I was thirteen years old when I first started thinking that I might be a serial killer.
To clarify, I don’t mean that it was originally part of the everyday worries of my life. I thought about other stuff, too. I worried about acne and body shapes and being popular at school. I daydreamed about boys and aspired to change the world - normal, teenage stuff. It’s just that somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that it was completely and terrifyingly possible for me to grab a knife and stab a random person if I wanted to.
Most people probably can’t pinpoint an exact moment when their life changed forever. I remember browsing aimlessly through boxes of old DVDs at the video store, looking for nothing in particular, when something caught my eye: a cheap horror flick about a young woman being kidnapped and held hostage by a blood-thirsty - but darkly fascinating - psychopath. How could someone do that? And after that: Would I have it in me to be a serial killer?
And that’s when my entire understanding of myself, my values, and the universe as I knew it decided to spontaneously belly-flop into the void.
When I say that my life changed forever that day, I don’t mean to say that I immediately became aware of the change. The passage from “normalcy” to “mental illness” is not an all-or-nothing switch. Instead, it feels like slowly walking down a winding flight of stairs, watching the light around you grow dimmer and dimmer until you start wondering how many miles you are below the surface.
In retrospect, that wasn’t even the first time I ever had strange, obsessive patterns of thoughts. But this one was jarring enough to actually scare me; I’d read a lot of books about teenagers and growing up, and none of them said it was normal to worry about going on a killing spree. I couldn’t ignore a gnawing feeling inside me - like ants crawling under my skin - telling me that something was very, very wrong.
I spent the rest of that day - and the following weeks - on a desperate quest for my lost sense of identity, helped only by my most trusted friend and most dangerous enemy: the internet. For what felt like ages, I researched famous serial killers, their habits, their crimes, their backgrounds. I plunged my hands elbow-deep into the filth and worms of their tragic childhoods, digging for any hint that would draw a definite and impermeable distinction between them and me. There must be something, I thought. Something that shows I am not, and never will be, capable of doing the things they did.
I’ve lost count of the hours I spent surfing websites with such colorful names as Are You a Psychopath? Click Here to Find out!, FBI-certified screening test for potential dangerous criminals, or Hannibal Lecter: portrait of a troubled genius.
My mind started getting flooded by abrupt, incredibly vivid images of things I never wanted to see, nevermind be bombarded with. And yet no matter how much they horrified me, I forced myself to rewind them over and over - just to check, just to be sure I was appropriately disgusted by them. Just to make sure they weren’t enjoyable for me in any way, and that they definitely didn’t seem like a possible future I could envision for myself.
I tried to read everything I could to figure out why I was having these thoughts, but the more I read the worse I felt.
I was seriously starting to consider the possibility that I’d have to turn myself in to the authorities and beg them to lock me up before I could do any harm, when I happened upon a strange, inconspicuous-looking little acronym: OCD.
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard about OCD. I’d heard the term being thrown around occasionally, usually to refer to someone who was excessively neat and had to keep their stuff in the exact right order. So of course, I didn’t draw the link at first. How could I have OCD? I was one of the messiest people I knew.
That was, however, the first time I learned about obsessive-compulsive disorder, which turned out to be something much more complex, bizarre, interesting, and mind-boggling than popular culture had led me to imagine. After seven years of dealing with it, I now know that this simple-sounding acronym packs one hell of a punch.
Reading about obsessive-compulsive disorder felt like taking a breath of fresh air after being stuck underwater for hours. I remember scrolling through paragraph after paragraph of text on my screen and going yes, yes, that’s exactly me!
Most people might not think that finding out you have a chronic mental illness is as exciting as reading the results of a really accurate personality test. (Garlic bread totally is the type of bread I am.) But people have always loved seeing their exact characteristics laid out in front of their eyes for them. And after weeks of worrying that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I was a monster, a cannibal, a “mistake of Nature” as Jeffrey Dahmer claimed in one of his interviews, finding out that I had OCD was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.
After having gorged myself with all the information I could possibly find about OCD - symptoms, diagnostic methods, treatment options, possible causes - I felt confident that I could tell my parents without freaking them out too much. I approached the subject very calmly, announced that I hadn’t been feeling like myself for some time but that I had determined the cause of it; that I knew I had a mental disorder, but not to worry - I had done all the necessary research, and all would be well again in no time.
Obviously since I knew that my thoughts were irrational, I’d be able to make myself be rational again in no time, right?
