It’s difficult to know how to start talking about obsessive-compulsive disorder, the debilitating anxiety condition that has made persistent laps around my life for 14 years, like a flickering koi fish, and I’m the swampy backyard pond.
I can start with the facts—OCD, as the International OCD Foundation describes it, is a rotation of obsessions, “unwanted, intrusive thoughts, images, or urges that trigger intensely distressing feelings,” and compulsions, “behaviors an individual engages in to attempt to get rid of the obsessions and/or decrease distress.” For 14 years, my OCD has distressed me in creative ways, including trying to pollute horror video games, the only kind I really love (other than, like, Smash).
No big deal, right? It’s only video games. You can live a perfectly wonderful life without ever having played Amnesia: The Dark Descent if it torments you. But, as I’ve huffed at well-meaning adults and friends throughout the years, OCD isn’t when you’re an especially tidy person or irritated by unsatisfying YouTube videos. It’s uncontrollable, uncomfortable thoughts and time-consuming rituals you’re convinced are the only ways you can decrease the anxiety.
It makes no sense. It’s a disorder. Some of the obsessions I’ve had over the years: packaged food is poisoned, I could kill my boyfriend at any moment, writing the number 6 would make a demon possess me, wearing winged eyeliner would make a demon possess me, I have rabies, I have a brain-eating amoeba, I have a brain tumor, playing scary video games would make a demon possess me, I’ll pee my pants if I walk more than a block from my apartment.
Unlike someone without OCD, when an intrusive thought snaps into my head while I play Immortality, telling me watching the game’s footage has condemned my soul to hell for all eternity, I can’t flick it away. Because of my disorder, I get stuck to the ridiculous but worrying thought. Am I going to hell? Is there a demon in my bedroom? Am I possessed right now? Is that why my hands feel kind of numb? Is that why my neck feels a little stiff?
To cure the impure obsessing, my instincts tell me to stop playing the game. Don’t talk about it, don’t read about it. That’s a kind of compulsion experts call avoidance. When I’m home alone, before I can fall asleep, I make sure the stove is off. But I do it, you know, five or six times, when my checking compulsion calls for it. I walk to my bedroom in the dark, put my head under the covers, and see my burned, boiled face when I close my eyes. So I walk back to the oven in the dark, take photos, a video, say out loud to myself that “the oven is off” and still don’t feel convinced. OCD isn’t satisfied with acquiescence. It wants you completely. It’s an impassive dust ball, rolling through you to take and dirty what you love.
And, among many other things, I love autumn wind, my friends, and scary video games. My most cherished games, Bloodborne, the Outlast series, Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, The Quarry, Five Nights at Freddy’s when I was 16, are all extremely triggering. I’m at war with myself about it. They’re filled with red and brown gore—what if I hit someone with my car and didn’t realize?—and ghosts, people transforming into slobbering beasts or scabby murderers. What if meeting the wraith Maria in Silent Hill 2 means I’m getting possessed tonight?
Well, what if, what if. Three years ago, I was able to find an OCD specialist that worked for me, so well that I’d say OCD-specific therapy completely changed my life. My specialist walked me through exposure and response prevention, or ERP, a form of cognitive behavioral therapy and the number-one OCD treatment. It involves inflaming an obsession on purpose, letting anxiety build and sit, and stopping yourself from performing a compulsion in response to it.
In college, I couldn’t even eat without thinking about demons forcing themselves in my mouth, twisting my neck around like I was in auditions for The Exorcist. But my two-year long, enervating ERP sessions required me to color medieval drawings of devils in with Crayola, read the The Satanic Bible, and watch Poltergeist. I came out of it with, finally, after more than a decade of despair, a sort of quiet mind.
“And still God is silent,” brutish preacher Sullivan Knoth says in Outlast 2. I know that minds clutter, again, over time, and I will always have my black cat companion, this stupid but loyal disorder I’ve known since I was too young to know what was happening to me.
But my life has changed with ERP. I still lose afternoons and late nights to terror, but I know it’s okay to be afraid. It’s good for me, actually. I do exposures on my own time and continue to watch, play, and delight in the grossest shit ever, like these games that shake me. I want you to bring me games submerged in rats like muddy bathwater, plotlines about sneaking, smiling women filthy with dried gunshot wounds. I’m going to freak out. And I’m okay.