Originally published 2/10/15.
I remember sitting in the corner of my bedroom last year. I had to move my laundry basket so I could nestle into the cool spot where the walls meet. I huddled there, picturing the mangled wreckage of my parents’ Peugeot, their dead bodies inside. I tried to text my mother, but she never replied. I couldn’t bear to check the news, or go on the Internet, and it felt like my phone was on fire. I was scared of what it might show me. I sat there, alone, until I heard the front door open downstairs.
My parents are not dead. They came home the way they always did, and the number I dialed to contact my mother was an old, out-of-date one. I was 24, and earlier that year I had been diagnosed with Primarily Obsessional Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, a rare type of OCD that has fewer outward compulsions than the germaphobic, line-everything-up-in-neat-rows kind you’ve heard about. For me, everything is silent and internalized. I end up trapped in a cycle of persistent and often debilitating intrusive thoughts that can torment me for days at a time.
With Primarily Obsessional OCD, grotesque images pop into your head at frequent, random intervals. On a normal day, I can walk into my kitchen, open the cutlery drawer, and wonder if someone is going to walk in and stab me to death. If I take public transportation, I become convinced that I am going to fall seriously ill during the journey and either vomit, pass out, or have an aneurysm and die. When I am walking down the street and I see two strangers passing by, regardless of their gender and sexuality, I don’t see them walking — I see them having sex on the ground, in the bushes, by their car, in every position imaginable.
Living with OCD in the digital age is especially tough. Often, I’m gripped by the fear that everyone online is leading a bigger and brighter life than I am. I once saw a friend land a dream job, and it was as if the sun went out. I couldn’t see my own goals or ambitions anymore — it was as if the only opportunity in the universe had been taken from me. Thanks to this hyper-FOMO, I have deleted Facebook, Twitter and Instagram from my phone and iPad more times than I can remember. When Facebook generated those “Year in Review” videos, my profile had so little on it that I didn’t qualify for one. For weeks at a time, I would avoid going on the computer altogether, for fear of confronting my perceived inferiority.
I don’t go to clubs and I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. As a result, whenever I thought about dating, I turned to the Internet. I had tried short bursts on Match.com and OkCupid in the past, but had no luck. Whenever I clicked on a person’s profile, all I saw were sexually explicit images of that person, and I found myself pulling away. I could never use apps like Tinder, because I was too self-conscious about my appearance. My OCD made the thought of meeting anyone offline a trigger, because I was completely convinced that they would run for the hills once they knew about my condition.
Going online is like entering a minefield for me. I can’t visit any websites with explicit sexual content, even if it’s just a spam pop-up. If I give it attention, whatever is on the screen will shape my intrusive thoughts for days. I can’t look at other peoples’ gym selfies on Instagram, because it sends me into a shame-spiral about my own skinny physique. Whenever I see new mothers holding their babies on Facebook, I wonder if they will drop them, killing the child. Often, I feel completely out of control.
But I need the Internet. I’m a writer, at work on my first novel, and I knew that I would need to publicize myself online if I wanted the career I had always dreamed of having. So slowly, I’ve convinced myself to return.
These days, I wake up around 8 a.m., eat breakfast, and use Headspace, a mobile app that helps you to train your mind and to learn effective meditation techniques. (Meditation helps with anxiety, and when anxiety is reduced in OCD, so are the intrusive thoughts.) I allow myself an hour to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, post to my blog and reply to e-mails before I start writing at 10am. From that point on, I don’t touch social media until 5 p.m.
Once I am working, I make lists of everything down that I need to do, using Pinterest and the notes app on my phone. I also organize the apps on my devices by subject in folders. For people with OCD, it’s especially important to stay organized because it creates a sense of completeness and keeps the anxiety from beginning. When your mind is too jumbled, you forget things, and when you forget things, you start to think about what else you have probably forgotten, and how that makes you a bad person, and irresponsible and…well, you get the idea.
OCD isn’t all bad for me. Professionally, I certainly haven’t suffered from the attention to detail, or the desire to stay well-organized. But other times, even my successes have been drowned out by obsessive thoughts. In 2014, I successfully finished work on my first feature film, “27, Memory Lane,” which I wrote, produced and directed with a budget of £15,000 that I raised through crowdfunding. Shortly after I wrapped principal photography, the ground gave way beneath me. I was incredibly nervous, not just about finishing the film, but promoting it online. I was publicizing a very different image of myself than the crumbling, OCD-afflicted wreck I felt like inside.
But I am getting better today, thanks to the steps I have taken to organize my mind and calm my fears. While writing my novel, I am seeing the familiar psychic pitfalls, but I’m passing them by. I even returned to OkCupid and met somebody who is helping me grow more every day.
Technology is a lot like food. Once you find a diet that suits you, you can pretty much eat however much you want. But finding that diet can be hard, and drowning out the voices of doubt in your head while plowing ahead toward your goal is even harder.