ATHENS, Ga. - Carly Hill remembers the turning point, when she hit a wall, back in 2015.
She was driving home from her job at a children’s camp.
For most of her life, the now 22-year old UGA student had been struggling with anxiety and repetitive behaviors.
At 11 or 12, she says, she began repeatedly checking the doors at night to make sure they were locked.
That day, driving home, Hill started thinking about some recent school shootings in the news.
"I just remember thinking, 'Oh, my this is another one. This is so terrible. Like, what possesses someone to do that,” Hill says. “And then OCD came in, with the thought, 'Well, what if you did it? What if you just, like, snapped one day?’”
Just like that, that thought got stuck in her brain, and took on a life of its own.
"So, then, when I started to see my friends, or see my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband, I would think. ‘Oh, my gosh, what if I killed them?’
“People around me, that was kind of their reaction, like, 'You would never do that. That's just ridiculous," she remembers.
But, the thoughts didn’t feel ridiculous. They felt real.”
Hill became convinced she might be capable of anything.
"So, then the thoughts came of, 'Well, I need to take myself out before I hurt other people,’" she says. “So then I started having thoughts of, ‘I'm just going to crash my car into a tree,’ stuff like that."
Hill gave up driving, and took a break from working.
"Like I really, really believed I was a risk to other people,” she says.
Hill came to see licensed clinical social worker Kasey Brown, President of OCD Georgia.
Brown diagnosed her with obsessive compulsive disorder, or OCD, a brain disorder in which people can become plagued by intrusive thoughts, and then driven to compulsive behaviors to try to relieve their anxiety.
Hill says she had symptoms of OCD as a child
Brown says OCD is a spectrum. Some experience mild symptoms, while some, like Carly, struggle with severe anxiety.
The cycle of OCD typically begins with a question, like, “What if?”
"What if I didn't turn my hairdryer off? What if I didn't unplug it? Then my house might catch on fire,” Brown says. “If my house catches on fire, then my family might be trapped inside. If my family is trapped inside... So, again, it starts this snowball effect."
Next comes the compulsion part of OCD.
Brown says, “(That is) the thing that I do to try to alleviate this incredible sense of discomfort and pending doom."
Someone with OCD might repeatedly check the plug, the door, the stove, or wash their hands, over and over. Convinced, if they don't act on their compulsion, something terrible could happen.
"It's not just a quirk,” Brown says. “It's not something that, 'Oh, I like to do (this.)’ It's something that I have to do, because if I don't, I don't know what is going to happen.”
Driving, Carly Hill would suddenly become convinced she'd hit a pedestrian.
"And, I circle back around, and I see they're perfectly fine,” she says. “You would think in that moment I would be 100% sure. But, the minute that I drive away and I can't see them, the question asks, it asks itself again."
Hill got help from an antidepressant medication known as an SSRI and a type of cognitive behavioral therapy known as Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP.
"It's kind of like a relearning process, a rewiring of your brain,” she says.
With ERP, Brown taught Hill how to confront her fears or intrusive thoughts without falling into the familiar rituals of OCD.
After a year and a half in therapy, she’s making real progress. She’s driving again, and back in school.
"It's incredibly difficult, and time-consuming,” Hill says of ERP.
But it’s also given her the skills she needs to cope with the thoughts that once controlled her.
She knows she’s facing a life-long journey.
But, Carly Hill feels like she's finally breaking free of fear.