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This Is What It’s Like to Be Obsessed With Perfection

From the outside, my life looked perfect. But in reality I was locked in a fierce battle with OCD, constantly struggling with intrusive thoughts.


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In 2017 I was in the throes of some of the darkest moments of my life—but on paper it didn’t look like that. I had just finished a national tour for my first book, The Crowdsourceress, and positive coverage had started rolling in. My company, which launched crowd-funding campaigns for stellar creators worldwide, had raised a combined $20 million to help bring their creative projects to life. Journalists were calling me a wunderkind and a guru; my name was even added to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list. By the looks of things, I was killing it.

But alone one day soon after the tour ended, I couldn’t leave my bed. Sobbing on the phone to my mother like a terrified child, I was deep in a spiral of repetitive, fearful thoughts. My skin was crawling with anxiety.

This wasn’t my first total meltdown. I had suffered from these obsessive thoughts of uncertainty for almost two decades of my life.

In the clutches of obsession

I grew up a happy kid—spunky, opinionated, and incredibly curious. But something happened in my preadolescent years: I became painfully afraid of bad things happening to me. From what I remember, it started when I was around 10. After watching a nineties horror film, I became wildly obsessed with the idea of being abducted by aliens. I would lie in bed every night, imagining all the ways I could be abducted, and then rush into my parents room, begging to sleep near them for protection.

The author, pictured here as a kid with her mom, has always been spunky and curious. Courtesy of Meg Daly.

I didn’t have these terrorizing thoughts just at night though. On some idle weekends I would find myself pacing back and forth indoors, thinking about the various ways I could be tortured by the aliens that would eventually abduct me. I remember so clearly one Saturday morning my dad pointing to a painting and saying, “This painting exists. Aliens don’t. You have a higher probability of being abducted by this painting!” I laughed, relieved, but still uncertain.

When I eventually let go of my alien obsession, I moved on to another fixation: perfection.

I was finishing fifth grade and applying to a prestigious middle school. I told myself that I had to get in—in my mind, if I failed, it would irreparably derail my entire life. Fixated, I would complete all my homework, organize it neatly in my sparkly folders, and get into bed early. But I couldn’t go to sleep: Instead I would pray relentlessly, pleading for straight A’s. Fearful that my homework could suddenly disappear into thin air while I slept, I’d anxiously jump out of bed to check that it was still there. I would do this about 20 times a night.

By the time I turned 12, my obsessions shifted again, this time to a subject on many a preteen mind: sex. But I wasn’t fantasizing about a new crush or exploring pleasure as my body went through puberty. Rather, I was terrified of anything related to sex—it got to a point that I didn’t want to be touched, fearing any unpredictable sensation in my body. My obsession became so paralyzing that I would retrace the most innocent of past interactions, analyzing them for the slightest improprieties and confessing whenever I felt something could have been perceived as wrong. Whenever I did have a sexual thought—all of which felt weird and deviant—I would fixate for hours on end about what it meant about my identity as a person, rocking back and forth into what seemed like a hole of darkness.

At first, as with my other moments of catastrophic crises, I implored my parents for reassurance, describing my graphic fears in detail. But I realized that this new obsession felt different—it was too taboo. I stopped sharing and began internalizing my rituals, while another obsessive idea set in: I really believed that if my parents knew my thoughts, even though they had been my biggest supporters so far, they would disown me forever.

Playing the part of perfection

When I started high school, I became really good at hiding my internal battles—so began my years of trying to cope on my own. I would power through episodes of distress by throwing myself into piles of work as a necessary distraction, or avoid situations that triggered the anxiety. The intense dedication to my work helped me excel, but it masked the obsessive thoughts playing on loop in my mind. In college I had two majors, a minor, and an honors thesis, but I remember thinking I could have—should have—done so much more.

Over the years my parents pushed me to try therapy. I pleaded against it. I was somehow managing on my own, and since I had been trying to project this perfect person—straight A’s, good girl, hardworking—therapy would mean there might actually be something wrong with me.

