Stigma Fighters: Zach Liberatore

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Stigma Fighters: Zach Liberatore

“My Struggle with OCD”

            Throughout the entirety of my life up until my sophomore year of high school, I considered myself to be a very outgoing and enjoyable person. I had plenty of peers and loved going out to either just relax and talk with friends or carouse and have a “memorable night”. I felt as if my outlook on life was always positive, rarely ever feeling gloomy or downhearted. My grades had always been exceptional and I worked tremendously hard with everything I did; which included sports and school. During my sophomore year of high school I was in the last class of my day and at the time we were watching a movie. Everyone was getting ready to depart, putting their books and pens away. I put my pen away and for the first time ever I had experienced that horrible, anxiety-filled feeling. I kept putting my hand into the compartment of my backpack where the pens were and endlessly rearranged them. I absolutely had to make sure the pens were lined up perfectly, not one pen even a millimeter in front of another. Even if the pens did happen to exactly align, I would have continued to fix their positioning because I never felt as if it was “right”. I had my eyes and hands locked into that section of my backpack for the next three hours after the bell rang. I had a practice around seven o’clock and that is the sole reason why I stopped; because I was essentially forced to.

            This rather small or insignificant incident ultimately led into six years of mental torture and instability. There is no way that I could possibly include every symptom of OCD I’ve experienced in this essay, but I will certainly attempt to highlight the most distressful ones. Once the OCD became relevant in my life, my academic grades began to drop at an exceptionally swift pace. I couldn’t take notes in some of my classes because of OCD, which became incredibly impactful. No matter what I had written down on my sheet of loose leaf paper, it was never good enough. It occasionally took me about forty-five minutes just to complete one handwritten word. The bottom of the letter had to lie perfectly against the blue line that guides your writing. If I identified any sort of edge instead of smooth lining I would promptly scribble out the word. There was no specific criterion or standard for the writing of the words, I just hated how they appeared no matter how they were written. Taking tests obviously became an issue because even if I knew exactly what to write for an essay, it would take me much longer because I would be erasing and scribbling out sentences, and words, the whole duration of the essay section. I never informed any of my teachers of the problems I was dealing with because I felt ashamed. Consequently, I would fail many tests because I couldn’t finish writing the essays.

            Reading started to become a monumental annoyance as well, which also directly and negatively impacted my academic performance. It would take hours just to read one page of a book or school textbook because I had to slowly scan every word of the text. I would say out loud every letter of the word then be able to define the word before I moved on to the next word. Clearly this was extremely stressful and time consuming. I reached a stage where I no longer took notes, read, completed homework, successfully finished tests, etc., because of my OCD.

            My life slowly became very number oriented and what I mean by this is exactly how it sounds. During a period of time the only numbers that sat well with me were five, seven, eight and nine; any other number bothered me to a high extent. I began to fail math tests and quizzes because my brain wouldn’t allow me to use certain numbers. The worst part was I knew all of the answers but if I were to write down the correct numbers, I would panic. I specifically liked those four numbers because I applied each one to members of my family: nine for my mom, eight for my dad, seven for my youngest brother and five for the two middle brothers. Anytime I would use any number besides these four, I would feel as if I was disrespecting my family and even firmly believe something drastic would happen to any of them. I began to frequently count the steps I took and would incessantly turn around and walk back to a certain destination because the number of steps I took wasn’t “right”. My liking for numbers became a little broader when I began to also use multiples of the four specific numbers; but even then it was still immensely torturous. For example, I would leave class and walk to meet up with a group of friends, intently counting the steps I took to reach them. I couldn’t engage in a conversation because my mind would be so consumed with anxiety because I knew I didn’t take the correct amounts of steps to reach them. I would walk back and forth up to twenty times occasionally whether it was at school, home, practice or anywhere in general.

