"What if I just stab someone and I can’t stop myself?"
"I’m going to kill someone just by thinking it."
"I feel like I can't trust my own brain."
These are just some of the innermost thoughts that OCD sufferers are posting to a British website, known simply as "The Wall."
Actress Becca Laidler and filmmaker Liz Smith created The Wall as part of their creative art project about living with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Laidler told Revelist they saw a lack in spaces where OCD sufferers could share their experiences openly, without judgement. They began accepting submissions of sufferers' most intrusive thoughts to publish on a virtual wall, alongside their blurred headshot and first name.
“We wanted to create a community where people can see that they are not alone, and to encourage more people with OCD to share their thoughts,” Laidler said.
The result is a virtual scrapbook that reveals the diversity of the OCD experience. The entries are open, honest, and often disturbing. But I know first-hand that these stories have the power to change lives.
I was officially diagnosed with OCD at age 10, in a colorful child psychologist's office in downtown Seattle. When my therapist gently revealed my diagnosis, I looked at her with a typical 10-year-old frankness and said, “I know.”
I had already diagnosed myself with OCD at the age of 8. It was on a trip with my dad, reading Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul, when I found the story of a young girl with the disorder. I dog-eared the story, turned to my dad, and said, “I have this.”
The relief I felt in finding someone who shared my experience was overwhelming. Or as Lily, 17, wrote on The Wall: “For a long time I thought I was weird, but then I discovered that I had OCD.” Thanks to one book chapter, I realized I wasn’t weird — I was different.
After that trip, my dad and I worked on ways to control my anxiety. He taught me breathing techniques and some simple meditation exercises. When I enrolled in therapy, my therapist taught me OCD-specific tricks, like ignoring the compulsion for 15 minutes. (Amazingly, if you can resist the compulsion for a full 15 minutes, it usually goes away.)
With the help of these techniques, and medication later in life, I learned to control my disorder. But for years I couldn’t help feeling ashamed, or simply baffled, by the odd thoughts that would pop into my brain out of nowhere.
I assumed that now, at age 23, I had worked past this internalized stigma. But seeing the stories on The Wall, I felt that same rush of relief my 8-year-old self felt while reading Chicken Soup for the Preteen Soul: There are other people like me out there.
Reading the entry from Laura, 32, about her obsession with picking scabs, I glanced down at the scars covering my own arms. I remembered the shame I felt when friends screamed “Gross! Why are you bleeding?” after I compulsively peeled the skin from my wounds. Picking at my skin made me feel disgusting and wrong, but I couldn’t stop.
“There’s something eerily soothing about it that relieves me, until I feel the shame afterward,” Laura writes of her own scab obsession. “My scars from picking are my tiny, visible battle wounds of living with OCD.”
A post from Joseph, 26, almost made me scream in empathetic frustration. He described the small details his brains would fixate on — certain movie lines, for example — that he felt compelled to nail down to the very last word.
“It was awful, that feeling of not getting ‘it’ right, whatever ‘it’ was,” he wrote. “Whatever that cartoon character said (or what I thought he said), that little detail, would haunt me for the next couple of days.”
I remembered the mind-numbing frustration of having to flip backwards several pages in a book to find “that” quote — the one I had read a few minutes ago, and suddenly needed to get exactly right. I wanted to grab Joseph right then and tell him that I'd been there, and he would be alright.
Besides validating my own experience, The Wall also educates outsiders on their misconceptions of the disorder. One poster, for example, defined herself as a “messy/borderline hoardy” OCD sufferer. And no, that's not an oxymoron.
My own roommate can't understand how I can leave my dirty dishes piled in the sink, but sleep on the couch some nights because I'm paranoid of gas leaks in my bedroom. For everyone who is still baffled by this: Not everyone with OCD feels compelled to wash, clean, or organize. Those are just a small subset of the dozens of common obsessions.
Another poster dispelled the notion that OCD operates in black-and-white; that sufferers are either crazy or sane. In fact, she even reminded me that, despite calling myself "recovered," it is perfectly normal to have days when the obsessive thoughts creep back into my head.
"I’m not going to lie," Stephanie, 27, wrote. "There are still days I struggle with my OCD. I still have rituals I participate in daily ... I have accepted OCD will be my friend and nemesis for the rest of my life."
But the most touching submission came from an anonymous poster from Canada. Their words reminded me that my "off days" — the days when the thoughts creep in, and I start re-reading sentences and picking at scabs — aren't off days at all. They're markers of all the victories I've achieved.
“I don’t even have to fight it anymore because I won a long time ago,” the anonymous poster wrote. “I won when I acknowledged it’s existence. I won when I received help. I am winning every time I don’t need to touch something. And that’s 99 out of 100 situations. Why would I let that 1 out of 100 define me?”
This jumbled collection of strangers’ experiences is a crucial reminder that I am not alone in this struggle. I can only imagine what it could have done for my 8-year-old self.