Many of those living with OCD can trace their mental health lineage back to a moment, or at least a vague, indiscriminate period, when Obsessive Compulsive first became a problem for them. It makes its grand debut in a loud, emotional, difficult to navigate, and all-round shitty opening number.
Perhaps not a specific point in time when Obsessive Compulsive reared its ugly head and strode with confidence and swagger as an unwelcome guest into their lives, but at least an inkling in retrospect of how and why those three letters came to leave such a stamp on how they live today. I, however, am not one of these people. I can’t tell you why I am obsessive, there is seemingly no explanation why I have to satisfy my compulsions, other than the unnerving feeling that aspects of my environment need to be “just right” in order for me to feel comfortable. “Just right” – I feel like OCD sufferers should have that slogan printed on business cards.
While I can’t explain where, when or how I’ve found myself where I am today and as a proud member of the mental health community, I am very aware of the social factors which have lead me to this point in my life.
At the age of six, every child in the UK is dressed in a formal shirt and tie, top button tightly done up, backpack buckle fastened, shoes polished, blazer ironed and generally made to look like they’re sweaty, middle aged businessmen commuting into work on the tube. We then spend the next ten years teaching children, teenagers, young adults what success looks like. We explain that hard work leads to good grades, that academic excellence then leads to a well-paid occupation, that job leads to career ladder progression, which all in turn leads to money, friends, family and happiness. We tell students to sit up straight, to stand up straight, do their top buttons up, adjust their ties – we even give them a uniform.
All of these conditions, this societal pressure to achieve greatness, the lesson that failure comes as a result of not trying hard enough, and that there is only one form of intelligence that matters in the world – the kind that, coincidentally, can be quantified and measured in exam papers – leads to a generation of breakage, and a lose-lose scenario.
If you don’t thrive academically, you are told that you can’t progress through the structured hierarchy to achieve success. If you do thrive academically, you’ll find yourself in your perfect job in your early thirties, having climbed the school/college/university/employment career ladder in a considered, calculated way, only to discover that you still aren’t happy, and that the system in which you placed your trust has lied to you.
I, and my OCD, are a result of this system. A system which emphasizes that the greatest degree of your self-worth should come from the letter grade you receive on a test, or the number of zeroes at the end of your salary. While I have always had an anal, pedantic personality, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder only became overwhelming for me, and subsequently I was only first diagnosed, during university. What started a conventional too much work leads to academic stress relationship quickly became a loop. The difficulty of the work lead to stress, this stress lead to discomfort and anxiety, and this discomfort and anxiety lead to a series of techniques, repetitions and actions that helped me release these feelings in controlled doses.
However, these compulsions, those mini releases of dopamine which momentarily remove you from that stressful situation, become an addictive substance. It’s like smoking: you smoke one cigarette to calm you down, but when relied on as an effective escape route again and again, you find yourself in an unhealthy relationship with nicotine. Drinking, obesity, drug abuse, self-harm: all of these issues spawn from the same basic premise that if we find something that helps us forget our problems and relax our minds, even for an ever-so-brief moment, we quickly fall down the rabbit hole or reliance and habit.
If I could explain my condition to friends and family who perhaps struggle to understand this illness in one or two sentences, it would be this. When you feel anxious, scared or upset, you have a go-to routine to calm yourself down and get back to the world around you. Maybe you watch Bridget Jones, eat Ben & Jerry’s and cry to a Disney soundtrack, I don’t know. Regardless, you’ve found a system that works for you in times of crisis. When I feel anxious, scared or upset, I fiddle, I twitch, I adjust, I check and I edit. I try to use my passion and productivity to perfect my way out of that situation, and out of those feelings. I refuse to acknowledge those emotions face to face, and instead use the fire in my heart as fuel to do and be more.
If I can compare all emotional distress to flame, then while you patiently let the fire die out, or use your tears to drown the embers, I relentlessly shovel coal into that furness and use those feelings to push me forward. When I’m feeling anxious, I do up my top button, I tighten my belt, I re-lace my shoes, I brush my fingers through my hair to try to look smart – I do everything I can to perfect myself and my surroundings in that moment and achieve that feeling of “just right”.
For many, OCD is an illness. For me, it’s a superpower. My mental health and the capacity of my differently wired mind, when used properly, gives me a precision, an eye for detail and a meticulous accuracy that makes it literally impossible for me to accept anything short of my best. Life is what you make of it, your world is how you perceive it, and when life gave me the lemons of OCD, I was damn well determined to make lemonade.