Possibly the most important thing I learned from the experience of having OCD is that there’s a huge difference between knowing something and truly understanding it. You can know something without understanding it, and sometimes knowing and understanding get in the way of each other.
Knowing that your thoughts are irrational doesn’t mean that you understand how to stop being irrational. So you start questioning your thoughts and yourself, and once you do everything you’ve built your life on starts falling apart. How can I say that I’m kind or compassionate or a good person if I can’t even be sure that I’m not a future serial killer?
Knowing something is peering inside your head and seeing a knot in the wires of your brain. Understanding it is untying the knot. There’s a significant gap between the two. And there I was, seeing the tight knot in my brain as clearly as I could see how tangled my earphones were after spending a day at the bottom of my backpack; but for the life of me, I couldn’t begin to figure out how to untie it.
I finally knew what was wrong, but I had no idea how to fix it. My brain felt like a chaotic, tangled mess.
Two months passed, and I faced the fact that I was going to have to bring up the subject with my parents again. I remembered how calm and proper I had been the first time around - I’d been proud about not bringing it up before I could present them with the solution along with the problem, like a real goddamn adult - so needing to have a second conversation felt equal parts embarrassing and anticlimactic.
I don’t know how much time passed before I had my very first therapist appointment, but I know I didn’t have to wait very long. I made it clear that I had my own hypothesis about what my problem was, and that I didn’t need - or want - my mother to be in the room. I sat down on the couch and stared right at the therapist. “So, it’s like this,” I explained to her. “I’ve noticed these weird things for some time now, and I did a bit of research, and I think I know what I have, but I might be wrong. So I’ll describe my symptoms to you, and say what I think I have, and then you can tell me if I'm right, alright?”
So I told her everything, and she was like, “Yeah, sounds like you have OCD.”
That was the beginning of our four-year long journey together, working on my problems, strengthening my coping skills and relationships with my loved ones, sculpting my personality into something that could thrive and flourish around the walls that OCD had built around me. She was there when I had my first panic attacks, when I started taking medication, when I received my letter of acceptance from college, when I got my first boyfriend. On our last session together she gave me a hug and commented on how much I’d grown. “You were so small when you first came here,” she said.
Physically speaking, I was a scrawny little shrimp at that age, and in a different sense, I grew a lot over those four years. I can’t say that OCD never bothers me anymore, but the shadow it casts on my life is a lot smaller now. In many ways, my brain really is like a pair of headphones; if I just leave it in my pocket all day and forget about it, I know its wires will get all tangled up again. I work hard to keep them untangled, and though some days are worse than others, I know I’m getting better and better the more I try.
Much like the switch from “normalcy” to “mental illness,” going from illness to recovery is not an all-or-nothing process: you make your way back up the stairs in the dark, slowly but surely. In the beginning each stair you climb feels like a hilltop, and little by little you start breathing easier, until at some point you look up and realise you’re in the sunlight.
But I’d be wrong to pat myself on the back too much. The truth is, I was lucky. When I started noticing things going wrong, I was lucky to have access to information. I was lucky to be in a good enough family that I felt comfortable sharing my problems with them. I was lucky to be able to afford professional help. I was lucky to find an amazing therapist who took me seriously, who gave me guidance and unwavering support. I was lucky to get positive results from my medication early on. When I stopped therapy and uprooted my whole life to a different continent after graduating high school, I was lucky to find myself in a warm, positive environment with a great support network. For every step I took forward, I had luck on my side - a lot of it.
No matter how much progress I’ve made since then, I still occasionally remember what it used to be like. I remember how it felt to be that little girl who had no idea what was happening to her. I remember waking up in the morning and wishing that the sky could come crashing down on top of me, squashing me as flat as a pancake on my bed and rendering me wholly incapable of doing all the things I was so afraid I might do.
And that memory makes me mad. Because no one ever deserves to feel that way. And because I know that right now there are millions of people around the world who still do feel that way.
Having a mental disorder is easy for no one, but my journey could’ve been a lot worse; and for many people out there, it is a lot worse. Reaching out takes courage. Finding the right help takes time. Getting an accurate diagnosis can be tricky. Putting in the work to heal and improve yourself is difficult and time consuming. But getting better is possible, and worth the fight.
As we gain more and more insight into the human psyche, and as research continues to uncover new treatment methods, it’s practically a guarantee that we will acquire more and better weapons to fight back against our disorders. Luck may not always be on our side, but time is. And so is hope.