Me, OCD and the Patriarchy
How stereotypes disguised as facts can fuel our obsessions.
Written by Valeriia Voshchevska
01 Val is a London-based OCD sufferer. During the day, she works as the Global Social Media Manager for Amnesty International.
02 Pure O is a type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in which people experience mental compulsions triggered by repetitive intrusive thoughts.
03 Pure O feeds off the people, things and societal norms that we care about it. It causes intense rumination and makes us second guess who we are and what we believe in.
04 In Val's case, her Pure O clung onto a summer relationship, alongside stereotypes about "how" women should behave in relationships. These thoughts consumed her mind, before she was eventually able to enter therapy and create space from them.
I thought there was something wrong with me. I thought I wasn’t normal.
I thought there was no way out. But those were just thoughts. I wasn’t any of the above: I was a person who suffered, and continues to suffer from Pure O — a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
No, I don’t wash my hands 40 times over or obsessively check that my door is locked. My mind is very creative with the thoughts that it tricks me into believing.
Sometimes I hear friends say, “It sounds like you worry about normal things that all people worry about. Are you sure this is Pure O?” Of course I worry about normal things — like turning off the iron or receiving a timely text response — but multiply that worry by one million, and square it too.
Imagine for a minute that you are sitting and suddenly a strange thought enters your brain. A scary thought. A thought that you think represents a real danger to you and your whole being. A danger to your very existence. If you have Pure O, instead of worrying and moving on, you just continue and continue and continue worrying. The feeling of uncertainty makes you come up with worst case scenarios in your head. These scenarios not only seem possible, but probable.
If there is one certified way to inject uncertainty into your life, it is to fall for another person. People are confusing: Their movements are confusing, their words are confusing. Even their actions are confusing. When you have Pure O it’s hard to differentiate between facts and fake intrusive thoughts. But being in a situation in which another person’s behavior is difficult to read, naturally breeds a high level of uncertainty. And that is precisely what Pure O picks up on.
Pure O also targets whatever you value most. If it’s your health it will target that, if it’s your family it will target that. It pains me to think that what I valued most at that time, was my relationship with a man. Yet knowing that women are conditioned by society to rate their self-worth based on male relationships, makes this even harder to re-visit. I attached so much emotional weight not just to this man, but to what this man’s perception of me meant for my self-worth.
Coming from Eastern Europe, mental health was not something I was familiar with. In fact, there was a lot of stigma around it. Those who experienced mental health issues were considered weak and told to “just get over it.” So here I was, unaware of the realities of mental health and freshly out of university.
While at home in Ukraine for the summer, I met a guy. He had kind blue eyes and a seemingly genuine interest in everything around him, including me. All my friends kept telling me how him and I would be so great together. How we were so similar. At first I was dismissive and uninterested, but one night out changed it all. I was convinced he would never message me again. But then he did.
That’s when my mobile phone became my worst enemy. The usual anxiety inducing game of “should I message or should I wait?” started. His delayed responses drove me up the wall. I couldn’t handle them. I was constantly glued to all devices. At times, it felt like I was in a state of paralysis, unable to speak or interact with those around me. As soon as I received a response back, this state would lift. That is until the next delay. It didn’t feel normal, it didn’t feel like your average worry.
All of that was accompanied and fueled by a constant stream of doubts in my head: What if he doesn’t care enough to respond? What if he is using me? What if him replying two hours late means that this is the end? What if he thinks that I’m too much because I reply immediately? What if he met someone else? What if? What if? What if?
Living with Intrusive Thoughts & Pure O
Dr. Phillipson defines intrusive thoughts and Pure O. He analyzes the different types of OCD and explains what life is like for sufferers.
We continued seeing each other for a while and things were normal, but I knew he’d be leaving for New York soon. I didn’t mind much, since I was also going back to the UK. One night he told my friend that he was upset we were both leaving, but that he couldn’t handle long distance. The pauses between our interactions became longer, my body’s anxiety levels became higher and the uncertainty in my brain became bigger.
Cut to a few days later: My friend’s birthday party. Something was clearly up. He’d ignore me or outright avoid me. I didn’t understand what was going on. Next thing I remember, we were sitting down talking. He said he had tried long distance before. It didn’t work, he wanted nothing. I told him I didn’t understand where this was coming from. I was crying. It was all a mess. After going around in circles for hours, he finally left. I woke up to texts from him:
are u ok
how r u
r u going to be ok
I had no idea what happened. I had no idea why it happened. And I had no idea what to do or how to mend things. But I felt like I ruined it all. Uncertainty flooded my mind and started fueling my obsessive thoughts. I started feeling completely out of control. I thought I was “too much.” In my head, everything seemed to be my fault. I kept on ruminating. The same thoughts on and on and on. I ruined it, I ruined it, I ruined it, I ruined it.
But none of that was true and we continued talking. Not once did I think that perhaps his behaviour had very little to do with me. He was leaving in a week and so was I. I sent him two messages that I probably spent longer thinking about and writing than this article. He was unresponsive and cold. We met up twice after. We said goodbye. He left for New York, I left for holiday in Italy. But thoughts about him didn't leave my mind.
