Meet the lovely Michele Carroll! Some of you may be thinking, “Wait, I think I have met her” because you’ve talked with her or seen her at some of the annual International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) conferences. As you’ll soon hear from Michele herself, she’s had OCD for years—but she’s only recently begun opening up about it more and sharing her experience with people beyond her close friends and family members. Let’s give her a very warm welcome!
How long have you had OCD? Many people—including myself—say it took years and years to be diagnosed, and it can take years to get the proper treatment as well. What was your experience like?
I began experiencing OCD symptoms at age 10, but it didn’t develop into full-blown OCD until I had my daughter, 19 years later. Currently, I’ve had OCD for 18 years; it took me 13 years to get treatment.
The first symptom of OCD that I recall occurred when I was in fifth grade. At that time, I rewrote my social studies notebook from beginning to end because I thought it wasn’t neat enough and because I feared failing the exam. Looking back, this didn’t make much sense because I was a straight A student, so it would have been very unlikely for me to fail, even if I didn’t rewrite my notebook. In high school, I began to experience taboo intrusive thoughts, although I didn’t know it was OCD at the time. These thoughts started as scrupulous and blasphemous in nature and changed through the years to other taboo topics. No matter the topic, I was terrified of the thoughts because of what they could mean about me. I would engage in compulsions including praying a certain set of prayers in a certain order, doing the sign of the cross correctly to ensure my prayers were “going to God” and not the devil, seeking reassurance from others, questioning the meaning of the thoughts, analyzing them, trying to figure them out, and researching them on the internet. After I engaged in what I later learned were compulsions, my fear would temporarily decrease. The problem is that the cycle would start all over again, resulting in me engaging in the very same compulsions.
Years passed with this struggle. I eventually serendipitously saw a television program that was about postpartum OCD. On the show, the moderator said that doctors were prescribing antidepressants for this problem. Since this sounded a lot like what I was experiencing, I decided to tell my doctor that I was feeling depressed (so that he would prescribe an SSRI). I figured if I said that, I’d get the medicine without having to speak about the scary thoughts I’d been having. I thought I would get better, and the thoughts would go away.
Of course, avoiding talking about the thoughts, trying to suppress them, and engaging in compulsions didn’t make them stop. Eventually, five years ago, when seeing a psychiatrist who was not an OCD specialist, I finally worked up the courage to speak about the thoughts I’d been having. Regretfully, my doctor didn’t seem to understand, and he shared that he didn’t think I had OCD “because you don’t have any compulsions.” By then, I had read about taboo intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions online. I wanted to get help and get better, and I learned about the IOCDF. Through this group, I got connected with an OCD therapist who did exposure and response prevention (ERP). My recovery journey had begun!
Once you did realize it was OCD, how did you tell your loved ones?
I have told my loved ones about my OCD gradually and on an individual basis. I first told my husband who had been experiencing these issues with me all along. Next, I told two friends who are psychologists because I felt they could “handle” the information. Since I have what has been coined “pure O,” I referred them to the IOCDF website for more information if they had any questions. Some time went by until I then told my mom, also referring her to the website. Telling other people with whom I’m close has happened gradually. But lately, I’ve talked more about OCD on my Facebook page, and now I’m sharing my story on your blog!
You’ve struggled with scrupulosity, or blasphemous intrusive thoughts. What are some of your common obsessions and compulsions?
I have struggled on and off with blasphemous intrusive thoughts, as the intrusive thoughts that I experience seem to hop around like the “Whack-A-Mole” game. When I seem to “conquer” one type of scary thought, the content changes to something else that I find equally scary. But, as the experts say, the content doesn’t matter in OCD; it’s still OCD.
I tend to experience blasphemous intrusive thoughts when I’m about to receive Communion in church. At that time, a scary thought about my love or lack of love for God will pop into my head. In the past, I would pray a certain way to make the thoughts go away. However, through ERP, I have learned to not respond to the thoughts. I learned to treat the intrusive thoughts like any other random thought I experience, not as more important. Additionally, I will sometimes think to myself, “This is my OCD” or “Good one, OCD. Really clever.”
A couple years ago you faced what many Catholics with religious obsessions might consider a trigger: visiting the Vatican! Were you nervous about going and experiencing unwanted thoughts in a sacred place? How did it go?
Yes! I was nervous about several different things. In addition to feeling like I’d probably experience intrusive thoughts, I was concerned about the safety of being out of the country with my children and the safety of flying. My brain can create lots of reasons for me to feel anxious! However, even though I was anxious, this was an event I didn’t want to miss. My daughter was going to be singing with her school choir for Pope Francis in the New Year’s Day Mass! This was, what I considered, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I coped with this by accepting that I might experience intrusive thoughts while in St. Peter’s. Since this was uncertain, and because my OCD tends to throw things at me that are particularly important to me, I realized that I might experience blasphemous thoughts while there. As it turns out, I’m so grateful I went and didn’t allow my OCD to stop me from going! When we were in an auditorium where Pope Francis was to appear, the Pope literally walked across the aisle and shook my younger daughter’s hand! And I touched him! This was (without a doubt) one of the most exciting moments in my life.
In day-to-day life—you know, not the Vatican—how do you approach your intrusive thoughts without turning to compulsions? And what do you do if you realize you are engaging in compulsions?
Usually, I deal with my intrusive thoughts by telling myself, “That’s my OCD.” If I’m not sure if a thought is OCD or not, I may get stuck for a little while. However, I’ve learned to also consider these as OCD thoughts, to make my best guess, and move on, dealing with any consequences later. I also regularly engage in self-care, including mindfulness, yoga, being active at work and home, seeing a therapist, and taking medication.
You’re a therapist, but you don’t treat OCD. How did you decide to become a therapist? Even if you didn’t know you have OCD before you went into practice, do you think dealing with the obsessions had any impact on your decision?
I’m a clinical psychologist, and although I’ve treated a few clients with OCD, it’s not my specialty. I completed my doctoral degree prior to developing OCD, so I didn’t become a psychologist because I had OCD. When I was in high school, I helped in the guidance counselors’ office during my senior year. At the time, I was experiencing some symptoms of OCD, but it wasn’t diagnosed. One day, while trying to figure out what field to go into, I told one of the guidance counselors I thought I might do what they do for a living. She laughed and told me to become a clinical psychologist. So, that’s what I did!
Since I was already a licensed psychologist by the time I was diagnosed, if anything, this may have made it more difficult to seek help. I experienced a lot of shame and self-stigma because I thought since I was a psychologist, I “should know” how to make this stop and get better. I was afraid at that time that if people found out, it could hurt my career. I feel differently about that now, but every now and then, that old fear will resurface.
I love the idea that therapists understand mental illness, in one form or another, from a personal perspective. But others may say they want their therapists to be “perfect.” Have you faced any stigma being a therapist with a disorder?
I have experienced more self-stigma than stigma directly from others. I have struggled with the thought that I shouldn’t have a disorder, should know how to stop it, and shouldn’t need help. On a few occasions, I have shared with clients or students that I have OCD. My main reasons for doing this have been to help them feel less shame, to let them know they’re not alone, and to encourage them to stick with treatment. Also, I have briefly shared my condition with interns or post-doctoral fellows because, as part of their training to become psychologists, I believe that self-care is vital. I hope to normalize them getting help if they ever need it. In general, when I have shared parts of my story with others, I have felt respected. As a side note, I’ve sought supervision from respected colleagues at times, such as when I’ve felt triggered. I try to be mindful about maintaining a healthy boundary between my personal struggle and the struggles of others.
If you could share just one piece of advice with others with OCD, what would it be?
You are not alone and it’s not your fault. Get treatment so you can live the life you desire. But most of all, be brave.