Harm OCD: The Anxiety Disorder No One Talks About

Here's what I do when I can't stop thinking violent thoughts.
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Caly Hope
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Here's what I do when I can't stop thinking violent thoughts.

Trigger warning: This article discusses self-harm and suicide. Please read with caution.

Ugh, I groan. I'm daydreaming again — but not like a fun daydream where I control the narrative and good events happen. I'm not envisioning myself winning a triathlon with my hair in perfect sweaty tendrils. No, instead, my brain is showing me the same picture over and over again: myself, with a noose around my neck, preparing to jump.

"OK," says my brain, "but this time, the rope isn't long enough, so you just kind of strangle. Here's what that would look like. Isn't that cool? Let's see it again!"

But then, while we were examining the way the rope would snap, we weren't focusing on what my eyes would be doing, so we need to replay this version of this scene about 15 or 20 times. After, we'll watch the version where my neck snaps, and maybe later, we can do some internet searches about other potential ways it can look. What a lovely afternoon my brain has planned for me!

A self-portrait of the author.

A self-portrait of the author.

I suffer from Harm OCD, which is a rarely talked-about form of OCD in which the person feels constantly afraid of doing shitty things to others and/or themselves. The thoughts are ego-dystonic, which means that they are inconsistent with the person's actual beliefs and desires (which I was thankful to discover). It's not that I want to kill myself, it's just that I want to think about it a lot. My brain feels like a separate entity from me, and sometimes it's just easier to let it do what it wants. 

Harm OCD should be treated by medical professionals, and if this sounds like something you're going through, you can get help.

However, I'm not here to pretend to be some sort of expert. Instead, I want to tell you about some things that I personally do when the medication fails and the obsessive thoughts get to be too much. Do not take anything I am saying as medical advice (unless it helps you, in which case, tell me about it, let's be BFFs). 

Here's what I do when my brain is taken over by thought-demons intent on making me star in the 20th sequel in the Saw franchise.

I surround myself with people. 

I cannot count the number of self-help articles that suggest you drop all your social engagements the moment a tendril of anxiety springs up in the fertile soil of your over-exerted brain. However, I find that solitude just feeds into the obsessive thoughts, so interacting with people who expect me to form coherent sentences can be a godsend. Even just getting coffee with a friend reminds me that while my thoughts may be out of control, my actions never line up to them. 

I turn my pets into therapists.

When my brain is obsessed with the idea that I would hurt someone else, nothing is more soothing than the discovery that I will not actually follow through on that action. And the clearest proof of that is my bunny. He depends on me for survival and I haven't let him down yet. Plus he doesn't speak English, so I can tell him the worst thoughts in my arsenal, and he'll be like, "Dude none of this is getting me closer to a treat. Get your shit together." He doesn't work pro bono because he knows the value of his time. 

I avoid alcohol.

Now is not the time to call your party friends. Yeah, the thought of pounding shots until I can't remember my name sounds fun, but unless I plan to go from sober to totally unconscious in 15 minutes flat, I'm going to embarrass myself. My brain is not operating under normal rules right now, and that's a problem. I won't have the presence of mind to gauge other people's reactions properly. My joke about Jeffrey Dahmer is going to fall flat, and then I'll be seen as the crazy girl that is obsessed with necrophilia for some reason. Everyone talks about this girl (I've been this girl), Don't be this girl. Besides, alcohol and meds are never a good combination. 

I read books about serial killers. 

Nothing is more soothing to me during these episodes than a biography of Ted Bundy or a rereading of Helter Skelter. I have had this disorder for longer than I have been obsessed with books about serial killers, but the two have formed an interesting symbiosis. Reading about terrible crimes highlights the fact that I do not want to commit them. Harm OCD is your brain on a continual loop showing you things that don't make you happy; Ted Bundy legit got off on having power over people. All I want is for the images to go away. We are not the same!

Comforting reading.

Comforting reading.

I write. 

Writing is the fucking best, you guys. Did you know some writers find it hard to write action sequences? J.K. Rowling famously said that writing the Quiddich scenes was the hardest part of writing Harry Potter. This is not a problem for me during these episodes. My brain is focused on actions. 

I wait it out.

Honestly, it doesn't really matter what you do. Harm OCD is kind of like a bad acid trip (do not actually take acid while suffering from this disorder) so sometimes you're just going to have to wait it out. Write down your thoughts, burn them later, laugh at them later, whatever. The important thing to remember is it's like going through a bad flu. You're sick right now, but you're not going to be tainted for the rest of your life. Just keep managing it and you'll be fine.

If you're interested, here are some places that give better information about this than I can: