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My OCD Can’t Keep Me Safe From America’s Gun Violence—But It Tries

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It was the 1980s. Washington D.C. was being called the “murder capital” of America, and the nightly news in Northern Virginia where I grew up showed an onslaught of Politics, gangs, drugs, and guns. The little television stacked on the microwave was always on. At the dinner table, Dad snapped the newspaper open. Mom hurried with a warm batch of rolls. The reporter said “drive-by” and “shooting” over artistic close-up camera footage of blood puddled in the street. The puddle strobed red and blue as if lights were shining up through a portal that the blood had opened in the street, where the dead go and don’t return. It was a portal I was afraid I’d slip through—one I thought about constantly and where I feared my own blood would spill.

Getting shot is not my story. In reality, certain historical, governmental, and racial forces were at work in the nation’s capital that, if they’d been explained to me at the time, might have offered some clarity that I—a 10-year-old middle-class white girl—had a low chance of being targeted. But my then-undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) didn’t care about that.

When OCD attaches itself to your darkest fears, it doesn’t consider the likelihood that the thing you’re afraid of will happen. OCD says the danger is here. Now. And in many ways today, 40 years later, the continued proliferation of gun violence in this country says the same thing. At least, that’s how I hear it.

A common behavior in people with OCD is reassurance-seeking. “Are you sure that’s not a man with a gun on the porch? Will you check again?” But when I was a kid, I did the opposite. In the mornings, the news programs were the same as the night before. A torn “CAUTION” tape flapped in the breeze. The camera zoomed in on blood that had dried dripping down a curb. I spooned sugar into my bowl of cereal while eyeing the window for a gunman to appear—here, now. In my head, I heard gunshots and shattering glass, envisioned hiding behind the island cabinet or escaping to the living room.

Read More: What Does It Mean to Have OCD? These Are 5 Common Symptoms

It’s not that I didn’t want a gentle hand of assurance on my shoulder, to hear the words “you’re safe.” But asking for it would have meant saying out loud the violent things I was seeing in my head—violent things that seemed to exist in no one else’s head but mine. Here was my sister at the breakfast table, tracing a route through the maze on the back of the cereal box. There was my mother reaching deep into the fridge. I was the only one checking the window for guns. There was something deeply wrong with me, I figured, so I kept my thoughts to myself.


At my family’s church, the pastor told the congregation God wouldn’t give us more than we could handle, and we could handle more than we thought. I don’t know if he meant that to feel comforting. I sat in the pew trying to be perfect, turning to the right page in the hymnbook and not wriggling in my ruffled dress. Secretly, I’d tap my toes inside my shoes, left-right, left-right to the beat of the counting that was beginning to take over my mind. “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four.”

God already knew what I was afraid of, so there was no sense begging for it not to happen. He was going to teach me a lesson about how much I could handle, and guns were the one thing I couldn’t bear. And that anxious feeling I got when I thought about it could be eased by the ritual of counting.

Anything four was good, and four was everywhere, especially my bedroom. The bulletin board where I pinned my gymnastics ribbons had four sides. Windows had four sides. The ceiling, where I’d always wanted to stick glow-in-the-dark stars but wasn’t allowed because they might peel off the paint, had four sides. “One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,” I would count and count, pointing my toes left-right, left-right under the sheets. The ritual was a kind of self-soothing. The numbers running through my head were as close as I could get to manifesting that warm hand on my shoulder I was too ashamed to ask for. OCD promised I could keep myself and my family safe. If I counted the sides of the window, no bullets would be able to pierce through the glass. If I pointed my toes, I wouldn’t die. So that’s what I did at night instead of praying.


In my 20s, I sought help for depression and anxiety, mental disorders that come along with OCD, but not the OCD itself. I did talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. One therapist told me to wear a rubber band around my wrist and snap it every time I had a negative thought. Bad dog. No. Another asked me to hold a lightboard in my lap and watch two orange bulbs flash alternately left and right. It triggered the counting. The therapist asked me to call a disturbing thought to mind, but I could hardly think about guns when the lights were triggering the very thoughts that drowned out the thought of guns: one, two, three, four, left-right, left-right. The therapy wasn’t working, and I didn’t know how—or wasn’t ready—to tell the therapists why. And some of it was confusing in relation to my OCD rules. For example, does visualizing violence count as a negative thought if it’s keeping me safe? And even if it wasn’t keeping me safe, I wasn’t ready to risk breaking the spell.

I was in my 30s, sitting on a slippery leather chair in the office of a therapist who specialized in OCD, when I finally shared enough of my secret thoughts to be called out for their flawed logic. I wasn’t ready to talk about guns, but I told him other OCD things, like how I’d kept my plane from falling out of the sky by counting the four sides of the rounded rectangular window the entire two-hour flight. And that’s when the therapist said something like, “So, you believe you’re holding up the airplane with the power of your mind?” The insinuation was that this was a preposterous thing to believe, and if I could only recognize how preposterous it was, my problems would go away. The counting and tapping and flashes of violence that made me flinch would all go away.

If that was the key, if I just had to “get it,” then by that logic, I should have been cured already. I wasn’t stupid. But OCD doesn’t obey the rules of logic—and it didn’t go away.

