When I was little I’d be so upset by the idea that my parents were mad at me I’d immediately stop misbehaving when they told me to. They didn’t ground me because I never broke the rules. Even after I got my driver’s license they didn’t give me a curfew—they didn’t need to. I would be home before they could start to wonder where I was.
I didn’t drink—in high school or college.
I didn’t smoke. I never even took a puff off a friend’s cigarette.
I didn’t do drugs! Of course I didn’t do drugs.
I didn’t have sex with anyone.
I didn’t go anywhere I could be tempted by any of the above, like parties.
I didn’t look over a classmate’s shoulder during tests, and I was so afraid I’d be accused of cheating if someone cheated off of me that I would hunch over my paper to hide my writing.
I didn’t swear.
My parents didn’t want me to watch PG-13 movies before I was 13 or R-rated movies before I was 17, so I didn’t. When a friend helpfully told me my mom would never know, I barely understood her point. It didn’t matter whether my mom found out! I’d been told not to, and I did as I was told, period.
I had morals.
The older I get the more I’m realizing why I abstained from almost everything. It wasn’t because I was particularly good, although I desperately wanted to be. It was because I had undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) that manifested in scrupulosity and taboo sexual obsessions. I couldn’t control the disturbing unwanted thoughts, but I could at least try to live an unimpeachable life. Striving for perfection only made me more miserable, and since my thoughts were so vile I felt doomed.
I was raised Lutheran and we went to church every Sunday, and even though my pastor didn’t preach fire and brimstone and my parents didn’t teach me that sex was dirty or wrong, my OCD told me I was going to hell for my thoughts: I wasn’t sure which were worse, the deviant sexual obsessions or the constant doubts about whether everything I’d been taught about Christianity was true. Desperate to somehow save myself, I tried to follow everything in the Bible to a T. It wouldn’t be right to cherry-pick; I couldn’t just take the easy way out of salvation. But was I supposed to follow the New Testament and believe in the grace of God, who would forgive me, or the Old Testament and obey every little rule—even the ones that contradicted the others?
I became so obsessed with the idea of a sin-free life that I didn’t enjoy anything anymore. When I watched Psycho for the tenth time I felt sick—didn’t the couple at the beginning care that they were going to hell for having premarital sex? How could they be so nonchalant? I suddenly couldn’t understand how my friends could gossip or giggle when our professor tripped over his own feet, and I could hardly stand to sit through my religion class while an atheist classmate questioned everything my professor said. Life on campus put up so many obstacles to being perfect and pure that I started to wish I could move to a remote mountaintop or empty island.
Of course that wouldn’t have solved my problems. It wasn’t until I knew I had OCD that I was able to tackle my scrupulosity and other intrusive thoughts, and I’m so grateful I finally got the answers I needed.
Alison Dotson, the author of Being Me with OCD: How I Learned to Obsess Less and Live My Life, was diagnosed with OCD at age twenty-six, after suffering from “taboo” obsessions for more than a decade. Today, she still has occasional intrusive thoughts, but she knows how to deal with them in healthy ways. Alison is the president of OCD Twin Cities, an affiliate of the International OCD Foundation, and the recipient of the 2016 International OCD Foundation Hero Award. Alison has spoken about her experiences with OCD with several media outlets, includingThe Atlantic, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Health.com, and NBC. She lives in Minneapolis with her two rescue dogs, Tuffy and Gracie, whose shenanigans make her laugh every day.