I was advised to send him a direct question about his feelings so that I could dispel the uncertainty and solve my obsessive misery. Little did I know that my Pure O would not be satisfied with an answer.
I later came to learn, after hours of therapy, that trying to find answers to uncertainty won’t result in solutions for an anxious mind. It actually continues to feed your OCD. It seems that if you get an answer to your obsessive thoughts, your anxiety will stop. But the problem is that your obsessive thoughts aren’t based in reality anyways, so how would a real-life confirmation solve anything? The process goes a little something like this:
1) Your anxiety forces you to ask for confirmation;
2) You receive that confirmation;
3) Your mind calms down for a second or so;
4) It goes back to repeating its usual routine: asking questions again and again, because the confirmation you just received no longer seems real or good enough.
I waited for some time. Obviously continued talking to him. Mostly initiated by me. But hey, can you blame me? I was in Korea and all I could think about was him, which was a shame considering I was in a place I eagerly anticipated to visit for years. After my 100th bow at Busan Beomosa Temple, I knew I had to ask him whether he still had feelings for me. So I sent the message.
I was on my own in Seoul. My legs were seizing from the self-inflicted pain post bowing. I wanted comfort. The message was meant to give me definitive answers. I didn't want to check my phone so I left it and went for a walk around the busy streets of Seoul. I was on my own, but actually together with my best friend: anxiety. Surrounded by thousands of people, gimbap and skyscrapers. I came home to a reply. It was the usual break up stuff: let's stay friends; you are important to me. It’s a great message to read before a solitary nine hour flight home from South Korea. All I remember was being extremely upset. But after a brief moment of calm sadness, my anxiety came back.
I moved to London that fall and it was time to set my priorities straight. Time to concentrate on the things that I knew were truly important to me. But he wouldn't leave my mind. I would Facebook search him all the time. I would compulsively check for updates, pictures, news and any signs of a new woman, in an effort to reduce my anxiety. But there was nothing, not that it would have actually helped.
I wrote to him. A month later. Not sure why, or for what purpose. Thinking back, it was probably my anxiety. I sent a pointless “how’s it going.” That was all I was able to write. Obviously regretting the message as soon as it said: Delivered.
My anxiety skyrocketed.
The same thoughts came back, repeating on and on again: I ruined it, I ruined it, I ruined it, I ruined it. He must think I’m crazy — texting him out of the blue after all this time. But all this ended in was a harmless chat about nothing. He was simply uninterested. He moved on, or to say it more harshly: there was nothing for him to move on from. However, for me and my Pure O, there was — and I was not doing it.
At one point I realized that I had asked about fifteen different people the same question: What did I do wrong? So urgent was the need to reassure myself. I continued thinking, checking, asking for reassurance. All I wanted to hear was: you did nothing wrong. But hearing that did not give me relief, the temporary satisfaction slowly multiplied into a new wave of agonizing anxiety.
I was concerned that if I’d truly “ruined it all” with him, everyone would think I’m crazy, clingy, irrational and too much. And that, in my head, would be a direct comment on me and my whole being. I thought that what he and others thought was an honest reflection of who I was. When in reality, I was simply on an epic journey of self discovery.
I also thought that my friends were carefully analyzing my every move, judging all I did from then on out based on the way I had acted. I believed that I had to somehow redeem myself and show people that I wasn’t “crazy.” Wrapped up in these thought spirals, were societal expectations of what makes a woman “cool” and “desirable.” The ability to stay calm, to not show feelings. The patriarchy — paired with Pure O — made me think that a relationship with a man was the key to finding happiness.
Eventually my anxiety coupled with hectic London life made me very depressed. This relationship wasn’t the only topic my Pure O latched onto. There were a multitude of questions, topics and issues circling around in my mind. Some more threatening than others. I had never known what depression looked or felt like, but here it was. I didn’t want to leave my room, I avoided seeing people, I nearly dropped out of my university program. I knew a big part of feeling like this was influenced by the way this situation made me feel about myself. I felt broken because he didn’t want me, basing my self-worth on a sexist stereotype of how women should be and act.
But one lucky obsessive Google search turned things around. There it was in front of me: an exact description of what I was experiencing and feeling. And it had a name: Pure O — a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
It felt like a massive relief. I now knew what it was and how to deal with it. It took me a while to get to where I am: A place in which I am comfortable with my Pure O. I still have spikes. I still spiral. I still have obsessive thoughts. However, they no longer scare me as much as they used to. And even when they do, I acknowledge them as OCD.
I also acknowledge that a lot of the things I used to believe were true were actually things that would fuel my obsessions. Society forces us to accept many things at face value. Stereotypes and myths disguised as facts continue to fuel a lot of our obsessions and intrusive thoughts. And so, as people who have intrusive thoughts, we need to question these truths and be critical about the things that we have been conditioned to believe.
We need to accept that nothing is certain and that our thoughts do not define us.
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