‘I thought my brain broke’: Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) derailed my life; cycling helped me get back on course

OCD tried to make my life as small as possible. Cycling and reminded me why it’s important to live beyond boundaries

Kristin Jenny
(Image credit: Kristin Jenny)

I knew from a young age that something in my brain was not quite right. As a little kid, I had to do things nine times - touch a doorknob, walk up and down a step, or read a sentence. Something in my brain told me that doing various activities nine times was extremely important or else something bad might happen. What that bad thing was, my brain never shared. Best to just do things nine times, it told me. 

At the same time, I sensed that this was not normal and did my best to hide it from my family, friends, teachers and sports coaches. For the most part, I did a good job. Over time, the urge to do things nine times faded and was replaced by a deep-seated anxiety to be a hyper-achiever at school, sports, internships and social relationships. 

I was seen as a classic highly ambitious kid and was never evaluated for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or any other mental illness. I accepted that my attention to detail and anxiety about grades and doing things “just right” meant that I cared. And to a degree, I was right. I cared a lot about everything. My brain seemed OK with this setup until it was suddenly very much not OK on a day I’ll never forget.

On Thursday, November 2, 2017, my brain broke

A woman with her head on her hands

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I had just moved to Colorado after graduating from college in Pennsylvania. I broke off a bad relationship, had a corporate job waiting for me in Denver, and couldn’t wait to ride my bike in the mountains I’d dreamed of living near for so long. 

However, when I began my job in July 2017, I started having episodes of what I, at the time, called “brain freakouts.” I would, seemingly out of nowhere, get extremely panicky, and have a difficult time calming down. I would have a thought that scared me, like what if I threw a chair through one of my office’s giant glass windows. I would then spend the next hour convincing myself that it wasn’t something I’d do. 

These episodes and thoughts increased in frequency, but like a good endurance athlete, I pushed through the discomfort. 

The Mayo Clinic describes obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) as "a pattern of unwanted thoughts and fears known as obsessions. These obsessions lead you to do repetitive behaviors, also called compulsions. These obsessions and compulsions get in the way of daily activities and cause a lot of distress."

Much of OCD is hidden and silent, which means those with it may be living each day in hidden agony. The illness presents your brain with an ego-dystonic thought, often known as an intrusive thought –an obsession– and then, the effort  to “clean up” the thought becomes the compulsion. 

“Cleaning up” the thought can involve physical actions like touching something nine times or washing your hands, or it can be invisible to others and involve mental gymnastics like rumination or desperate attempts at reasoning with yourself. 

Obsessions symptoms:

- Fear of contamination or dirt.

- Doubting and having a hard time dealing with uncertainty.

- Needing things to be orderly and balanced.

- Aggressive or horrific thoughts about losing control and harming yourself or others.

- Unwanted thoughts, including aggression, or sexual or religious subjects.

As my struggles with my then-undiagnosed OCD progressed, getting through a workday calmly and productively became increasingly more difficult, however. 

Those ego-dystonic thoughts crept up in nasty, frightening ways; I started fearing my runs and rides outdoors because I would get pervasive thoughts about jumping or swerving into traffic even though I knew that was not something I wanted to do or would ever intentionally do. As a result of these chaotic thoughts, I started to think perhaps I was going crazy, and as a result, became extremely nervous about my sanity.

On November 2, 2017, I was sitting in an important work meeting with a V-level executive, and  had a million thoughts swirling in my brain about being crazy, people finding out I was crazy, and losing my identity as a newfound crazy person. Those thoughts got louder and louder as I tried to focus on what the vice president was saying. But I couldn’t focus on both his words and the ones yelling in my brain, so in the middle of the vice president’s presentation, I stood up and quite literally ran out of the room and into the nearest bathroom, where I had a severe panic attack. 

I couldn’t breathe, I broke out in hives, I wasn’t sure what was real, and I had intense feelings of doom. I truly believed I was either going to die in that bathroom or be sent to a psychiatric ward. 

Fortunately, my manager at the time sensed something was wrong, found me in the bathroom, and drove me home. I am eternally grateful for her compassion at that moment. 

I used to look back at November 2, 2017 as the day my brain broke. While I had demonstrated OCD-like tendencies throughout my youth, I had never struggled with such powerful intrusive thoughts before. I now know I am not broken, but for a long time, it sure felt like I was.

It is not uncommon for someone with OCD to suffer with the disorder for as long as 13 years before receiving an adequate diagnosis and help

- National Library of Medicine

Small is safe

Image of a woman looking outside her window

(Image credit: Getty Images)

I’d like to say that after that panic attack at work I hustled to a psychiatrist and immediately accepted a diagnosis of OCD. However, I did just the opposite. 

I refused to believe I had any type of disorder. A disorder would make me, ever the perfectionist, imperfect. Mental illness was for the truly sick, deranged people, or so I thought. I did not grow up in an environment where mental health was discussed and initially had an embarrassingly negative view of people who were challenged by mental health changes.

