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Could I Still Be Ambitious Without My OCD?

I quieted my anxious thoughts by working hard. That only made my disorder worse.

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

I was on a Zoom call, midway through a sentence, when the thought barged in like it had broken down a door: Your loved ones are going to die in gruesome ways and it’ll be your fault for not keeping them safe. Scenes of the most horrific things that could happen to them played in front of my eyes as if they were projected on the lenses of my glasses.

I tried to steady my voice, only to be overwhelmed by the fear that everyone on the call knew what darkness my mind held. The urge to stop it all was overwhelming — I had to do something, to quell the fear of what would happen if I didn’t.

So I repeated the steps I knew by heart. I smiled and waved as I logged off Zoom and wondered if anyone could tell my hands were shaking, checked to make sure all the doors were locked, and reread all the emails and texts I’d sent that morning, just to make extra sure I didn’t say something bad. For approximately the 500th time, I sought reassurance and certainty: It’ll be okay if you just do this. It never is.

I was caught in a cycle of obsessions (unwanted thoughts or urges that happen repeatedly) and compulsions (excessive behaviors that people use to try to make the obsessions or distress stop). But I still didn’t believe that I had OCD, even though I’d been diagnosed with it months before. Part of me just doubted that I had the disorder — how could I be sure? — which isn’t an uncommon symptom. But deep down, I was also terrified of letting that doubt go — the need for certainty that drove me forward; the over-responsibility that kept things I loved safe. I hadn’t realized how significantly narratives surrounding OCD — “you’re such a perfectionist; you’re so together” — had claimed my sense of self. I’d never do enough to feel safe, I thought, but with overwork and over-responsibility and overanalysis, I’d try anything. I’d do everything. Treating the disorder, I worried, might mean losing what I thought of as my most redeemable qualities.

As a kid, there was no compliment from adults I savored more than “she’s so responsible.” I constantly checked and rechecked my work: to make sure my assignments were complete, my shoes were in my dance bag, that I wasn’t wearing out the sleeves of my sweater. At worst, I was considered a little nervous, an oldest child who took my obligations a little too seriously. In truth, I struggled with anxiety and doubt, and found that “doing something” was the only way of keeping those feelings at bay. But I was praised for being diligent, thoughtful, and self-motivated, which made me feel like I was doing the right thing. 

In short, “doing things” became my lifeline. I craved the feeling that I was in control of something, and work became the outlet for me to channel what I then called my “nervous energy.” In college, I juggled full-time jobs in addition to a full-time course load and almost felt soothed the busier I was. I started trying to write and pitch stories, and found that the more research I did and hours I poured in, the better it seemed to go. Later, I wrote my first book while I worked a full-time job, without taking any time off.

I grew into the adult who never faltered on a deadline, took on more than she could chew without spitting it out, and had backup plans to my backup plans and probably yours, too. I wanted to do things — to solve problems that may or may not exist, to practice until I got something right, to work until I felt sure. 

From the outside, the habits I’d built around work looked productive. Without context, the fact that I’d check a draft over and over before filing it looked diligent. I’d go over emails and meeting notes to make sure I was prepared. I’d write down my thoughts to ensure I said what I wanted to say. These habits looked reasonable, if not a little overzealous.

But the stronger my symptoms grew, the more evident it became that what looked like ambition or dedication were actually compulsions. I rarely, if ever, felt accomplished — only like I had managed to thwart danger or failure, and that next time, I’d slip up. I’d read drafts aloud repetitively until I went hoarse, convinced I’d somehow “messed up” and no one spotted the errors. I’d sit at my desk, stuck on a two-sentence email I felt I physically couldn’t stop myself from rereading, in tears because I couldn’t get myself to stand up and walk away without coming right back.

In my mind, dropping a ball or doing less invited intolerable risk. I worried that if I said no to a project, no one would ever want to work with me again, or if I stopped, I’d never be able to start again. But as OCD took up more and more of me, these actions and how I rationalized them became less and less clear, like if I didn’t read something 50 times, I’d be punished somehow, by something terrible happening in another area of my life. But because these behaviors came across as productive, pressure to just keep going mounted. Maybe this is just how ambition felt, I thought to myself. Maybe overworking is what I was good at, and what I was supposed to do.

Not long after my diagnosis, I mentioned it in passing to someone I was working with, who joked, “Well, maybe if I had OCD, I’d be as productive as you!” I had two thoughts in rapid succession: See, people think this is a good thing — you should be ashamed you feel miserable. And: You have everyone fooled.

