroom in first grade we had the "bathroom bunny" system. If you wanted to go to the restroom, you had to get the appropriate bathroom bunny (there was a little boy bunny and a little girl bunny) and set it on your desk so the teacher would know who was in the restroom and when. Needless to say, the bathroom bunny and I became close friends. I would feel the need to wash my hands and up I went to grab that little wooden rabbit figurine dressed in pink and set her on my desk. Sometimes I became very self-conscious of how familiar I was with Miss Bathroom Bunny. I began to wonder if others noticed - the teacher or other students - how frequently she was to be found on my desk. I didn't want anyone to ask any questions...I wanted to hide my problem. The last thing I wanted was to get in trouble and have to explain my constant need to go the the restroom...
  • Smelly lotion. Finally, I also remember the state of my hands. As I mentioned, they were dry, red, and scaly from my excessive washing habits. I think this is what eventually clued my parents in to my problem. When I asked my mom recently what she remembers about that period in my life, I believe she said that she recalled the state of my hands, as well as how she was unsure of how long I had been at my strange behaviors before she and my dad figured out that something was wrong. When she did begin to notice, my mom would apply this yellow gel-like vitamin E lotion to the cracked skin on my dry little hands. Of course, I was not concerned about the fact that my hands were in bad shape nearly as much as I was concerned about the fact that that lotion SMELLED GROSS. I hated it. And I hated that my mom put it on my hands. All I wanted to do was to hide my washing and hide my chapped skin so that no one would intervene in my washing behaviors and no one would smother my hands in nasty lotion.
Looking back, I can now understand and appreciate my parents' attempts to intervene, though I'm not sure the strategies they employed were the most helpful. They did relieve my symptoms in the short-term, but I still knew nothing of OCD or how my behavior only served to increase my fear. Then again, at that time OCD treatment was still evolving, and effective strategies for dealing with obsessive fears and compulsive behaviors were still young and not so well known. I remember my parents sternly telling me to "stop that!" - to touch the sink handles with my clean fingers, to stop using tissues to turn off the water, and to stop asking if it was okay to touch this or that and not wash. That last part, not answering my questions, whether my parents really realized it or not, was essentially denying me reassurance - the fuel that keeps the OCD alive. By essentially denying me the answers to my questions when I began to ask too many and too frequently, they were forcing me to sit with the anxiety until it diminished. That, and their stern admonishing when I engaged in avoidance behaviors related to my fears, probably created a sort of rudimentary form of ERP for fighting my OCD.

However, because I was still unaware of how my behaviors and my reassurance-seeking served to heighten my anxiety, I may have gotten better, but I didn't learn how to fight OCD. Thus, I may have recovered from that particular OCD period of my life, but I was really no better equipped to fight my cleverly morphing enemy in the long run. So when he came back again, cloaked in the disguise of a new fear, I was unprepared to fight back...

And that is where I will stop for now! I will save more of my childhood battles with OCD for another day.

I'm curious...did those of you with OCD experience symptoms as a child? If you did, how did you handle it? Did others know? Were you diagnosed? Did you receive treatment? I'm interested to hear about others' experiences!


  1. I experienced OCD symptoms as a child. I remember feeling like I had to touch certain things. I did not like to pet animals and if I did pet my own dog I would wash my hands with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol to get all the germs off. I didn't try to hide it. They just thought I didn't like germs. I don't think anyone thought much of it at all. I didn't either then.

  2. It's funny you mention the bathroom bunny. I hadn't thought of this in years. All through school (elementary-high school), we had a pass that we had to take with us to the bathroom so that if another teacher saw us in the hall, they'd know what we were up to. Anyway, I remember having a really hard time with those passes. People took them into the bathroom with them and there were no clean options of where top place it. It either went on the floor, the sanitary trash thing (*cringe*) or a sink or something. I felt so dirty having to carry those damn passes. Then I'd wash my hands and have to carry the gross pass back to class. I had no idea at the time that it was OCD. I figured everyone was as grossed out by it as I was.

    My mom figured out something was up because when I touched something, I would touch it 3 more times (because I needed things to be done in 4s). Also, when walking, sometimes I would just feel not right, so I would spin around once really quickly and keep walking. My mom says I did this when crossing thresholds (like from carpet to hardwood flooring or from tile to carpet or something). She thought I had tourette syndrome.

  3. When I was 8 or 9, I started fearing the sensation of having a full bladder at bedtime, and that I wouldn't be able to sleep. I'd keep jumping out of the bed to go to the bathroom, even though there wasn't anything left in my bladder, and of course then I couldn't fall asleep because of focusing on the sensations, and walking to and from the bathroom.

  4. Kim - I went through periods of time when I didn't like touching pets, as well, and when I did, I ALWAYS made sure to wash my hands afterward. I was told this was the sanitary thing to do, and because I was told I should, I felt like I had to and was very concerned with making sure I did. Though this never, in and of itself, became a full-blown OCD episode, it was probably a warning sign of my susceptibility!

    Elly - I, too, struggled with passes or objects or whatever teachers made students' take when they went to the restroom! I always thought it was strange how you had to take this thing into the restroom with you, touch it before washing your hands, and then touch it afterward, as well. Sometimes this really bothered me; other times I just observed this fact and was reminded of all the strange little inconsistencies we have in life that most people didn't seem to stop and consider. I still thought it was gross, but was able to accept, at least for a while, that that was just the way the world worked!

    I also had to touch certain things and certain times when my OCD got really bad. But that's part of a bigger, much longer story!

    Expwoman - I'm not sure I have ever had that sort of obsession, but I have certainly read about that sort of concern before in various OCD books. It sounds exhausting - not only are you having to perform the compulsions, but you are also losing sleep in the process.

    As a kid, I do remember having fears about possibly having had an accident and not realizing it. As a result, I was often paying too much attention to sensations from that part of my body, which in turn made me frequently feel like maybe one had actually occurred. It could make me very uncomfortable and self-conscious!

    I never thought of this as part of OCD before, but I suppose even if it didn't become a bigger and bigger problem over time, it was a sign of my susceptibility to over-attending and checking.



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