OCD encouraged me to make my world very small. My panic attack was so visceral and disturbing that I grew an intense fear of having another one in public where people would see how “insane” I was. 

The grocery store became scary, so I had my groceries delivered. The work place became intimidating so I never left my desk. Going to dinner became overwhelming so I opted for takeout instead.

Perhaps the one thing my brain refused to give into was eliminating what I loved most: expressing myself with swimming, riding and running. As a dedicated triathlete, I thrive on spending time outdoors doing all three disciplines, especially cycling. 

My mother was an elite cyclist in the 1980s. As such, I grew up learning how to paceline and my first road bike, a hand-me-down from my mother, had downtube shifters. Cycling is in my blood. 

As my OCD convinced me that every inflection point in my life was potentially threatening and panic attack-inducing, I eliminated some of my favorite bike routes on remote roads in the mountains, avoided busy intersections, and stopped riding with friends. No, my brain said, these are all far too difficult for you to handle. What if something happens, like a panic attack?

I limited myself to one extremely boring bike route in Boulder. It was a long, flat square that totaled about 20 miles when completed. I would ride it over and over to rack up mileage, all while telling myself that this was still fine, I was still out riding. 

The same went for my run routes and swim sessions at the pool. I eliminated fun, risk, and chance. Small is safe, the OCD monster whispered while tightening its grip on my airways and grey matter. 

What I loved most was slipping away from me. After about six months of succumbing to the OCD monster each day, I confided in a friend that the things I loved most, cycling and spending time with friends, were gone. I had no more joy.

Compulsion symptoms:

- Washing and cleaning.

- Checking.

- Counting.

- Ordering.

- Following a strict routine.

- Demanding reassurance.

 My friend encouraged me to pursue therapy and medication, as she herself had found success with both for similar reasons. I was nervous to admit that I might need these resources when I had been so ardently against them for so long. 

Fortunately, I found that my brain is a phoenix. Burn it all down and it rebirths itself. 

An almost-imperceptible phoenix feather pushed itself out of the ashes of my burned-down brain and said “You must try to get better. You must. There is more to life than this.” 

Returning to the road 

A woman rides a triathlon bike on an asphalt road with the ocean to her right.

(Image credit: Kristin Jenny)

A study published by the National Library of Medicine found that it is not uncommon for someone with OCD to suffer with the disorder for as long as 13 years before receiving an adequate diagnosis and help. It is also not uncommon for OCD to fully set in in one’s 20s or 30s.

There are many reasons for this, but one of them is the common misconception that OCD only presents as a desire to wash your hands hundreds of times and color-coordinate your closet. 

I was diagnosed with OCD by a licensed psychiatrist in 2018, becoming of the estimated three million Americans challenged by this insidious disorder.

As I gingerly pursued both therapy and medication with a gracious psychiatrist who never rushed me into either, I began to find joy again. 

I distinctly remember two instances that showed me the phoenix in my brain was regaining strength: singing in the car on the way home from work after months of gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, and the day I started taking different cycling routes instead of my usual boring square. 

Reconnecting with my sport, and cycling in particular, was a gigantic part of my OCD recovery and healing process. Cycling is an inherently scary sport. You must remain focused yet aware of all possible dangers such as cars and potholes. You need to stay calm when faced with road rage or a busy intersection. You must remember the way home. 

My psychiatrist challenged me to expand my cycling routes just a bit each week during my longer weekend rides. Even just a quarter of a mile beyond the limits OCD set for me would be a success. I learned how to sit with mental discomfort and how to quell the intrusive thoughts OCD threw at me when I’d nudge my front wheel past previous imagined boundaries. 

It was hard. I had some rides where I’d pushed past a boundary and found myself physically shaking, both out of fear and out of the adrenaline of having done it. Each time I re-explored a road or route, I told OCD that I was moving us forward. OCD was no longer in the saddle. I was.

It has taken years of therapy, medication adjustments and at times, utter agony, to be where I am today. 

I do not believe that OCD is something to be “managed” or “coped with.” I am a whole person, not something to be managed. I believe in healing from OCD. I believe OCD is part of who I am, and I choose how to interact with it. 

I still ride the OCD wave from time to time, getting caught up in an intrusive thought pattern or two. I still sometimes worry I might swerve into traffic without meaning to, but now I know how to give my brain a hug in those moments and say, “Thanks, brain, but I’ve got this.” 

Since my diagnosis in 2018, I have traveled all over the world on my own, gotten married, reached incredible heights as an elite amateur triathlete, met amazing people and learned how to be candid and compassionate even at my lowest moments. 

I truly thank OCD for showing me that safe is not small, and small does not mean safe. Every time I explore a new mountain road or say “f*ck it, let’s see where this road leads,” I am reminded that being alive is one thing, but truly living and being willing to experience every emotion available to me is what this life is all about. 

Getting help:

It took me 22 years to get help for OCD. Nothing would make me happier than knowing a piece I wrote encouraged even one person to pursue mental health much sooner than that.

While the best course of action is consulting with a licensed psychiatrist and/or therapist, some resources and articles that I come back to again and again are listed below.

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