            Not only did the arrangement of certain items bother me, but also how I felt and touched them. For example, I would accidentally touch the wall and almost immediately feel the urge to touch it a couple more times. That couple more times would turn to seven, then fourteen, then seventy-seven, then seven hundred and next thing I know I would spend hours next to a wall merely touching it. I would have to force myself to leave a classroom once the bell rung or else I would’ve been in there for hours, repeatedly touching my desk. Even if I was able to leave, I would remember that I did not touch the desk or chair in that room enough times, so therefore I would go back later in the day to finish the ritual.

            The way I spoke and how I pronounced words became another uncontrollable issue. I started to totally avoid hanging out with people because I couldn’t even speak without repeating a word over and over. Just like everything else, I may have realistically been able to properly pronounce a word, yet it still didn’t feel “right”. I would be speaking to my mom and she’d indicate that I was recurrently repeating a certain word. Sometimes I would find the will and strength to halt it while having a conversation no matter how bothersome it was, but then I would eventually remember the word and end up repeating it over and over later in the day.

            The event that triggered my loss for hope took place during the winter of my junior year of high school. The OCD was becoming more and more troublesome and it was exhibited through my grades, behavior, confidence, etc. I decided to walk into the woods behind my grandfather’s house on a snowy day in an attempt to be alone and clear my mind. I had no idea that this would turn into one of the most traumatizing nights of my life. I walked maybe a couple miles deep into the forest, which left an unfathomable amount of footsteps in the snow. When I had decided I wanted to go back home, there was this voice that kept telling me I had to walk backwards, placing my feet into the footsteps exactly how they were placed when I walked into the forest. I couldn’t even walk back three footsteps because I didn’t think they were placed perfectly in accordance to where they were originally placed. I was in that forest for about five hours, unmanageably crying and seriously contemplating suicide. I finally built up the courage to frantically run home and ignore the steps, but it ended up bothering me for the next five days. The footsteps were gone after sometime so I would go back and make new ones then proceed to walk backwards in them, trying to perfectly place the feet. This was probably the most traumatic and emotionally devastating event but there have been plenty more. Not too long after that, I couldn’t leave a shower because I didn’t like the way I washed my hair, brushed my teeth, walked out, touched the soap, etc. There were days where I was forced to go to school and would wait for my mom to leave so I could go back to my house and repeat everything I had done in the shower, missing several days of school because of it.

            During that same winter of my junior year I had lost all stability and control; I was on the verge of killing myself. My mom and dad took me to Erie Community Medical Center where I stayed for two weeks, missing plenty of school work and football practices. It was a crazy experience yet it changed my life because I was able to meet and relate with other patients stricken with mental illness. I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder here, then prescribed medication and assigned a psychologist once I had left. Although the hospital staff and my new psychologist were able to teach me ways to cope with the disease, the symptoms certainly did not just disappear.

            Throughout my senior year of high school and the summer following it, I had experienced new forms of the OCD and in no way, shape or form were they pleasant. I began chewing tobacco towards the beginning of high school and noticed it relieved some OCD related stress. As I did it my senior year senior, it became another outlet for the OCD instead. I would move to the tobacco from side to side in my lip up to a hundred times. If I wasn’t satisfied with how many times I had done it after I took it out, I would throw another in and continue the process. I went through a full tin within an hour because I would take a pinch out and put another in due to the OCD pressuring me to do it. Driving became another burden and it sucked because I loved driving; plus I had to do it in order to get to school, practice, etc. I would get the urge to drive on both sides of the road but going in one direction. There have been plenty of times where I’ve crossed over into the other lane as another car was approaching. This may have been one of the most dangerous symptoms I’ve dealt with and I could easily say I’ve almost been into several car accidents because of this compulsion. I would constantly see cracks or bumps in the road and would be devastated if I didn’t drive over them initially. It would take hours to get to school or a friend’s house because I would turn around every couple minutes just to make sure I didn’t drive past a crack or bump in the road. I began to detect cracks and bumps on the sidewalks as I drove and decided to drive onto to them in order to run over the bumps and cracks. I have been pulled over for doing so and had to explain to the police officer my mental illness. It eventually became a near illimitable process involving my parents and the judicial system.

