Sitting on a panel in a large banquet room at the International OCD Conference, I nervously glanced down at the word ‘groinal’ I had written on the pad of paper in front of me. Should I say it out loud? Sean Shinnock was speaking passionately about his experience of working toward recovery from Pure OCD/Intrusive thoughts, but all I could think about was that word on the paper glaring at me.
What if I say it out loud and everyone gives me dirty looks or thinks I am seriously crazy?
As Sean wrapped up his story, I looked at both he and Alison Dotson and made a quick decision. I guess this is just like practicing Exposure Response Prevention; I’m going to take the risk of saying it out loud to the crowd of people and live with the uncertainty of how they will respond!
I proceeded to talk openly about what has been coined as the groinal syndrome. This happens when exposure to a trigger from a sexual obsession causes you to question whether or not you feel a sensation in your groin. This is perhaps one of the most terrifying, ensnaring, and shameful aspects of Pure O/sexual obsessions. This phenomenon can single-handedly keep people from asking for help or disclosing their most torturing symptoms of OCD to a professional.
Why does it happen?
There are many explanations to help individuals understand why the groinal happens, but the bottom line is it happens to keep us trapped in the cycle. The explanation of why doesn’t matter. We cannot answer why we end up with a particular obsession, so trying to figure out the why in experiencing the groinal syndrome will have us running in circles.
The easiest way to explain it is this: If I told you with absolute certainty that your family is going to die in a plane crash if your elbow itches, you’d be very conscious of whether or not your elbow is itching and you’d second guess whether or not it really was itching. In fact, you may be so hypervigilant about your elbow itching, you’d probably subconsciously cause your elbow to itch to try and justify if it was really itching or not.
This is the logic behind the groinal syndrome. None. There is no logic. It makes no sense. It doesn’t prove or disprove anything. It exists to freak us out so badly that it could take us down with one twinge in the crotch. It is truly maddening.
The groinal showed up for me in my teenage years when I was battling some serious sexual obsessions. I actually knew there was a distinct difference between being aroused sexually and this horrible panic of a feeling in my groin area when triggered by OCD. But not being able to decipher the exact difference kept me in the cycle of seeking proof and disproof:
I just looked at my cat’s hind area, did my groin just move? I think it did! Should I look again to prove it did or didn’t? What if I did feel something? What does that mean? Does that prove I am attracted to my cat? My cat is a female, does that mean I’m attracted to females? Does that mean I’m gay? Should I find a male cat and see if my groin moves when I look at him to try to prove I would like males better? Wait, does that mean I’d be attracted to male cats? Ahhh!!! HELP!
This inner dialogue seems comical, but I couldn’t stop it from happening. It seemed if my physical body is reacting, there is no way I couldn’t consider the obsessions to be somehow true. I would become trapped in a cycle deciphering if my groin really moved and if it actually did, was it something I liked or didn’t like? I could never accurately recreate the sensation, so I’d get stuck worrying whether it really happened or if I imagined it. There was never a definitive answer. There was never an end to the torment.
The groinal syndrome was the main reason I kept silent. When all other triggers or ruminations could almost be proved as irrational or ridiculous, the groinal syndrome was a dark secret I deemed the one thing that may prove my obsessions were real. There were times I felt I had convinced myself the sexual obsessions were irrational and maybe a phase, but then I’d remember the groinal syndrome and lose all hope. How could I argue with physical sensations? Doesn’t that make it a reality?
After a suicide attempt, hospitalization, and diagnosis of OCD, I still kept quiet about these terrible feelings I had in my groin. I was terrified if I told anyone about them, it would disprove I had OCD and I’d have to live with the idea that my obsessions were real and the diagnosis was wrong or fake.
My silence was shattered when I began Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) treatment for OCD. My doctor pointedly asked me one day if I ever experienced sensations in my groin in response to my sexual obsessions. It felt like my head was lit on fire when he asked me that question.
Why is he asking this question? How do I answer? Do I tell the truth? What if I say yes and he says that proves I don’t really have OCD and these sexual obsessions are true and real? What if I lie and say no and he says, well if you don’t that means you don’t have OCD? Then he’ll know I lied and may not trust me enough to work with me! What do I say?
I cleared my throat and stalled as long as I could.
‘Well…um…yes…sometimes…I think I do…’ I answered shyly.
‘Okay, that’s typical with sexual obsessions to have groinal movement. Let’s move onto the next exposure…’ he casually replied.
I burst into tears. This is part of OCD! I’m not some freak person who can’t control my physical reactions! I can’t believe this groinal movement isn’t my fault! Oh my God, I’m going to be okay!
But, similar to having knowledge about OCD doesn’t magically stop symptoms, knowledge of the groinal doesn’t stop it from happening. It is still uncomfortable and alarming when it happens now, even 18 years later. But it sure does help knowing it is part of my illness. It also helps knowing I am not alone in my experience of it and the shame and embarrassment that comes along with it.
I took a deep breath on the panel at the OCD conference, took the risk, and said the words out loud about what the groinal syndrome is and how horrible and shameful it is to experience it. I did it because I didn’t want anyone to question the reality of their diagnosis. I did it selfishly so I could know there were others who experience it as well. But mainly, I did it so others knew this groinal syndrome was real and we don’t have to be ashamed. We don’t have to be embarrassed. We don’t have to feel guilty. And we don’t have to suffer in silence anymore.
I found out very quickly the risk was worth taking. Many people were shocked this was an actual symptom of Pure O/sexual obsessions. Many people were grateful to know they were not the only ones experiencing this. I was grateful I could say it out loud in a room full of people and not be judged or labeled a freak. It was an incredible moment of triumph for all of us sufferers of Pure O.
A few days after I arrived home from the conference, I opened my email to find a message from someone who had been in that presentation. She could identify with the groinal syndrome and her message to me was simple and hilarious:
Never trust the groinal!!!
The symptoms of Pure O/Intrusive thoughts can be sneaky, paralyzing, and can make you question everything about yourself. Never underestimate the power of the disorder. But never forget you are not alone in your symptoms and your battle. Never stop fighting, never give up, and always keep winning against this beast that is Pure O!
Thank you for taking the time to read!
Mental Health Advocate/Public Speaker; ERP Coach & Peer Support/Effective OCD Treatment; Peer Support/Behavioral Healthcare Inc/Institute at Ft. Logan; Crisis Intervention Team Presenter/Denver Police & Sheriff Dept.; ‘Mental Illness Matters’ Radio host