I Couldn't Stop Thinking Horrible Thoughts, And It Nearly Ruined My Life

For more than 27 years, I lived undiagnosed with Pure O, a form of OCD that is associated with horrible intrusive thoughts.
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Laura Donovan
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For more than 27 years, I lived undiagnosed with Pure O, a form of OCD that is associated with horrible intrusive thoughts.

Up until April of this year, I harbored a secret from almost every single person in my life — the kind of secret that can poison your mind and body beyond repair.

For more than two decades, unwanted violent thoughts and images have flooded my brain during daily life. At times, I've had hundreds of these thoughts in a single day, so you can imagine how many days have been ruined by this pattern of thinking. I was 6 years old the first time I had a violent thought, and though these thoughts mostly disappeared during adolescence, higher education, and the years following college graduation, they resurfaced again when I faced significant career and personal changes in spring 2014.

Laura Donovan child1

Me, age 3.

During fancy childhood dinners, the thought of stabbing family members with my steak knife would pop into my head seemingly out of nowhere. When I ate avocados or peaches, the thought of intentionally swallowing the seed entered my brain. Anytime my parents cooked pasta, I thought about flinging the boiling pot of hot water at them. For the past two years, I dreaded rooftop bars and hotels with gorgeous balcony views because they caused me to think about jumping to my death or pushing someone else to the pavement below us. This made many vacations and would-be fun nights out with friends a silent bummer for me. Everything had a negative association and possibility, and this made it incredibly hard for me to enjoy day-to-day life or occasional luxuries. A trip to Honolulu, several trips to Palm Springs with my fiancé's family, and a short weekend getaway in San Diego were all quietly ruined thanks to my thoughts. They definitely got worse on vacation, as I fought hardest then to suppress them in order to have a relaxing time.

I want to make it clear that I absolutely didn't wish to do or think about any of these awful things, yet the more I tried to ignore my violent thoughts, the stronger they became, and they gradually manifested into aggressive physical problems. I suffered bouts of insomnia, night terrors that made me wake up screaming, and gastrointestinal issues in 2014, which I look back on as a lost year of nonstop horrible thoughts. That fall, when I tearfully opened up about having stomach pains and digestive abnormalities to an emergency clinic doctor, he said what I already knew: that the problem went beyond a physical malfunction.

"You need to let go of the past and whatever else is bothering you," he said. "It's like a brick holding you down. I can see it."

What scared me more than the thoughts themselves was the possibility of losing everything because of them. Though my fiancé has been well aware of my struggle since it resurfaced, he could not understand the full extent of my thoughts or just how frequently this affected me. My worst fear was that these thoughts would inevitably destroy our relationship. Another concern was that the thoughts would somehow cost me my job, my biggest marker of stability. The positive forces in my life could not co-exist with my horrible pattern of thoughts, I worried. The thoughts would win.

I also feared that my seemingly uncontrollable thoughts made me an inherently bad person who would eventually hit a psychological break and live out these horrific acts. After all, I told myself, why would I keep thinking about them if I didn't really want to do them? They made me constantly second-guess my character and sanity. Though I basically live on the internet, I chose not to Google "bad thoughts," as I thought I'd find something that diagnosed me with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or worse. This is why I consider myself very lucky to have organically stumbled upon a Broadly story about bad thoughts nearly two months ago.

The Broadly piece tells the story of several people who, like me, experienced so many bad thoughts that they felt like they must be rotten to the core. Broadly reported that there's a name for this form of mental torture: intrusive thoughts, which accompany an uncommon form of OCD called Pure O. Intrusive thoughts can be blasphemous, violent, or sexual, and though I swiftly learned that most people experience them at some point in life, they're particularly debilitating for people with Pure O.

Laura Donovan fiancé

My fiancé and me at a wedding.

As soon as I realized that I've had Pure O this entire time, everything made sense. I have always suspected I have OCD, as I've demonstrated physical compulsions and obsessions since childhood. I decided to write about having intrusive thoughts for ATTN:, a media company where I work full-time. I interviewed Dr. Steven Phillipson, an OCD specialist who coined the term Pure O, and he told me that nearly everyone experiences intrusive thoughts in some capacity, including him, and he does not suffer from OCD. Dr. Phillipson, who prefers to call these thoughts "creative associations," said that they are utterly meaningless and just the brain's way of making associations. For example, seeing a boiling cup of coffee and thinking about pouring it on someone is merely a creative association and the brain's way of warning someone of potential, but unlikely, danger. Dr. Phillipson said these thoughts are there for a reason. Still, these thoughts can feel overpowering for people with Pure O, and trying to suppress them often backfires because the brain tags the thoughts as unresolved issues.

"If you react to these associations as if they should not occur or as if there's a problem with their occurrence, then the brain tags these thoughts as being relevant or potentially problematic," Dr. Phillipson told me in our ATTN: interview. "The brain is very well-designed to focus on things that it perceives as a problem. So by resisting or by trying to escape from these thoughts, it highlights for the brain physiologically these thoughts as being an issue. Therefore, the brain will place a lot more emphasis and a lot more tension on those thoughts."

Laura Donovan fiancé

My fiancé and me at another wedding, in Orcas Island, Washington.

Once I learned exactly what my problem was, the intrusive thoughts seemed to mostly go away. Thank goodness the Broadly article found me, because I would definitely still have this problem had I not stumbled upon it by chance. I have intrusive thoughts here and there, but I am quick to move on from these thoughts now that I understand they are meaningless. Between spring 2014 and March of this year, I'd dwell on these thoughts for hours and days at a time. I have also enjoyed the tight-knit Pure O community online. I'm currently part of a private Pure O group on Facebook with thousands of members (yes, there are at least thousands of us out there), and I also frequent IntrusiveThoughts.org, an online resource for people with Pure O that was started by my new friend Aaron Harvey.

Like me, Aaron silently suffered from intrusive thoughts for decades, worrying he was secretly a bad person through significant milestones and relationships. He wrote in a Fast Company piece earlier this year that the thoughts freaked him out so much that he once promised to kill himself if the thoughts got bad enough. Though I never actually felt suicidal because of my thoughts, I used to tell myself that death wouldn't be such a negative thing because it would liberate me of my thoughts and anxieties. Now, I no longer look at death as the ultimate freedom of this struggle. I want to be around as long as possible because I'm finally living the way I've always wanted.

A note from the author's friend Aaron Harvey, founder of IntrusiveThoughts.org:

As Laura mentioned, I've had intrusive thoughts since I was 13. As an adult, seeing a knife sitting on the kitchen counter would lead to continuous, flashing images of me mutilating my wife. Walking to work, I would imagine strangers on the street having sex with one another. The more I tried to push the thoughts away, the worse they got. My thoughts became increasingly upsetting, and I became suicidal. As a last resort, I googled “violent thoughts.”

At first, I didn’t find much. But eventually I found some old online medical journals and mental health websites and learned that I had an extreme form of OCD known as Pure O. I refined my search and came across this essay in The Guardian, which made me realize that I was not a monster, that I was not alone, and that there were steps I could take to manage my thoughts better. It saved my life.

While the internet did eventually help me reach a diagnosis, there was still a major lack of OCD resources online. As an entrepreneur and partner at a digital agency, I decided to use my professional skills to change that. Two years after googling “violent thoughts," I launched IntrusiveThoughts.org, an educational hub for the OCD community — a relatable destination for sufferers to find answers and treatment options. A resource I didn’t have for so many years.

If you’re suffering, stay strong. There’s a community of people who are willing to help, and treatment options that will improve your life.