            I had experienced a segment of time where I did not like the way I touched items or myself, but it unfortunately reached the point where I would accidentally touch another person or animal and would keep repeating it. I would have to be stealthy about it, but I was caught on numerous occasions repetitively touching someone. I would spend hours petting my dog, not because I had fun doing it but because I didn’t like the way I was petting her. I started to focus in on symmetry: what I mean by this is everything I did, touched, threw, etc., with my right hand or arm, I had to do with my left hand or arm. If I was walking down the hallway and brushed my right shoulder against the wall or a locker, I would have no choice but to turn around and do it with the left. When I ate food with a fork in my right hand, I would force myself to make the same exact meal and then eat it with the fork in my left hand. Sometimes I would give someone a handshake and would try to deceitfully do it again but with the opposite hand.

            All of the stress and torture I experienced throughout high school unfortunately contributed to a lot of negative outcomes. After my experience with OCD, my grades in school progressively dropped until the end of high school. I stopped giving a full effort in the classroom and began to lose connection with my teachers. It took me a long time to complete my college applications because I would have to keep doing them over and over. Because my grades became poor and it took me so long to finish the applications, I wasn’t left with too many prominent colleges to choose from. Luckily I was accepted into Duquesne University and decided to enroll there; but after the first week I had come back home because I knew I couldn’t last any more than week there with the OCD. Sports have always played a pivotal role throughout my life and I had the talent to compete at the collegiate football level. During my senior year I skipped a full day of camp because of OCD related issues and ended up not even starting the first three games of the season. Because of the stress I dealt with on a daily basis due to the OCD, I became a frequent pot smoker. My life eventually became revolved around weed and I lost motivation to get faster and stronger for football purposes. Although I did have a fairly decent season my senior year, I was only left to choose from a couple division three schools to play football at. After all of the physical and mental pain the OCD had caused in my life, I decided that I wasn’t in the appropriate shape to play college football. Everything bad that was occurring in my life was virtually tied to the disease.

            After leaving Duquesne I had no choice but to attend Erie Community College for the fall semester. I was ashamed of my failures and all the opportunities I had missed out on so I completely avoided all of my friends for that semester. I continued to smoke pot to relieve the symptoms and that eventually transcended into hard drugs. I was once prescribed Klonopin for anxiety and was able to find it again during this time along with Xanax. I felt as if these drugs and marijuana were the only relievers for the OCD. Considering ECC isn’t the most difficult school, I was able to do somewhat well even though I skipped countless classes because I always preferred to get high by myself instead. Although the drugs served as instant gratification for the disease, they only made things worse in the long run. The OCD was becoming more and more powerful and it was forcing me to do things I never discuss with anyone. My life was visibly spiraling out of control so I checked into a rehabilitation center, which also focused on mental health treatment.

            I spent about two months at this place and it redirected the course of my life. I was able to refrain from taking drugs and I was also able to meet people who helped me cope with the OCD. I am incredibly thankful for the experience because it saved my life. Although my life has taken a positive route since then, I still deal with OCD on a daily basis and I’m terribly afraid that I’ll have to for the rest of my life. Nowadays the symptoms are totally different than what they once were, but they cause the same amount of pain.

            A lot of the symptoms today revolve around emotionally or physically hurting humans or animals and doing anything that would offend God. It is especially difficult to drive once again because I seriously believe I run over an animal on every road I drive on. If I drive over the slightest bump or run over a noticeable piece of paper, I’ll still genuinely believe it was an animal. I’ll tell a friend or my girlfriend that I’ll be over at his or her house in approximately ten minutes, but it instead turns into a couple hours because I have to keep turning my car around to make sure there aren’t any suffering animals I ran over. I was at my grandparents’ house last night and my grandmother mentioned that anytime their neighbor makes a fire, a foul smell goes along with it. My mind immediately travels to the thought that the people could possibly be burning live animals. Anytime I feel as if I run over an animal or think there is a suffering animal somewhere, I write in the notes app on my iphone all of the information regarding it. It’ll take me up to fifteen minutes just to write a note because I need to be as specific as possible if I want to remember where the animal is so I could eventually check if it’s okay. I could pet my dog and not injure it whatsoever but firmly believe that I did. I’ll lay next to her for hours, apologizing and asking if she’s okay.

            Although I knew it was completely irrational, I started to become weary of hurting insects. I work for my father over the summers and partake in a lot of landscaping. Anytime I mulch or cut lawns, I will see a worm or an ant I put mulch over or run over with a lawn mower, and if I do not take the time to help these insects I could bother me for weeks. After I mulch a certain area, I will literally dig it all back out in order to find the insect I put it over. I missed one of the biggest concerts of last summer because while walking to my car I stepped on an ant. I nursed and took care of the ant for hours straight instead of attending the concert.

            I always keep in mind whether I’m offending God after almost anything I say. I went to see the Conjuring 2 with my girlfriend and at some point during the film I told her I doubt any of the supernatural occurrences that take place in the movie actually happen in reality. I quickly realized saying supernatural occurrences and possessions don’t happen is technically not believing in God; considering if God exists then the Devil exists. I could’ve just said it once but I ended up telling my girlfriend, “These happenings do occur”, up to ten times. I felt as if she didn’t hear me or didn’t acknowledge what I said the others times, therefore leading me to keep repeating it in order to get on “better terms” with God. With OCD you typically have some disturbing images or events that occur in your head. I can say that I have had thousands of them and I know I don’t deliberately think of them. But when these frightening images appear in my head, I realize they’re wrong and immediately become distraught and baffled. I’ve had thoughts of people dying and I will not move on with my day until I “rethink” them. It’ll take me hours to just sit down and attempt to rethink the images or events so that no one is hurt or injured in the vision. This happens at least a couple times a week.

            OCD is usually misconstrued as an adjective in which people use to describe their neat and clean tendencies. I’m sure there are plenty of people who deal with the same symptoms as I do and take great offense to how often the term “OCD” is tossed around. I’m not going to lie and say this has been a cake walk battling the OCD, but I also do not do this often: telling people my story or symptoms. I did not write this to expect sympathy; I wrote it to reach out to the thousands of children and adults who unfortunately must battle the same disease on a daily basis. I wrote this in order to help these intrepid and lionhearted people understand that they are not alone, that they are not freaks. People need to start speaking up as I just did in writing this essay so the world becomes better educated on the disease and will hopefully begin to show a little more empathy for it. This disease has tormented my life the past six years: ruining friendships, opening the door for drugs and causing too much emotional torture and anguish. I will continue fighting this mental battle because I know I’m strong enough and I know I have the support of family, friends and God; I will not let it commandeer my life. In conclusion, I’d like to reach out to the millions of people who struggle with OCD around the globe. This battle is one of the most distressful and hurtful experiences you’ll deal with in your lifetime. It will bring you to your knees, begging God or another higher power to take away the pain. You will debate with yourself whether or not you would like to continue living or not. In these times of discomfort and agony, consider this: defeating this plague will only make you stronger. God chooses his strongest soldiers to fight the biggest battles. Never give up because the world needs you and your perseverance. One day you’ll have full and utter control of the disease and will be able to help others who are just beginning the horrible journey. The people who are skeptical of our struggles and the disease itself are just blind to the capabilities and power of the human brain. Reach out and speak up about your disease because it will only help. Be strong and whether you believe in God or not, know there is some sort of higher power that has your back through it all.

unnamedZach Liberatore
20 years old
Buffalo, NY

Zach can be found on Facebook and Twitter

By | 2016-07-22T12:19:33+00:00 July 22nd, 2016|Categories: OCD|0 Comments

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