Mountains of Obsessions

By Deanna deBara 04/23/17

The thought that I might have hurt a child, and having experienced that kind of pain myself, would send me into a panic so intense I could barely breathe. But I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about it.

A woman holding her head, black lines and squiggles fly out.
Seeking Clarity from OCD

We were at the top of Mt. Batur, one of the highest volcanoes in Bali. My boyfriend, J, and I had spent three hours hiking in the dark (or, more accurately, he spent three hours hiking and I spent three hours stumbling around, trying not to break an ankle) to get to the top of the summit in time to catch what was allegedly one of the most epic sunrises in Asia.

And epic it was. As we stood at the peak of the mountain, the entire valley below us, and the first rays of sunlight started shining over the horizon, I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and thought…

“What if I committed a crime, forgot about it and have to spend the rest of my life in prison?”

That fun little diddy was immediately followed by a second, more appropriate internal dialogue, which went something along the lines of:

“...... da f*ck?”

I was baffled and alarmed at this random and implausible musing that seemed to elbow its way into my psyche. There were plenty of thoughts I expected to encounter on the top of that volcano - This is gorgeous! I’m so lucky to be here! When’s breakfast? - but a random bout of persecutory delusion? That I didn’t pack for.

I now know that what I experienced that morning has a name: it’s called an intrusive thought. According to our friends at Wikipedia, an intrusive thought is “an unwelcome involuntary thought, image, or unpleasant idea that may become an obsession, is upsetting or distressing, and can feel difficult to manage or eliminate.” And apparently I’m not the only one who’s had them; 94% of people experience intrusive thoughts at one time or another. But most people just shake it off, think “hmm...that was a weird thought” and then go on with their lives.

But unfortunately, I’m not most people.

After that initial contemplation about being some sort of covert-criminal-with-amnesia popped into my brain, I couldn’t let it go.

As I tried to make it down the mountain, again, without breaking an ankle (if you knew how accident prone I was, you’d understand my efforts), my internal dialogue went a little something like this:

“Well, what kind of crime could I have committed that I forgot?”

“I feel like committing a crime isn’t something I would just forget. It’s not like forgetting to turn off the oven or trying to remember the actress’ name who played Blanche on Golden Girls.”

“Well, maybe it was such a big crime you’ve blocked it out. Like, as a trauma response or something.”

“Oh my god. What could I have done that would be so horrible I would have to block it out?”

“I don’t know, but I bet it’s really bad.”

“Shit… what WAS that actress’ name?”

By the time we got to the bottom of the hill and back to our tour bus, I was in a full-blown panic, convinced the cops were around the corner waiting to arrest me for some still undetermined-crime that I didn’t remember committing (the only positive was that about ¾ of the way down the mountain, I remembered the actress who played Blanche on Golden Girls was named Rue McLanahan. So at least that was settled).

I wish I could say that I went back to the hotel, slept it off, and was able to chalk the whole panicked incident to a hallucination caused by the questionable Indonesian food we ate the night before. But that’s not what happened. That episode on the mountain was just the beginning - the beginning, that is, of my battle with obsessive compulsive disorder.

Now, if you’re confused about how I got from point A to point OCD, I was too - I always thought Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was about being super clean, organized, and basically modeling your life after Monica Geller (thanks, pop culture depictions of mental illness). But OCD isn’t about how well you can color-code a sock drawer. It’s about getting caught up - or really, trapped - in a vicious cycle of obsessions and compulsions.

That intrusive thought quickly morphed from one-time anomaly to full blown obsession. Within weeks, it was all I could think about. I was consumed with the idea I had committed a heinous crime I had somehow blocked from my memory.

At first, it was more of a general “what if I committed a crime” scenario, but as the obsession grew, it evolved and got more specific. Instead of “what if I committed a crime and don’t remember?”, it became “...what if I abused a child and don’t remember?”

This is a terrible thought for ANYONE to deal with. But as someone who experienced childhood sexual trauma, this was (and is) literally the most horrific thing I could think of. The thought that I might have hurt a child, and having experienced that kind of pain myself, would send me into a panic so intense I could barely breathe. But I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about it.

