As a young woman with schizoaffective disorder, social anxiety disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hallucinations and delusions are something that I discuss a lot. Usually, symptoms of schizophrenia, depression and anxiety are in the forefront of my life. Those are the things I write about. Those are the things I’m hoping to improve when I exercise, meditate, or choose something healthier to eat. I don’t watch scary movies. I don’t read horror novels. I monitor what goes into my body and mind in an attempt to control my hallucinations and delusions. I try to hang out with new people even when it’s scary. I try to be more outgoing, talking on the phone even when I don’t feel like it. These are all things I do to try to help my social anxiety and schizoaffective disorder.
I’m really open about my schizophrenia, despite the stigma that movies and books create when they portray us as serial killers or people unable to fit in with society. If you could see me, you’d never know that I have schizophrenia. I’m a short girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. I look innocent, ordinary. And I’m not ashamed of my schizophrenia. Sometimes I think people are trying to kill me. Sometimes I think I’m dead. Sometimes I think my boyfriend isn’t real. But none of that embarrasses me. I discuss everything openly and honestly. Everything except my OCD…
When I was younger, I would wash my hands until they bled. I’d open a door and then shut it over and over until it felt just right. I would jump forward, then backward, hoping to even the universe out. If I went through a tunnel, then I thought I’d been transported to a parallel universe. Everything looked the same but felt different. My sister wasn’t my sister. She was fake, an imposter. She might even want to kill me. So I’d inch my way back through tunnels and hula hoops, walking backward over hopscotches and through mazes. All of that was annoying, sometimes stressful but I don’t have any problem talking about that. I don’t have any problem talking about the compulsion to wash my hands or step backward over this or that to make sure the earth didn’t collapse in on itself. Sure, maybe it’s a little odd. But I’m not ashamed of that aspect of my OCD. What I’m ashamed of isn’t something I do. It’s what I think.
Most people know about the common compulsions people with OCD have. Most people have heard of the fear of germs or rearranging the sock drawer until it’s just right. Those things aren’t embarrassing, at least not to me. Especially because some people are just really clean or they like having their things organized. Some people don’t have OCD. They just like order in their life. But me? I have OCD. And despite how much I’ve gotten better, there is still something that I haven’t talked much about, something that I haven’t gotten much relief from, something that I’m secretly afraid makes me a bad person: intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts are unpleasant or unwanted thoughts that you can’t seem to get out of your head. When I was younger, maybe eight years old, most of my intrusive thoughts were related to religion. I thought I was going to hell. A voice in my head would say, “I love Satan.” And I would shake my head back and forth, holding my breath, trying to make the bad thoughts stop. It wasn’t true.
I was eight years old, pleading with God, trying to explain that it wasn’t me thinking that. And no matter how long I held my breath or shook my head, the thought was still there. I couldn’t deny its presence and the anxiety it induced. As I grew older, my intrusive thoughts became more violent. When I was a teenager, I gripped my doctor’s arm, asking him desperately why I kept seeing images of me killing my mother. I was in tears. I loved my mom and couldn’t understand why the thoughts kept appearing in my head. The images flashed in my mind, over and over again, distracting me in class or while I was trying to eat dinner. I would lose my train of thought in conversations because the images in my head were so terrifying, so gruesome. Was I a murderer? There was a part of me that feared deep down that I did want to kill my mother. Why else was the thought in my head? When I told the doctor my fears, he laughed, saying I was probably just frustrated with my mother. I’m sure he was right but at the time, laughing at me being afraid that I was going to kill my mother was not helpful.
Now, as an adult, my intrusive thoughts are not only violent but sexual. For about six months now, I’ve been seeing images of my boyfriend cheating on me. When we’re apart, the painful images are like a never-ending movie. I can’t focus. I can’t watch TV. I can’t enjoy spending time with my friends because I keep seeing images of my boyfriend cheating on me, over and over again. It’s exhausting trying to push the images out of my head, to try to focus on reading or watching a movie. My boyfriend has given me no indication that he’s cheating. He’s even reassured me time and time again. But my mind won’t listen. So I just stopped telling him about the horrible thoughts, sure that he was getting tired of it. Rarely do I go into details about my sexually violent thoughts. It’s like something out of the movie American Psycho.
I am ashamed. I am afraid that my intrusive thoughts mean that I am a terrible person. I don’t like what my mind shows me. It scares me. It makes me scared of myself. Can a good person have bad thoughts? Yes, I know that in theory, but when I’m gone, when my body is in the ground and only my skeleton is left, who I am will just have been a series of thoughts, maybe a soul. And what if those thoughts are bad? Does that make me a bad person? The answer might be “only if you act on them.” However, I can’t help but cringe at the things my brain shows me. It’s like a horrible movie that I can’t turn off. It’s a carousel of awful things that spin ‘round and ‘round in my head, making me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. I’m tired of the shame. I’m tired of hating myself for something that I can’t control.
Because the truth is I can’t control my thoughts. I know that. I know it’s not my fault. It’s just hard to remember, to know in my heart that thinking bad things does not make me a bad person. Are people who watch horror films, murderers? No. Just like them, I am watching a horror movie, only it’s in my head. That is how I remind myself that I am not my thoughts. My thoughts do not define me. They do not control me. And as much as I want to fight back, to try to push the bad thoughts away, the one thing I need to do most of all understands that I will always have intrusive thoughts. I must accept that they will always take up a corner of my brain, no matter how unwelcome they are. And if I look at my thoughts like a movie that is always playing in my head, if I accept my thoughts as just a pesky rat running around my apartment, then they won’t have as much power over me.
Because riding the waves is much easier than fighting them. I wish for peace. I wish for a clear head. I wish for calm waves. I wish for relief from OCD. But in the meantime, I must remember that my thoughts do not control me. I can stand tall despite the wind. I can swim in rough waters. I am strong. One day, I will learn how to accept my thoughts, instead of fighting them.
August Pfizenmayer is the founder of Survival is a Talent. She is a freelance writer, blogger, and mental illness advocate. She loves reading, sweets, and warm weather. She writes confessional poetry, personal essays, and articles. Her poetry was published in the 2014 edition of Georgia State’s Undergraduate Art and Literary Journal called Underground. One of her current projects is a collection of prose poetry available on Wattpad. On April 11th, the next volume of The i’Mpossible Project will be available for pre-order with her story about life with schizophrenia featured in it. It will be in stores November 2017. You can connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest.