When I was a young adolescent, I began developing behaviors that would have been labeled as obsessive-compulsive. I was in about 7th or 8th grade when it all started presenting itself. I remember first engaging some very irrational thought patterns which then led to intense, overwhelming fears that quickly began to take control of my life. From the onset of my disorder, I knew that I truly would never experience life the same way again. My innocence was lost. I became a servant to my fears and began suffering silently in the shame of my actions.
I’ve shared a lot of very personal things over the last several years in an effort to restore my life and inspire others to take the initiative to do the same. But one of the things that I never explored in much detail was my obsessive compulsive disorder. And I guess the reason that I chose not to offer a whole lot was because I was fearful of judgment. There are a lot of negative connotations associated with mental health related illnesses, many of which I’ve challenged passionately through my writing. But I guess even I felt that perhaps I had my limits…that is, until today.
The fears that spur obsessive compulsive disorder are absolutely debilitating. When a person’s irrational thinking grows to a level of obsession, their actions start being driven in ways that the individual can sometimes even recognize as illogical, yet still feel powerless to control. I can isolate two main fears in my life that led to the development of my obsessive compulsive behavior when I was young teen. The first was my fear of getting a woman pregnant. I became literally paranoid that somehow without even a bad decision on my part I would transfer my DNA to a female and impregnate her. The second fear was a generalized anxiety stemming from worry about my own personal health. I wasn’t afraid of dirt, so it’s not that I was a clean freak or anything, but I was very concerned about contracting and spreading disease. And I would obsess about the way that my heart would beat until I could hear every single tick in my head. I was a hypochondriac.
I guess most psychologists would conclude that there is often a traumatic experience behind the development of such paralyzing fear. As it relates to my personal situation, I can recall quite clearly that there were a few distinct experiences that led me to my ultimate paranoia. But those experiences weren’t traumatic whatsoever in their own right. It was my irrational thinking that distorted them into devastating turning points in my life. Perhaps I had already given birth to the anxiety within me and it was simply waiting to present itself once prompted. As a teenager, you begin to experience life in a whole new way. There are a lot of unknowns, and many assumptions are made about right and wrong. Giving my mind the wheel and allowing it to be the ultimate decision making authority proved to have tragic consequences in my development as a young adult.
When I was a teen, my fears caused me to create some pretty unusual patterns of behavior. I’m sure that you’ve all heard about OCD and obsessions with counting. I engaged in that for a short period of my life, flicking the lights on and off, turning the door handle, etc. And at certain points I became so obsessed with germs, etc that I would use tissues when opening or closing doors so that I didn’t need to touch the knobs themselves. I would wash things repeatedly…things that weren’t meant to be washed. Or I’d throw things out that I felt had become tainted. I remember having a stack of VHS tapes in my room all with missing covers because I had decided that they were unclean. My parents probably thought that I was a mess.
I made every effort to hide my behavior from everyone. What I was dealing with was personal. I shared it with no one because I was so incredibly ashamed of my actions. On the surface, I was a smart, athletic kid with the wind at his back. I had to maintain that image, or someone might find out what I was dealing with and then I’d be seen as a complete fool. The pressure began to become a real burden for me. I was confronting fears that no 13 or 14 year old kid should ever need to worry about. I was the victim of a manipulative mind, and I was heading down a destructive path. It’s no wonder that years later I became the privileged recipient of a severe panic disorder. I had been sheltering my internal torment for years. No one can possibly hide that forever.
But that never stopped me from trying. Even to the present day, there are things that I’ve been ashamed of and have kept hidden from those around me. While many of my obsessive behaviors faded during my teenage years, one that I’ve certainly not been able to forfeit entirely has been my obsession with hand washing. I’ve got to tell you, it’s a tough nut to crack. I’ve definitely gotten better at lessening its impact over the years, but I’d still consider my habit a bit irrational at times. And today, my hands are the product of many, many years of antibacterial soap raids. They carry a bit redder tint than those of the average individual, and for years that has made me very uncomfortable. So for as long as I can remember, I’ve hidden them. You’ll rarely see me standing in closed quarters with my hands out of my pockets or not tucked behind my back or under my arms.
I remember one year during high school, we had just returned from summer break and my Spanish teacher looked at me during class and said “wow you’re all red…you must have really gotten a sunburn!” That was a devastating moment for me. It was as though I had been caught, literally red-handed. I was so embarrassed that I began feeling flushed to the point of panic and my whole head lit up in matching attire. From that day forward, I began keeping track of the color of my hands. Were they having a good day or a bad one? Certain lighting would allow me to get away with keeping them exposed, while others would be better suited for pockets. I had to be prepared.
As a professional sales executive who meets with many prospective clients under the bright lights of the board room, my paranoia about the appearance of my hands has been a challenge over the years. I’ve found that when the setting is not optimal, my mind can grow a bit preoccupied at times even during a focused presentation. So I’ve had to develop ways to channel my fears and literally put all hands on deck without the fear of judgment.
And I guess that’s my mission here this evening. To let you know that while on the surface I might look and act the part, there’s a very flawed man hiding out in the pockets of my business suit. And I’m okay with who he is, and if you’re going to be a part of my life well, then I guess you’ll need to be, too. No one should need to be ashamed of who they are. My hands carry the burden of a lifelong battle in mental health, and I’m proud of what they’ve accomplished. They might be a bit harder on the eyes than most, but they still have the ability to change lives…and my hope is that that’s exactly what they’re accomplishing in the development of this blog.
You can’t change the world with your hands in your pockets. Let them shine. There is nothing to be afraid of in this life. Fear the judgment of no one. And let your pain be your purpose. Even red hands can touch lives.
May God Bless!