Content warning: this piece mentions Purely Obsessional OCD, intrusive thoughts, and self-harm. This piece discusses rape, incest, and childhood trauma. This piece mentions an eating disorder, pornography, suicidal thoughts, and religious views of sex and sexual purity.
Disclaimer: names have been changed to protect the anonymity of loved ones. This story is written from my memory and old journal entries. The abuse mentioned in this article is not stemming from repressed childhood abuse, but from being mentally ill.
Resources for anyone who is struggling:
Clinic Sexual Assault Crisis Line: 204-786-8631 or 1-888-292-7565
Manitoba Suicide Line: 1-877-435-7170
Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, Mobile Crisis Service: 204-940-1781
The Plot Holes
My eyes shot open. The faux fireplace’s low humming sound in the bedroom next to mine rushed into my ears. I knew what I would hear next.
I whipped my head around to look at the clock. It was midnight.
“Come!” I urgently whispered.
A fluffy body emerged from a cozy cat castle.
I grabbed Minou and ran downstairs to the couch. My body shivered beneath a blanket of cold sweat. A layer of moisture rested on my nose as I desperately tried to hold my breath. My head felt like it was going to explode.
This was the second time I heard the fireplace. It was the introduction to my least favourite song. The melody was the sound of my parents having sex. The beat was the sound of my feet kicking the wall. The harmony was the sound of my mind screaming, “Stop.”
I thought my mom was having nightmares the first time I heard them having sex. The next morning, she told me what was actually going on. I was 12, and I started imagining what sex looked like — Dad on top of Mom, hurting her. It was terrifying. After overhearing my parents twice, I instinctively connected sex to nightmares, pain, and fear. If the average person heard them, they would know the noises weren’t anything but normal sex sounds. Deep inside my head though, it became increasingly violent.
The first time I overheard them, Mom told me they would be quieter next time. The second time, she promised to tell me when I should sleep downstairs.
My feet hurt. Picture frames holding horses, cats, and dogs trembled every time I kicked the purple wall. I scrunched my face up and tossed my head back and forth to keep from screaming.
Shit. I could still hear them.
I grabbed my iPod shuffle and turned the volume up till my ears hurt.
Stumbling downstairs, my tears fell into an armful of pillows and blankets. The family room couch welcomed me again. I tried to cry loud enough that they would hear me and stop.
It was the third time I had overheard them. I was livid the next morning before church. Terror and betrayal tightly held my 12-year-old heart. No one tried to be any quieter, and no one told me to sleep downstairs. My imaginations got worse.
“I had made a promise to tell you ahead of time, and then I broke that promise,” my mom said. We were in the family room where I often used to sleep. This time though, we sat on modern grey couches and nestled our toes in soft new carpet. I asked her questions as I was preparing to write this story. We talked about something that happened nine years ago. After the third time overhearing them, Mom started leaving sticky notes on my pillow. They said, “You can sleep downstairs tonight.” This happened twice a week.
For most people, the topic of “overhearing your parents” is a good place to start a joke. For me, it was a three-year nightmare.
It was the morning after the third time. I cried most of the way to church. They knew I hated the noises. I was quiet on the way home. We stopped at the gas station.
My dad tried to convince me I was wrong for hating the noises.
“God created sex, and it’s good. You shouldn’t be afraid of it,” he told me.
I stayed quiet and looked out the window. Grocery shoppers, university students, elderly widows, and churchgoers stood at the pumps. I watched them, wishing to be anything but the churchgoer, because maybe then it would be okay that I was afraid of sex.
Maybe then it would be okay that I was afraid every time I imagined my dad raping me.
That was a secret though. It only took a month for the original images in my head of Mom and Dad to turn into Dad and me. I refused to tell anyone but Minou because I was a church girl, and church girls would never think about their dad raping them.
I am a Christian. I accepted Jesus into my heart when I was five, and from there I followed the logical path from Sunday school to youth group to young adults’ group. Throughout the years, teachers, youth pastors, and parents heavily encouraged purity.
People praised “purity culture” everywhere I went. I praised it too. Purity culture basically says, “Don’t date, and don’t have sex outside of marriage.” It’s based on 1 Thessalonians 4:3-8, which talks about God’s will for His followers to be holy, and part of holiness is staying sexually pure. While purity culture is right to say God commands sexual purity, it misses the point. God commands overall purity, but this culture focuses on the body.
I chose to wear a purity ring starting when I was 15 so that guys would know I wasn’t going to have sex before marriage. Other people signed purity pledges. I was a witness for one of my best friends when she signed hers. Around this time, I made a rule for myself to not kiss a man on the lips before engagement. This was another highly admired decision; however, I felt like a failure since waiting to kiss until the wedding day would have been a better goal.