Now, a little backstory: this certainly wasn’t the first time I’d dealt with crazy thoughts I couldn’t shake. I’m what you would call anxious on a good day, and my thought patterns have always had a cyclical, ruminating quality to them. For example, when I quit smoking cigarettes and put on 5 lbs, I became obsessed with the idea that I was going to continue gaining weight until I resembled Violet Beauregarde from Willy Wonka when she turned into a blueberry (minus the Smurf skin tint). Or at work, whenever anyone went into an office and closed the door, I was convinced it was because they were talking about their plan to fire me (even if it was the receptionist).

So yes, I’d dealt with irrational anxieties and thoughts before. But those all seemed normal. Trivial. Things everyone worried about, even if I took it a step further than most. But this episode was on a whole new level. This was the first time that I was genuinely afraid of my own mind.

Obviously, I didn’t know this at the time, but I have a form of OCD called “Pure O,” which means all of my obsessions and compulsions take place in my head. If you were to see me in the midst of my obsession/compulsion cycle, you wouldn't know anything was going on. Through all of this, I seemed normal to my family and friends; maybe a little distant, but nothing concerning. But just because they weren’t in your face like general OCD compulsions, my thought compulsions - which I did as an attempt to calm my anxiety and convince myself that I was not, in fact, an amnesiac child molester - were definitely no less real.

I would scan my memories and review any that involved children to reassure myself that I hadn’t abused anyone (also known as “mental checking”). Or I’d read article after article about the characteristics of pedophiles and child abusers to make sure that I didn’t fit the profile (known in the therapy world as “reassurance seeking” and known in the real world as “a fast track to a really fucked up browsing history”).

At first, these compulsions would make me feel better and keep my anxiety at bay. Phew, nothing wrong here, I'd tell myself.

But the relief was temporary. The obsession would always come back, stronger than before. And so I’d do the compulsions to try and calm myself down. But eventually, the compulsions stopped working. I was convinced that everything going on in my head was a surefire sign that something, in fact, DID happen. I didn’t know if I could trust my memories anymore. The line between reality and my obsessive thought cycles started to blur more and more, and before long, I was scared I was legitimately going crazy.

After months of this constant assault on my mind, I broke down and sought professional help. I thought before I conceded to a life of internal torture, I should at least get a professional opinion.

I ended up working with an amazing therapist who, after hearing me talk about my past and the way I think for about two minutes, immediately recognized what was happening and schooled me on Pure O. She assured me that these thoughts didn’t mean that I was crazy or had done anything inappropriate to warrant the thoughts; in fact, the reason intrusive thoughts are so distressing is because they’re completely antithetical to your personal beliefs, values, and characters. The thought that I might have hurt a child was so distressing to me because I wasn't the type of person who would ever hurt a child; if I was, in fact, a closet child abuser, the thought would thrill me, not disgust me. And I wasn’t alone; inappropriate sexual images, including child abuse, are actually one of the most common themes of intrusive thoughts.

I also learned that all of those mental compulsions I performed as a way to take a step off the panic ledge were doing more harm than good. The more power I gave to the thoughts and the more I tried to convince myself they weren’t true, the more real they felt and the more anxiety they caused. It was a vicious cycle.

But now that I had an answer, I had my first little sliver of hope. If what I was dealing with had a name, it meant other people were dealing with it, too. Which meant that maybe I could get better.

I came at the fight with my OCD from all angles. My therapist had me do exposure therapy (which is just as fun as it sounds), which involved allowing myself to feel the full anxiety caused by my obsessions by telling myself my obsessions were true. I basically had to say “yep. It’s true. You abused a child somewhere in your past.” and then play that tape all the way to the end.

At first, it was unbearable. But the more I faced my intrusive thoughts, the less power they had over me and the less anxiety they caused. I was able to step outside of the obsession, start to look at things more objectively and take my intrusive thoughts for what they were: not truth or evidence that I was some evil demon-spawn, but just a momentary, meaningless blip in my psyche that I could forget just as fast as it appeared.

I don’t want to give you the wrong idea and wrap this up with an “I’m all better now” bow and call it a day. I still deal with intrusive thoughts (although, thank the good Lord, they’re no longer centered on child abuse), but when I do, I’ve got a whole new set of tools to deal with them. I can see them for what they are and let them come and go without attaching too much meaning to them.

The effect that this has had on my anxiety - and my life - has been a complete and total game-changer.

Last weekend, J and I hiked to the top of another mountain, this one near our home in Los Angeles. And this time, when I closed my eyes and took a breath, the only thought I had was “Damn….what a view.”

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