But what appeared to be productivity from the outside was actually the opposite. I had started procrastinating to the extreme, convincing myself I was incapable or that someone had made a mistake by giving me an assignment. Then, panic over letting someone down would kick in. I’d churn out the work to meet whatever deadline driven not by dedication or ambition, but by fear.

By then, the obsessions and compulsions had broken beyond work in ways even I couldn’t deny. Back and forth, I’d walk from room to room, checking to make sure a loved one or pet was safe — that I hadn’t somehow forgotten they’d been in a deadly accident, even if I’d only seen them minutes before. The more room the obsessions and compulsions took up, the more I disappeared.

More than once, I started thinking about how life wasn’t worth it if I had to feel this way. But you have to keep going, I thought. You’ll know when you hit rock bottom — it might even feel like a relief. Then it occurred to me: What if this is rock bottom? Not the relief of having finally fallen, but dragging myself round and round, wondering why I can’t stop?

That moment snapped it into focus: The sureness and safety I was seeking did not exist — not in the way I wanted them to, anyway. The more effort I put into looking for them, the more I shrank. Where there used to be curiosity, dreams, and wants, OCD filled them in with endless “what if” questions designed around worst-case scenarios. The second time I was diagnosed with OCD, I decided I’d rather doubt I had it and be wrong than miss out on more of my life.

Why was it so hard for me to tell where OCD ended and I began? Why couldn’t I tease out what ambitions or hopes or fears belonged to me and what parts belonged to it?

“Our society happens to value many of the characteristics that tend to present in OCD and anxious thinking,” Dr. Caitlin M. Pinciotti, Ph.D., whose research and clinical work focuses on OCD, PTSD, and trauma, told me. “Valuing quantity and productivity over quality, personal achievement over community and collaboration, perfectionism over process, urgency over intentionality and self-care, and black-and-white thinking over nuance and dialectics.”

The tricky part, Pinciotti said, is that OCD latches onto things that are valuable or important to us, “distorting them to such an extreme that we aren’t sure where we end and the OCD begins.” She cited a few examples: You don’t encounter people who have postpartum obsessions who don’t want to be the best parent to their baby more than anything; you don’t encounter people who obsess about reality and the meaning of life who aren’t curious about those questions.

Stereotyping about OCD really can prevent people who need care from getting it, Dr. Pinciotti said, because they don’t realize that their experiences are actually OCD. In my own experience, I wish I would’ve clocked earlier that just because I could keep going didn’t mean I was doing okay, or doing the right thing, for that matter. I wish I’d learned earlier what I actually needed to do was nothing. 

One of the most effective treatments for OCD is a behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention. It’s almost exactly what it sounds like: You’re exposed to the thought or situation that makes you anxious, and then you resist doing the compulsive behavior. Over time, we teach our brains and bodies that we can face the trigger and be okay without engaging in the compulsion, says Dr. Carla Mayorga, Ph.D, a psychologist at Florida International University. We can do nothing and be fine.

“Sometimes it seems like doing nothing is the hardest thing to do,” I told Mayorga. “Because every fiber in your being says you need to fix it or do something or get rid of it,” Mayorga said. “That’s the false alarm.”

The false alarm screams, “You didn’t do enough.” Every time I fail, every time I am heartbroken, every time something bad happens, I think, If only you’d just …

Then I try to stop. I try to turn the volume down.

I haven’t stopped working, but that’s not what “nothing” refers to here. I didn’t reread this essay aloud until my throat felt charred; the thought that something bad would happen hit me, and I kept deciding not to engage, to not reread or double-check or mentally review every conversation I’ve had about it over the past few months. It sounds small on paper, but it’s a nothing I wouldn’t have found manageable a few years ago. Same with trying to vocalize opinions and needs without worrying about it being “too much” for the person across from me, or making a decision without spending days reviewing and ruminating on all potential “what if” outcomes, knowing that sometimes I’ll make the wrong one.

Now I’m choosing a more ambitious version of myself — one who wants to show up for work she loves and people she loves and learn to love herself a little more, too. As I continue to work on disengaging from OCD’s endless “what if” questions, I’ve rediscovered some questions of my own: What if I did something just for fun? What if I just went for it, even if I don’t know how it’ll turn out? What do I really want? I’ve taken more chances professionally, taken on more work I learn from and enjoy. I’ve fostered friendships, new and old, that have shaped my life. Before, I thought I could work my way to safety: I wanted to do my work, squeeze my eyes shut with my arms wrapped tight around my knees until I was in a ball, and pray that it was enough to keep something bad from happening. Now, I have dreams that make me reach. I’m finding pieces of myself in the nothing.

For more resources on OCD and how to treat it, please visit the International OCD Foundation

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Could I Still Be Ambitious Without My OCD?