Hey guys! While I can’t share most of the articles I wrote for Magazine Reporting & Writing this semester since they’re about other people and I haven’t yet received permission to publish them anywhere, there is one that I’d love to share with you… and because it’s a first-person piece, I can do what I want with it!
But first, I’d like to thank Emily Dixon for her article “To the Left of Normal,” which provided the inspiration for this piece. I approached my professor about writing my take on the disorder and, while he ended up acting like an asshole during my presentation about the finished article (it’s a loooong story), I’m so so so glad I chose this topic because writing about mental health has always been therapeutic for me: In figuring out how best to convey what it’s like to others, I process the ideas and hopes and frustrations that have run through my mind for quite some time. (He actually ended up giving me an A, said I’d done a wonderful job on the article, and told me it was “easily publishable.” I’m never quite sure what’s going on in that mind of his…)
Aaaand that’s quite enough blathering on from me. I hope you enjoy! Let me know if you have any questions; OCD is still widely misunderstood so I’m happy to clear things up if you want me to!
P.S. I’ve included several videos about OCD that particularly resonated with me! Hope you enjoy those, too.
I’m running late. Again. But I can’t leave yet. Something doesn’t feel right. I open and close my dorm room door two, no, three, no, four times, hoping no one is in the hallway because I don’t want to be seen. How would I explain what I’m doing?
I glance at the clock – which shows the same time it did when I last looked, less than thirty seconds ago – and run my hands through the pockets of my coat and pants, not merely checking to make sure I have everything I need, but double- and triple- and quadruple-checking.
There’s a niggling worry at the back of my mind, telling me there’s something I’m missing: What is it? Oh! I’m going to be late. My brain latches onto that thought and repeats it over and over as I take a deep breath and finally leave for class, by this point fully convinced that if I don’t keep repeating the phrase “I’m going to be late” in my head until it feels, somehow, right, that something bad will happen. Logically, I know this isn’t true, but the idea of ignoring this impulse makes me deeply uncomfortable.
I feel a headache coming on. It is only 7:32 in the morning. I hope I’m not late for anything else. I hope I don’t zone out in class later. I hope I don’t end up crying in a bathroom somewhere because I just can’t take it anymore.
Life with OCD is not the joke it’s made out to be. The societal perception of obsessive-compulsive disorder, as it is more formally called, is all-too-frequently regarded as cute, quirky, funny, or just plain made-up. At least a few times a week I hear someone say that they’re “so OCD” because they like to color-code their planner or alphabetize their bookshelves or make sure that picture frames and mirrors are hanging just so on the walls.
That’s not OCD. That’s garden-variety fussiness. Obsessions are recurrent, persistent thoughts, urges, or images that are intrusive and unwanted, while compulsions are repetitive behaviors or mental acts that the individual feels must be performed in response to an obsession. Although compulsions are intended to alleviate the anxiety caused by the obsessions, in reality they cause a great deal of distress because. They. Never. End.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition – the holy book of psychiatry – specifies that the obsessions and compulsions are time-consuming, taking up at least an hour per day, and cause “impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”
I’m obsessed with time. I check wall clocks, my watch, the clock on my phone to see how much time has elapsed – wasting time in doing so, I know full well.
I’m obsessed with phrasing, too. To other writers, this may seem like a gift, but after repeating, say, the same three words aloud or silently for possibly hours at a time because something feels off and you don’t know how to make that feeling go away, it becomes hell.
My compulsions include multiples of four, opening and closing doors, checking if doors are locked, rereading words on a page, turning my phone on and off, and rocking back and forth. Some don’t seem like they will ever go away. Others stick around for years before finally, gradually, mysteriously disappearing. I remember always needing to step into a room with my right foot first back in elementary school. In high school, I washed my hands until they were red and sore, making excuses when my parents asked what was up.
Not unsurprisingly, individuals with OCD are far more likely to suffer from depression than the rest of the population, sometimes even leading to suicidal thoughts, attempts, or completed suicide. It is associated with anxiety as well. I have dealt with depression since age eight and generalized anxiety disorder since twelve – no easy feat – but consider my OCD by far the most debilitating condition.
Even on a comparatively “good” day – one where I’m able to better cope with my symptoms, resisting the obsessions and compulsions for hours at a time – the loneliness gets to me.
I don’t know any people my own age who have been diagnosed with OCD. On top of all the usual stressors of young adults – school, work, parental expectations, peer pressure, dating, planning for the future, and more – a neural abnormality leaves me thinking thoughts and performing actions ad infinitum, then trying to hide what I’m doing out of embarrassment.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve asked my best friend what it’s like to not have OCD. Sometimes I jokingly ask if we can switch brains, only to immediately feel guilty because I would never want to put her through this.
When I was very young, I thought everyone was like this. As I grew up, I began to realize they were not: About 2% of the population has OCD. Now that I know better, it’s somewhat comforting to realize that I have a chemical imbalance or misshapen neural structure – no one knows the exact cause of OCD, but the aforementioned theories are currently the most popular – and that none of this is my fault. It doesn’t make me less of a person, either.
On the other hand, that doesn’t make it any easier to accept that very few people share my experience or know what to say when it becomes obvious that there’s something distinctly unusual about my behavior.
It doesn’t make it any easier to reassure my mother when she breaks down crying on the phone because OCD is probably genetic and she feels like this is all her fault. (Twin studies have shown that OCD is most likely hereditary. I’m not actually sure if her sister, my aunt, was ever formally diagnosed with OCD, but she certainly seems to display some of its symptoms.)
I wish the jokes would stop. It bothers me that they’re based on false assumptions, of course, but they bother me more because they make it so difficult to figure out who actually has this disorder: Did this person describe their love of color-coding or alphabetization as “so OCD” because they’re uninformed, or because they really do have OCD and were being sarcastic?
I enjoy color-coding my notebooks and folders for class, but that doesn’t make me OCD. (It just makes me someone who appreciates the handiness of being able to grab all the blue items for one class, all the green items for another, et cetera.) In times like these, I don’t feel comfortable calling them out. I feel ashamed. I don’t know how to convey why I’m like this, because I don’t fully understand myself.
In trying to convey what my mind is like, what the sheer frustration is like, I’ve turned to writing. Initially this was intended solely to help others understand, but I now do it as much for myself as for anyone else. Over the years I’ve stumbled across other writers with this condition, returning to their books and interviews frequently.
Graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, in the memoir Fun Home, speaks of her creativity taking on an aspect of compulsion, and in a 2007 interview for The Comics Journal said that “complicated and painstaking work… just kind of harnesses that compulsive energy in a constructive way.”
I’ve been trying to harness it myself, lately, to help me process my thoughts and aid in what recovery can take place. There is no cure. Medication and a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention, which aims to help patients learn to tolerate their discomfort and anxiety, can lessen OCD’s severity, but ultimately this will be with me for life.
Its voice sometimes whispers, sometimes shouts, as I try, with varying degrees of success, to put pen to paper and describe it. Having so few role models and friends with the disorder is hard because there isn’t exactly a set path to follow – something to turn to when I’ve exhausted all other options – but it is freeing too. I can choose my own path.