Read More: What It Really Means to Have Intrusive Thoughts

Exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy is an effective treatment targeted for obsessive-compulsive disorder. But even when I’d found that OCD specialist, I didn’t talk about guns. When I’d told him about the intrusive visualizations of driving the car off the road into the water, he’d wanted me to drive on the highway more often, the one with the bridge over the lake. So, if I’d told him about the intrusive visualizations of gun violence, would I have had to look at pictures of guns? Would I have had to hold a gun? Shoot a gun? Watch more videos of gun violence?

Part of my mind says it is logical and correct to be afraid. In 2019, Amnesty International issued a Travel Advisory for anyone planning a trip to the United States “in light of ongoing high levels of gun violence in the country.” It says to avoid “places where large numbers of people gather, especially cultural events, places of worship, schools, and shopping malls.” That seems reasonable enough for the length of a vacation, but what about those of us who live here?

The violence, the gunshots—it doesn’t stop. In 2023, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 656 mass shootings and 40 mass murders in America. There were over 43,000 total gun-related deaths including suicide. And since 2020, firearms have surpassed any other cause of mortality for teens and children. The U.S. has failed to protect its people from the threat of gun violence—a failure, according to Amnesty International, of its obligation to do so under international human rights law. Instead, condolences of “thoughts and prayers” offered by politicians in the wake of the latest mass shooting have become a meme-ified, disingenuous catchphrase, a stand-in for inaction.

This is where the tricky promises of OCD sneak in. Because OCD isn’t logical; it’s emotional. When I’m feeling the most helpless and afraid, OCD says, “Here’s an action you can take right now: Count! Tap!” OCD says that just thinking about gun violence, as long as you do it until it feels “right,” can prevent gun violence from happening. These days, the longer I lie in bed and think, the more deeply I conjure the same horrific scene unfolding again and again—the man muscling through the door to murder my family, revising the struggle for the gun like a choreographer who approaches her dancers to lift his arm higher, turn her hip, deciding who trips on the fringe of the rug and when—the slower the world of objective reality turns around me until all that exists is this meditative, circular rumination. In those minutes, my thoughts feel powerful. So far, my family hasn’t gotten shot. I haven’t gotten shot. It’s working.

But it only works to prevent the exact scenarios I know about. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it breeds more of this kind of thinking. And before long it becomes clear—there are countless ways to die.


OCD is prayer, incantation, rumination, and superstition, all rolled into one. If a bullet is coming, then “one, two, three, four.” I count until the counting replaces the imaginary thump of the bullet hurting me or someone I love. I count until I can’t stop counting and then the problem is not the bullet but the counting, and no one around me knows I’m doing it, and I’ve been doing it for days and months and years and decades. And through it all, I feel exhausted and alone.

Read More: Guns Are Not Just a Public Health Problem

Some nights I quietly tap the navigation buttons on the remote control compulsively in a pattern, right left top bottom, and if I try to stop, I get this restless feeling in my hand and think maybe the living room will be hit by a drive-by shooting. Sometimes I tap so fast I press a button by mistake and pause the show or skip it back 10 seconds, and my husband looks over and says, “What are you doing?” I’m mad when he goes up to bed first and leaves me sitting downstairs with the impossible task of passing through the foyer alone in the dark by the window where the man on the porch points his gun at my head. How can he abandon me like this? How come he gets to amble up the stairs unafraid. Like he’s not even thinking about guns. Like he’s safe in his own home.

I want to get better. Sometimes I practice on my own, pausing ever so slightly with my back to the window. My neck comes alive with creepy crawlies. The important thing is not that I do it until I don’t feel afraid, but that I do it until I can do it without counting. Even delaying the rituals by seconds or minutes is progress. I try to resist the intensifying sizzle of walls and frames and books and shelves taunting me with whispers of four. I still my toes inside my shoes. I dare to walk calmly upstairs and not race on all fours gripping the carPet, outrunning an imaginary bullet. Some nights I glide past the window on my way to bed and don’t think about the gun at all.

And then, our phones light up with a neighborhood alert. A young man has shot and killed a young woman at the grocery store two blocks from our house. All night, he’s on the run. Police patrol the streets shouting at people to get back inside their homes. Our neighbor’s garage is open, overflowing with furniture and boxes. We call the non-emergency line to say it’s a good hiding spot and maybe they should check. This time, it is logical and correct to check. Our kindergartner is asleep upstairs.

In America, it’s possible to get shot anywhere, and it’s probably going to be captured on video. If gun violence isn’t happening to us in our own neighborhoods, it’s happening on the screens inside our homes and in the palms of our hands. As a nation, we are exposed to guns. But that exposure is not a form of therapy. If exposure to guns alone could cure me, I should have been cured already.

And all that time and effort I’ve spent distracted by rituals? It’s been a waste. It’s been no more effective than thoughts and prayers.

On lunch breaks, I walk to the lake one block from my office. Someone has zip-tied stuffed Animals and plastic flowers to a sign in the parking lot, along with the laminated photo of another victim of gun violence. Over the weeks, a mylar balloon sinks lower to the ground like a weary ghost.

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