This article originally appeared on VICE France.
It's not uncommon that, at some point in your life, you've been sitting and talking to someone when you flash on the image of doing something horrible to him or her. It could be a friend, a lover, or someone else you didn't necessarily want to see drowning in a pool of his or her own blood, but usually it's a flash—a thought that immediately vanishes. These violent thoughts might persist a bit longer when you're stuck in traffic with a bunch of dicks or sitting across from a colleague who is audibly enjoying some noodle soup for lunch, but mostly you'll forget the daydream right after it came to you. And if you do remember, it won't worry you too much—you know you wouldn't actually kill someone.
But these kind of visions aren't that fleeting for everybody. For people like me, for example. I've suffered from Harm OCD for more than six years. Harm OCD is a psychological disorder characterized by an obsessive fear of doing something you know is wrong—something gruesome, criminal, or transgressive. You're obsessively afraid of turning out to be a pedophile, of committing murder or rape, of having an uncontrollable violent fit that would prove to yourself you're a monster.
The key here is that the obsessive fear of not being able to stop yourself doing something gruesome isn't the same as the desire to actually do it. People with Harm OCD aren't more at risk of acting on their impulses than any other person. They just live in a constant obsessive fear of that risk.
For me, it started with an anxiety attack when I was 17, and generally carefree and happy. One day, I just started freaking out—a feeling that stayed with me day or night. I felt the kind of fear you'd feel right before going into the most important job interview of your life, but in my case, there wasn't any job interview. I was terrified, and I had no idea why. Those times are a daze for me now. I spent most of my free time asleep if I could, annoyed with my friends and unable to focus on anything but my anxiety.
Then one night, while I was trying to sleep, a thought slipped in my mind. For a split second, I imagined going into the kitchen, getting ahold of a sharp knife, and making my way into my parents' room to savagely kill them in their sleep. That thought convinced me that I was going officially mad. My anxiety suddenly had a focus.
From this moment onward, I was obsessively afraid that I would kill my parents. I'd have some rational moments telling myself that I knew I'd never be able to do that, but those moments would always lose to the question: What if? What if tonight I went crazy, lost control, and really did grab a knife? It was all I thought about—at school, sweating and panicking through my classes, and at home, eating dinner with my parents, afraid to touch any sharp knives.
What if my therapist was wrong? What if I was really sick, and he just hadn't noticed?
Looking back I see how my anxiety worked kind of like the way an autoimmune disease works—when the immune system that usually protects you starts attacking your body. The part of my subconscious responsible for knowing what is right and wrong overpowered the rest of me and affected my mental health and happiness. I couldn't see it like that at the time. I was convinced I was going crazy. After a few years, I was at my wit's end, and I made an appointment with a psychologist.
When I came in for that first appointment, I fully expected to leave there in a straightjacket, thrown in an ambulance to be locked away in some institution. The first thing I told my psychologist was that I thought I was schizophrenic. But after rambling away for about ten minutes, I noticed he wasn't looking very impressed. He assured me that I wouldn't have made an appointment with him if I had actually been psychotic or a psychopath, which was a relief. He explained to me what Harm OCD was, and that it is actually a relatively common disorder—a study from 2007 found that 78 percent of people with OCD have what is called "intrusive thoughts." And many people suffering from actual Harm OCD won't be diagnosed because they don't recognize their thoughts as OCD. Twenty minutes after my psychologist had reassured me a bit, we had a plan to treat me and an appointment for the following week.
I was finally diagnosed, but the relief didn't last very long. I never again thought of killing my parents, but new chilling thoughts popped up: fear that I was a serial killer, that I'd have sex with animals, that I was a repressed pedophile. It all went through my mind. Despite the help from my psychologist, I could never entirely control the thoughts and subsequent fears that overtook me. What if he was wrong? What if I was really sick, and he just hadn't noticed? Whenever one vision left me, a more terrifying one took its place.
Right now, I'm mostly afraid of subconsciously being a pedophile. When I see a child in the street, I'm flooded by questions like: Why did I look at him? What am I thinking? Is this a repressed desire? I have a little sister, and being around her is incredibly stressful—not because of an actual desire, I know that, but because of the fear I might have one.
Through therapy, I've learned some ways to deal with the fear, to not be completely paralyzed by it. When a thought comes to me, instead of trying to run from it, I try to accept it for what it is. I won't repress the thought, but try to be detached from it and see where the thought goes. If I'm not repressing it, generally the vision is neutralized—I'm assured I don't actually have the desire and the panic subsides.
Talking about it to other people helps, too. On one online forum about Harm OCD, I met 27-year-old Lola, who told me about her disorder. Like me, she suffers mainly from the fear of being or becoming a pedophile, but it's particularly hard for her because she's the mother of a two-year-old. While taking care of her son, she lives in constant terror of harming him and not being able to stop herself. "It's very difficult to live with, but I know it won't happen, and I try to manage it day to day. In recent months, I've started suffering from another intrusive thought: I'm obsessively scared that I no longer love my husband. When I see him, I constantly observe his movements and analyze how I feel about them to determine whether I still love him or not. All day I replay the moments we last saw each other in my mind, dissecting every moment. Why didn't I laugh when he made that joke? Why didn't I sleep with him last night? I know I love him deeply, but I can't stop questioning it."
That struck a chord with me, because I've obsessively asked myself the same question while being in relationships and drove myself nuts. But I'm not married, and I don't have a child—my OCD so far hasn't ruined any family bonds. Talking to Lola about her ordeal has helped me to put my situation into perspective.
After having seen a number of therapists, I had more or less given up the idea that I'd ever truly be rid of my OCD. I've always been very skeptical when it came to psychotherapy and refused any medication, so I felt stalled in my condition. Recently a new therapist suggested to me cognitive behavioral therapies to treat OCD and anxiety disorders. The treatment involves exposing someone gradually and in phases to the source of their fears. Meanwhile, you learn to do relaxation exercises to control the physiological effects of the fear. Additionally, you'll do exercises at home in between therapy sessions that confront you with the object of your fear, like holding a sharp knife or hanging out with your little sister instead of avoiding her. I am currently in an early stage of this therapy.
The one thing I have learned is that the more you try to fight intrusive thoughts, the more frequently they'll come to you and the more violent they become. I know that the first step for me is to take a deep breath and accept the thoughts forming in my head. My fear and disgust are actually proof that there's nothing wrong with my morality.