After college, feeling lost like so many postgrads, I finally relented. I started seeing a psychotherapist, whom I stuck with for almost seven years. Over time I divulged my fears to her, squeezing my eyes shut and gripping the sides of the couch for emotional support during our sessions. Sometimes I thought it really helped—opening up about my obsessions was like opening a release valve, letting off just enough pressure to keep me going.

But these moments of relief were temporary. My obsession with perfection was still all-consuming, and my irrational fears were bleeding into other areas of my life. When I fell in love with my now boyfriend, the new relationship brought along a new fixation that literally kept me up at night: I was constantly afraid that he would die while I was asleep. When he would go out with friends or travel for work, I’d call him—several times a night—to make sure he was still alive, sometimes only getting an hour of sleep. I lost weight from the anxiety and even had to ask my friends to sleep over to get by. It was excruciating, and I felt humiliated.

By the end of my book tour, I couldn’t distract myself any longer. I was in a serious relationship and running a thriving, successful company, but underneath it all I knew something was very wrong. I finally realized that too much was at stake not to get help. So my mom and I did what most of us do when we think we have nowhere else to turn: We searched the Internet.

I certainly don’t advocate for this route over an actual doctor, but our search did point us in the right direction. Turns out the Internet is full of people with symptoms like mine, many of them tied to one diagnosis: obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

Living with obsessive compulsive disorder

Most people associate OCD with being hyper-orderly or frightened of germs, but that’s just skimming the surface. To put it simply, OCD is characterized by obsessions (unwanted or “intrusive” thoughts that cause anxiety) and compulsions (behaviors we create to try to get rid of these thoughts). My fears around sex and death and my endeavor for perfection produced these intrusive thoughts, which I would try to fend off with behaviors like reassurance, checking, rumination, and avoidance—classic OCD symptoms.

Today, living with OCD is still difficult, but manageable. (Julia Hembree Smith)

Part of what makes OCD so powerful is that it latches onto the things that matter most—sex, health, religion, relationships, even the very meaning of life. It turns random, irrational thoughts into fixations that take over: Have you ever been on the subway platform and thought, even if you would never seriously consider hurting yourself, What if I jumped? Most people will dismiss these aimless thoughts and move on, but someone with OCD might obsess over them: Do I actually want to jump? Do I want to die? What does it say about me that it even crossed my mind in the first place? You might be so freaked out by the thought that you’ll avoid taking the train all together.

After my initial google search, I found a behavioral therapist who specializes in OCD. When she confirmed my self-diagnosis, I began weekly sessions of exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy, for which I put myself in situations that created anxiety. Yes, deliberately. For 50 minutes I would do things like hear frightening words on repeat or watch triggering movies, closing my eyes and imagining the worst. Then, with the guidance of my therapist, came the real challenge: I had to force myself not to engage in compulsions to fend off the anxiety. I had to face the monster head on with my arms opened wide, letting the uncertainty swallow me up.

Six months of this anxiety-inducing therapy pushed me to the brink—to this day it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do—but my therapist insisted I stick with it. After a lot of work, it started to finally pay off; one day I went to work, looked up, and realized that for a moment my brain had gently quieted. My obsessive thoughts were there, but I didn’t feel the immediate urge to engage with them.

Some days now my mind is crystal clear, calm like a quiet ocean in the early morning. I still have bad days—I am certainly not cured and probably won’t ever be—but I am constantly working on it. It’s as though I have two jobs. Every day I am working, and I am healing.

I used to have this little paper fortune taped to my computer that read: “All you ever wanted was to be safe and sound.” It’s true, I crave that feeling. It’s my mother’s voice over the phone, telling me everything will be all right, my boyfriend sleeping next to me at night. Now I am learning to find this peace inside of me.

All this time I thought that my OCD couldn’t coexist with the woman I always wanted to become: happy and successful, safe and sound. But I have realized that all these things can live together in the open—beautifully complex and intertwined.

Alex Daly is the founder of Daly and a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexdaly__.

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This post originally appeared on Glamour and was published May 13, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

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