I surrounded myself with people who pushed this culture. It was a constant reminder that the thoughts in my head were anything but pure. My journal entry from March 21, 2014 says, “It got worse and worse. Every male I looked at became a predator in my mind — a mental reality that I was in bed with every guy I saw. I felt so completely ashamed for these years and I still do.”
The incessant thoughts were strange to me. I didn’t know how or why they started. My only relief was when I was far away from my dad. I was convinced he would hurt me. He drove me to school most mornings, and I put my backpack between the console and my legs. I sat as far to the right of my seat as I could. The moment he came into a room, I left. I refused to make eye contact with him, and I often pretended not to hear him, so I didn’t have to talk to him.
In February 2014, my one confidant died — the ball of fluff and fur that held all of my secrets yet knew not one of them.
I panicked the day before we put her down. Starting the next day, I would feel alone in a world I didn’t want to be in. That night, I cut myself for the first time.
I told Mom I needed to talk.
Nine years later, I asked her how it felt to hear me say that I was imagining my dad raping me.
“I was completely shocked, and I just felt sick,” she said.
My mom had no idea what was happening in my mind at that time. She knew the noises scared me but didn’t know why. She felt caught between trying to keep her husband happy and protecting me. In the Bible, God says to put your spouse before your kids, but I don’t think He meant it to look this way.
Two months later, I started meeting with my mom’s friend who became a Christian mentor to me. I told her what was happening in my mind. With my permission, she told my mom a more detailed version than I had.
Within days, the office moved upstairs, and I moved to the main floor. I was often jealous of my brother, who had the room down the hall from mine. It was far enough away that he wouldn’t have heard anything, but at this point, I was just relieved to switch floors altogether.
I faced new challenges in my new space. I was afraid there was an evil presence in my room, and I often had nightmares. Some nights I was so afraid that I slept with my light on. Yet, I still felt safer than I had for years.
At the time, I didn’t like seeing my mentor because my mom told me I had to go. Looking back though, she was a gift from God and saved me from many more years of potential pain.
“Can you pray that I would stop having these impure thoughts?” I asked him.
I was also meeting with my youth pastor to get help. In my heart, I knew the main reason I went to see him was because he felt like a father to me. My mind was quiet when I was around him. I wrote in my journal, “I often feel selfish and guilty that I wish my youth pastor was my dad.” Over the next year I became close with his family but struggled when he slowly started to remove himself from my life.
“When a person says, ‘I’m struggling with impure thoughts,’ it means you’re struggling with lust…I never asked anything more. It doesn’t surprise me that the youth pastor was trying to back off a little bit because he also didn’t know,” my mom said during our recent conversation.
I eventually told him what I meant by “impure thoughts.” I was sitting with him and his wife on my family’s deck one summer afternoon. It was hard, and it took a long time for me to get the words out. In the end, I didn’t feel any better. After telling people, I only felt shame and embarrassment.
I spent more than three years begging my mind to stop replaying the thoughts, and it finally worked. The thoughts stopped the moment I found a new obsession.
The First Boy I Thought I Loved
I thought about my new obsession day and night. I was going to marry my obsession.
I told him everything he needed to know about me in a four-page letter, so he knew what he was getting himself into. I structured it like this: Please understand that these images in my head were enough to make bottles of pills and oncoming traffic tempting escapes. You are my salvation, and you are quickly becoming the reason I think of life as something I want to be a part of again.
Unlike the fire of physical passion that seemed to lick at the heels of most lovers, our passion was different. We held hands and shared long hugs and gave delicate kisses on the cheek. I didn’t want anything more. I reached out to him through tears and bottom-of-the-ocean-deep conversations instead. I was trying to recover from an eating disorder, and I cut myself most days. He kept tabs on me, and I will always be grateful for what he did. I’m not sure if I would be alive today if it weren’t for him.
Sometimes he tried or asked to go further than the innocence I treasured. I refused. He loved the idea of biting my ears, but I swiftly turned my head when he tried to. I would laugh and say, “Only when we’re married.” Internally, I was terrified of going too far. I didn’t want to believe it had anything to do with what I imagined in my head for so long. I told myself it was God trying to show me that doing anything physical would be doing something wrong.
I was only 16 when we met, and I never looked at anyone else with the kind of wonder and curiosity I looked at him with. I studied every mannerism and word, plus the big freckle on one of his feet. I used to tell myself, “If he ever gets lost, I’ll tell the detectives he has a big freckle on his foot” — right, left? I don’t remember anymore.
It was our second year together when he made a new friend, Mark. I went to school with Mark, so he was easy to talk to, and it was fine when he started hanging out with our group.
“Why aren’t you happy like you used to be?” My obsession studied my eyes carefully, and it was the one time I wished he didn’t know me so well. I didn’t say what was bothering me.
