by Chelsea Elker
for the PSI Blog
March 6, 2018
Last month our country was once again reminded of the pain one person’s actions can have upon countless innocent lives. The shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida is not only heartbreaking for those students involved and their families, it is also a reminder of how unfair life can be and how much we should cherish the time we have with our family and friends.
Obviously, these tragedies affect our entire country, but I also want to reach out to those struggling with Harm OCD right now. When I was going through OCD, some of the most terrifying and isolating times were when there were news stories about people doing horrible things, especially those involving mothers and their children, but my mind ran wild and rampant with any sort of violent story. When I heard stories about abuse, neglect, homicide, literally anything involving harm, I would become overwhelmed with dread that one day that would be me.
My OCD was so strong, that I felt there would never be any way out. I would never heal. In my entire life, I’ve never been suicidal, but during this time, I was convinced OCD would somehow kill me. It was the most confusing thing I had ever experienced, because my only fear was ME, and I would never hurt my kids or myself, yet I felt like it would kill me. It would somehow take my life. I wouldn’t make it out.
But I did. We did.
In the “thick” of my OCD, all of my “purposeful” thoughts or any thought that wasn’t part of my obsessions, needed to be positive—but not just positive, they had to imply in all ways a positive outcome for everyone. Any interpretation, no matter how far-fetched, that could be made in which, for example, my children were not okay, was unacceptable. Let me give you an example.
A nice way for someone to encourage herself might be to think, “This won’t be forever.” But to me, that was a horrible thing to say, as it might imply that the reason it “won’t be forever” is because my kids would be gone, which could be interpreted as my not wanting them, or wanting to get rid of them. So I had to phrase my self-encouragement oh-so carefully: “WE will get through this.” Not just “I”—but “WE”—me and the kids, would get through it. No unwanted, scary interpretation possible.
To someone who isn’t suffering with Harm OCD, either of those two statements would probably work as “pep talk” to get themselves through the day, but to me they were night and day different. I would also do little things to “prove” to myself that I loved my kids. If I did certain things for them, that meant I loved them and I wouldn’t hurt them. My OCD set in very early in Easton’s life, so early, that I hadn’t made it to the government center to buy his birth certificate. For a while I thought, “You didn’t get his birth certificate yet because you wish he wasn’t here.” It was easy and obvious to me then that, obviously, if I went and got his birth certificate that would mean I wanted him and my OCD would be cured. (Spoiler alert: I did get the birth certificate and no, that didn’t heal me.)
I’m sharing these memories and stories because I know how hard it can be. I know what it is like to see someone with a “mental illness” plastered all over the news for a mass shooting, and fearing what this means for you. I can picture the wheels in your head turning, “He had a mental illness…I have a mental illness too!”
I’m here to lovingly encourage you and say: you can change your thinking. Right.This.Instant. You see, I thought like that. I would constantly look for similarities between myself and whoever was doing awful things instead of recognizing our polarizing differences. My mind was betraying me, every second of every day. My brain was breaking my heart over and over again.
Here’s the truth: there are many people who have (a wide variety of different) mental illnesses and who are capable of getting so sick that they do hurt people. There are also many people without mental illnesses who make unthinkable choices. Unfortunately, we cannot always answer why people do what they do. But in all of this, there is something certain: people with OCD don’t hurt people.
OCD is tied to anxiety. Anxiety takes what you care about most and twists it into a worst-case scenario. In my case, I cared so much about my newborn that the second that my brain felt like he was being threatened (by me), it went into overdrive to try to figure out why and began to steadily raise my anxiety in order to keep the baby safe. As long as my anxiety was high, Easton could stay safe. OCD put those fears on repeat. I was a “broken record” of horrible thoughts. The thoughts became so automatic and uncontrollable, I started believing that if I couldn’t stop the thoughts, I must want them. If I wanted them, I must agree with them, and if I agree with them, I must be capable of acting on them.
None of this, however, was true. Statistically, there was a 0% chance that I would ever hurt my kids (numerous professionals and literature on the subject have assured me of this). Underneath it all, OCD was about the obsession of protecting my kids. When my brain felt they were in danger, it glommed onto those thoughts in order to “figure them out” and find a meaning. However, there was never and will never be a meaning. I thought something weird and horrible. That’s it. It was a weird thought and I became obsessed with it.
I really feel for people suffering with Harm OCD right now. It is the worst feeling in the world to see your biggest fears plastered all over the TV and internet. The fact that, this time, kids are involved probably makes it hit even closer to home. My biggest advice right now, however, would be to look for the differences, not the similarities between yourself and whoever is worrying you. One of my most intrusive thoughts happened after every time my therapist would reassure me that I was okay and my kids would be safe. I would think, “What if she’s wrong; what if I prove her wrong? What if I prove everyone wrong and hurt someone?” This was always immediately followed by a surge of fear along with the immediate thought of, “What the heck is wrong with me? Why would I ever WANT to prove them wrong!?” And THAT my friends, is why OCD is so hard, so crippling, so debilitating. There is a constant tug-of-war with your thoughts and it begins to feel next to impossible to differentiate them from each other. For a solid four months, I lived my life on complete “auto-pilot,” never doing the things that my mind was saying, but instead relying on my natural instincts to lead me through the darkness.
So please, if any recent events are triggering you or scaring you, reach out to someone. Bad people aren’t scared of being bad. Evil people don’t have a terrible thought, then spend the next year in therapy and on medication because of it. People don’t just “snap.” Things don’t just happen out of the blue. Please don’t let people who have done horrible things keep winning and scare you. They aren’t you. Focus on your life, your family, your story, your healing.
Chelsea Elker is a mother of three beautiful kids: Brayden (7), Easton (3), and Ella (1). She stays home with her kids and her husband Joel travels for work. Chelsea’s world revolves around them and she couldn’t be any happier with her family now being “complete.” As happy and content as she is now, she was also a mom who experienced postpartum OCD, anxiety, and depression after the birth of her second son and now wants to spread hope to other moms who are still in the trenches. Chelsea has come out on the other side of this illness stronger and ready to make a difference and help others. After almost losing her voice to this illness, she has regained her strength and is ready to give others hope!