Guilt faithfully met me in all parts of the day, and after a month of its constant company, I told my obsession I needed to talk. The same guilt that devoured me when I had incessant thoughts about my dad, was devouring me again. It was just a different thought this time.
“None of what I’m about to say is going to make any sense.”
We sat in the middle of a beautiful park. I was about to ruin his world. My fingers traced the wood grain on the bench. I was terrified we wouldn’t be the old couple who sat there in 70 years. I choked before I remembered to breathe. My heart pounded.
I don’t know what happy is. The words rolled through my head like a slow tumble into a melancholy canyon of nothingness.
“My mind keeps telling me—” I stopped. Deep breath.
“My mind keeps telling me that I like Mark.” I choked back the tears.
The words hung in the air like a heavy fog. I reached out to take them back, but they were gone.
“But I don’t actually. It’s just that my mind is really messed up!”
The silence screamed through the peaceful park.
“And there’s something else too. My mind keeps saying I’m lesbian, but I know I’m not. I think there’s some kind of spiritual attack going on with me because I know neither of these things are true.”
Perhaps he said something back, but I wasn’t listening. I was waiting for him to leave, but he didn’t.
The following days were quiet, and so was my mind. My unashamed, wholehearted dedication to my obsession returned immediately.
A couple weeks later when a game of Frisbee broke out at his house like it always did, he sat against the door of the shop watching the rest of us play. I went to see what was wrong.
“I can’t stop thinking that you like him.” He couldn’t even look at me.
My heart broke. I had ruined everything with something that wasn’t real.
Over the next few months we hardly talked about it. I told myself he would understand those thoughts weren’t true, but he still thought they were — just like any other human being would have.
During the day, my mind focused on my obsession, but long nights reminded me that he didn’t cure everything.
Unwelcome visitors in my sleep were familiar to me. When I was a little kid, they were clowns. When I was a teenager, they were men. When I became an adult, they were women and men. Of course, my visitors were only nightmares, but they felt real in the worst way.
Some girls were forcing me to give them hand jobs so they could have an orgasm. I played the words over in my head a few times then decided not to say it. My newest unwelcome visitors terrified me more than usual. I looked across the pitch-black car at my obsession. We sat there in darkness every time I left his house. We talked for as long as we could, sharing our secrets, fears, confusions, and frustrations.
“I’m having bad dreams again.”
My obsession asked what I was dreaming about, and why I was having nightmares again. I didn’t tell him anything more than, “Just things from my past.” He nodded his head, satisfied with my answer. I was relieved.
I often wonder why it felt like a knife turning inside of me when he left a few months later. At first, I thought it was because I loved him with an unheard-of devotion, but over time I’ve realized it was because I loved the salvation he gave me from my own mind.
When he left, I would have to think about something other than him.
The pain in my chest travelled in temperamental hurricanes. Some days I believed I would be okay and other days, even the next moment felt far away. The season that followed my breakup was one of getting to know myself and revisiting my faith, which I had put on the back burner in comparison to my obsession.
It was a season of realizing I may have never loved my “true love.”
When I got into a new relationship seven months later, I couldn’t figure out why it didn’t feel like the first.
A Yesterday from Nine Years Ago
We laughed as we kissed each other on the neck, declaring ourselves free of responsibility for anything else in the world but one another for those two minutes. He pushed himself onto his elbows and looked down into my eyes. His hand moved steadily over my shirt until it stopped on my breast.
My chest seized. My face fell flat. My eyes darted away from his gentle gaze and found comfort in the concrete floor that rested beneath us.
“Are you alright?”
His voice was like a distant whisper trying to break through the intense pressure in my head.
I blinked a few times. “What just happened?”
I tried to brush it off, but our fun ended with me sobbing and curled up in his lap. As much as I tried to push the childhood nightmares out of my head, they always came back at the most inconvenient times.
Some days, nine years ago feels like it was just yesterday.
“I don’t think we’re supposed to be together.”
I never imagined breaking up with Leo. He drove over an hour to see me a couple times a week, and he genuinely cared about me. He was handsome and funny. He had his flaws, but unlike with my first boyfriend, I allowed him to be human, and I accepted his flaws. We had been dating for three months, and I was already running away.
He froze. His eyes studied the floor like he didn’t hear what I had said.
Do I love him?
This doesn’t feel like my first relationship so I must not.
Do I find him attractive?
He’ll get bored of me soon.
Are they happier than we are?
Do I talk about him too much?
He’s just going to leave in the end — even if he says he never will.
My constant questioning continued, and I broke up with him twice — in November for a week, and in December for a month and a half.
It drove me crazy that our love didn’t feel like my first “love.” I thought love meant crying when we were apart and feeling lost when he wasn’t beside me.
October 2018 to January 2019 were the most confusing months of my life. I was notorious for lying to him when it came to how I felt about the relationship. He was trying to overcome a porn addiction and occasionally watched it. I felt hurt when he did, and it was the main reason I broke up with him the second time. The overwhelming questions in my head and the hurt became more than I could handle.
I waited a month and a half for my emotions to calm down and to decide what was important to me. I told him I wanted to get back together and get married. He was wary to say the least. I had broken his heart twice.
We started dating again and made a deal to work through our struggles together.
Five months later he took me out in a fishing boat and stopped on a little sandbar where he asked me to marry him. I was so happy that I forgot to say yes. He stopped hugging me and asked what my answer was.
“YES YES YES!”
We both anxiously anticipated the long-awaited kiss. We drove to a gravel road and I kissed someone on the lips for the first time in my life. It wasn’t awkward. I was mesmerized with the way it instantly made me feel closer to him.
When Leo and I became more physical, guilt quickly flooded my mind. I started to feel guilty when we kissed or when I became “too passionate.” I felt dirty and I wanted to hide every part of me.
For the most part, I am a stubborn ass and hate admitting when I’ve done something wrong. I noticed that as soon as the “wrong” involved something physical, I felt responsible and jumped to apologize for going too far.
Purely Obsessional OCD
There has always been a part of my mind I don’t understand, so for the last nine years I tried to ignore it. I have been to counselors off and on since I was 15. I told them I used to imagine my dad raping me and that it was terrifying. I told them I was convinced I was a lesbian and that I thought I liked Mark. The counsellors usually sympathized but didn’t offer any solution or reason for my thoughts. One told me it was probably just part of growing up. Inside my mind, I reeled at the statement, unable to accept her conclusion.
I’m not label-hungry. I don’t want someone to diagnose me with five different mental illnesses so I can name them off. I am only hungry for the reason why I still feel the aftermath of my thoughts from nine years ago. My relationship with my dad is much better now, but emotions and flashbacks can throw it off balance. I want to know why I sometimes feel the familiar emotions of fear and panic when we are in the same room. I want to know why I sometimes suddenly feel afraid and withdraw from a conversation with him. I want to know why I sometimes have a debilitating fear of crossing my physical boundaries. I want to know why I often question my relationship even though my fiancé consistently protects and loves me.
I wish I could say I found the reason for my intrusive thoughts, and that my mind will finally know what it’s like to truly rest, but I can’t. The closest thing I have to a diagnosis is an email from a mental health advocate, Chrissie Hodges. She specializes in something called Purely Obsessional OCD. I explained the thoughts I had about my dad.
“Unfortunately, it won’t go away on its own and will get worse over time,” she wrote back. She recommended I go to therapy.
According to intrusivethoughts.org, common obsessions are the fear of being gay when you are straight, the fear of not being good enough, and the act of constantly questioning a relationship.
Intrusive thoughts and internal compulsions like avoidance and guilt characterize this mental illness. Having a faith can intensify the guilt. An endless frustration haunted me because no matter how much I prayed and told God I was sorry, I couldn’t escape the thoughts, and I hated myself for it. I’m slowly learning how to separate my faith from the thoughts.
Permission to Heal
Leo and I will be married in three months. Wonder and curiosity weave through my head when I think about it. I can’t wait to know each other deeper and how to love better. Soon I will get to lie down beside someone who loves me unconditionally, who won’t leave, who knows that I’m sick but won’t fault me for it; someone who will pray for me and push me to heal. We are both trying to heal our wounds and understand our childhood traumas. The catch is that his trauma happened in real life, and mine happened in my mind. Something we have come to realize though, is that their effects are both real.
I often struggle to believe something I only imagined could traumatize me. I wonder why I couldn’t just brush it off when I heard my parents having sex. I wonder why I sabotaged my relationship with my dad over something that didn’t happen. I wonder why I find peace from one thought just to be tormented with a new one.
My thoughts don’t suffocate me every day. Sometimes when I’m exploring or drifting my car, it feels like I’ve escaped my mind for one small, but beautiful moment.
Leo gave me $600 to see a counselor or psychologist, or anyone who could help me. My heart felt full in that moment. He truly wanted me to get better. We are both seeing psychologists after realizing we couldn’t heal by ourselves. I went to my first appointment recently. I told her all of my plot holes. She asked why I decided to see her.
“I’ve been ignoring my mind for nine years. I just want to know if something is wrong with me so I can get better,” I told her.
Telling the truth terrified me for half my life. I reached a point where I became more terrified to keep living in a world that makes no sense. When my thoughts start racing or a new intrusive thought begins, I say, “My mind says.” It’s like I’m talking about another person, and that’s the part that makes no sense.
My mind knows well the places I’ve never been.